Yep. You know the one. The Interstellar one. This one:
That moment where Matthew McConaughey gets a video from home showing his kid. The thing he wanted more than anything, which sends him over the edge from supremely happy to emotional breakdown. The fact I'm using a clip from Interstellar, the most well-considered sci-fi flick of recent years, to help describe the way I feel about No Man's Sky, the most interesting science-fiction video game perhaps ever, feels fortuitously harmonious.
By this point, if you're interested in No Man's Sky, you've probably already bought it yourself, or at the very least watched or read the extensive reporting focused on it by any publication with a remote interest in sci-fi or gaming. I won't bore you with another "My first 10 hours with..", or "review in progress". But I will focus in on one specific event that really opened my eyes to what the game is capable of.
A Tale of Two Spaceships
So. No Man's Sky. Eighteen quintillion planets. Galaxy-hopping freedom. A bit of mining, a bit of trading, with spaceships and purple dinosaur creatures thrown in; all of it algorithmically generated. So far, so Minecraft / Elite lovechild. I had been enjoying the early hours of the PS4 version of the game despite its familiar systems and overly needy inventory management. But I hadn't yet had that explosive moment when a game (or indeed, a book or film or even a record) clicks into place and touches you in an affecting, memorable way.
I'd been cruising from system to system, slowly upgrading my mining tool and exosuit, and adding some mediocre enhancements to my ship, which was just getting trashed by every pirate I met, leading me to beat a hasty retreat each time I came under fire out among the stars. I'd approached alien vendors at space stations to browse the vessels they had for sale, but all were a few too many £units out of my reach.
I shot off to a relatively desolate, dangerous planet which I've yet to name (I'll probably christen it "McConaughey's Tear" after I've finished this). Few animals, few resources, high radiation levels and regular suit-damaging storms. It wasn't much to look at, compared to the colourful flora and fauna of my other discoveries. I was just about to fly off when, sweeping low over the planet, I saw something unusual – the angular shapes of something clearly manufactured rather than biologically (yes, sure, as biological as a digital algorithm allows) formed.
It was a beautiful, broken starship. Twice the size of my middling craft and far better equipped. I walked over to it, watching radiation levels rise as I examined what I needed to get it off the ground. Mostly common resources, and a fair whack of Heridium, which I didn't have. I trekked back to my ship, let my radiation levels even out and considered my options: ditch my working but boring ship and attempt to fix this wrecked beauty, or stick with this safe bet and fly off for another space-pirate mauling. It was a risk with so few resources on the planet; picking one ship meant ditching the other while No Man's Sky's intentional (and clever) lack of a minimap meant I couldn't fly off to scour the surrounding area without fear of losing the crash site. This planet, as a microcosm of the game itself, was vast and somewhat daunting.
A Less Capable Matt-Damon-in-The Martian
But I'm a gambling man. I said goodbye to my trusty space steed and made an attempt to saddle up this new metal mare.
It was, simultaneously, the worst and best decision I've made since firing up the game.
Things started pretty well. Plutonium and Carbon deposits were relatively easy to get hold of nearby, so fixing up the shields and thrusters were fairly easy tasks. But the Heridium, required to mend the long-range pulse engine, was the tough one; I hadn't been able to scan any nearby, but had gambled that (given my experience on previous planets) there had to be an outcrop somewhere within reach.
I began to make scouting runs for the elusive material. But with some sort of solar storm constantly only minutes away, and radiation levels rising quicker than my exosuit could contain them, I wasn't getting very far. I'd made all the upgrades my meagre resources would allow for, and yet, with every run, in all directions of the compass, as far as I could manage without getting toasted, I couldn't find the Heridium that would let me move on.
I had, effectively, marooned myself on an alien planet.
An interstellar Robinson Crusoe. A less capable Matt-Damon-in-The Martian. And it was wonderful. I'd essentially ended up with a meta-game, built from a problem I'd created for myself, an unexpected discovery leading to an unexpected and deadly conundrum. No story line had led me to this point, other than my own exploratory impulses. This foolish gamble, this greedy farce, this was what I'd always wanted from a space game.
I've enjoyed the battles of Star Wars: Battlefront, but it's never made me feel like Han Solo. The Mass Effect storylines are fantastic, but it's always very much been a prescribed experience, polished and wonderful as it is. But this was my own story, however small, with no Google-able solution. Chris Foss's sci-fi ship designs have always enticed me – No Man's Sky's aesthetic allowed me to be tempted by one clearly inspired by him, to my doom. This is as close as I'll likely ever come (until No Man's Sky 2, at least) to living out my own space odyssey, and while the tears didn't flow as readily as McConaughey's, I felt more awed, inspired and happier than I have playing a game in a long, long time.
No Man's Sky has had its detractors, mostly basing their criticisms around similarity to other survival games, some fiddly UI moments and only the loosest of directional goals. Those complaints are valid, but would be more so for another game; it's not seeing the wood for the trees. (Or, not seeing the galaxy for the moon?). No Man's Sky is a universe-sized digital playground, an imagination aid. It's your chance to write yourself into your own science-fiction story, and live it out.
Now excuse me while I go write the final chapter in my poor, doomed spaceman's tale.