System Shack is NME’s new column that explores the mechanics behind the industry’s most successful games. This week, Rick Lane builds a house of cards in No Man’s Sky.
Every year or so, I reinstall No Man’s Sky and start a new game. This is partly because I want to see what’s changed, what new and exciting features Hello Games has added in its obscene run of post-release support for the procedural space sim. Every year I enjoy the game more than I did previously. Yet no matter what Hello Games adds to its now hugely diverse universe, be it freighters, alien derelicts or space whales, there’s still something about the game that doesn’t quite click.
It would be easy to dismiss No Man’s Sky as simply not being for me. But that’s the thing. No Man’s Sky is completely for me. A game that lets you explore a vast, colourful and remarkably diverse galaxy, where you chart stars and planets, flora and fauna while seeking to unravel a mystery at the heart of the universe? No Man’s Sky couldn’t be more for me if it arrived on my doorstep with a crate of lager and a punnet of chicken madras. The premise speaks directly to my soul, and yet it always feels like there’s a barrier between me and truly enjoying it whenever I play.
Given how much No Man’s Sky has changed, there’s only one area where this barrier can really reside – the crafting system. While Hello Games had added a vast amount of content around the edges of No Man’s Sky, the core loop of the game has remained roughly intact. And for everything that No Man’s Sky does well – and full credit to the game, it does a lot well – there’s something fundamentally unsatisfying about how it handles crafting.
On the face of it, No Man’s Sky’s crafting is little different from other crafting systems. You take resources from the world, combine them with other scavenged bits to make new items, and then use those items to create new equipment, fuel existing equipment, and so forth. But there are subtle differences in how Hello Games implement these ideas that dramatically affect the sensation of crafting.
At the heart of this are the game’s menu cards. Every resource and item you collect from the game world is turned into a card icon when represented in your inventory. Crafting in the game involves moving these cards between different menus, combining them to create new cards, and then installing them into menu slots to upgrade ships, weapons, tools, etc. The problem with this system is it means nearly every interaction happens inside the menu rather than in the game itself. Actions like upgrading a weapon, refuelling your starship, and replenishing your suit’s oxygen is all done in a series of similar menu screens, putting a barrier between you and the incredible worlds that No Man’s Sky has you explore.
Hello Games is clearly aware of this problem, and over the years has added various new features to make crafting a bit more physical. The building systems introduced in the Foundations update is an obvious example, but there are also smaller features like the refiner, which you place in the world to convert raw materials into more advanced compounds. But operating the refiner still requires the use of a menu overlay, where you insert cards in one end and pull new cards out of the other.
This interactive distancing is far from the only issue with No Man’s Sky’s crafting system. Turning every item into a card means they’re all uniformly shaped, which makes it harder to identify specific resources in your inventory at-a-glance (compare this to Minecraft, where every item icon matches its shape in the game world. No Man’s Sky also commits to a semi-scientific naming convention for its resources, which can make learning crafting recipes difficult. Just call it ‘iron’, Hello Games, you’re not fooling anyone with this ‘ferrite’ nonsense.
Even the basic action of collecting resources has a distancing effect to it, as it requires you to hold down a button while an icon timer ticks down. Not only does this lack the physicality of, say, chopping down a tree or yanking a plant from the ground. Since No Man’s Sky uses the same context-sensitive action for almost everything, whether that’s climbing into your spaceship or chatting with an alien, it means there’s no tactile difference between these actions. The game’s planets may look wildly different, but they feel homogenous.
The result of all this is a crafting system that’s flat, unintuitive, and serves to pull you out of the experience rather than reeling you further in. Despite the improvements made by Hello Games’ many updates, these updates have also placed greater emphasis on a crafting system that wasn’t really designed to sustain that level of complexity. As a result, No Man’s Sky’s incredible universe is often viewed not through the canopy of your spaceship, but through the translucent rectangle of the game’s inventory screen.
No Man’s Sky is out now. It has been for six years, even.