During the last weeks I have been playing now and again with No Man’s Sky, a space exploration game based on a vast procedurally generated universe. The game arrived surfing a wave of hype and expectations, only to break into a pandemonium of anger and disappointment shortly afterwards when the gaming community felt the game did not match the promises under which it was publicized. Indeed, it is certainly true that the game trailer was not quite honest, and that Sean Murray -Managing Director of Hello Games, the company behind the videogame- said things that were at best ambiguously misleading.
For some of these missing features (e.g., the multiplayer aspect), I make mine the last words of Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. Other aspects of the game as it is now have however molded my perception and game experience with it. What do we have? A game with engaging aesthetics and atmosphere, a decent amount of surprise in the landscapes and lifeforms (at least in the initial hours of gameplay for which I can talk) although for sure with lots of room for improvement (more diverse terrain formations, more biomes, etc.), but only featuring a crude and limited game mechanics. It is not just that the intrusive HUD cannot be removed or that the NPCs are rubbish, just to cite a couple of examples, but the fact that Middle-Age explorers were better equiped for the task of exploring and documenting discoveries than we, purported space explorers are. Things as elementary as a map or compass are missing. We are not only lost on planets, but also lost on a galactic scale, since there is no way of having a global view of our discoveries or our route.
These defficiencies have however an unintended side effect. Essentially, the game is built to promote exploration. You have no way of settling on a planet*, and the single biome of each of them makes it futile trying to explore it for a long time: you have to move on to the next planet or system, only to do the same again there. But given the limited functionality of the galaxy map available and the size of the galaxy itself, every time you leave a system it is very likely you will not be able to returm to it again. You are experiencing something ephemeral. Maybe you find gorgeous landscapes, with large companion planets hanging above you in the middle of a brightly-colored nebula, and surrounded by gigantic strange-looking plants and bizarre animals, but these images are short-lived. You (and probably anyone else playing the game) will not see that again once your spaceship takes off. Having just one opportunity to see what a planet or moon has to offer creates a sort of tension with the urge to fly off to space driven by the game mechanics. Such tension is one of the appeals of the game, since otherwise the race to complete the journey to the center of the galaxy would be boring and pointless. Ephemerality saves the day. Whether this works in the long run will only be known with time.
*UPDATE: Hello Games just released a major content patch that allows (but does not force you to) a less ephemeral gameplay, including base-buiding and claiming a planet for your own. Good news for the game!