No Man's Sky vs. Link: The Faces of Evil
Note from the future: I have literally never played NMS. This article was mostly written with vague online impressions as a guide to jump on a bandwagon. I hear the game's gotten a lot better lately, so maybe give that a shot?
Yes, I am actually seriously writing this article. This article comparing arguably one of the worst video games ever produced to arguably one of the most overhyped video games ever produced. (And yes, I'll stop beating dead horses after this. It's fun, though.)
First, a couple of disclaimers. I've never played either game. I don't own a CD-i and No Man's Sky would cause my computer to burst into flames, probably. However, I've watched enough YouTube videos of both to let me pretend I have a good grasp on them. Also, I've never actually heard of No Man's Sky until about 2 days before it came out. So I have no idea what happened on the hype train, and frankly for the sake of this piece I really don't care. (I try to stay away from video game speculation. It's good for my wallet.) That being said, let's do... this.
Just as a side note, I has this written and ready to release a few days after NMS came out. (I wrote that dumb piece on the intro cutscene as a primer for this.) I held off on that because, after looking on message boards and the NMS subreddit, there actually were gameplay elements that tried to do what the Faces of Evil did. After waiting a month or however long it's been, it's turned out that those were just some incorrectly drawn conjectures based on players trying to get hope out of this game. I'm really late to the party here, but it was done on purpose.
Analysis of Link: The Faces of Evil
First off, let's take a long, hard look at the Faces of Evil. The gameplay, that is. I know the only reason anybody even knows about this game is because of the cutscenes and the various Youtube Poops and parodies they spawned, but those are (unfortunately) irrelevant to this comparision.
At the start of the game, the Squadala Man (he supposedly has an actual name) tells you to go to the island of Koradai and defeat Ganon. Ergo, the goal of the game is to defeat Ganon. To do this, you must conquer each of the Faces of Evil. Simple enough.
In order to defeat Ganon, you have to get the following (among other things, of course):
In order to do something on the right of the list, you must have done everything on the left first. More importantly, you must keep doing everything on the left. Think of it as a sort of food chain where the left represents the producers and the right represents the consumers. In order to fulfill something on the far right (such as buying a bomb), it needs a certain number of the thing to the left of it (at least 20 rupees), each of with needs a certain thing to the left of that (1 fireball or snowball nets 1-5 rupees).
You more keen readers may note that this idealized flowchart doesn't perfectly represent how the game goes. Towards the later stages of the game, you don't even need fireballs or snowballs to collect rupees. There's a reason for that.
Imagine you're an organism on the food chain. You start at the bottom eating grass to gain energy. And you're pretty awful at it, as you can barely get enough energy intake to survive. After evolving to eat grass more efficiently, you finally have the energy you need to chew and digest insects. But you still aren't all that great at it, so for now you need to keep eating grass.
But you keep evolving to eat insects, until you reach the point where eating insects gives you more energy in less time than eating grass. It becomes more efficient to eat bugs. Of course, sometimes there are no insects, so you still need to eat grass from time to time. You never lose the ability to eat grass, it just becomes something you shouldn't do if you have the choice.
Soon, you're able to eat a rat. But you kind of suck at it. Eventually you evolve so that rats are more efficient to eat than bugs, and several magnitudes more efficient than grass. As you keep moving up the food chain, the gain the ability to do new things while making old things obsolete.
(You really observant folks who actually bothered to look up a walkthorugh will notice that I skipped a few dozen steps between buying stuff and defeating Ganon. We're simplifying here.)
Essentially, Link becomes so powerful he can skip over the low parts of the chain entirely. Throughout the game you get powerups that increase your health meter's capacity and make your attacks more powerful. In theory, this would turn collecting items from a tedious task to something that takes no time at all. This fact lets the game go one of two ways. With the snowballs and fireballs. Their main purpose was to help (or really force) you farm for rupees, and now that your powerups allow you to farm faster than the balls ever could, you have no reason to use them.
There's also some spots that require you to have snowballs and fireballs to progress. As you progress thorugh the game, you can get more faster. The game will therefore demand the same effort of snowballs, but a much higher quantity. This is a bit more blatant with rupees. Your progression lets you pick up more rupees faster, and thus the game demands more rupees from you for more bombs, rope, and lamp oil. This actually creates a nice "obstruction via weakness". In theory, the reason you can't defeat Ganon is not because the game simply won't let you go there. It's because you'd get creamed the moment you set foot on his doorstep without the powerups and items. (In reality, the game drops this whole exponential growth thing about half way through, instead relying on fetch-quest items and linear progression. You can't even go to Ganon's lair until you find the Squadala man's house and he gives you some magic lantern.) You can notice this general pattern of "obstruction via weakness" in many games. Minecraft practically built it's gameplay around this.
Analysis of Minecraft
Yep. I'm bringing Minecraft into this. It's perfect for my example, because it falls the same exponential growth gameplay formula. (Frankly, this is probably an infinitely better example than the Faces of Evil, but who could pass up the oppurtunity to say No Man's Sky is worse than the Faces of Evil? Also, I'm assuming you all vaguely know how Minecraft plays.) First question: What's Ganon? What is the goal of the game? Because of the sandbox nature of Minecraft, there is no set goal, unless you want to count The End, which almost nobody does. We have to set it ourselves. Let's say we want to build a cool castle with a lava moat and diamond floors. (Wouldn't you?) To accomplish this from world creation, you need to do the following:
To create your wonder castle, you need to get food (to not starve), wood (to create tools and interior decoration), cobblestone (better tools, exterior decoration), iron (lava buckets, interior decor, better tools), dimaond (better tools, cool floor) and possibly obsidian (to go to Nether to get lava). Big list.
Again, like in the Faces of Evil, in order to get something on the right side (say the diamond floor) you need to get something to the immediate left (a bunch of iron for pickaxes), which needs something to the left of that (cobblestone, if you run out of iron), which needs something to the left of that (wood, for handles) all while not starving.
Minecraft also has "obstructions via weakness". As you progress down the right side, things on the left side become useless, but you can't progress without them. Take mining. You start with a wooden pickaxe. Once you get three pieces of cobblestone you might as well throw the wooden pickaxe into the ocean because it's instantly obsolete. With your new cobblestone pickaxe, you can now mine iron. But you can't mine iron with wood, thus preventing you from skipping straight to the late stages of the game.
Analysis of No Man's Sky
Okay, great. The Faces of Evil runs on exponential growth of power. What does that have to do with anything? Here's my take on No Man's Sky (disagree if you wish). No Man's Sky wants to have exponential growth, but there's nowhere to grow to.
For those unaware, the gameplay of No Man's Sky follows something like this (it's all procedurally generated, so nothing's set in stone): You wake up with a dead ship on a barren planet. You use you mining gun of science to demolish some weird fungi plants and shove the minerals into your ship. Eventually you can leave the planet. On another planet, there's a beacon thing begging for your attention. At this point you're low on ship juice, so you mine some from the nearby asteroids and putter to the beacon. There you get the blueprints for a warp drive, but you don't have enough minerals to make it or fuel it. So you keep puttering across the solar system to build this thing. Once it's made, you need to trade ~60000 of your money for antimatter to build a Warp Cell. Once you're done with that, you quickly shamble on to another solar system to repeat the process (minus the dead ship part). The thing is, there's also various NPC characters that you can trade your minerals with to get cool stuff like a better ship or a better mining gun or blueprints to make your own antimatter and upgrades.
So, breaking that down something like I did the Faces of Evil, you get this walkthrough:
To trade for stuff, you need to mine stuff. But to mine for stuff, your ship needs fuel, so you have to mine asteroids. Is what'd I say if that were true. Becuase, really, it's not. You see, all the rocket fuel grows on the planets (usually in the form of red crystal plants), and if it doesn't (because again, it's all procedurally generated), you can easily trade for it. You see, nearly every building on every planet has some sort of galatic trade terminal. Through this, you can sell your current stuff and buy some other stuff. This was likely some sort of mechanism to prevent a player from being permanently stranded on a planet (which would really, really suck), but it also means you never have to leave the planet you're on. You could, in theory, get anything in the game (besides ships, antimatter, and various suit upgrades) just by mining and trading on a single planet. So really, it's more like this:
Now, I hope, the missed oppurtunity here is a bit more glaringly obvious. Namely that it tries to be an in-depth exponential growth type of game like Minecraft or The Faces of Evil, but there's no depth. What's Ganon?
The game actually gives you a few pointers on what to do. You can do lone-wolf exploration, of course. There's also some mysterious thingy-ma-doo called Atlas. Fly around the universe and follow it's orders and you can craft antimatter and gain access to some storage sheds and habitats via AtlasPasses. This would be a great guided exploration system to give you an incentive. Problem is, there's no reward from it. From what I hear, there's basically nothing in the sheds besides upgrades you really don't need. (And I'll get to upgrades later.) But at least it gives you a direction. You just need to like exploring, of course. Your other option is to make your way to the center of the universe. You go upgrade and mine and stuff so that you can make your way to the center faster. This, again, falls into the same problems I'll point out a bit later. (Also, I can't comfirm this, but I heard that the center of the universe is really lackluster.)
All of those paths are really just fancy ways of say "explore and upgrade to explore more." No matter what you do, you're landing on planets and mining stuff so you can land on other planets. There might be some over-arching goal, and I really do appreciate their attempts, but at the end of the day it's a game about exploring.
The Problem with No Man's Sky
Let's yank the food chain back into play. What is the goal of the food chain? In the food chain, you eat things and try to evolve your way up. The goal of eating things is to survive. Of course, survivng is a very open-ended goal. But the important thing is it's not a one-and-done deal. Yes, anyone at any part of the food chain can survive, but the higher up you are, the better your quality of life is. (Well, probably. I just know that I wouldn't want to be a bug in fear of being squashed at every second of the day.)
Exploring is a lot like surviving. You can explore at every point in No Man's Sky. You start out exploring your planet, when you're crash landed. You fix your ship and then explore your solar system. You get your warp drive and go explore the next solar system. The player's goal is always to explore more stuff. Problem: At this point in the game (about an hour or two in) the player can explore anything they want with no issues. There is literally no reason to even bother mining or trading for anything besides rocket fuel because the player can go anywhere. You want to explore that reddish planet? Go nuts. What's on that moon? Go check it out. What's in the next system? Just land somewhere, mine some stuff for a bit (if you weren't already during your exploration), trade for a warp cell, and then blast off. There's no incentive to even bother upgrading anything.
And I do mean every planet, moon, and rock is accessible once you've got your warp drive installed. However, you can see some attempts to make this not the case. In the No Man's Sky universe exist toxic, radioactive, and extremely hot/cold planets. The idea is that you wouldn't be able to walk on these planets without enhancing your protective gear. In reality, this is only sort of the case. While there is a time limit as to how long you can stand on these planets, it seems to be rather long. And when your time limit does run out, you can just hop in your ship and recharge. (You might also need to feed your life support plutonium or carbon or something, but that stuff is literally everywhere.)
I've heard that there might be some mechanic where the solar systems on the map have different colors depending on how hostile they are. The hostile systems are supposed to have more rare minerals. I'll admit I don't know if this is actually true. But even if it was true, as I mentioned you can pretty much trade for anything anywhere, so even if a planet was too hostile to stand on, you can just leave with no ill effects. If you were really determined, you could just also just stay near your ship and jump back in every few minutes. It would be a pain, but totally doable.
Effectively, if you were to redraw the food chain matrix from above, it should look similar to that. Easy planets have less minerals than deadlier planets. Indeed, there are some planets out there, probably, that will kill you. But again, they don't seem seem to require you to build up your stats, or even bother to go to them at all. And there doesn't seem to be any incentive to go to the more toxic/radioactive planets. So frankly, the matrix might as well be this:
Pretty much the only thing that isn't accessible from the bat are some buildings that require AtlasPasses. To get these AtlasPasses, you have to jump through some hoops and pretty much hope you get it. Once you do that, you actually get some rather decent upgrades that let you expand your inventory and improve your suit's protection. But again, there's never a reason to do so. You never need more inventory space or life support because you can still go anywhere.
How to (partially) Fix No Man's Sky
I can't go ahead and say adding more chains on the exponential growth chart is going to make it a 10/10 game. Frankly there's a couple of other glaring issues. The randomly generated terrain really isn't all that random, the Korvax are the most boring aliens known to man, the Sentinel bots are on your back 24/7 waiting to gun you down for no real reason, the menus are clearly designed for a PS4, and the game's developers oversold and overhyped this to such a point that they may be getting sued for false advertising. All these things (except maybe that last one) make exploration in and of itself not particularly fun. However, adding more "obstructions via weakness" does give players goals to strive for. It's like that Minecraft castle. Sure, maybe the end goal might not be great, but half of the fun is the journey.
As I said before, some "obstructions via weakness" already exist. You can't go into space at the start of the game until you've fixed your ship. You can't escape the solar system until you've installed a warp drive and crafted an energy cell. But that's all there is. After that everything else is completely accessible. And there does seem to be an attempt at a viable upgrade system, where rare materials are needed to craft useful parts, such as additional armour or better mining gun parts. In reality though, the quickest way to upgrade mostly consists of popping open signal beacons and following them to some upgrade pods, and even then the upgrades don't seem to be worth the trouble. In my opinion, that's not really rewarding the player for exploring and being a better player so much as jumping through hoops.
No Man's Sky clearly needs a trip to the drawing board. There's almost a good game here. I like the concept of the Atlas giving you a direction in a vast, unknown world. The concept of upgrading to explore dangerous, high-reward planets is great. But the implementation just isn't there. I hope somebody takes what this game tried to do and makes it a reality. There's a fun game here. It's just a couple hundred more AtlasPass sheds, trade terminals, and upgrade pods away than I could ever be bothered to visit.