'Star Wars Aftermath' author on pleasant, alluring boredom of Hello Games' epic
I've lost my ship again.
Well, no, not precisely. I see my ship – its nosecone pokes out over the ridge above me. And of course my scanners show me the ship's position and distance at all times. Still, I fucked up (again). I parked the ship near an outpost, miscalculated the drop down from where I landed into the valley where the outpost sits nestled, and now I can’t get back up to the damn thing. I'm hopping around like an idiot, jetpacking up just far enough to fall, break my tailbone and do myself some real damage. (Here I'm thankful the game is not crammed full of other people, lest my repeated butt-breaking failure be beamed to YouTube.)
Eventually, I find a way underneath the mountain: a cavern cutting through the rock. On this world (a world I've named Sullust, because hey, I like Star Wars), the surface is rocky, red, and desolate. But underneath? The cavern is lit with all manner of strange flora. Mushrooms, flowers, fronds. The air glows with motes of crimson light. Takes a while, but I come out the other side of it, and there I find a slope leading up, up, up – one I can use to jetpack my way to my vessel.
The beauty in that cavern astonished me. It went from looking like a dead place to one not only alive, but one that provided a feast for the senses: from ugly and empty to a biological fireworks display. It's not the first time I'll be struck by the beauty of No Man's Sky – a few hours later, I’ll be on a planet with sweeping hills and golden grasses, with trees that look like cluster grapes and beasts that look like hooved saurians (some with massive underbites, toodling around on two legs like toddlers just figuring out how to walk). I have things to do; the game gently urges me toward the next story point. But the beauty is like a warm bath. I don’t want to get out. So I don’t. I wander for a while. I find artifacts and knowledge stones. I upgrade my exosuit, my multi-tool. I catalogue and rename trees, beasties, mineral formations. I wander without purpose.
No Man's Sky is boring. But maybe that isn't a bad thing.
Most games throw you into action. They put a sword or a gun in your hand. They give you targets. Kill or be killed. Survive and dominate. Things explode. Ships crash into other ships. Horde! Swarm! Lasers! Run! Gun! Holy crap! This is true in a lot of science-fiction narrative, too. Certainly I've written my share of it: begin with action! Explodey pyoo-pyoo! Warring factions! Weapons of mass destruction! Life. Death. Apocalypse for one world or all the worlds.
In No Man's Sky, you start with little. You enter into a quiet planet on which you are the only person. You’re Tom Hanks in a galactic version of Castaway, except you don't even get a volleyball to talk to. (I guess you could paint a smiley face on your crashed ship and name it Wilson?) You collect. You fix. You leave. You do this at your leisure. Outside the tick-tock of your exosuit's life support (easily replenished), you're married to no one’s timeline but your own.
Complete a task, the game lets you know that you completed a milestone. No, wait, not just a milestone—a journey milestone.
That word is key, here. Journey.
We often play games for the destination, but I don't think that's why we play No Man's Sky. We play it for the journey. Apropos, perhaps, because this game reminds me less of, say, Star Wars or EVE Online or Call of Duty: Galactic Murder Patrol, and it reminds me a lot more of the PlayStation's own Journey. (Or Flower, or Abzu.) There is an eerie calm to this game. A utopian serenity. A pleasant, alluring boredom that draws you along the journey – but not too fast. This is sci-fi that doesn't ask you to kill, kill, kill. It asks you only to wander. To discover. To catalog your findings and sell your wares and move onto the next moon, the next space station, the next world, the next star system.
All in pursuit of whatever it is you wish to pursue.
Me, I'm just pursuing my ship. Because it seems I've lost it again. Who knows what I'll find before I find it?