This entire editorial started when I asked myself, “why am I completely okay with the experience of Abzû, but not No Man’s Sky?” Both games focus on making exploration an experience with subtle hints of a greater mystery, but No Man’s Sky falls remarkably short. I believe the difference lies in audio, visuals, and how each game deals with boredom.
The music and sounds of Abzû are soft and soothing, swelling occasionally to signal a significant moment. The music, composed by Austin Wintory, has been described as one of the best soundtracks since Journey (which was also composed by the same man).
It is composed mostly of wind instruments, piano, and violin. All of which was recorded underwater, to make it even more authentic and brilliant. As such, the music compliments perfectly the awe and mystery the visuals inspire in the player. Be it the near silence of meditation, or the exciting swell as you ride a fast current.
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In contrast, No Man’s Sky music is randomly generated. Thus, if it fits what you’re doing it is by pure chance. One might argue that No Man’s Sky is an open world, there’s no telling if what a player will do will fit the music that has been randomly generated or not.
However, I must point out that you start on a planet (the kind being randomly generated) like everyone else, and must collect/craft your way to the next planet. You cannot start at the end of No Man’s Sky like you can with Breath of the Wild, any more than you can with Abzû. There are fixed points in both games that the player cannot avoid.
That said, the music in No Man’s Sky fits the game just fine. It is an echoy-synth with the occasional drum and cymbal crash that can startle any player into spilling a little Mountain Dew. It is not, however, the kind of music that invokes awe so much as sleep.
Synthetic music fits the space theme, but it does not have to be so damn boring and jumbled. Take the synthetic tones of Epic Soul Factory for example, a band that shows how very possible it is to make space-type music soft, and still awe-inspiring. No Man’s Sky’s music is flat and disarranged; not at all helped by the equally flat visuals.
Both games use very bright colors to paint their worlds, but where Abzû is the polygon version of Vangogh, with movement as effortless as the player’s swimming is, No Man’s Sky is the paint-by-numbers version of Monet, with wide landscapes and open sky but not quite the color palatte a free-hand copy can achieve.
In addition, Abzû almost forces the player to sit still and just watch through the meditation feature. This would be boring, however, Abzû‘s stunning visual movement and music settles the player into the precise mood of awe. If you did this with No Man’s Sky, players would never be able to get some of those procedurally generated animals out of their nightmares. Or be blinded by neon pink grass.
There is a kind of coherence with Abzû that cannot be achieved in No Man’s Sky, again because of the procedural generation. Though we cannot fault No Man’s Sky for bland and odd visuals, it is most definitely a factor in allowing the player to become bored in a way that will make them quit the game.
Abzû combats this kind of boredom by allowing it to happen to the player as they explore each area. If the player becomes too bored, or too curious, the next area is perfectly easy to get to. Sometimes there is a small puzzle, but nothing that is supposed to be challenging. Abzû emphasizes exploration and encourages that boredom or curiosity to push the player forward. Go through the game in five minutes or five hours, you’ll have enjoyed the awe of entering each new area regardless.
No Man’s Sky combats boredom by giving the player something to do. Only that something is as tedious as can be. Collect, reorganize inventory, collect, craft, fly a spaceship, and repeat. To be kept from boring landscapes and music by grinding for supplies is probably not the best design.
There is the mystery of the monoliths, but as it takes Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to an unexciting level. It is hardly as intriguing as Abzû‘s civilization that appears to be both advanced and ancient. Everything you find to do with the mystery in Abzû is something different, whereas the monoliths are exactly the same in appearance with a different existential message every time.
Though both games focus on the experience of exploration, Abzû is much more organized, visually stunning, and allows the player to be bored without making them want to quit the game. Abzû allows both boredom and curiosity to happen naturally.
Whereas No Man’s Sky, is a jumbled mess. The game is not going to invoke awe through techno-colored landscapes and procedurally generated flat music. Thus, it is not going to do much better by combatting boredom with insipid tasks. As such, if you too find yourself wondering why you can play a game like Abzû with absolutely no problem at all, but No Man’s Sky is just too much, now you know why.