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‘No Man’s Sky’: A (‘Spore’) Cautionary Tale

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It’s been about eight years since Will Wright’s Spore was released and my memories from it are still sour. I’ll admit that I was on the same bandwagon as so many other gamers. I drank the Kool-Aid and let my beliefs be swayed by all the hyper-positive media coverage. It had been built up as a combination of The Sims with building an entire universe. It would be a simulation of the creation of life itself, from the micro to macro levels. Spore would be the ultimate game if you believed all the pre-release buzz.

Once release day finally arrived (after many delays), I fired up Spore on my PC. My naivete slowly melted away and I saw the truth. The game was awful — mainly repetitive and boring. It was never going to meet the lofty standards that I had created, or rather, was told to have.

One of the few bright spots of the game -- The Cell Stage.

I had convinced one of my other friends to purchase Spore and when I called him after I had sunk a few hours into it, I was surprised by his reaction, “It’s pretty fun, I don’t know what you were expecting. I like it.” I was jealous of him. Unlike myself, he hadn’t read about Spore during its build up to release. He could be pleasantly surprised, if not impressed. Maybe Spore was actually a good game that was the victim of absurd embellishments regarding its ability and purpose. Years later, while the press surrounding No Man’s Sky, a procedurally generated space exploration game, is not as rabid — flashbacks to Spore flood my thoughts.

No Man’s Sky has been on people’s radar since it made waves as part of Sony’s 2014 E3 presentation. The game’s co-founder Sean Murray spoke of an infinite, grandiose universe that had people intrigued, myself included. Explore planets, discover life, collect resources, fight aliens, and survive in an endless Sci-Fi universe geeks have always dreamed of. It all sounded too good to be true, and hearing No Man’s Sky being described in such glowing terms triggered the whisper of a kindred spirit: Spore. And not in the best way.

Despite promises of endless space to discover, Spore’s lack of variation and predictability was mind-numbing. Thinking about the infinite scope of No Man’s Sky gives me morbid thoughts — I can’t really win or finish this game, can I? What’s the point? What’s my objective? Are all those questions why I didn’t like Spore?

There have been some successful games built around an open world of discovery, Minecraft being the most notable, but No Man’s Sky depth of customization seems to only scratch the surface of Minecraft. What’s going to keep players coming back? Other game genres keep people returning because of their competitive scene, or with an intriguing narrative. But even with No Man’s Sky’s release date approaching, there are so many questions about the game’s long-term gameplay.

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Like my time with Spore, I worry that once the aesthetics and mechanics of No Man’s Sky stop dazzling me, I’ll struggle to motivate myself to find a reason to keep playing. There comes a point when all that positive press becomes more than any game can live up to.

I admit that comparing these two titles may not seem fair, because it really isn’t, especially before No Man’s Sky comes out. While they have a similar scope and promise, their gameplay is mostly different, and the lack of context gives me some hope this upcoming game can escape Spore’s shadow. I’m still going to buy No Man’s Sky and I think it’s going to be a really fun game. I keep telling myself to be realistic about my expectations, but it’s hard to watch gameplay and not get carried away with the notion of drowning hours into an endless digital universe. But when I start up the game, maybe I should put a copy of Spore next to my monitor to remind myself to never forget the dangers of being overhyped.

No Man’s Sky is due out on August 9th on PC and PS4.


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