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Every Man’s Expectation: Dealing with the Reality of No Man’s Sky

At the time of writing, No Man’s Sky has now been on store shelves for just shy of a week.

The sum of Hello Games, a 15-person independent developer based out of Guildford, England, No Man’s Sky can be best surmised as an endeavour so enormous that many would think of its scope as disproportionate in relation to the modest size of its makers. All told, the fervor surrounding its protracted development and subsequent release has made for one of the more intriguing stories in modern gaming history. It’s all opinion and conjecture at this point as we still react to its launch but it’s nonetheless pertinent to delve into just how the third title from the small-scale studio that brought us indie hit ‘Joe Danger’ swelled to become one of the most hyped and anticipated titles in recent memory.

Ultimately, the main questions arising from its release are the following: did No Man’s Sky promise more than it actually delivered? Or was it a victim of being billed as something it wasn’t?

As it stands, we’ve had critics surprised by the game’s actual moment-to-moment gameplay whilst others have waxed lyrical about the vast possibility inherent in its systems. Some have lamented its supposed vacuity and the randomized nature of proceedings while in equal measure a vocal majority have championed how liberating, yet daunting, it feels landing on your own undiscovered planet. It’s not hyperbolic to say that No Man Sky’s reception thus far has been divisive. Fact is, Hello Games’ own Sean Murray said as much when he penned an article on the game’s official website on the eve of its launch. And just like that, the wait was over, as August 9 marked a pronounced end to nearly three years of unyielding development – a timespan that has managed to encapsulate all the trappings of modern video game creation. 

Check out our No Man’s Sky review diary.

From the day-one patch debacle, (and the wider debate surrounding what constitutes the right moment to begin critiquing a video game) the actual size of the game, the delays, (death threats in tow) the muddled reveals that never really hit on what the gameplay would be composed of, the death threats associated with revealing the aforementioned delay, and the nonsensical intellectual property issue, No Man’s Sky hasn’t shied away from bouts of controversy in the run up to its release. Oftentimes emblematic of just how fevered the world of video games can become once a title is unduly elevated to the sort of pre-release reverence seen with the likes of Spore, it’s now become clear that No Man’s Sky was destined to never hit the nigh-impossible expectations placed upon its shoulders from all sides. In truth, it never stood a chance.

Delving further back into the embryonic stage of its development, No Man’s Sky was originally picked up by Sony prior to its VGX teaser after Hello Games shopped the concept around to several interested parties. Initially willing to put funding into the project, it was quickly established that Sony would instead focus its efforts on the marketing side of production, leaving the day-to-day grind squarely on the doorstep of the Guildford-based developers. Fast forward several months and No Man’s Sky was once again thrust into the spotlight as the first independently-developed title to take centre stage at Sony’s E3 press conference in 2014 – a testament to just how much faith PlayStation had in its new lovechild. In fact, with the PlayStation 4’s first-party offerings decidedly muted throughout the year following its release, you’d be forgiven for thinking that No Man Sky was actually a first-party product, such was the zeal surrounding its position in PlayStation’s portfolio. Make no mistake, Sony was banking on the game to be an unbridled success from the get-go.

With Sony’s push being felt keenly from the early stages of development onward, (a promotion the likes of which we hadn’t yet seen for a second-party title) a fervent fan base emerged; cultivated and spurred on by the possibilities presented by the game’s ambitious trailers and press releases. This wasn’t some narrative tour de force that you’d walk away from once its four-hour campaign came to close, no, instead Sony was billing No Man’s Sky as a genre-defining footnote in gaming; an experience that would transcend traditional notions of escapism within the medium as a whole. It also didn’t help matters that the marketing push tended to focus far more on the majesty of discovery and the game’s technical prowess rather than displaying the tangible nuts and bolts that gamers would be grappling with once they got their mitts on it.

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The proceeding months did little to quell the rising enthusiasm as the game was paraded around numerous trade shows, behind-closed-doors demonstrations, and non-gaming outlets, culminating in a much-publicised appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert last October. Though, it wasn’t until rumors of the game’s delay had begun to surface in late May of this year was it then starkly apparent just how fanatic sectors of the fanbase had become. Kotaku’s Jason Schreier was first to report the news that the game wouldn’t meet its original June 21 release date. It was then later confirmed by Sean Murray himself in a candid post on the U.S. PlayStation Blog. In the interim, however, Schreier received death threats for simply reporting on a rumor garnered from two well-placed sources. Murray then received the same treatment once he had confirmed it definitively. All because a video game was delayed for a further two months.

It was clear from that point on that No Man’s Sky could never fully meet what was expected of it. It simply wasn’t possible. Considering the final product is incredibly close to what Murray and co. had envisioned, we’re left with the suitable question of what did we actually expect? Let’s face it, the myth of No Man’s Sky somehow managed to eclipse what was purposed by the team actually creating the game. Through veiled oversaturation by other parties and a fanbase constantly reaffirming a belief that it would present an all-new way of playing, the level of enthusiasm reached a point that was both unrealistic and frankly unattainable. Through a lack of first-party panache, Sony tried to compensate too doggedly by relying on No Man’s Sky to be its ace in the pack – ultimately, in many people’s eyes, to its detriment. Fundamentally, there was a crucial disconnect between the creators’ vision and what everyone else had built up in their minds, including Sony. And perhaps that’s partly the fault of Hello Games, too, for taking too long to explicitly state what the game would entail – allowing a period of time for whisperings of visionary genius to germinate in the minds of gamers – but it’s that dichotomy that has managed to create pockets of ill will towards a small developer just trying to realize an artistic vision.

Neglecting the hype surrounding the 18 quintillion planet pitch, (which was too often the selling point of the experience), the gameplay hook of No Man’s Sky centred around four intrinsic pillars: ‘exploration’, ‘survival’, ‘combat’, and ‘trading’ – that much was made known whenever the question was posed to Murray in conversation later on into development. It was ostensibly billed as an exploration survival game with some deep-lying crafting mechanics. In addition, by definition of its very makeup, the procedural nature of No Man’s Sky was always going to pose problems for both critics and the public alike. Through the confines of the formula used to generate the worlds, it was inevitable that a level of redundancy would creep in once the parameters had been established through exploration. Simply put, bar pertinent issues currently surrounding player interactions, Hello Games has very much delivered on its initial pitch – whether that’s what people actually wanted or not is a different matter entirely and one that’ll undoubtedly be argued for months to come.

By all accounts, No Man’s Sky is a good, if not great, video game. And that’s okay. Beyond its final reviews, which may indeed be middling or bordering on glowing depending on who you ask, the story of Hello Games’ unbridled ambition will be its legacy. A fitting allegory for what transpires once expectation far exceeds what reality will perhaps bring. In essence, Hello Games had an impossible task on its hands but the fruit of its labor is still a highly commendable experience that many, many gamers will be transfixed by. And if you expected something more than that then perhaps the finger of blame shouldn’t be pointed at the developer but rather somewhere closer to home.