My return to ‘No Man’s Sky’ was a reminder of death and the void

It’s Jean-Paul Sartre, the video game.

Daniel Cooper / Hello Games

I turned 36 in October, and one of my birthday gifts was Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 & 2 Remastered. It was a game I was good at as a kid, and loved playing, despite my total disinterest in skating in the real world. But, for whatever reason, the muscle-memory never came back to me, and I couldn’t connect to those vaseline-on-the-lens-tinted memories of youth. Cold, hard reality, like the sidewalks I kept face-planting on, kept getting in the way of my nostalgia kick.

After several evenings, I started to feel a little anxious, because I was playing it out of a sense of duty, not fun. Then, I noticed an icon for No Man’s Sky on my PS4’s homescreen, a game I reviewed back in 2019 and rarely since. One night, I settled in for an hour of two of skating and found myself activating the open-world, procedurally-generated space simulation instead. And despite it being possibly the worst thing to play when you’re skirting the border of a mid-life crisis, it’s swallowed me whole.

Spoilers ahead for No Man’s Sky.

When you reach the midpoint of your life, you start to wonder if your achievements have any worth and weight. If any of the life you’ve lived has improved the lot of others, or if any of it will survive you. In that regard, No Man’s Sky is a telling reminder that life is fleeting and little of it matters very much at all. Its conceit is, after all, that you are a simulation, trapped inside a simulation of reality that you are doomed to exist through over and over again. The relics you find along the way are the legacy of your previous journeys through this vast universe.

And yet, I can’t bring myself to put No Man’s Sky down, burning a couple of hours on it every night for the past three weeks. I’d given up last year because the game was frustrating me beyond my ability to get past it. If you’re unfamiliar, you need to install upgrades in your suit at various points to progress the story, but I had no such space to do so. I couldn’t afford to, say, buy a more capacious multi-tool, given how merciless the early game is at keeping you broke early on.

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Thankfully, some of those bumps were smoothed out as part of the many updates the game has had since I last played. Everything feels a little easier this time out, and I was quickly able to grab a new multi-tool (sadly no freebies for me) and push on with the storyline. Unfortunately, the process has improved a lot, but it still relies heavily on the same couple of loops. It only takes a couple of hours in the title’s mid-game before the obvious busywork of finding a story point and being made to trek out to find raw materials gets tedious.

It is also blessed with a number of idiosyncrasies that mean you have to keep one eye on the game’s Wiki at all times. Apparently, after your first ever hyperspace jump, you’re meant to encounter a capital ship under fire, that you eventually rescue and receive. For me, this event didn’t trigger until I was 40 hours deep and tens of jumps into the game, I only knew about it after reading discussions around the game on Reddit. Maybe that’s as much of a bug as it is a feature: You need to play it properly with a reference manual on hand at all times.

And then there’s the story which...  yeah. When I first played this game, I said the story was barely-there at all. The point being that you were left to make your own tales up in this big empty universe, and you could go off and become whatever you wanted to be. But you can’t really progress in this title unless you’ve worked through most of the story, and it’s just not very good. Everything comes back to little fetch-and-travel quests, then a dialog scene in which you’re given three not-entirely-dissimilar options to respond with.

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There’s no urgency, either -- the game will happily let you know there’s a ticking clock running down to the apocalypse and then let you ignore that for however long you choose. I get it, it’s an RPG, and not one that forces you to play the storyline as if it was a fully-fleshed single-player game. But it’s really where the limits of No Man’s Sky’s narratives become unwound, because there’s almost no ‘game’ here.

And yet.

I can’t get enough of zooming around planets looking for crashed starships in the hope of raising enough money that I can buy a second freighter. Or doing my usual routine of finding a new planet, dropping my signal booster and hoping to find a drop pod nearby, Maybe picking up a couple of old relics from inside a cave if I happen to be passing one along the way.

My theory is that, divorced from the real world in COVID lockdown, No Man’s Sky offers a chance to build something. I’ve seen the game described as Animal Crossing for insecure boys, and maybe that’s part of it. Although I’ve devoted almost no time to turning my base into an object of desire, since my focus has been to try and advance through the story instead.

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Maybe, when I’ve reached the center of the galaxy, and achieved something grand, I’ll return home to my base and try and make it all pretty. I know full well that nobody will ever see it, and that it’ll only live as long as the HDD in my PS4 exists. But hey, not everything needs to be a permanent tribute to your own life, does it?