The game’s most-desired feature would spoil what makes it great.
I want to tell you a story about an experience I had earlier this year playing No Man’s Sky, the 2016 space exploration game that became the center of a violent internet mob when it released without features that were supposedly promised by the developers. Most of these “missing” features were never explicitly promised to begin with, their absence resulting mainly from assumptions made by the media and general public based on the wide-eyed aspirations of the game’s director, Sean Murray. The most egregious one in the mind of the game’s detractors was the lack of multiplayer. No Man’s Sky takes place in a galaxy full of trillions of planets, all procedurally generated so no two are alike. While players explore the same galaxy simultaneously, at the time of the game’s launch there was no way to interact with others within the game’s space. For players who wanted an almost-infinite space MMO, this was unacceptable.
But that’s not what I’m here to talk about, not at first anyway. I want to talk about this experience I had.
First, a bit of history. When the game launched, the lack of multiplayer made it overwhelmingly lonely. Even if you happened across a galaxy discovered by another player, they’d be long gone by the time you got there. All that was left to find was lingering memories of them, like whatever creatures and plants they’d named. I think a lot of people who were disappointed with the game wanted a sandbox that they could conquer. They wanted to feel like they had some control over whatever corner of space they wanted. But No Man’s Sky gives the player no such satisfaction. This is a game about feeling small, and solitary, and completely overpowered by the enormity of it all. And I loved it for that. I loved exploring a planet, knowing that I’d probably be the only one to ever see it. But I never felt like the planet belonged to me, because before long I’d be back in my ship blasting off to another, leaving it behind for no one to find. At launch, there was no way to leave your mark on a world besides giving it a name, no way to claim it as your own, because none of these worlds belonged to you. See the title?
The studio that made No Man’s Sky, Hello Games, worked diligently to improve the game over the past two years. By “improve,” I mainly mean adding features that I never thought the game needed to begin with, but to their credit they’ve made some changes I’ve really liked as well. I Last summer, for the first time, they added a sort of multiplayer. Now, should you run across other players, you’d see them represented as floating orbs of light. This was the version of the game I was playing earlier this year, when something interesting happened.
I had seen a post on an online community about the game that referred to a player-built farm where one could gather resources to build rare and expensive technology. I wanted to get some money to buy a freighter, as well as pad my pockets in advance of an upcoming game update, so I decided to check the farm out. The problem: It was on a planet halfway across the galaxy. The solution: Portals.
Portals are rare, towering structures which can be difficult to find. Entering a planet’s coordinates using twelve alien glyphs, a player can instantly teleport there without having to slowly warp system-by-system. I walked through the portal to find myself on a toxic world, full of violent poisonous storms which chewed through my suit’s protection. The glyphs I’d found online were slightly incorrect. The farm was on another planet in the same system. I could see its beacon if I looked skywards. But here’s where I ran into another problem: I had no spaceship to get me there.
See, the portals are player-sized. You can walk through them, but not fly. Once you’re on your new world, your feet are on the ground for good. You can always walk back through the way you came, of course. But getting your ship onto the new world involved exploiting a complex loophole in the game’s rules. I needed to find a habitable base in order to get my ship back. Unfortunately, the nearest base was a forty-minute walk from the portal. I decided to hoof it.
But before I did, I noticed something. One of those orbs of light was bouncing around near the portal, as if it was waiting for someone to come through. I said hello by jumping up and down a few times, and then set off for the base. A few minutes later, I noticed that the orb was following me.
They couldn’t share resources with me. They couldn’t give me a lift in their ship. They couldn’t even really communicate with me. All they could do was join me on my long trek to my new home. And that they did. We fought through those poison storms, took refuge in small huts, danced around some hostile creatures, and finally made it to the base. It was a sublime moment, the most profound experience I’d had with the game since it came out. We two people had found each other, but were still so far away. Our every interaction was a pounded fist on the walls that separated us. I claimed the base as my own and decided that was enough for today. At this point I took out my headphones, as I was listening to a podcast or music or something, and I heard a voice.
The orb was talking to me.
I didn’t even know this game had voice chat.
Being the mess that I am, I panicked and turned the game off. This was too much, too sudden. The profundity of the moment was ripped away. We weren’t two ships passing in the night anymore. We weren’t floating anomalies, the barest representations of humanity sharing an hour of struggle and triumph. We were just people playing a video game.
This, to me, is the fundamental problem with the upcoming No Man’s Sky update, which adds full multiplayer with customizable player models and various emotes. It turns a beautifully solitary game, an experience defined by separation and distance from others, into an outer space party with your friends. It takes something that I found beautiful and deeply immersive and makes it just another game.
I know a lot of people are really excited about this update, and I’m happy for them. It’s not my business to stomp on people’s pleased reactions. And I know that the scale of the game makes multiplayer pretty much optional. It’s just disappointing to me to see something that I thought was great bend to the will of people who couldn’t appreciate it for what it was. Maybe that’s the fault of Hello Games, for overpromising before the game’s release. Maybe it’s the fault of Sony, for not standing by their developer and allowing a hate mob to dominate discourse about their product. Maybe it’s my fault, for having the wrong expectations. In any case, I’m excited to see what else the new update has to offer. May I never meet another player again.