A Quintillion Worlds
Why No Man’s Sky is a unique and, ultimately, brilliant game; a meditation through exploration.
No Man’s Sky is a procedurally generated deterministic open universe survival game with over 18 quintillion planets to explore, on which players extract resources, build bases, vehicles, and unlock esoteric secrets. Its production was announced in 2013 and it was officially first released in 2016 to enormous fanfare, hype, and—tragically—disappointment.
At the time I did not follow the fate of this game too closely. It is not the type of game that excites me. But I do recall hearing that if successful, its procedurally generated features could change all of gaming, in every genre. That it was expected to be unlike anything else before. These expectations were extreme for what entered life as an indie project by Hello Games before being taken up by Sony and reimagined as a AAA game, with a AAA price tag. And what became retroactively clear was that these factors all conspired against it.
I cannot speak to the games original release. Most affirm its status as a disaster, although I have spoken to some with a great affection for the eerie calmness of the No Man’s Sky universe back then. It was absolutely not what was advertised, but for a dedicated few merited in itself. These first champions of the game saw something in it, and their insight has been validated. It is likely the case that had it stayed indie, and had it been given a later release, it would have been received much kindlier.
What does also seem to be the case, however, is a growing consensus that the developers have now made good on some of the initial promises. And it was hearing of this fact that motivated me to buy a copy on Steam while it was on sale (perhaps because of the amount of production and updates that still goes into it, the normal price tag remains quite high). And what I discovered, outside of all the hype and history, is something genuinely special. Something that caused me to set aside the fact that, as mentioned, it is not the type of game that usually excites me.
Since I started playing, I felt compelled to get online and tell everyone my various experiences. It is rare for a game to enthuse such a need to share. I took to Twitter when I was able to leave the first planet after three and a half hours of aimlessly mulling about; yet again when I constructed and traversed my first portal to a nearby space station I had previously visited, and after over eight hours of gameplay, when I at last traversed from one solar system to another. No Man’s Sky makes every little step feel like an achievement (even if it is all, in fact, quite relaxed) and teaches you the game a bit at a time, so that it becomes intuitive despite offering so many options and menus.
Travelling through portals results in this psychedelic 70s type graphic. So much of the feel of the game is of that decade, especially its colour palette. The primary reds, blues, electric greens, the light browns and vivid whites, all truly stand out in an age when so much science fiction has accepted the mandate of drabness as a pass to being taken seriously. The game itself, in its scope and ethos, feels very 90s however. The attention to detail over user friendliness, albeit softened by just enough handholding in the game’s short story. There is a learning curve to it all that keeps you going. And then just lovely chance finds that reward endurance.
During my time in just the first galaxy in which I found myself (I was first deposited on a resource rich, burning world) I swum with aliens, discovered civilisations, was attacked by horrors and much more besides. But most of the time I just trekked new environments and absorbed them. I love that different planets have different soundscapes. I love that there is a real feel to entering and leaving planetary atmospheres.
I really like the diverse biomes. There is always enough going on that it cannot get dull, but just walking is such a pleasure. The underground portions are euphoric; iridescent plant life grows in these depths, complemented by glowing rocks to create spectacular chiaroscuro visuals. The flora is spectacular, but the fauna is also notable and in the behaviours of the animals, the abundance of sea, air and land beasts, everywhere feels so completely alive.
The scope of the game gives your presence so much weight and yet an uncanny lightness too. You are in your own little portion of the universe, and you are changing that universe in profound ways, but in the context of such a vast amount of space it barely registers to the game itself. That gives the game a kind of philosophy that it would otherwise lack. That is, your significance and insignificance are experienced as in a state of tension, as the universe continues around you, encompasses you. No Man’s Sky is a kind of meditation in game form.
For all the reasons I have given, this title is my favourite redemption story in gaming. It is a game that has grown into itself. And I hope that its example can now be followed, even if its birth was a complicated and unhappy one. This is a game that takes seriously the potential for a holistic experience of gaming, that is not just a bundle of tried and tested elements designed to gratify familiar wants. It is 18 quintillion worlds and it deserves every explorer it gets.
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