It has been a swift, rocky descent for “No Man’s Sky” — like a spaceship on fire plunging into an alien planet’s soupy atmosphere and then crashing into a jagged mountain. OK, maybe that’s an overstatement, but the game has certainly landed with a thud ever since its release for Windows computers and PlayStation 4 two months ago, and the story behind it is a cautionary tale in how far we have to go before video games are treated seriously by the journalists and critics who cover them.
If you’re not familiar with the title, it is a space simulator that employs procedural-generation wizardry (that is, creating levels and worlds through a partially randomized algorithm), theoretically allowing the player to explore an astounding 18,500,000,000,000,000,000 planets. The problem is that a big chunk of the most exciting stuff developer Hello Games touted during the game’s crescendo of pre-release hype, from multiplayer features to various graphical bells and whistles, appears to be simply absent from the game itself. This led to an instant consumer backlash which reached its peak — or, if you’re Hello Games, its nadir — late last month, when the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority told Polygon that, as a result of player complaints, it was opening an investigation into whether “No Man’s Sky” had been falsely advertised. This is not a common outcome for such a hotly anticipated game.
But this is an unusual situation. As Polygon’s Allegra Frank reported: “The game was touted as a sprawling, procedurally generated adventure through the galaxy; players have found the finished product to be less than what they were expecting, with mixed reviews and an especially vocal player base calling out Hello Games for No Man’s Sky’s ‘false promises.’ ” The anger has been leavened with some humor as well: In one particularly brutal — and funny — YouTube video, a glorious prerelease film of alien dinosaurs from the game is set against the soaring score to “Jurassic Park”; then, actual footage of a goofy, awkward looking alien-dinosaur from the finished game is shown with that same score played on a kazoo.
The whole thing is a mess. And part of the problem is that those of us who write about games professionally may have not yet adopted the proper norms for handling torrents of corporate hype, particularly when that hype surrounds a product we — people who write about video games tend to be video game fans — are excited about, too.
It would be an interesting project for someone — maybe a games or media studies PhD student — to look back and examine how the gaming community, fans, critics, and everyone else helped set the stage for this disappointment. Had journalists asked certain questions at certain times, perhaps it would have been more difficult for Hello Games to make promises it couldn’t deliver on. People were so sure this was going to be a revolutionary game (and it still is, in a strictly technological sense), their skepticism took a backseat.
The best outcome: The next time a “No Man’s Sky” is in the works, everyone should learn their lesson and not give in to irrational exuberance. That is, remember that the developers have an interest in allowing the hype train to reach dangerous speeds. If you’re a journalist, ask them tough questions. Realistically, though? This isn’t the first time it’s happened, and it probably won’t be the last. That’s just what hype does.Jesse Singal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.