Nowadays it seems difficult to consider a game separately from the months or years of expectation that preceded its release. Just as science fiction is built on speculation, so too was the conversation surrounding the science-fiction video game No Man’s Sky.
Two-and-a-half years ago, the team at British developer Hello Games presented their concept for a practically infinite, procedurally generated universe containing 18 quintillion planets, and since then they’ve been suffering the consequences of that pitch’s success, faced with the task of creating a real game that would somehow measure up to thousands of different imagined ones.The core promise, at least, is unquestionably fulfilled. Every player starts on a different planet near the edge of effectively the same galaxy, generated in the same way from the same seed, but with apparently no substantial multiplayer overlap, no chance to meet. Because the galaxy is generated rather than designed, your starting planet might be hot or cold or toxic or radioactive, populated by trees or cacti or twisted vines, tinged red or yellow or green or brown or blue. But whatever the planet looks like, you’ll be able to journey across its surface and find plenty of the resources needed to fix your crashed spaceship.
Sometimes you can see this generation in action, the terrain seeming to fizzle into existence around you as you land your ship on a new planet, the underlying grid occasionally flashing before your eyes before it becomes a block of terrain instead. But once you’ve settled on the surface, the results are inevitably astounding. The algorithm’s ability to generate astonishing landscapes is somewhat reminiscent of the wonders you can find in Minecraft, but No Man’s Sky (for PlayStation 4 and PC) is much more beautiful, smoothing the edges from mountains and rocky arches and sprawling cave networks alike. Flora and fauna, too, are surprising and delightful, as creatures as strange as user creations from Maxis’ Spore frolic in forests of giant flowers. No Man’s Sky is endless screenshot bait.But, of course, Hello Games needed to add a game to its engine, to give the player plenty to do. And so, as well as the plants, animals and mineable resources, planets also feature discoverable locations, crates of supplies, ancient ruins and knowledge stones, which teach you new words in one of three alien tongues. These words help you understand the intelligent aliens you find holed up in outposts. Early discussions of No Man’s Sky suggested the galaxy would be relatively unpopulated, but in some ways this highly populated version seems lonelier. There are only two identifiable characters, who appear at intervals to help you on your path, and the rest of the aliens are necessarily non-specific, there to tell a story in a few lines of text and award you some resource: a blueprint, an upgrade, some new words, an improved relationship with their species. And despite the evidence of a vast spacefaring civilisation with its reaches in every corner of the galaxy, they’re always alone.
You earn the “units” needed to buy things by selling resources or uploading data on the planets you’ve visited and the creatures, plants, and even rocks you’ve scanned. You interact with terminals in abandoned buildings by knowing enough words in an alien language to determine which button to press. You interpret distress signals by solving simple mathematical sequences. No Man’s Sky doesn’t take itself too seriously, as is obvious the first time you come across a planet whose climate is described as “emollient” or a creature whose gender is “radical”.
These interactions are comparatively shallow, but they’re enough for now. The developers have struck a difficult balance, providing reasons to keep playing without overcomplicating things or distracting too much from the joy of exploration. To stave off boredom, they’ve made it so the hazard protection in your exosuit depletes over time, at different rates depending on the conditions of the current planet and what upgrades you’ve installed.
They’ve populated the planets with sentinel drones of varying temperaments, and the space above with occasional pirates that will target ships carrying valuable cargo. Upgrades can help – an improved shield for your ship, a longer duration for the jet pack on your exosuit, a weapon attachment for your multitool that makes quick work of drones and lets you break into abandoned buildings – but since each one takes up an inventory slot that might otherwise be used to hoard valuable resources, you have to prioritise.
No Man’s Sky is an unimaginably huge sandbox to be approached however you choose, but there are light paths a player in need of guidance can follow. Those wanting to speed towards some kind of “ending” can do so by repeating a core loop, harvesting resources and crafting warp cells, warping closer and closer to their goal, and then repeating, perhaps halting occasionally to buy a few upgrades to make their journey easier. But in a game where these overarching goals were so obviously an afterthought, that’s clearly not the best way to play.
This is the kind of game that you’ll see screenshotted all over social media, an experience made to be shared not in the direct way that some apparently envisaged , but in postcard-style snaps of places your friends will probably never go.
No Man’s Sky is a way to experience the kinds of cool moments you read about in old sci-fi novels – shoot a hole through an asteroid and fly through it, shelter in a cave to watch a deadly storm tear across an alien landscape, or make friends with a dinosaur (obviously) – all to an evocative generative soundtrack from British post-rock band 65daysofstatic. The planets you, and probably only you, will discover can be so lovely that it feels bittersweet to know that you’ll leave them behind when you jump to the next star. But then, in an essentially infinite galaxy, there’s always something new to discover.