No Man's Sky is about two things: exploring procedurally generated planets, and inventory tetris. The latter might not have been what people were expecting, but if you're playing the game, you're going to spend a lot of time shuttling elements back and forth between two inventories, deciding whether to discard some titanium in order to make room for thamium9, and trying to squeeze in enough crafted upgrades to try feel like our character is actually a spaceperson rather than a slightly lost mining robot with a penchant for taking (often beautiful) photographs.
Managing resource and artifacts can be an integral aspect of a game, from Diablo and Grimrock to NEO Scavenger, but given the amount of time and effort this aspect of No Man’s Sky takes up, is it a good game of inventory tetris?
Inventory Tetris in itself is not something I object to, and used well it can actually be a clever mechanic. In action RPGs, sorting the junk from the tat from the legendary swords serves as punctuation. In Diablo we head back to town at regular intervals to sell, salvage and stash our loot before heading out into the field for another round of slaughter. It's a natural break in what is essentially repetitive monster-bashing and while it may not be enthralling in and of itself, it performs an important function in controlling the flow of how we play, while never truly intruding on the core of the game.
In No Man's Sky the same task is simply too frequent and too restrictive. Knowledge of a near-filled inventory sits like a constant presence at the back of our minds that says, “Yes I know you’d like to explore this pretty cave some more, but it will serve no purpose and aid you no further unless you throw something else away.”
Almost every Immersive Sim game uses inventory management to some degree to create meaningful decisions. From System Shock to Deus Ex Mankind Divided, these games give us limited space - not so we can gauge how far we've come by game's end, but so we have to decide who we are in this world and how we want to approach it. Whether we're stuffing our pockets full of hacking tools, or hoarding dangerous weaponry, we're changing the ways in which we can interact with the world. The early Resident Evil games and their excellent remakes employ inventory in a similar manner, with limited space heightening the survival aspects and ensuring we never have quite enough tools at our disposal to truly feel safe.
You make these choices and sacrifices in No Man's Sky too, but they're rarely decisions that feel meaningful. Picking between a pile of plutonium that you know you'll need in 20 minutes, or a pile of gold you could sell for a trickle of income, is for the most part just frustrating. Similarly, crafting a starship or exosuit upgrade into existing inventory space can feel like taking a leap forwards and a leap backwards simultaneously. Even the one aspect of this that feels promising - grouping upgrades in your inventory for a bonus - goes bafflingly unexplained (though allow us).
Compare this meaningless item shuffle to perhaps the best recent game about inventories, NEO Scavenger. The post-apocalyptic RPG begins with you wearing a hospital gown and only able to carry what you can hold in your hand. You'll rob the first person you meet just to steal his trousers, and cheer when you discover he had a crumpled plastic bag in his pocket. Half an hour later you'll weep as that plastic bag rips, spilling your collection of empty water bottles and torn up t-shirts on the ground and damning you to likely death.
Your concern with what you're carrying and how much you can carry produces stories you want to share, while shunting you to engage with NEO Scavenger's other systems.
No Man’s Sky is not a game without pleasures. The moments of awe and the feelings of wonder are present, while the procedural generation uses limited assets to create something that often feels far greater than the sum of its parts. But as a mechanic in No Man's Sky, inventory serves as only a driving force for unsatisfying progression and a roadblock or barrier to engaging with the game's other parts. It warps the fantasy of stepping inside a scifi book cover in unpleasant ways.
In the days post-launch when my friends and I were still excitedly chattering about what we'd seen and discovered in No Man's Sky, a worrying pattern began to emerge - we started to gauge our progress based primarily on the size of our inventories. “I stayed on my starting planet because I heard it was the best way to get 30 slots in my exosuit” one friend would exclaim. With a superior snort, I'd counter “I farmed a cave for two hours and now I've got a 23 slot ship!”
Aside from casting aspersions on the character of both me and my chosen gaming companions, this anecdote highlights the shallow nature of progression in No Man's Sky. Getting a new spaceship in any space exploration game should be a moment of pride - of expanding horizons and possibilities, where the hours of toil pay off. In No Man's Sky it boils down purely to ship aesthetics and an increased inventory size. It was with some horror that I realized I'd allowed one particular ship purchase to be dictated by pragmatism, purchasing an especially ugly space hauler, simply because I could shove an extra 500 plutonium deep into its bowels.
The problem becomes more pronounced the more we play. Planets start to blur into one, as once novel scenery becomes commonplace and space creatures begin to feel like slight variations built from overly familiar constituent parts. New discoveries become few and far between and the emotions that accompany them fade into the background, but the sorting and collection of elements sadly never recede from prominence. Eventually, inventory tetris - bad inventory tetris - is all that's left.