How a No Man’s Sky RPG would pilot the game back to Earth

Currently, No Man’s Sky is a virtual reality experience without a headset..

Forget the technical wizardry of creating the ’18 quintillion planets’ (is that trademarked now?) and the endless, vibrant, exploration therein – No Man’s Sky is not a “game”, game. Worse, the hype train extending back to 2013 didn’t even deliver on meeting expectations of being ‘everything to everyone’! Within the first few days of release critics struggled with reviewing it and many players bemoaned it. With the dust settling and the calm after the storm quietening the noise, the event can take a back seat to the actual product and be redressed. NMS is now available on PS4 and PC, with speculation it may arrive on XBox1 later in the year. However, only if you want it. NMS is not a “game” like other games are. This is also one of it’s biggest strengths. If you can accept that. Many cannot, reflecting the mediocre reviews it has received. A No Man’s Sky RPG could rectify this.

After embracing what NMS is and is not – clarity can wash away that previously golden mirage. Spending time walking, surveying, collecting, flying, discovering and marveling at the exotic and colourful landscapes offers players a chance to truly see and experience this from a new perspective. Thankfully, in NMS, the breadth to which you can reflect on this and truly soak it in is almost unlimited. For those who have played it come out the other side, the journey is almost spiritual in terms of an awakening from what was, to what is. Those strong feelings of desire, placed upon an unreachable pedestal can now be tempered. To confine NMS to how and what you think it should be, is to continue suffering. To play it, being truly in the moment, is to ‘let it go’ and accept reality. The experience is almost cathartic.

The problems with NMS:

However all that hippy, Buddhist nonsense cannot be attained when there’s so many problems with it! The hype train hurtling towards Earth (since 2013), burning white hot with impossibly high expectations has plummeted into our atmosphere, crashing and burning into a glitchy, buggy mess of restarts, rubble and debris. There’s the usual game-breaking bugs, the woeful frame-rates on some PCs, players reportedly not seeing each other in-game, no multiplayer, confusion, boredom, micro-managing inventory slots, and the lack of variety after visiting more than 10 planets hampers enlightenment.

More importantly – what type of of game is NMS? Well, there’s a variety of genres within NMS without one over-arching label to define it. Problematically, it’s a jack-of-all-trades and a riddle. What game features gun play, but is not a shooter; is open world, but not a multiplayer; necessitates the collection of resources, but is not a RTS; allows you to pilot a spaceship, but isn’t a flight sim; and focuses your attention on survival in hostile areas, but is not a horror game? Oh, and one more, has dinosaurs but is not Ark: Survival Evolved? Whatever NMS is, it’s polarising the gaming community. Current scores on Steam are at 51% positive and 64% on Metacritic (with 3/10 from Metacritic users). However in the first week NMS had one of the most financially successful launches of any game on Steam and PS4. Comparably however, the second week saw sales dip by 81%. Ouch!

Initiating defense fields!

Graciously, Sean Murray the lead developer admitted prior to launch that NMS probably won’t be what you expect. If it wasn’t developed and produced by the small team at Hello Games, this could have resulted in professional suicide. Maybe this epiphany was too late when considering the backlash would overwhelm the hype? Following the scandalous critiques, Sean stated the team was busy resolving system issues via producing a number of patches to combat the negative groundswell. Ejecting from the situation is unspeakable and the team is hurriedly pulling together to keep from nosediving.

No Man’s Exploration, without Sidequests?

From the website, No Man’s Sky is described as a “science-fiction game set in an infinite procedurally generated galaxy”. Being a sci-fi inspired game, the art style is reminiscent of 1970’s science fiction. This presents unfamiliar landscapes in a palette of discolouration combined with high exposure. Together with a type of cartoonish, vector-like graphics often interspersed with a neon hyperreality – the vibrancy seems to jump off the screen.

Coupled with with procedurally generated areas, it’s likely you will gaze in awe at the landscapes around you. Procedurally generated content includes the terrain (mountains, valleys, climates and planets), lifeforms (aliens, dinosaurs, sentinels (flying peace-keeping robots) and fauna (plants, trees, etc). The unique art style and the creating and creation of random and new sets to inhabit should draw the player into an ambience of interactive exploration and imagination from planet to planet.

From the beginning of the game (getting off the 1st random planet), to the major (and only) quest, it’s up to the player what to do. Collect resources, visit planets, upgrade your stuff, but.. What else? More stuff that looks a bit different than last time? Sidequests, however, offers the player a reason to stay in the game and the push to keep you in the environment besides just finishing the game. How can you stop to smell the roses and remark at the beauty of NMS when that’s all you’ve been doing anyway? Fetch quests, assassination missions, delivery jobs or selling map details could liven up the world. They reinforce a purpose or reason behind and in addition to exploration. It also fulfills a desire to achieve and be rewarded. Being a permanent tourist, going about your own business with fancy set dressings around you is not really that engaging after a while. Creating sidequests could easily be implemented if Hello Games can devise algorithms to make quintillions of planets. Surely they can make a few lazy NPC quest givers who offer various collectables. Similar to World of Warcraft a quest log could be issued for what the rewards would be. This may even help balance out the tedious inventory management by choosing when and when not to finish these quests from the significance of their loot depedning on when you need it. The sidequests don’t need to be game-changing – just something to do on the side where you can redirect the games explorative passivity to players explorative agency.

No Man’s Fight, without Boss Fights?

Your multi-tool can acquire resources or shoot lasers in combat. Your ship can fire cannons or beams. Spherical sentinel robots will attack you if you damage the environment too much. Space pirates will fire on you if you cross their path. And that’s about it. On land, if you die, the players belongings will be left at a small grave. Similar to your humanity and souls in Dark Souls, these will have to be retrieved. Closer still is the analogy with Diablo. Trudging back to collect your things is dangerous. Though it’s more dangerous not to. This small risk is significant to your continued life.

However the single biggest threat to your life is the hazardous environment in NMS. Adjusting to the environmental risks requires a more defensively minded approach than offensively planning to become invulnerable. Leveling up your exo-suit passively increases hazard protection and adds more slots to your inventory. Sounds underwhelming and it is. The juice is worth the squeeze, but the grind isn’t at all that satisfying. There’s no aesthetic or physical representation of your upgraded suit and you travel around in it like a backpacker who lost their luggage in transit. With a bit of imagination, things don’t have to be so glum. With patches or DLC, collecting plant resources could upgrade your suit in more aesthetically meaningful ways. For instance, it could provide additional taming qualities for similarly coloured creatures. A splash of red, yellow stripes or matching the terrain (like a chameleon), could elicit taming or provocation with the other life forms. Other collected resources could upgrade the standard suit into a better suit – just like every other RPG.

With options to upgrade your suit for various functions, it’s even viable to introduce boss fights. Boss fights, can and do, demarcate stages within a game outside questing. Moreover, introducing them could break up and stratify an endlessly long and flat set of open world experiences. With consideration to upgrading and colouring your suit – certain creatures on some planets could signal to their parents when endangered. See those dinosaur-looking animals wandering around? Well, some could be hostile. Particularly when getting too close to their children. Luckily though, you’ve upgraded your suit to take the damage those behemoths will inflict. Their dwellings could even be home to rare materials. Without an upgraded suit you could never have ventured close enough from being attacked of the treasures that lay within. Suddenly then, the planets are alive. The game is not just one quest to get to the centre of the galaxy. It’s truly inhabited. There’s more risks than just the weather. That same child-parent mechanic could be used in space as well. Attack or defend against pirates and sometimes they will call in their mothership, ready to blast you into space dust. The factions of humanoids would take on a whole new meaning. As such, boss fights could really provide the necessary layers to a game that sometimes feels full but lifeless.

No Man’s Trade, without Personalities?

Another sandbox game – Mount & Blade – follows a similar ideology of ‘making your own way in the world’ with little narrative. Distinct to NMS, it featured racial factions with differing viewpoints related to their countries environments. Additionally, and in combat, their strengths and weaknesses were accrued from focusing on heavy cavalry, melee or horseback archery. On top of this, add politics, claimants to the throne, sieges, companions and tournaments. For a game with poor graphics and uninspiring sidequests – the community has remained strong over a decade and with few patches to compensate them.

Unlike in Mount & Blade, trading in No Man’s Sky is important. Whilst trading in Calradia (Mount and Blade) is available, it’s mostly tedious and nets marginal gains. You can trade in settlements and once the lord you can collect taxes from the populace. It’s also possible to build mills and breweries for more income. This mechanic portrays a rudimentary avenue of financing an economy to sustain yourself throughout the game and especially for lengthy wars. Implementing a simple trading system is a nice aside and allows for more diversity of play styles. In NMS, the trading is the game. Functionally, without trading, you won’t be making it much further than the first planet. Moreover, trading at trade posts, space stations and trade terminals is fundamental to reaching the completion of the main quest.

Funneling the game into a set of micro-management tasks of collect this, sell that, relegates the player into a botanist and a geologist, with the responsibility of an accountant to keep advancing the story. Mechanically, for NMS, the emphasis placed on trading and trading alone feels hollow and immature. Especially when the experience is essentially transactional. It’s like considering human activity as a process of paying bills to survive and grow older. While it’s understandable the game is a solitary affair of discovery – a foreigner in a different country who cannot speak the language can still discover personality. If the game featured distinctive characters of the three races – Gek, Korvax and Vy’keen – who traded with you it could liven up the process. From idiosyncratic traders; swarthy, scrupulous oddballs; to suspicious and unsavoury characters who approach you for the ‘best deals planet-side’ – could revitalise a necessary task into a memorable activity. Hell, Barla Von the Volus financier in Mass Effect has more personality than the traders of NMS altogether and combined. Terminals, trade stations and posts shouldn’t be a ‘means to an end’, and can be enriching and engaging if more thought to the personalities who provide them could be implemented.

No Man’s Survival, without Companions?

To digress, a few sci fi movies with a similar theme to NMS of space exploration include Interstellar and The Martian. The protagonist of each film are likewise stranded and attempting to reach a destination. Their motivation and what pulls them through are reuniting with their friends and family. Another film, Gattaca, portrays the protagonist desiring to leave Earth because the social ties are discriminatory and alien. Each of the three sci fi films represent a trajectory through space travel either to or away from their society they live in. The basis is to find a connection. In NMS it isn’t clear what your motivations are. Are you simply tasked with finding the centre of the galaxy? Is it your job to do so? Are you even human?

If the threads to tie up this story are intentionally left dangling (to interpret how you like), companions would add some much needed flesh to the bare-bones story. RPG quests are often familiar and even formulaic. Often it’s the companions which enrich the experience, regardless of the ingenuity of the plot. For example, let’s consider Dragon Age II. Many criticised the re-used rooms, area’s and the small maps Bioware funneled the player through. Even it’s predecessor Dragon Age: Origins seemed to dwarf the sequel  in size. But within it’s tight perimetres were well-written characters that kept you playing. It’s here we first meet the popular Varric. Anders is still an incredibly polarising character. The ‘by-the-books’ Aveline wore her heart behind her shield. We could sympathise with the former slave Fenris. And Isabela, as the cheeky and charming, sexually charged female version of Jack Sparrow was one of the most mature romances ever written in a game. As such, the companions of DAII were able to broaden the confines of Kirkwall and lasso us through a small but enjoyable story.

To populate a No Man’s Sky RPG with companions could connect the player to the character by choosing which one best suits your journey and add a level of humanity to a game that is starkly alien. It may also redefine what they player is trying to achieve. Currently, the closest NMS gets to featuring companions are 1) the companion app that let’s you upload screenshots; 2) and a small selection of animals who you can befriend to watch follow/play with you. But this level of interaction feels fairly infantile and inconsequential compared with games such as Far Cry: Primal, or even World of Warcraft. Within NMS there’s opportunities to provide humans, animals and robot companions.

Human Companions

Despite the size of NMS, there has to be more than one visible person (the player) mining and foraging for goods to sell on the market. Hiring individual mercenaries or a group of them at posts or stations could allow you to send them out to farm resources; provide a muscle (and blasters) to defend you against attackers (whether via space ships or on land); or just a ‘tag-along’ to accompany you on your journey. Just for the extra inventory slots that each human companion would provide is already invaluable.

Animal Companions

Rideable mounts, or an alien donkey for additional inventory slots (think Dungeon Siege), or fostering a friendship with them by simultaneously learning their language and increasing the amicability of their species across planets would be advantageous. Perhaps the second level of friendship could increase the visibility and update your map markers from the eyesight of taller or winged creatures which inhabit the planet? Like the dog from Fallout, combining animals and companionship is not a new idea in RPG’s. It maintains the independence of the player while reducing the separateness of the player to the world.

Robot Companions

Just as many players preferred the dog companion in Fallout, another large proportion have a soft spot for Nick in Fallout 4. Utilising robot companions from the simple task-based instructions, to even re-wiring faulty sentinels to ally with you is another chance to gain companionship without detracting from your uniqueness as the sole wandering human. And who wouldn’t want an R2-D2 character traveling with you on the back of your ship, or a BB-8 droid rolling around with you planet to planet?

..Sky’s the limit.

There’s still so much potential unrealised with NMS. A No Man’s Sky RPG can elevate the base game, via patches or DLC, to reignite the hype train back to Earth. The cargo required to calibrate this ship back on course are sidequests, boss fights, personality and companions.

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