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No Man's Sky and the Joy of Being Stranded

News Bot Aug 16, 2016

  1. News Bot

    News Bot Chaos Immortal

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    A few hours into No Man's Sky, I landed on a new planet, chasing a point of interest. My ship settled on desolate, snow-covered terrain and I disembarked to check out a crashed ship. I got my loot--a multi-tool tech and some resources--and got back in my ship, because a few new nav points pointed high above me, in orbit. I tried to launch, and realized that my ship was out of launch fuel. I had not kept enough Plutonium in my stocks, and now I couldn't leave until I located more.
    Every other planet I'd been on had been rich in Plutonium. But this one was different. There was essentially none of the necessary element. I couldn't take off unless I was able to find an outpost and buy it. I was stranded.
    At first, I felt frustrated because my progress was stymied. I could see the direction of my goal, but I couldn't get there unless I carried out the chore of somehow getting one specific element on one of the few planets not rich with it. I sighed, accepting the fact that I'd have to spend a good amount of time chasing it across the landscape. This is No Man's Sky at its most frustrating: the sense of freedom and power that defines the rest of the game disappears in an instant, replaced with the irritation of having to make the lonely trek looking for resources. I was alone, on foot, and the only thing I could do was walk across this massive planet, hoping for Plutonium.
    Before pressing on, I took a moment to gaze out at the planet I was stuck on. It was wintry and cold; frost crept in at the corners of my character's visor. Splashes of oranges and greens broke up the frost. It looked inhospitable but tranquil, a lonely, previously undiscovered planet that might never see another visitor. In a way, it reminded me of the alpine tundras I'd grown up hiking around in Colorado--barren, cold, windswept, but nonetheless saturated with life if you looked closely enough.

    Of course, this didn't change the fact that I was cut off from the rest of the universe until I could find Plutonium. So, to get this momentary setback solved as quickly as possible, I set off at a dead sprint, scanning obsessively, searching for the telltale red crystals of the element I needed. Fifteen minutes turned into thirty, then an hour passed while I journeyed across this icy world. My inventory still contained no Plutonium, although I had acquired a good share of basically every other element in the game. I was growing angry and fed up. This god-forsaken planet was shaping up to be the premature end to my grand No Man's Sky adventure. I was a great interstellar explorer rendered immobile by hubris and bad luck.
    However, I didn't stop playing, because the planets are just so big--I never truly gave up hope that there'd be a Plutonium stockpile over the next rise. So onward I walked, slowly resigning myself to my fate and not really paying attention to my main goal. I just walked forward, exploring outposts to see if there were marketplaces where I could buy Plutonium (there weren't), and mining rare metals when I found them.
    Eventually I stopped really looking for Plutonium. My ship was a 45 minute walk away, and I found myself wandering between crashed ships, beacons, and outposts, mining and exploring along the way. The snowy hills gave way to a long, blue sea, the first body of water I'd encountered in the game. And on the short rise in front of me was a huge creature. It stood well above the trees, ambling in solitude across the countryside. I watched as the massive animal wandered around, poking at plants and moving along the shoreline. I kept my distance, even though my scan told me that the animal was peaceful. I didn't want to disturb its serene walk.
    There's a certain feeling you get when you hike in the wilderness and stumble across wildlife. You come across a giant being in the process of living its own life, and you feel like an intruder upon an entirely different world. But it's not a negative feeling, necessarily. I've always had a strange sense of calm upon seeing animals in their habitats, detached from civilization and purely natural. I felt this while I watched this great bipedal alien in No Man's Sky. Far from my ship, far from any colonial outpost, I was fully within this thing's domain--and perhaps no other player will ever see it again.
    And I never would've had this experience had I not ended up stranded on this icy, brutal world. The chore I had to undertake to refuel my ship irritated me at first, and I treated the game like I would most other games that force me to grind--with a mixture of disappointment and grudging acceptance as I resign myself to the task at hand. But at some point, the grinding became an ends in itself, a gameplay mechanic overlaid onto pure exploration and discovery. The chore became rewarding not because I eventually did find a marketplace selling Plutonium, but because that journey took me across an entire world that I otherwise wouldn't have seen.

    I've heard No Man's Sky compared to other games that make you do chores, like Animal Crossing, and that's a fairly apt comparison. They utilize mundane activities--trading and mining in No Man's Sky, harvesting and collecting in Animal Crossing--to give players a challenge toward progression. But when I play Animal Crossing, the actual act of fishing or cutting down trees doesn't motivate me; it's the promise of being able to buy more stuff and build a bigger house that drive me on. In No Man's Sky, though, the chore itself--journeying across a globe for resources--sometimes becomes the primary reason that I keep playing. It's like going into your backyard to do some yardwork and stumbling across a national park.
    Sure, the grind gets boring, and shooting rocks for hours upon end is repetitive. But the scenery never gets old. I've seen planets that feel similar to ones I've been to before, but I've also seen worlds with surprisingly different landscapes and life. The game encourages you to lose yourself in those surprising, interesting moments. It deals with the mundane in a way that I've rarely seen games do before. Few games reward you so well. In an RPG, for instance, pursuing a side activity or grinding for points might reward you with some money or loot. In No Man's Sky, you're given a vista that no other person has ever climbed, or an animal that no one else has ever watched. You have the potential to stumble across something truly majestic, entrancing, or just bizarre that's uniquely your discovery.
    My long, ambling quest for Plutonium might have been an unfortunate delay in the overarching progression of the game. But it also presented me with a profound moment as I found and catalogued a rare species of megafauna. It's my own moment, one that likely will never be recreated, and one that came to be because of nothing more than a frustrating task.


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