Wednesday, September 14, 2016

No Fear of a Blank Planet

I think I've finally figured out what's missing from No Man's Sky: danger.

It's supposedly a survival game, but there's very little threat. Aggressive animals are, in my experience, very uncommon. The sentinels will, by and large, leave you alone unless provoked. Hazardous environments can be easily negated by digging a shelter with a few grenades. Resources to replenish your defences and weapons are plentiful.

Last night, for the first time in several months - maybe a year - I played The Last of Us, picking up a playthrough on Grounded difficulty. It took three attempts to figure out all the controls; I'd forgotten how to stealth-kill, how to run and how to switch weapons.

I'm at the point of the game, for reference, where Ellie first gets a gun. (I don't think that's too much of a spoiler.)

It was immediately and unrelentingly tense. On Grounded, in addition to deadlier enemies and reduced resources you lose the "hearing" ability that allows Joel to track enemies without direct line of sight. If I couldn't see a threat, I didn't know where it was - but even when I did have a specific target in mind, moving around could expose me.

Obviously a crafted experience like The Last of Us has ways of turning up the tension that a procedural game never could - like specific placement of cover and planned enemy patrol routes.

But even after several varied but grisly demises, when I knew the exact layout and patterns of the whole space, it didn't get less stressful - it almost felt more dangerous, as the pressure was put entirely on me to remember and execute the plan in the right order.

No Man's Sky, a universe of nearly infinite variety, feels inert in comparison.

How does the vast, uninhabited unknown so completely fail to inspire any sense of danger? I'm an explorer, striking out into frontier worlds devoid of civilisation (though always, disappointingly, inhabited).

Stepping out of my ship's cockpit should be a gamble. What I find should have the chance to offer more than a temporary inconvenience every few minutes where I have to dig a hole or refuel my shield.

I want to stand on a beautiful, vast and unknown planet, utterly alone and scared out of my mind about what I might discover.

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