The Terrible Beauty

When I was seven years old, I watched Challenger explode on live TV.

I already had an intense fascination with space, just from a few picture books. I convinced my mom that it was educational to let me skip school to watch the shuttle launch. And so, I sat there in the dark, filled with wonder and expectation, excited by every countdown milestone.

When Challenger exploded, I didn’t really understand the import. Sure, something bad happened, but it didn’t matter because humans were going to go into space. The sky wasn’t the limit. This was the beginning, not the end. I still had dreams that during my lifetime, we would leave the planet. Maybe only to Mars, maybe only to the moon. But still, make space an extension of humanity’s reach.275850_screenshots_20160827221009_1

As I got older, I dove into any space game I could find. Master of Orion, X-Wing, Freespace. Even the Mechwarrior games; anything that involved being in space or travelling to new planets. I wanted it so bad. My days and nights were filled with dreams of exploring the universe.

The years marched by, and I got older. I watched space exploration as an idea flounder and die. As I read more and more sci-fi, which introduced more and more arguments against space travel, against meeting alien life, I realized how unlikely my dreams were. When Columbia disintegrated on re-entry, it mattered. Not only were lives lost, but indulgent as it may seem, it was a symbolic death to my own hopes of ever leaving this planet.

Now when I watch a movie like Interstellar, it makes me immeasurably sad. Not because Grizzly Matthew McConaughey is leaving his children behind, not because their fictional world is dying, but because he *gets to leave*. I cry because the movie is showing me a thing I want so bad, but can never have.

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When the first trailer to No Man’s Sky came out, I watched it, looping, for well over an hour. What I was seeing was a game I’d wanted forever. It was like Hello Games reached into my most brilliant dreams, and pulled the game directly into reality. It filled me with wonder in a way that no game has ever done.

Of course, as more info came out, I started to have reservations. I don’t like survival games. I didn’t like the idea of forced combat. I effectively wanted a tourism game for the entire universe. A “walking simulator,” as people are fond of calling games where you can’t quite categorize what you do in terms of concrete game mechanics.

Now that the game is out, I’ve put over twenty five hours into it in the first week, and I love it unconditionally. It has rough edges, and it has warts, but god dammit, it lets me go into space, and find as many weird new planets and moons and creatures as I want. It satisfies every wish I had for the game, because all my wishes were geared around going to places and looking at things.

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I’m frustrated with the people who don’t like the game. Not because they don’t like it, mind you. There are plenty of popular games out there that I don’t like at all. I’m frustrated because what these people want the game to be would ruin what makes the game great to me. Every time I read about someone who wants quests added to the game, or fleshed out combat mechanics, or deep NPC interactions, it makes me worried that Hello Games will listen to the wrong people and the game will become something I no longer love.

You see, one of the most recurring criticisms I see about the game is how shallow the game mechanics are. But this is almost entirely why I like it. The game is built to keep you moving forward; the mechanics aren’t meant to get in your way, they are largely made to keep you moving from place to place. And at that it succeeds wildly.

I don’t want a reason to stay put and make all my money on one planet. I don’t want NPCs who I will grow attached to, which cause me to keep returning to the same area. I don’t want a list of quests that will tie me to an area until it’s “finished.” I simply want to fly from place to place, marvel at the beautiful alien vistas, and travel in a way that I always wanted to, as a kid. No Man’s Sky gives me this, in a way that nothing else has, and because of that, I will play it for a very long time.

I particularly like this quote from a piece by Brandan Keogh:

Those who enter No Man’s Sky looking for a sense of progress or empowerment or excitement or even ‘meaning’ are doomed to be disappointed. That is not the niche experience the game is going for (but which it has so much trouble positioning against). But for those who want to feel very small and insignificant and overwhelmed but who also just want to just stand still as they crest that mountain and see the neighbouring planet looming over a crystal clear lake in a red sky and just look at it for a minute, marvelling at the beauty of an algorithmic and godless Nature, for those players No Man’s Sky is everything it was always going to be.

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Which is not to say the game isn’t without its problems. There are many quality of life issues I’d love to see addressed. Lots of little annoyances here and there that sour my experience occasionally. But it is one of those rare games that is greater than the sum of its parts. I am reminded of Deus Ex, which is still widely lauded as a landmark videogame. There wasn’t a single game mechanic in it that wasn’t a raging tire fire. Any aspect, looked at in a vacuum, was absolutely awful. But what it did as a whole is what mattered. And that’s why I believe No Man’s Sky is going to be a game we look back on as another landmark in videogames.

It has done something I believed was no longer possible. I feel like a kid again. Filled with wonder and amazement at what the universe holds.