I do not think it controversial to say that video games can be more akin to writing than any other media. In a game, the audience is often a co-author with agency to shape the outcome of the story. In many ways the sandbox game is the ultimate expression of this creative engagement with source material, where a player can go where they please and explore the boundaries of the canvas laid out before them by the developer. As an author myself, I have a soft spot for the sandbox over more linear experiences, such as the Telltale games, where divergence from the main plot is controlled and limited.

When I first saw No Man’s Sky, the science fiction nerd in me rejoiced. Initially it would appear to be the ultimate free range title. A literally boundless setting, spanning lightyears of space and quadrillions of unique worlds filled with exotic creatures, with no two species looking the same due to Hello Games’ procedural algorithm. There would be no restrictions, save for those imposed by the Sentinels, the game’s mysterious intergalactic race of monolithic AI constructs. During initial gameplay footage, we saw a monumental and beautiful game of construction and exploration on the wild, untamed frontier of space. The aesthetic of the setting seemed bright and vibrant, like a synthesis of the old 50’s style explorative sci-fi and the sublime dread of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Alistair Reynolds’ Revelation Space (indeed the omnipresence of the Sentinels made me think specifically of Reynolds’ setting).

Interviews with the developers further boasted of No Man Sky’s grand vision, where the player could be anything, flying a freighter in deep space, exploring and naming worlds after themselves, forming alliances with alien races and even getting embroiled in interstellar disputes between civilisations. There was an overarching grand narrative, but on a local level where players were unrestricted in what they could do.

When I finally got a chance to play the game myself, it did manage to deliver on some of these promises.

Let’s first espouse the game’s strengths. No Man’s Sky is every bit as huge as it promised; every star in a planet’s evening sky is not a twinkling background skin, but a distant system one can visit. The day and night cycles are governed by the actual motion of the planet you’re standing on rotating about the parent star. There are no load screens, so you can seamlessly transition from planet to space in moments. Beyond the planets, without FTL drives space feels vast, in a way no other game has done for me. If your ship’s drives fail far from a planet, it can be literally days (real ones) before you reach help.

Planetside, the frantic fight for survival on various biomes is very entertaining. Your equipment needs to be maintained and can break, thus keeping the player constantly on their toes. In the first few hours of gameplay, I felt like Mark Watney on the planet of acid and lead-melting sunlight! That aspect, of the castaway astronaut, feels like the most developed aspect of the game by far.

Unfortunately,  every other aspect of the game feels either unfinished or merely the superficial impression of detail. The best sandbox games offer players opportunities and divergent paths. A game without an overarching plot forces the player to create their own context and stories within this world; authors of their own adventures. However, whilst No Man’s Sky is vast in scope, in practice this is an illusion of freedom. You are an explorer and a merchant, and that is all a player can ever really be. You can progress certainly, but there are no branches on the tree, no character classes or skills to develop. You can trade your ship for one with greater cargo capacity, and you can build bigger and better mining equipment, but this just builds a bigger and more elaborate railroad upon which to roll.

Another issue is that you are alone. Now if the game was sold and designed to examine the existential challenges of being a human truly set adrift in an uncaring feral universe, this would not be an issue to me. However, the game pays lip service to the concept of civilisation amongst the stars. There are freighters in the heavens, space station trading posts, and NPC aliens. This makes their inadequacies feel all the more egregious and hollow.

The sapient aliens that players encounter make the shopkeepers in Legend of Zelda seem positively fascinating. These static figures appear in bases and on space stations, and never outside them. The only way to interact is via attempting to trade with them, or fumbling around trying to learn random phrases of their nonsense languages. Learning languages in the game is nothing like the fascinating linguistic puzzle it could be. Words are learned by seeking out specific monoliths to sleep next to, with as much intellectual thought required as blasting open the plutonium spines present on every world. Arrival this is not…

In space a player can become a space pirate, attacking freighters and passing shuttles in lacklustre dogfights, though if you’re buying this for space battles, I recommend instead Elite Dangerous, which does space combat on a large scale, but much better. Or you can ply the space lanes in peace, mining asteroids; picture the monotony of mining in EVE Online, without the sense of contributing to a greater collective. 

This brings us to another aspect which disappoints; there is no sense of community. Though there are alien cultures mentioned in flavour text at the various trading points, they don’t feel as if they are existing civilisations. There are no cities, no capital worlds, and what little we see of their cultures are generic landing pads and automated factories. The player is essentially lone and anonymous, and remains so throughout the game. The game would even be improved simply by making it multiplayer, giving you a crew to share in the experience.

As it is, you are an explorer without purpose or context, which utterly cripples any attempt at decent roleplaying within this setting. What is the point of being a pirate, if you aren’t earning any wealth or renown, becoming feared across the systems? Why explore a place which only you will see? As I mentioned earlier, why spend your time making your ship the most powerful and efficient vessel you can, when all it will do is ferry you from one resource gathering mission to another? I like a game which allows me to make my own stories, but not when it simultaneously impairs my ability to do just that. There’s nothing to inspire us, and no ability for us to make any lasting changes to the game’s universe. 

Sean Murray, the lead developer on the project, has been heavily criticised for the promises made pre-release which the game could not deliver. Hello Games already seems to be working on remedying this, recently releasing a base-building update, with more likely on the way. However I feel these fixes do not address the underlying issues with the concept, which stems from its own much-lauded algorithm ironically. The procedural generation of endless new planets also means the setting is ephemeral, shifting sand where no lasting ongoing storylines can be built. Also, quite depressingly, after many hours of visiting world after world, the variety of flora and fauna on display begins to lose its charm. The animals are soulless chimera, blended together by a machine to synthesise evolutionary diversity. There’s none of the artistry and vitality which comes from something created by a person with thought and care. By the time I was finished with the game, I was craving plot and prose as never before.

One example of an open world executed competently is Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption. Much like GTA before it, stories are embedded within an open world, branching off into side adventures which can be dipped in and out of at the players’ discretion. Also, your choices affect the interactions you have with other NPCs. But what is has most of all which No Man’s Sky lacks is character and flavour.

Overall, I feel that No Man’s Sky was a valiant and exciting idea which lost the necessary balance between story and freedom which makes a sandbox entertaining, turning a universe of infinite potential into a trap to consign players to the simulated life of a faceless mining nomad, drifting through an endless universe with naught but a trail of flags in his wake. I still think it is possible to create a fully interactive sci-fi sandbox game, but No Man’s Sky is not the platform for it unfortunately. Perhaps one day Rockstar games will turn their attention to the science fiction drama, and bring their humour and passion to the task? One can only hope.