I’ll confess: I loved No Man’s Sky at launch.
The launch version of NMS was an experience centered around a cultivated feeling of untethered, directionless loneliness. While most people who play and review video games viewed it only as a commercial product, one for which they had received certain promises that had gone unfulfilled, I looked at it critically as a work of art. Asked of the game what it was trying to tell me. And I got back an answer: You don’t matter, No Man’s Sky said, you have no home. The universe is vast beyond comprehension, and does not care about you. Do what you will, but you can’t change this. You cannot keep anything. You can never belong. I was more than fine with that answer. I was intrigued, excited by it. What other games had even attempted to say something like that? Well. I mean, apart from Ice Pick Lodge.
The extremely limited inventory space meant you were constantly throwing stuff away, until you figured that out and stopped over-harvesting everything you saw. You would be taunted by fancy-looking spaceships with more cargo room, or fancy-seeming multitools, things you could never reasonably afford and which offered no real upgrades, highlighting the illusory nature of chasing material success. Buy a new ship or tool, and within seconds you’re bored with it. It changed nothing. You are still just a traveler. You can name and “upload” planets, plants, and animals, but for whom? Nobody can see that stuff. Nobody cares. You give up naming anything after a while. You can learn the languages of various alien species, but you do so 1-3 words at a time, and nothing you learn is helpful. No-one knows you, no-one can understand you, and this is mutual. What a wonderfully bleak, vaguely-horrifying picture of the universe this was!
I spent countless hours exploring the universe of vanilla No Man’s Sky, content to wander without progression, traversing planets that despite their differences remained largely the same, visiting space stations populated with the same few creatures. Making no impact, leaving no trace. I found it a wistful sort of experience, like what I imagine it must be like to be a ghost. Very relaxing. When you don’t matter at all, when nothing you do has any impact, it’s incredibly liberating. You’re free to do whatever you want, content in the knowledge that you can’t break or harm anything that matters, knowing that nobody is judging you or measuring what you do.
I get why people didn’t like it, though. I don’t think most people, let alone any gamers at all, are mentally and emotionally equipped to appreciate an experience like this. It’s like balut, feta cheese, or a durian. Not something you can give to just anyone and expect a positive reaction. Maybe an acquired taste, and not worth the time to most people. For those who did take the time to appreciate No Man’s Sky at launch, however, it was offering an experience unlike anything else at the time.
No Man’s Sky: Beyond is not the No Man’s Sky that I’ve been talking about. Not in any sense, not even a little. Maybe that’s for the best in terms of the reputation of the developers and their ability to find more work and survive, in our fucked up capitalistic hellhole of a world. In redoing the game so thoroughly and adding so much to it, they have definitely broadened the commercial appeal of their product, and I’m happy for their success. I think it’s important that we not forget the melancholy artful beauty of their initial efforts, however. There’s a part of me that wishes that people could have been content with what we had. But here we are.
Anyway, I fucking love Beyond, so it’s a bit of a moot point. Before I get into the meat of that, though, I’d like to talk more generally about virtual reality gaming, to lay a bit of groundwork.
My partner and I have recently been getting into VR. Mostly, we’ve been focusing on Beat Saber, but I’ve also put significant time into Superhot VR, Moss, and GORN. So far, I’ve been having an unequivocal blast with this medium, which is surprising. 3D stuff like movies and the 3DS generally don’t work for me. I just get a headache and eye strain, and if I force myself to squint through that reaction, the thing in question generally looks like a blurry doubled mess at worst, colors all separated out, and like flat planes overlapping other flat planes at best. Never in my life, not even once in 35 years have I seen a convincing or pleasant 3D effect. Something in my brain just refuses to accept it, tries to parse the image in terms of its component effects rather than interpreting it as actually three-dimensional, and it can be physically painful for me to be exposed to these effects as a result. I expected VR to be no different, that it would be something we’d get mostly for my partner to enjoy, that I’d tear the headset off instantly and go throw up or something. I’ve never been so happy to be wrong.
I don’t know why exactly, but VR works for me. When I put our Rift S headset on, my brain immediately and wholly believes that I’m somewhere else. I played around with the Oculus introductory experiences for a bit. I liked the one with the robot friend, where you get used to the controls and play around with various toys like rockets and a butterfly and a sort of nerf pistol thing. The “dream deck” one, I found sort of nice but mostly mean. They run you through a series of brief vignettes; there’s a nice one they start off with where you’re sitting by a fire with some polygonal animals by a stream, and then they have bullshit like spawning you on top of a high building, or having a T-Rex roar in your face, or putting you very close to a freaky looking alien that just kinda stands there and you can’t understand each other and it has huge eyes looking at you. Why would you do this to your player, especially someone new to VR? I don’t like this kind of gremlin thinking at all.
Similarly, I was not a fan of Five Nights at Freddy’s VR. Obviously. At my partner’s insistence and for their amusement, I did a minigame where you repair Bonnie, the big purple robot. The game has you sit very close to this giant scary thing, and reach up and touch it and put your hands in its mouth and stuff, knowing that if you mess up at any point it’ll chomp and scream in your face. It took me about 15 minutes of sitting in the menu and the home environment to psych myself up to doing it, and I cried afterwards. Super fun! I don’t know why people do this to themselves. Maybe there’s an argument for the artistic merit of Youtube reaction videos in there somewhere, I don’t know. If you’re wondering how I can enjoy the arguably-deliberately-unpleasant launch No Man’s Sky, but hate FNAF VR and stuff like being on top of a high building in VR, the difference is that launch NMS’s unpleasantness was more subtle. It’s existential rather than jump scares and shock.
Anyway, suffice it to say that apart from the aforementioned deliberately-unpleasant experiences, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying my time in VR. Beat Saber in particular has already given my partner and I many hours of fun. Superhot makes me feel like a badass to an insane degree, and I love smashing faces and flinging meaty gladiators around in GORN, moving around with a Big Arms Walk like I’m some guido at the gym. Moss is super cute and heavily atmospheric and I would die for Quill.
So! To return to my main point here, I believe I had some things to say about No Man’s Sky: Beyond.
As I said before, this is not the No Man’s Sky that I remembered from launch. You can carry a lot more stuff, for one thing, and there are many more technologies and buildables that lend a sense of progression to the experience. You can deform the terrain and build bases, which kinda removes that whole “leave no trace anywhere” thing. There’s ground vehicles now, and multiplayer (what the heck?), and tutorial quests. It’s like… a video game.
I would be sadder at the loss of the artistic treasure that was launch NMS, but Beyond in VR mode does a great deal to keep a lot of that feeling of insignificance and loneliness even with all the changes. I’m blown away by how much larger the world feels when you’re in that VR headset. I don’t know if they actually changed the scale of things, or if it’s just a trick of perspective, but when you’re standing right next to your starter ship or exploring around on a planet in VR, everything feels huge and very real, and you feel incredibly small. I’m still just a curious, tenacious speck, even though the universe is so much more malleable and interactive. Pulling that off deserves huge props.
The controls have been overhauled dramatically for VR, and this is probably my favorite part. You reach back over your shoulder to unholster your multitool, you point at your wrists to open menus like you’re wearing two smart watches (and they move around locked to your hands), you raise your left hand to your “visor” and click it on to enable scanning mode, you grab and lift the canopy to exit your starship’s cockpit. For that matter, you even have a grabbable throttle and flight stick while inside your ship! They modeled the whole thing, you can look around inside it! You can look around in space, and just sit back taking in the view while you zip around from planet to planet or explore asteroid fields! It’s an incredible feeling.
It’s very strange and cool to me that the teleporting movement and snappable viewing angles don’t really detract from the experience. The game feels almost exactly the same, so I guess I wasn’t moving around that much in the original game after all, huh? It’s a game that’s very conducive to slowly puttering around chilling out, scanning stuff, harvesting stuff, just kinda checking out the universe. That’s still very much here in Beyond, and all the more effective from the immersion of the VR mode. To top it all off, there’s a hell of a lot of new features and stuff to do in Beyond than there was at launch. I’m really blown away by how much work they’ve put in.
It must be said that the game runs like total ass. When I first loaded it up and started a new game, the screens of the headset were updating at different rates, struggling to keep up, leaving me with a weird, disorienting judder to my view as reality broke apart and put itself back together in a variety of sickening ways. I had to take off the headset and wait for it to finish, actually. And the game stutters heavily after each teleport, as it loads things in. Spaceflight doesn’t seem to break as much as I’d expected, however, given all that. It probably just has less stuff to load in. It’s worth bringing up both as a caution to potential buyers and also because, weirdly, even with those technical issues I find myself highly immersed and yearning to get back in there and play more.
No Man’s Sky: Beyond is, in my opinion, the culmination of the idea of this game. It’s definitely more video gamey, less of an acquired taste, and that’s not a bad thing at all. It’s a wandering dream, brilliant and beautiful escapism on an unheard-of scale. I wouldn’t recommend it as someone’s first VR experience, since the technical issues would probably be a big turnoff. But, once you’re warmed up to the medium and you know that it’s not going to make you sick to move around in virtual space, I can’t recommend NMS:Beyond strongly enough.