All images courtesy of Hello Games.
No Man's Sky—the space exploration game coming to PS4 and PC in just over a week's time—has a strange sort of energy around it right now. Look at forums, subreddits, and social media and you'll find a mix of messianic hype and joyfully vocal disdain. The game's fans tout its scale: NMS offers a universe of planets to explore and lifeforms to catalogue, and it does this with a technique called procedural generation, which uses algorithms to instantly create content that would've previously taken an artist hours to build.
But thanks to Reddit user daymeeuhn (who bought a leaked copy of No Man's Sky from eBay for $1250 plus shipping), we now know that while the game's universe may be "nearly infinite," the game itself can be "beaten" in about 30 hours. At least that's how long it took him to reach the centre of the galaxy—which NMS developer Hello Games has stated is the game's de facto objective.
It's a little harder to nail down the promised length of the game, though. Back in December 2014, studio founder Sean Murray said that it would take between 40 and 100 hours to "reach the centre"; but this past March he told Gamespot that it would take players hundreds of hours of gameplay to reach "the centre of the universe". In both cases, he underscored that those figures would reflect a single-minded strategy, with players "doing absolutely nothing else but traveling forward and ... min-maxing it".
Between these statements and the marketing-fuelled (and fandom-sustained) hype about the game's size, some players expected No Man's Sky to be a daunting epic. The reality is more restrained, especially since daymeeuhn reports (in a pretty spoiler-heavy series of posts) that he made his sprint to the centre after completing many of the other tasks in the game, implying that Murray's insistence on a single-minded travel strategy doesn't necessarily hold up.
But when you read his posts, daymeeuhn doesn't seem as obsessed with the question of scale as the rest of the internet is. He's more interested in talking about the cool sounds he's heard, the frustrating bugs and design decisions he's encountered, and the disconnect between fan anticipation and reality. "Expectations on this game seem a bit over hyped," he writes, "and not because 'the game is bad' but rather because I think expectations don't necessarily match the gameplay style of what's actually here." All told, he's generally positive, but is hoping for a day one patch to fix some of his issues with the game—a possibility we should all keep in mind as we read his impressions.
There's also, of course, the question of whether or not daymeeuhn has really seen the end. I say "of course" because as with so much else to do with No Man's Sky, what counts as "the end" is nebulous. When Murray said it would take hundreds of hours to reach "the centre of the universe," is he separating that claim from the one about reaching the centre of the game's (first?) galaxy? Maybe daymeeuhn's only seen the final moment of the first step of a longer journey.
This vague feeling of possibility around No Man's Sky has been its greatest strength in finding fans, but also alienated people who want more specific answers about the game's structure and goals. I feel myself torn between these poles constantly. On the one hand, I think I have a pretty solid understanding of the "sort of game" NMS is—and I anticipate having a pretty good time with it once it launches. But when I see those fans who have convinced themselves that this is it, that this is the last game they'll ever need, I feel like Hello Games and Sony (remembering that the game is also coming to PC) have lost control of their messaging.
Don't get me wrong. I don't think that Hello's intention was to make a game that could be played forever. It seems, instead, that they wanted to capture a feeling of exploration that could only be achieved by dropping the player into a sea of stars that can never be fully mapped. But that goal runs headfirst into the techno-utopian culture's desire for the "last game I'll ever need".
The Last Game: one infinite leisure product that can be a permanent, pleasurable escape from our bills and our bodies, from our politics and our pain. It is not so different from the desire milked by films like Interstellar, which promised us that while "mankind was born on Earth", with all of its dirt and hunger and difficulty, "it was never meant to die here". We want to ascend so badly; to procedurally generate an escape. But the challenging truth is that we aren't going anywhere anytime soon—and more, that wherever we go there we'll be, with all of our dirt still on us.
Rock Paper Shotgun's Graham Smith elegantly croons for a world in which No Man's Sky never releases, so that it might keep all this potential energy and never become a real, fallible, human effort that—no matter how hard the work or how ambitious the vision—can never live up to the "shared dream" it has become in these days before release. I respect that approach, but it's not for me.
Instead, I hope that No Man's Sky comes out and that it's pretty damn good, both on its own merits and in the context of the games that came before it. I hope that No Man's Sky moves me with its colours and craters and creatures. I hope that its mathematic geometries woo me, and that its endless beaches and skies seduce me. But I do not need transcendence. NMS doesn't need to be groundbreaking—we broke this ground a long time ago. Instead, I want it to be another solid brick in the wall of culture and expression that we've been building for a long time.