Picture a sight that catches your eye, captures your imagination. Whatever you were doing, you stopped dead in this specific spot. It’s more than just the place, though. It’s a random confluence of things; a vantage point, a moment in time, a state of mind… If you returned to this exact spot another time – with different lighting, different background noises, different expectations – you might not be able to replicate the experience. It’s gone. You could try to picture it in your mind, describe it to someone, or even take a photo, but it will always be a few steps removed from the real thing, an interpretation, fragment, or memory. But this ephemerality gives that unique point in time and space its meaning and value in the first place; if it was easily replicable, it would become a commodity, something to use, or to ignore, at one’s leisure.
No Man’s Sky has countless weaknesses, but it captures this experience of beauty found and lost like no other game I can think of. As a planet-hopping space traveller, your quest of exploration pushes you ever forward. And as important as discovery may be, the true strength of No Man’s Sky, I think, is the flipside of the promise of a near-infinite cosmos: the fact that each time you dive further into the unknown, you have to leave something behind.
In an industry and culture so obsessed with quantifiable excitement and pandering fantasies, it seems natural that most discourses around No Man’s Sky, be it in promo material, journalism or consumer’s discussions, orbit largely around the thrill of discovery, and how quickly it wears off. Having discovered something, it quickly becomes familiar and dull, propelling the player to discard the old and turn to something new and exciting. From this impatient, always forward-looking perspective, No Man’s Sky is bound to disappoint.
Because No Man’s Sky works best if you are willing to slow down for a few moments and appreciate what you have in front of you right now, what you will have to let go. After all, sometimes you have to stop and smell an alien world’s flower-analogues.
A couple of interstellar jumps into the game, I discovered a planet of calm grasslands and forests punctuated by fantastically twisted rock formations. The last planet I visited was a frozen wasteland. The one before that an abject hellhole with an atmosphere of combustible dust, near-constant fire storms that had me desperately burrowing into the stone for shelter every few minutes, as well as flesh-eating dinosaurs and furious sentinels. My new, more hospitable find was a haven, and I took my time exploring it, even though there were few valuable resources to find; I was hunting sights, not treasures. In the middle of a large plain surrounded by mountain ranges, I stumbled upon this secluded spot, half-hidden by treetops and rocks:
It’s a small forest on lowered ground, surrounded by a natural wall of rock, and covered by an outlandish, tongue-like precipice. Next to it, there’s some sort of tall obelisk, as well as a small mountain hiding a cave entrance beneath a toothed roof. It immediately caught my eye, given that I’d never seen a similar configuration before or since. I explored the small place thoroughly, looking at it from all angles and at all times of the day, taking too many pictures (as always). There are many breath-taking sights to be found in No Man’s Sky, but this one was more intimate than most, a haven within a haven. If base building were (already) part of the game, I probably would have built one right there, in the shadows of the stone tongue. But of course, staying in one place isn’t really the point of the game, and so I soon journeyed on to the next planet.
However beautiful that place is, the most interesting fact about it is this: I know, for a fact, that I am the first being that ever saw it – and perhaps, even more mind-blowingly, the last one as well. This particular planet manifested itself for the first time when my ship landed on its surface. It was there before, in some more abstract sense, as a potential, but my going there realised it, made it visible and explorable for the first time. There is no designer in a traditional sense that created it for me to see and therefore had prior knowledge of it. And due to the staggering number of stars in the game, it is entirely possible that no one will ever land on this planet again.
And even if someone will, what are the chances they’re going to happen upon this tiny, secluded spot on an enormous planet? And even if somebody did, perhaps they wouldn’t consider it noteworthy. Perhaps they would rush right past the tongue and the shelter it offers, and go looking for plutonium crystals in the cave. It’s much more likely, however, that it will remain unseen. Even I, should I retrace my way back to this planet at some point, probably wouldn’t manage to find this place again. The screenshots in this article might be the last glimpse anyone is ever going to see of it.
Carl Sagan said: “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” No Man’s Sky places the player in a universe that is, in a very real sense, unknown even to its creators, unknown in a way that few other things created by humans are. The player’s eyes and drive towards exploration is a way for the game to know itself, to move from potential towards actuality, if only partially.
There are many procedurally generated virtual worlds that are more ephemeral than those of No Man’s Sky; they may create entirely new worlds with every new game, change dramatically before the player’s eyes, irrecoverably delete and re-generate themselves. A given world or sight might have been created entirely for you for a few minutes, before vanishing forever.
By contrast, the worlds of No Man’s Sky are more solid and constant; they remain (or create the illusion of remaining) out there to be returned to or rediscovered by other players. You may remember where they are, find them on your star chart or your planet inventory. It doesn’t matter how immense the distances between you and the planet become, or whether you or anyone else will ever lay eyes on it again; they are still there, a bare potentiality again, but nevertheless existing.
Still, No Man’s Sky is better at emphasising the ephemeral than most other procedural worlds. After all, it is the act of leaving behind that really drives home the fleeting nature of your experiences. If a procedural world is changed or deleted after a certain amount of time or a player’s failure to achieve some goal, there has been no decision on the player’s part to move on. And if a world vanishes as soon as the player turns their back on it, it can’t be left behind, since there really is nothing left of it.
In No Man’s Sky, there is no urgency, nothing to drive the player onwards but their own curiosity (or greed, but more about that later). They can remain on a planet for minutes or for hours, but ultimately it is their decision to turn their backs on it and move on. The decision feels weighty, not just because you may never find your way back to a specific solar system, but also because the game emphasises transitions so well. Entering your spaceship and traversing immense distances after hours spent mostly on your own two feet walking oh so slowly on a planet’s surface and finally landing on a planet that looks entirely different from the last one; all of it drives home the idea of moving on. It’s like the turning of a page at the end of a chapter: a distinct, routine movement that marks a break, yet also directly flows into the next part. There’s certainly expectation in this transition, but it’s also a short pause that opens a space for retrospection, giving you the time to recognise that in moving on there is also abandonment.
The journey through an immense procedurally generated, constant galaxy is one of the main strengths of No Man’s Sky. Yet it would mean little if the planets themselves wouldn’t be able to afford the player scenes of beauty that feel significant by virtue of their distinctiveness. It is true that the number of building blocks is limited enough that some of them will start to repeat after just a handful of planets; yet adopting this narrow perspective would mean missing the forest for its trees, since the ways these blocks can be combined to produce striking landscapes is enormous. For every planet I found that was ‘merely’ very pretty, there were at the very least two that would make me take in their landscapes in entranced disbelief, and compulsively hit F12 like an embarrassing caricature of a space tourist.
There was a desert with deep valleys from which rose forests of stone pillars, tops covered in cacti. There was a tiny moon overgrown with frozen pine trees, over which loomed the giant planet around which it orbited. There was an ominous, grey-blackish wasteland dotted with the ruins of an ancient civilisation that looked like the planet from Ridley Scott’s Alien. There was an enormous but shallow ocean full of twisting, entangled underwater caves in which I nearly drowned. There was a brownish-red, forested savannah, inhabited by shy porcupine bears, with gentle slopes, small, turquoise lakes, and spherical rocks strewn around everywhere like some giant’s marbles.
And sometimes you have to move fast to get to the screenshot shortcut in time, because many of these planet’s most striking moments are fleeting. A group of spaceships racing across the sky, a sunrise stretching shadows and painting the landscapes in fresh colours, a snow storm surprising a family of large deer-like creatures that wandered on a frozen plain… All of these things would be easy to miss, but witnessing them by accident or through patience has a strong effect on the otherwise static landscapes. It would be difficult to leave a planet without at least a handful of vivid impressions.
Still, despite the effectiveness of its landscapes, I can’t help but wonder what could have been if the developers had been more audacious with their algorithms, allowing the emergence of worlds that could be truly sublime in their complete indifference to the player. Unfortunately, No Man’s Sky plays it safe so as not to inconvenience the player (watch Noah Caldwell-Gervais’ excellent critique for more on that topic). Yes, it is remarkable how No Man’s Sky manages to create landscapes that feel unique even though they share many structural similarities. Imagine, however, if its landscape creation was truly wild and unpredictable, resulting in worlds that were more unique, more exciting to discover - and even more difficult to leave behind.
This is not the only way No Man’s Sky sabotages its own potential. Why are you forced to open your inventory at least every few minutes if the game wants you to appreciate its alien landscapes? Why are you encouraged, even compelled, to mine shitloads of resources, to exploit an environment that was presented to you as something to marvel at? The basic loop of gathering resources to buy bigger ships to be able to gather more resources seems like a misfit. It’s not so much a survival game, as it’s often been called, but a game of exploitative pioneering. It undermines the far more compelling image of the lonely wanderer, drifting from place to place, catching impressions on the fly, and leaving planets behind not as places bled dry of resources, but as memories of fleeting beauty.
At the centre of the Christopher Nolan film Interstellar is the conceit of the importance of letting go that equates the emotional and the physical. Sometimes it’s affection for other people that threatens to weigh the characters down, other times it is actual, physical mass. People, relationships, equipment, and finally even Earth, are left behind in order to be able to move on. The necessity to leave places behind in No Man’s Sky mirrors this need to let go, to make sacrifices, but the way progress is measured is completely at odds with this. Instead of scraping by and being asked to leave things behind that may weigh you down, there is, as in so many other games, only an endless loop of gathering and hoarding, of mercantile profiteering and exploitation.
Imagine if No Man’s Sky had fully recognised its own strengths and tried to make its diverse parts harmonise, or even resonate. Imagine if it had been a little more focused. It could have been a masterpiece. As it is, it is a wonderful mess full of potential that often needs the help of a player’s indulging and patient imagination in order to shine.
Still, there’s nothing quite like it if you are overcome by the urge to visit a virtual cosmos as an eye forever voyaging, seeing wonders and leaving them behind.