Rewind to the 80’s
In the last 15 years or so, I haven’t really had the time and will to game as much as I’d like to. Just as is the case with quality TV series nowadays, there are more great games coming out than there is time to actually play them when you also have full time employment to take care of. Maybe I’m just lazy, but for me gaming is also more intensive and time-consuming than watching a movie or an episode of a TV show.
I’m also a bit of a genre player – my preferred games have always been time consuming adventures, and role-playing games. And, maybe you could add a third genre as well: space trading simulator games. One of the first games I saw being played in the mid-80’s on my friend Antti’s dad’s Commodore 64 was Elite. [telegraph.co.uk] The game looked complex and hard, and had a manual longer than most games and required a keyboard map layout as well because there were so many functions.
“I’ll never learn to play that”, I thought.
Well, a couple of years later Antti and I not only completed Leisure Suit Larry [retrogames.cz] on his dad’s PC, but we also played Elite at my place all night long on my first computer, a Commodore 64 (thanks, mum!).
The freedom of piloting your own starship across a vast galaxy (or several), trading goods, fighting pirates and generally just exploring was just unbeatable. In a way, the game was really simple and repetitive but you kind of made up your own story along the road as you grinded for more money, status and new ships. So, grinding was an addictive formula back then already, Elite might actually be one of the first grinding games.
After Elite, no space simulator really offered the same thrills – there were many attempts like Federation of Free Traders or the actual Elite-sequel Frontier, but they were either too ambitious for the computers of their time or just didn’t work. There were some smaller great space adventures that focused more on the story though in the 80’s-90’s; some of the the ones I loved were Warhead [lemonamiga.com] on the Amiga and Star Control 2 [wikpedia.com] on PC, one of the best space adventure games ever in an semi-open world, which emphasized the importance of great visuals and music as well.
The casual thrills of exploring unknown planets
Fast-forward to 2017, a year after No Man’s Sky was released and had caught my radar. The game had a rocky launch and it seemed like yet another failed “Elite-killer” (as the Finnish gaming press used to title all games seeking to become the next Elite, always in vain), but significant updates had supposedly improved things and it was on sale on Steam, so I thought: “What the hell, looks good, let’s give this a go”.
Turns out the game offers the same thrills as Elite did in the 80’s. The basic idea is the same but there is just more of everything. Also, you can land on planets and explore them; the first time you repair your ship and head out into space and land on the next planet or moon in the solar system is magical.
Besides the freedom of a huge sandbox a lot of the appeal of the game lies in the excellent, colorful graphics and the phenomenal soundtrack by 65daysofstatic. Even people who find the game boring have said good things about the soundtrack, and I bought the soundtrack after short while; the music really is great and adds to the game in so many ways.
Yeah, the game has some adventure in form of a story as well, but it isn’t very deep although there are some good points. Just like the retro-art graphics, the story is more Star Trek or 70’s psychedelic sci-fi than some Star Wars-style epic space opera. This is fitting, and anyhow, the story is mostly just an extended tutorial; exploring and grinding for money and new ships and building your own bases on several worlds is the core of the game. No Man’s Sky is also pleasingly non-violent; you can pretty much avoid combat if you want to, and gaining money by scanning flora and fauna instead of killing them pleases my former biologist self.
So, another grinding & building game at heart, I still find No Man’s Sky addictive after 200+ hours because you can simply play it a bit at a time, casually. Come home from work, drop into the cockpit of your spaceship, explore an unknown world, go to the next solar system, send your frigates on missions to collect money and stop playing after an hour in order to make dinner. It does become repetitive during the endgame when you can see the patterns of how everything goes, despite being a huge sandbox there is not enough real variation on the worlds in order to surprise you very much. That, and the lackluster trading aspect still leave lots of room for improvement.
Currently I’m just searching for the perfect planet to build my final base on, as I already have pretty much everything the game offers in terms of spaceships etc. But just spending an hour listening to the soundtrack and enjoying the scenery after warping to the next solar system is a soothing experience.
Interestingly enough, the game is still being developed and this summer a new major update comes along adding multiplayer and Virtual Reality (VR) -headset support, so the game is certainly one of the best supported games ever considering all the updates are free.
Finally, just listen to two of the achingly beautiful pieces found in the game and you’ll perhaps get something interesting out of the game even if you never play it yourself…