Journey vs. Reward in No Man’s Sky and Beyond

We all know how games end. You defeat the bad guy. You save the world, or rescue the princess; your hero gets their happily ever after and you get the satisfaction of victory. You beat a game; you win it.

But sometimes a game comes along that doesn’t adhere to this model. Most recent of these was No Man’s Sky.

Spoilers follow!

The goal of No Man’s Sky is, ostensibly, to reach the centre of the galaxy. This is a huge undertaking in a game featuring 18 quintillion procedurally generated planets, but it’s possible with the right application of time and effort. The game shows you the way–if that’s where you want to go–but it in no way rushes you or forces you to travel that way at all. In fact, its systems and mechanics encourage far more casual play, exploring the various star systems and planets and very gradually wending your way to the centre without any hurry or stress.

But, assuming that you want to move in the direction of the end game, however slowly, you will eventually find yourself at the centre. And then you’ll immediately find yourself sent back to the beginning of the game.

No Man’s Sky doesn’t end. It repeats, apparently infinitely. And some players are left extremely unsatisfied by this. A popular argument is that “it doesn’t give you any sense of achievement.” It’s been called “futile” and “the most anti-climactic thing ever.” Comments on YouTube videos showing the events that unfold don’t bear repeating.

Yet when I heard about this aspect of No Man’s Sky (I haven’t yet had the time to experience it myself in-game), it seemed perfectly fitting. Not, as so many have said, a embodiment of the game’s problems, but rather as a demonstration of its core message: it’s not the destination that matters, but the journey.

There are fewer suggestions out there for what should have happened to players who made it to the centre of the galaxy, but those that I could find all centre on some kind of reward. Perhaps the oft-talked about multiplayer is only accessible to these dedicated travellers, or the player ought to be transported to a model of our solar system that can be explored and populated, or, ultimately, anything less “disappointing.”

I understand the drive behind these criticisms. It’s incredibly rare to run into a game that has no clearly delineated reward for completing it. It’s rarer still to find one where there is no complete state at all. Players have come to expect some kind of closure from their games, and these suggestions would provide that. But No Man’s Sky’s subversion of the standard game narrative is one of the things that makes it so compelling.

Though it goes against traditional video game wisdom, it joins a long history of varied narrative structures from other mediums. Books, television, film, theatre: these forms of storytelling do not labour under the same weight of expectations, and it spurs story arcs that have more to say than the standard “saved the world, got the girl, went home happy” or similar “satisfactory” closure does. An Inspector Calls became a classic by invoking the same cyclical structure as No Man’s Sky does, thereby inviting theatre goers to consider the implications of this repetition on the way the Birling family process their guilt. 1984 ends with protagonist Winston reprogrammed to fall in with the Party’s line, as a message about the resilience of totalitarianism. And Hamilton would never pack the same emotional punch and complicated discussion of legacy had the real Alexander Hamilton’s life not followed such a path of rise before tumbling decline.

In all these cases and so many more, narratives that are less immediately satisfying than simple victory states have meaning. In No Man’s Sky, the zooming out to the edge of the galaxy can be interpreted as a tale of simulated universes or a musing on the shape of space-time–sci-fi concepts that No Man’s Sky flirts with. But where No Man’s Sky shines is as a huge, beautiful, meditative space, and in catapulting the player back to the edge of that space, it forces them to reconsider the purpose of their play in this context.

You made it all the way here. You experienced hundreds of planets with wide open skies and vistas, caves and lakes and oceans, and everything from alien dinosaurs to dogs to dragonflies. There was, presumably, something that kept you going beyond the desire to slog your way to the centre. (If it was not, in and of itself, worth it, then that is a separate problem.)

The journey of No Man’s Sky is its own reward. Its ending–or lack thereof–is the only way to properly showcase that. There is no closure but the one that you find yourself, just as there are minimal quests, mechanics, and even purpose throughout. The ending, like the beginning and the long middle, is about inviting the player to find their own meaning in the vastness of space.

I’m not here to defend everything that Sean Murray, Hello Games, or Sony said during No Man’s Sky’s marketing campaign. But when Murray said that “there’s something amazing when you get to the centre,” he was right. There’s a deeply meaningful message in this exceptional departure from the norm.

Jay Castello
Jay is a freelance writer who specialises in cultural examinations of video games. You can find her on Twitter @jayplaysthings.
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Jay Castello
Jay is a freelance writer who specialises in cultural examinations of video games. You can find her on Twitter @jayplaysthings.

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