I’d bet that Hello Games has faced down more than a few huge challenges over the course of No Man’s Sky’s development, but in the first week of release the most obvious one is this: how do you introduce thousands of players to a game that is, essentially, infinite? How do you tutorialise a universe? Despite a couple of years and tens of thousands of words written about No Man’s Sky at this point, it’s still not totally clear to a lot of players what you actually do. How do you plunge players into the infinite possibilities of a universe without leaving them to drown?
No Man’s Sky solves this by giving you something very simple to do at the start: fix your ship. It broke. the first thing you see, as your exosuit initalises with the obligatory robot-voice and shimmering static, is your broken spaceship, surrounded by smoking debris, on a planet with purple plants, red grass, and weird jutting crystals around the place. At least, that’s what I saw; the game picks a random planet to start you off on, so for you it could be a green-and-yellow water planet, or a frozen one. Just hope it is not too hazardous, because your exosuit needs regular recharging with elemental resources to keep the life support and radiation protection working.
After opting into the guidance proffered by an object lying near the ship - which really isn’t much guidance at all - I quickly learn that I need to gather things, or I’m stuffed. There is a gun-like object in my hand that does not appear to do anything. I open a menu; there are confusing squares of information with rather abstract icons. The game gently offers that I might want to recharge my mining laser. I do this, having conquered the menu, and point it at the nearest thing to me: some pointy rocks that purport to be made of iron. A few seconds of laser-power and it explodes, releasing the element for my own purposes.
Then I get killed, twice, by flying robots that arrive to shoot at me. At first I do not understand why but I quickly gather that they don’t like me mining. As an environmentally conscious individual, I am instantly mortified at having desecrated the planet, and decide to obey the tiny robots. This then makes me nervous about mining any of the seemingly abundant resources on the planet, until I twig that I have to or I’ll never get off it alive.
I’m really sorry for exploding you with my rubbish mining laser, robots.
In the first hour, you learn what No Man's Sky is about on a basic level: finding and gathering minerals to maintain and improve the technologies that power your ship, suit, and multi-tool. This involves a lot of walking, looking around, patient scanning, and inventory management – not things that exactly scream "action". But despite the absence of dangerous creatures, other players or characters, or weapons (for now), there is still the omnipresent danger posed by the universe itself.
On my starting planet, radiation levels were high. It was hardly verdant; sprawling, tentacled plants clung doggedly to the planet's surface, but I soon figured out that to protect myself from the radiation I had to hide in the networks of underground tunnels, where weird luminescent plants carpeted the rock. Nothing looks dangerous, but everything is dangerous: the air, the drop from an upcoming cliff-edge. The further I get from my ship, out hunting for a particular mineral that I needed to fuel it, the more my exosuit complains that life-support systems or radiation protection are starting to run low, the more exposed and anxious I start to feel.
No Man's Sky's opening hours are defined by solitude. It has a very gentle pace. Things take time, and there is an absence of action. Like another game I’ve played recently, it attempts to induce a state of mind, rather than giving me lots of things to do. Basically, you look at plants, pick up rocks, and try not to think too hard about how completely alone and vulnerable you are.
"No Man's Sky's opening hours are defined by solitude. It has a very gentle pace. It attempts to induce a state of mind, rather than giving me lots of things to do."
This might not sound that appealing; frankly, it isn't. It's hard work. But in the right mind-set, it's rewarding, if not straightforwardly entertaining. You have to think of yourself as an explorer, observing, surviving, taking things in. Essentially, the first hour sets you up to face the reality that the universe is a largely empty place, and not much happens, and you're mostly going to be completely alone. This is the reality of No Man's Sky, certainly for large portions of your time with it, and it's important to accept that early on.
Quaint, adventure-game style first-person text narrates your early interactions. (Disclosure: a couple of friends of mine worked on the writing, I found out recently, but despite that I still enjoyed it.) It seems heavily influenced by both classic science-fiction (unsurprisingly) and very, very early space games that relied on florid description to fill in the gaps left by extremely basic graphics. No Man's Sky doesn't have that problem, obviously, but the decorative writing fills in a different gap, left by the total absence of voices or exposition. It reflects how your explorer's thoughts might echo around in their head, all alone out there for so long.
It’s so very odd to be in a version of space that isn’t dark. The sky is colourful, not black; space looks inviting. As I walk, the light changes from orange to pale yellow to brighter red. I spend more than an hour trudging across the surface of this first planet, seeking minerals, discovering beacons and other landmarks that I don't understand, blowing up rocks, looking out for sentinels. Eventually I have gathered what's needed to power up my spaceship; after wrestling with the inventory, everything is ready to go. After so long on the ground, it is time to finally head for the skies.
It is a good introduction to a game – a universe – that is completely overwhelming. By restricting you to some pretty basic actions and one simple goal for the first hour or so, it prevents you from feeling too lost, or paralysed by options. And just as importantly, it's an exercise in expectation-setting; I get the impression that a whole lot of No Man's Sky is going to consist of wandering slowly around, looking at things, and figuring them out for yourself. This isn't Mass Effect. I don't foresee an epic space-drama. I foresee possibilities: I understand that my next steps could lead anywhere. Something exciting might happen, but then again, it may well not.
As the thrusters finally kick in, the craft orientates itself towards the stars, and it accelerates into the cosmos, I think: what’s next?