Everybody starts somewhere different. This is the point of the game. I happened to materialize amongst crimson flowers, on a small plateau overlooking a canyon filled with fat green trees whose leaves glowed neon in the light of a distant sun. The clouds overhead were greenish yellow, the sky a greenish blue. Squidly-looking alien creatures floated lazily by. My ship sat smoking next to me, presumably having been damaged in whatever crash had stranded me here.
The first goal was obviously to fix the ship. I set out into the canyon in search of resources, armed with my trusty mining ray, using its tractor beam to extract hunks of iron and shards of glowing plutonium from the ground. Brilliant blue flowers sprouted platinum, and thamium9 grew like red eggplants in the shade of boulders. Finally, I came across the heridium I was after, glowing blue towers of the stuff standing forty or fifty feet above my head. With my mining ray I harvested what I needed, and then on a whim I used the beam to carve a face in the silicate crystal, making the thing resemble a grinning iridescent skull. I had left my mark on the universe. Satisfied, I headed back to repair my ship, which I would soon pilot up and away from this strange alien world.
This was my opening to No Man’s Sky, the highly anticipated game from the indie developer Hello Studios, picked up and pushed by Sony, and released this past Tuesday. The game’s big draw is its expanse–a procedurally generated universe that promises to be larger than anybody could ever hope to explore, filled with a near-infinite supply planets that pop fully-formed into existence as you come across them. These planets can be named, and their coordinates shared, to be discovered by other players, though Sean Murray, the game’s lead developer says the universe is so big that the chances of ever running across another person are “pretty much zero.”
The idea of a massive explorable universe is an alluring concept, and one that’s been tried before many times, to varying degrees of success. No Man’s Sky’s closest analogue I can think of is Spore, a 2008 release in which the player could design a creature and control its evolution from microorganism to spacefaring society. Spore’s creature creator tool was powerful and fun to play with, but it seemed that with each evolutionary phase after that, the gameplay got more and more abstract, and by the endgame space stage it didn’t really feel as though there was all that much left worth doing. This was my biggest concern going into No Man’s Sky–that despite its size, it would slip into a similar realm of procedurally generated boringness.
To avoid this problem, most other games boasting big open universes use that simulated space as the backdrop for an intergalactic war for all existence, a la Mass Effect. If there is resource gathering involved, it’s typically secondary to the creation of a multiplayer economy, a mechanic most infamously central to Eve Online. Much of No Man’s Sky consists of mining various elements to keep yourself alive, and then to upgrade your equipment, but all of this collecting still seems focused towards the game’s ultimate goal, which is your slow progression onwards and inwards, towards the center of the universe. Without much urgency to this directive, however, flying among the stars to the Brian Eno-esque soundtrack is actually pretty relaxing.
Dotted throughout the landscapes are little installations inhabited by lone creatures who jabber at you in their alien languages, words of which you can learn through exploration. If you say the right things, the aliens will give you stuff. Their buildings also contain trading posts where you can buy and sell resources on the intergalactic stock exchange. Other ships fly through space, small craft like your own as well as big freighters hauling loads of ore across the solar systems, all of which you can raid if you’re feeling up to a fight. Huge geometric space stations float in each solar system like god-sized dice, but though ships go in and out, the stations are unsettlingly empty. I still haven’t seen more than one alien at a time.
That there are no cities or towns makes the planets seem strangely uninhabited as well. There’s an underlying sense of loneliness to the game. I found myself wondering what happened to the seats of these trans-galactic empires, the world-cities teeming with life, the orbital settlements built to house the kind of explosive populations one would think would be necessary to sustain a spacefaring civilization. It seems like something has been lost, like this universe suffered some great forgotten cataclysm, and that the species still living are simply scavenging what they can, using the technology they find without fully understanding where it comes from. The feeling is heightened by a scattering of monolithic ruins waiting to be discovered. These sites contain relics that reveal heady aphorisms when examined, things like:
The Atlas Interfaces drift alone in the endless void. They are silent. They are unknowable fragments of an ancient whole. Yet their imprint on time and space molds our existences. They are the equation, and life is its answer. Through their Monoliths they give understanding to their boundless meaning, and that of our own.
Elon Musk apparently asked Sean Murray at one point if he thought that our own universe was a procedurally generated simulation, a proposition that actually makes a lot of sense if you think about it. Our existence could be viewed as a series of states being determined anew every moment along lines of causality that we can only hope to approximate with theoretical mathematics and vague intuitions. It’s somehow unsurprising that we’ve always been fascinated with the recursive act of creating our own microcosmic universes inside this bigger one, a kind of rudimentary way of measuring the strength of our little equations against that singular one whose answer is everything.
Our problem is still one of diversity. After visiting forty or fifty planets in No Man’s Sky, the procedural generation begins to wear thin, exposing the underlying mechanics and revealing the limits of what it can conjure into being. Still, what the game has to offer is alluringly beautiful: the soft lines and vibrant hues, the creamy orange supernovas and planets of purple rock, where sentient fungi hop aimlessly around giant hunks of gold. The simple geometric structures you discover stand as Kubrickian testaments to whatever came before, messages transmitted in the simple, mathematical signifiers of polygonal forms. The thrill of their discovery offsets the pervasive loneliness of the landscapes, balancing out into a melancholy yet rewarding sense of duty toward your explorations. I can already tell that its endlessness will be its downfall, the slow way in which the excitement of games like this glosses over into predictable tedium, but for now, No Man’s Sky has me looking up, eyes wide for whatever’s next to appear, just over the horizon’s distant draw.