I've been excited for No Man's Sky since I saw that first trailer with the soaring score from 65 Days of Static, but it turns out my favorite part of the game has nothing to do with what that first glimpse promised. Like my friends at Polygon, the game overall isn't exactly what I expected, and there are plenty of unnecessary frustrations, like punishing inventory management, that muddy the experience. But the unexpected can also be joyful, and I found joy in a part of the game I didn't know was there: developing relationships with alien factions.
Few games since EverQuest have given me a true sense of smallness in a strange world, both in terms of scope and in the darkness of the world's mechanics. In EverQuest, one of the first hit MMOs, I'd often run into characters of unknown allegiance who would regard me with varying degrees of suspicion or affection. You could "consider" NPCs to judge their opinion of you, and most of them would "glower at you dubiously" until you did something to improve your station with their ilk. No Man's Sky is more sparsely populated, but like EverQuest, I found its secrets unusually compelling, especially when they involved getting to know alien species that initially regarded me with skepticism.
The beginning of 'No Man's Sky' felt more like thrownness than an amnesiac trope
The beginning of No Man's Sky could be mistaken for an amnesiac trope, but to me it felt more like thrownness — a position of determination and freedom that projected my eyes into the stars. And it was there, when I first left the planet and found myself in a Tet-like space station, I had my first alien encounter. The creature spoke to me in a language I didn't understand, but through a bit of intuition I divined its mood toward me, and in a small act of diplomacy I convinced its species to regard me with a little more fondness. I had improved my faction.
From there, I forgot all about the journey to the center of the galaxy. I forgot all about the beckoning of Atlas: a mysterious intelligence with a suspicious interest in my fate. I forgot about my childish daydream of blowing up capital ships like The Last Starfighter. I even routinely forgot about the essential resources I'd need to continue my journey. All I could think about was finding more aliens, learning their words, and filling in the gaps of our relatedness. So I scoured planetary systems for ancient relics that would unlock the secret language of space-faring strangers, hoping to know them better and feel a little less lonely in the infinite void.
I'll get to the center of the galaxy eventually. But first, I must become a citizen of galactic civilization.