For over two years, we waited for No Man’s Sky with bated breath. Promises of the kinds of exploration our favorite science fiction stories hinted at floated in our dreams. During that time, developer Hello Games did little to dissuade us from our fantasies, even when they weren’t even a little bit accurate.
No Man’s Sky has been out for a few weeks now, and many people who bought the game have turned on it. Hints and promises of things like live multiplayer, a living galaxy with an economy and culture, and meaningfully different planets have shown to be not just inaccurate but in some cases blatantly and provably false.
The hype of No Man’s Sky is its own beast, separate from the game. Despite having put in many hours with the game and coming away pretty unhappy with the experience, I find myself tempted to dive back in. I ended up deleting the game in frustration thanks to an endless string of crashes followed by an interface glitch that made it nearly impossible to find my way back to the game’s primary path.
But then I look at screenshots and animated GIFs other players have taken from the game and for a moment I forget about the frustration and I see the promise. But I know it’s a lie. For me, No Man’s Sky is little more than a procedural science fiction screenshot generator. The screenshots are suggestive of so much promise, but ultimately the screenshot is the entirety of the promise.
But that’s not everyone’s experience, and it’s a perfect example of how very different one person’s experience with a game can be from another, and how that’s true now more than ever.
I can also tell you what my experience was when I played it. What I can’t tell you is what your experience will be.
Throughout much of the history of gaming, most games were fairly limited, linear experiences. We’d read game magazines like Nintendo Power and GamePro and in those cases, while one of those writers couldn’t tell their readers what they would experience, the experiences were much more closely aligned. A reviewer could make a fairly reasonable assessment of a game that most gamers would be able to rely on. Did the voice acting sound professional, or amateur? Was the writing fairly cohesive, or was it full of plot holes?
In the last five or ten years, though, that’s changed. A huge portion of games are played online, and many games are procedurally generated experiences, and a similar experience is no longer a guarantee. It’s a blessing and a curse.
When gamers talk to each other about games, there’s so much more we can’t account for. The value we find in games has always been very personal, but that’s the case now more than ever. I play Forza Motorsport games primarily in rivals mode rather than in campaign or online modes. Some people play Minecraft entirely in creative mode, never worrying about monsters, lava, or limited resources while others live by a mantra of ‘never dig straight down.’ Some people seek to master a game rather than simply play it, and master is so thoroughly that they play through the game on a controller meant for a different game. Others skip the campaign of a game entirely and jump immediately to multiplayer.
Even games that have one mode and one way to play have more ways than ever to digest. Game Informer‘s Javy Gwaltney wrote about the experience of playing No Man’s Sky with his girlfriend on Skype. The experience stands apart from the game itself to some degree, but the open, endless, and largely story-free experience of No Man’s Sky makes it a good target for that kind of experience. I’ve written elsewhere about playing The Witness as a multiplayer game. Some of my friends play games as relief from the mind-numbing monotony of retail jobs and chronic illness.
While our experiences with games have always been somewhat subjective, many times they’re now connected only by the gameplay itself – not the experiences we have while we play.
It’s an amazingly cool thing to see games evolve to let us have such varied experiences, but browsing message boards and reading Twitter suggest that many gamers haven’t caught up to this idea. We’re still discussing games as if the experience we had is the one everyone else had. Once we can get past that limiting view, we’re going to have a lot more to talk about.
My experience with No Man’s Sky probably wasn’t a thing like yours. We sat down to the same game with the same interface and had two wildly different experiences. That’s really cool.
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