In the year since its release, my relationship with No Man's Sky has been pretty positive, but also entirely predictable. Every few weeks, I'd have a really stressful day and need something to unwind with, and No Man's Sky has always been perfect for that.
Because it isn't focused on combat challenge, difficult flight mechanics, or particularly tactical thinking, No Man's Sky has always placed low expectations on me. And it was for all of those reasons that I thought it would never grab hold of me the way games like Skyrim have, whittling away the hours of the night, keeping me pinned in my seat hoping to see the result of just one more quest. After all, there haven't been quests. Until now.
No Man's Sky's 1.3 update, Atlas Rises, released about 10 days ago, and my trips back to to its procedurally generated universe were, at first, largely the same as when I last played the game. The new patch arrived with a bevy of changes, but through my first four or five dedicated play sessions, those mostly amounted to solid quality of life upgrades. No Man's Sky was still serving the same function that it always had for me. Sure, there might be some new cool ships, and the first few hours of the story mode made the game feel less lonely, but there hadn't been any profound change.
Which was about what I'd expected. Even though I've always liked No Man's Sky more than most folks, I've also always been pretty skeptical of the marketing promises made on the game's behalf—especially those that try to impress by sheer scale alone. So when I read the patch notes that promised "30 hours of new story content," "a mysterious new interdimensional race," and "double the lore and interactions of the existing game," I was dubious about whether more stuff was really what No Man's Sky really needed.
Then, late one night this weekend, I got deeper into the game's new story content. And it got deeper into me.
In the second major act of the new main questline, you're searching for a missing friend and working with a mysterious cybernetic ally, whose lines are written with a sharp style of disaffection and indifference. These quests offer a bit of tutorialization if you're starting a fresh game (guiding you to some key tool upgrades, getting your base up and running), and even these drip-feed tantalizing ideas about the game's world and people in a way that the original No Man's Sky never managed to do successfully. What phrases like "double the lore" fail to communicate is that the lore is actually good, and as importantly, it's delivered in a surprising number of ways.
Eventually, with an operating base and all the basic tools you need, you set off to find your friend, and what follows was not a thing I ever expected to see from No Man's Sky. The pace of events becomes fevered, even frightening. One strange ruin leads to another, then another. Remnant memories of past intergalactic travelers offer a rapid fire series self-critiques: What is the point of a universe with18 quintillion planets, anyway? An ancient portal lights up, the lights are joined by a sound that demands attention. And then you walk through and…
You are on a distant planet, one unlike any you've ever seen before. Your interface falters. Your ship is missing. And then…
I don't want to give away the surprise of what happens, but here is what I will say: This 30 minute section of No Man's Sky's new story update offers a glimpse into the future of games (or at least one future). It blends clever procgen, carefully handcrafted spaces, and a surprising variation of narrative pacing in a way that doesn't only impress me, but also helps to make sense of No Man's Sky's core design philosophies for me.
Prior to this, it was not clear that procgen-driven games could leave me biting my nails in anxiety about the story. Plenty had been filled with intriguing lore, sure. But mostly they were games that delivered on feelings of exploration (as in Minecraft or Unexplored) or skillful mastery (like Spelunky, Invisible, Inc., or Downwell). But in Atlas Rises, No Man's Sky shows how procgen can aid storytelling.
I said up top that it held me the way Skyrim did, which is true. But it's also not the whole picture. After all, Atlas Rises offers a single main questline, not the dozens of major and minor threads of an Elder Scrolls game (or similar RPG). But I can see the path towards that other game, now, the one that sucks dozens of hours away, that begs you to take one more quest, that has you debating with friends which space guild has the best storyline.
This update has me itching to play more soon, but it also means that when I sit down to play, I'll have to consider how I'm playing, too. Do I just want to chill out and fly around the galaxy? Or will I risk losing hours to the sci-fi tale No Man's Sky is now (finally) weaving?
It's a huge change in my experience of playing the game, but it's definitely not the only time a game has done something like this. What's the most a patch, update, or expansion has changed your relationship to a game in the past? Let us know over in the forums!