The Lonely, Infinite Beauty of “No Man’s Sky”

After years of development and speculation, non-announcements and actual delays, No Man’s Sky is finally really here. I have never been more hyped for a game in my entire life, and I am a person who regularly plans vacation days around game releases.

So, what even is this game? The short answer is: No Man’s Sky is a survival game set in a procedurally generated sandbox universe. I didn’t really have any idea what “procedurally generated” meant before I started obsessively reading everything I could get my hands on about this game, and to be honest I still don’t totally get it, but basically: procedural generation is math. In practice, it means that instead of designing every inch of the game world, the developers create the building blocks for that world, then write an algorithm to actually put it all together.It allows for larger game worlds, since the developers don’t have to curate every inch of the map, and it allows for generation of randomized content.

It’s not new technology. Probably the most recognizable example of a game with procedurally generated worlds these days is Minecraft, but it’s been a part of game design basically forever. What procedural generation means for No Man’s Sky, and why we’re talking about it in the first place, is that it enabled an indie studio of about 15 people to create a game world of more than 18 quintillion planets.

Like, let that sink in a minute. 18 QUINTILLION.

There are more planets in this pretend universe than there are grains of sand on the actual earth. Think of how huge Skyrim seemed the first time you stepped into that world. Now imagine it 18 quintillion times as big. You can’t! The number is unfathomable, it’s too big to understand. But this is even bigger than 18 quintillion Skyrims because Skyrim was just a map and these are legit PLANETS. (And remember when they were like “See that mountain? You can GO THERE”? No Man’s Sky is like that, except with every star in the sky.) Every planet is unique, with its own procedurally generated terrain, flora and fauna. The potential of this thing just sets my imagination right off.

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So I am a very simple person; the scale of this game was enough to get me to pre-order, no questions asked. But throughout the game’s development, very reasonable people have been asking this very reasonable question: What do you do in No Man’s Sky? I’m about 10 hours into the game, and have barely scratched the surface, but here are my impressions so far.

Everybody’s game starts out the same, but also totally different. You wake up next to your crashed ship on a planet on the outer fringes of the galaxy. Everybody starts out on a different planet, with conditions ranging anywhere from Hoth to Tatooine (each planet has only one biome, to encourage players to get out and explore instead of poking around on one planet forever). No other human has ever seen this planet, and probably nobody ever will. It’s the frontier for real. You’ve got a spacesuit and a multi-tool (essentially a raygun), and your first task is to gather materials to repair your broken ship and (also to keep your life-support and multi-tool in working order.)

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My spawn planet, Budgie, named after my cat.

I think I got relatively lucky. My spawn planet was hot and toxic, but rich with resources and some pretty cool animals (I was gonna make a “Just like I like my women!” joke here, and then I wasn’t, but then I realized how perfectly this describes Martha Stewart so it’s not even really a joke anymore.) Every new thing you discover (star systems, planets, landmarks, flora and fauna) can be renamed and uploaded to the game’s central database to earn in-game currency. I have mostly named things after my cat so far, you can feel free to do the same. Her name is Budgie. More important than what you name them, is that when you discover things, you are truly discovering them. You are the first person to be where you are. The developers don’t even know exactly what’s out there, you’re teaching them about their own game. And even more importantly, you can feed the animals and they make cute noises and might dig up treasure for you.

Okay though. It’s not perfect. The plot is pretty ethereal; you find bits of lore and scraps of language here and there but there isn’t a story really. You are trying to get to the center of the galaxy, and getting there is mostly a matter of survival and resource management. It’s actually weirdly simple. Find resources to repair gear, find upgrades, find resources to build upgrades, find more resources to fuel your hyperdrive to jump to a new system, repeat repeat repeat. And that, I think, is where the love it or hate it line is going to lie.

For all the ways this game is extraordinary, the mechanics are basic as hell. The core gameplay is practically identical to the mobile game Out There, except, like, you actually see and do everything instead of clicking on a text command. It is repetitive. Inventory management is a chore until you start upgrading your carrying capacity. The controls are not entirely intuitive (sprint mapped to R3? whyyyy?) The shooting is clunky, and there’s maybe not enough of it for a lot of people. It’s not multiplayer (everybody is playing in the same universe at the same time, but it’s so big that you are rarely, if ever, going to run into another player.) The tutorial hints are somehow both obtrusive and unhelpful. These are legitimate complaints. Where most games use their world as a backdrop to story and gameplay, No Man’s Sky is using very simplistic gameplay as a gateway to get players into their worlds. It’s not going to hold up for every kind of player, but I’m unabashedly in love with it despite its flaws, because it’s FUN.

The loneliness, in my opinion, is beautiful. Knowing there are people out there somewhere but you might never meet a single soul. It’s relaxing and it’s sad, man. Just you against the universe. It feels like an honest to goodness adventure. And I guess having to climb another hill to get plutonium for the hundredth time can sometimes seem like a drag, but then you’re looking out over the ridge at a ridiculously gorgeous view, or a giant bear-crab you can name after my cat, or a crashed ship WAY COOLER than the one you’re currently pushing that you can repair to working order. You don’t even really have to climb the damn hill, either, you have a freaking jetpack. You can fly your ship around the surface of the planet to get around faster, but if you find a planet where the Sentinels (robot park rangers, kind of) aren’t too aggressive, you really want to take in as much on foot as possible.

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Nothing named Budgie here, but it’s still real pretty.

That’s how you’re going to find animals, and just SEE everything. The visuals of this game are remarkable. The aesthetic is based off ’70s sci-fi book covers, and they absolutely nailed it. Planets are closer together than they would be in real life, which makes for quicker travel (but it does not take away the feeling of vastness of space), but also gives you beautiful skies with nearby planets hanging above you just begging you to fly off and explore them. And you really can. Just get in your ship and point it upwards. Seriously, just wait until the first time you take off into space and shoot a hole through an asteroid. It’s possibly my favorite part of the whole game. Fighting off space pirates (so awesome), or trying to become one yourself (bad idea, whoops). My goodness. I feel like I’m Starbuck out there.

I think the best way I can try to recommend No Man’s Sky is to go back to the Skyrim comparison: After the main quest is done, if you put the game away and got on with your life, you will probably get bored with this game pretty quickly. But if you kept playing because you wanted to explore every cave and collect every cheese wheel, I am sorry to tell you that I have seen no cheese wheels so far, but there are PLENTY of caves. And apparently the devs are even working on an update that will let you build bases in case you get tired of being untethered in an endless universe. Probably it is too much to hope that they will add Mjoll the Lioness to live in your space house, but hey, I already told you it’s not perfect.

No Man’s Sky is exactly the game the developers promised. It is a weird little indie game that is bigger than the entire world.

(Developed by Hello Games, available now for Ps4 and releasing Friday August 12th for Windows PC.)

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Sarah lives in the Boston area and plays a lot of video games. Her interests are cats, bragging, and foods that can be eaten lying down. She has too many sneakers and not enough pants.

sarah has written 30 articles for us.

27 Comments

  1. I didn’t even know there was a number called quintillion. Sounds pretty big. I’d better go Google that. I was led to believe by my kid that scooglebonce was the biggest number, but maybe he’s been playing me this whole time.

    Anyhow, quintillion sounds like a very big number and as my wife is a massive Skyrim fan, I believe she’d be pretty stoked about this.

    So do I a) be a good wife and tell her all about it, thus losing her forever to the endless gameplay described or b) keep schtum and ensure she will still occasionally make dinner, remember to pick the kid up from school, shower?

    A thought-provoking review 🙂

    • Right now I’d say very unlikely, but they are in a psuedo-exclusive timed deal with Sony right now so they are legally not allowed to talk about what other systems they might support in the future. So it’s possible they already have an Apple port good-to-go but they need to wait 6 months to even say it out loud? Id expect Xbox before Mac, but I really have no idea.

  2. man I’ve been following this game since it was announced, but I still have the same reservations about it that other people have mentioned – what if there’s not enough to do to spend that much money on it (right now) ? I can half see loving it, but I’ve watched some of the IGN stream and you’re right the inventory management just looks like a friggin chore and they never seem to have enough room for anything. Seems weird in a game that’s about collecting and crafting stuff!

    • There’s a lot of unlearning involved in the inventory stuff? Like, there is infinite stuff, so if you need to drop things to make room, as difficult as that is to do when you are used to RPG loot hoarding, you can always get more. But if you’re worried about the price, wait for a sale, it will be just as big in a couple months!

    • Same here. If it didn’t cost 60€($) I wouldn’t have ANY worries. I just hate that price so much, it’s a lot of money!
      I know I’m gonna love playing it but I am not sure for how long. From everything I heard over the last days, I’m setting my expectations for around 30 hours. And that would be perfect for 30€ but not 60. 🙁
      But it has been so long now and I know I’ll love those first 30 hours, I just don’t want to wait anymore. It will be months, maybe even a year until it’s down to half price.
      So I’m gonna buy it. In 3 hours. And still be angry and sad about the price.

      • My feelings EXACTLY!! I very badly want to play, but considering I don’t even have time for Skyrim (or Sunless Sea, for that matter) I’m hesitant to drop $60 on it. But like you said, it’ll be a long time before it goes on sale, and even then we’re only likely to get a ~10% discount. Argh. I’m so conflicted.

        … dammit, they have a pre-purchase incentive too. I have like half an hour left to make my decision. What do?!

  3. Think of procedural generation like it’s a level of Temple Run; each level has the same stuff but it appears in a random order that the computer decides on from a pool of variables.

    In No Man’s Sky it’s obviously much more complex, because the randomisation doesn’t just affect *where( certain objects appear, but also *how* they appear (shape/colour/size/etc.) and the number of variables are astronomical. If it works, it’ll be an incredible feat of game design.

    • It really does work. Like, there are obvious repetitions in the flora, because they have some pre-set things that always yield the same resources, and that is pretty obvious. But there are so many factors they’ve considered: terrain, amount of water, color palette, weather, animals (and there is much more variability in animal generation than in plants), scale of everything, danger level (some planets have storms, some planets have more aggressive Sentinels). Every planet so far has felt entirely unique. I am so interested to see how open-world games are made in the next half-decade. I think this could really blow the scale of them wide open.

    • Yeah at this point the technology of consoles is effectively identical. The upside to Xbox is backwards compatibility with 360 games, but for me the exclusive titles for Ps4 are too compelling to ignore. This game obviously is a huge sell, but ps4 also has Horizon Zero Dawn coming next year (A chick protag fighting enormous robot dinosaurs!), and last year they had Until Dawn, which is one of my favorite recent games.

  4. Womp womp. It won’t even launch for me, and apparently the game just keeps crashing for everyone else. If they do get through, the framerate and lag are AWFUL. Not going to return because I got the preorder DLC, but if you didn’t then I’d hold off for a month or so until the initial excitement dies down and they have the chance to release some patches.

    • My dad couldn’t get it to launch at first, the devs tweeted to make sure your graphics card drivers are up to date so i had him update and that worked for him I guess because a half hour later he was asking me how to get to the options menu?

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