Games

'No Man's Sky' and the Dark Underbelly of Gaming Criticism

No Man's Sky has clearly disappointed some people, and many reviewers and commentators aren't talking about the game in front of them, but rather the ghost of the game that they desired.


No Man's Sky

Developer: Hello Games
Release Date: 2016-08-12
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For better or for worse, No Man's Sky will be one of the most divisive games of this year. A look at early reviews shows some lofty praise, like this twinfinite review saying the game is “no doubt a feat in magnificent game development”, followed by a lot criticism calling it “boring.” No Man's Sky doesn't have to be liked by every journalist. After all, the beauty of critical analysis is that different people can reach different conclusions, but the way that critics and laymen are choosing to attack No Man's Sky displays many of the problems that plague gaming criticism and journalism, specifically hype and anti-hype, price obsession, and the amount of “time” that one can spend in a game as indicators of “quality”. The problem with putting the focus on these shallow characteristics of a game is that it doesn't reveal to us anything about the game itself, only the situation surrounding the game.

The hype around No Man's Sky has been tremendous, and so has the backlash. A quick read of many popular gaming journalism sites has reviewers commenting at length about the hype surrounding No Man's Sky and whether or not the game “lives up to it”. Without a doubt, many people were excited for No Man's Sky. They imagined themselves exploring a vast and wild universe where they would never see the same thing twice. They envisioned themselves as explorers of the cosmos. The game has clearly disappointed some people, and many reviewers and commentators aren't talking about the game in front of them, but rather the ghost of the game that they desired.

But reacting to the hype and excitement gives credence to a fleeting feeling that doesn't allow the journalist an impartial look at a game. This kind of criticism is often shallow and meaningless. It doesn't add anything to one's understanding of the game even five months down the road. If, in 2021, someone picks up No Man's Sky and looks out to find what other people have said about the game, they will find a swath of commentary questioning the game in relation to what people thought it might be, but little addressing the qualities of the game itself. What will that citizen of the future gain from looking back at our current discourse? Nothing.

Having intense expectations before entering a critical viewing of a film or a reading of a book will almost always deeply affect the end opinion of said work. If you think a movie is going to suck before you see it, you will often think it sucks after, no matter what you saw. If you think a film is going to be amazing and it disappoints you, you may end up hating it. Though going in with no expectations, you may have liked it. Gaming critics should step back from expectations, just like film critics

The price of No Man's Sky at 60 dollars has been a contentious point as well, and I understand why and how it intimately relates to the hype over the game. Many players were perhaps excited for the game and pre-ordered it, only to find the game did not meet their expectations. They were disappointed and felt that they threw their money away. In a medium where the art is so expensive compared to film (which also has near universal pricing to help ease the feeling of “throwing” one's money away) or a novel, it is understandable why gamers look to the price as an important aspect of their decision to purchase a game. Yet, price is another fleeting characteristic of a game that doesn't affect its quality. Dark Souls is a great game whether or not it is five dollars, 60 dollars, or 300 dollars. Constantly discussing whether a game is worth its price point adds nothing to the critical dialogue about it. To be fair, I have seen less discourse on price for this game from critics and more from common users.

Lastly, and again very related to expectations, many people have gotten bored with No Man's Sky quickly and thus called the game poorly designed, but I wonder at what point would the game be diverse enough in its experience to warrant never losing enjoyment. I only have about ten hours in the game right now, but I am engaged with it and enjoying what it has to offer. Meanwhile, according to HowLongToBeat.com, a game like the reboot of Doom only requires eleven or twelve hours to complete. The 2016 Doom was similarly priced to No Man's Sky, but few have complained about how boring it was once there was literally no game left to play.

Since No Man's Sky is endless and recursive (in a way), there has to be a point where it becomes boring no matter how much you enjoy it. It doesn't add much to the discourse of a game to discuss at what hour it starts losing its luster. Yet, despite this, much of the discussion of No Man's Sky focuses on how long until the game starts to drag, how it doesn't live up to the hype, and how it is too expensive for its content. I get that this kind of discussion generates a lot of clicks, but it doesn't add much to the discussion of a game that is wildly different than most games that came before it. I'm not calling for critics to praise No Man's Sky. They should write with their conscience, but I would hope that their discussion revolves around the game that they have experienced, not about transient properties that won't matter in a year.

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Essayist Brian Phillips is no staunch empiricist, nor does he want to shatter delusions or expose machinations. In Impossible Owls, he is content to remain in a wide-eyed and owl-ier place.

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