No Man’s Sky
Developed by: Hello Games
Published by: Hello Games, Sony Interactive Entertainment
Available on: PC, PlayStation 4

“No Man’s Sky” was designed to be unreasonable. It short-circuits any completionist fantasy because no one will ever see the breadth of its universe. The space exploration game, which uses algorithms to procedurally generate its 18 quintillion planets (that’s 18,000,000,000,000,000,000), is so vast that Sean Murray, the Managing Director of Hello Games told me last spring that “99.9% will never be visited.” As sublime as those numbers are to contemplate, the question of whether the geography, flora, and fauna of any given planet will compel a player to hang around and trek all over it is another matter entirely.

You begin on a planet — your own planet, a place where you can walk in any one direction till you fall asleep at the controller. The majority of what you see will be experienced by you alone unless an Internet audience is accompanying you on YouTube or Twitch. Although the game gives you the Adamic power to name whatever discoveries you might make, it’s unlikely that anyone will ever stumble across your findings except on social media, where I think the spirit of the game was always meant to reside.

You are as likely to play “No Man’s Sky” for others as for yourself. (Murray entertained the idea that someone might traverse a planet for charity.)  It’s a game for screenshots, videos, and streaming.  Moreover, it drives you to invest in its digital archive — uploading discoveries nets you in-game currency. However, as inviting as it may be to name planets after your nearest and dearest, at a certain point you have to wonder how many hours of your life are worth devoting to the observing or naming of innumerable make-believe fungi.

Since the game’s release, some reddit users and others in the gaming press have taken “No Man’s Sky” to task for appearing less dynamic in person than its promotional materials suggested. Comparisons have been made between the coherent-looking creatures depicted in its 2014 trailer and some of the more silly-looking abominations that people have discovered in the weeks since the game’s release. At their worst, the critters look like a crude mix-and-match of different animal parts.

I can’t say I was disappointed. For me, the finished result matched what I assumed the game would be from the trailer. This is, after all, something made by fewer than twenty people. Its algorithms were created to fill a space no human ever could. For all of the many times the topography of a given area bore a numbing similarity to areas that I had visited before, my thumb still reached for the share button intermittently when I came across an exceptionally lit vista or a notable configuration of animals or plants. At some point I mused to myself that the developers had wagered everything on people’s appetite for repetitive digital landscape art.

Overall, what I have played has felt too homogeneous, too lacking in surprise to excite me about traveling 139,879.0 light years to reach the center of the galaxy. (The competitive part of me has once or thrice looked longingly at the platinum trophy, awarded for collecting all of the trophies in the game, and then reflected with a cocktail of shame and pride that I’m 64% of the way there.)

“The whole design philosophy is to push the players to explore,” Murray said. The game does this by dangling different objectives before the player — learning to decode the language of an alien race to increase one’s bartering capability; mining for resources to invest in upgrades to one’s ship and spacesuit; and battling hostile spacecraft, robot sentinels, or predatory creatures, to name a few.

Unfortunately, whatever was stimulating about these tasks was exhausted during my still-incomplete attempt to reach the center of the game’s universe. The recycling of activities — many of which, like the fighting, I found to be too shallow to be interesting for long periods of time — is worsened by the automatic nature of much of the game. Although space debris can be hazardous to your ship, flying over land doesn’t require you to keep your hands on the controller. An invisible buffer protects your ship from obstacles, so flyovers are rarely a wonder.

When an acquaintance told me that he played the game listening to podcasts, I reproached myself for not having done so as that would have relieved some of the tedium of scouring the planets for resources. The value of “No Man’s Sky” depends greatly on what you project onto it. However, the question of why anyone would want to explore a digital universe of such scale is unavoidable.

Sure, we all have a natural inclination to explore. But this open-ended fabricated universe — at least in its current form — is, on the one hand, a feat of engineering and, on the other, a vacuous time sink. For the last couple of dozen hours that I spent with the game, I didn’t feel transported to other worlds so much as stuck in a computer simulation amid landscapes that were more artificial than beautiful. As the Kotaku writer Heather Alexandra tweeted “NMS is relaxing me today but there’s a terrible aloneness in this game as well. Exploring the void is nice but it’s still the void, yeah?”

When I asked Murray what the future of the game may look like post-release, he said, “Normally in a game if you were making ‘The Order’ or ‘Uncharted’ and somebody said to you, ‘Hey, can we make this level 10% longer… it feels too hectic can we space it out?’ You couldn’t because you’re like, ‘It’s taken 400 artists three years to build that thing’ … Whereas for us, we play with things all the time. We get to space everything out by double. We half everything … Post release, I want it to feel like a cohesive universe. But there is so much more that we could add. There are so many features that would play well to the game that I would describe as non-core to the experience.” Murray mentioned base building an example of a planned update to the game.

Perhaps “No Man’s Sky” will, over time, evolve into something more interesting if players are given the tools to terraform planets and to make them more fulfilling sites for exploration. For now, this is a game whose concept is more interesting than its execution.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

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