If I Could Talk to the Planets: On the Inviting Loneliness of ‘No Man’s Sky’

This other life forms in this game don't give a shit about you, so you might as well find your fun on the worlds instead.

|
Aug 4 2016, 7:18pm

The sky in question may belong to no man, but it's absolutely littered with planets. More than 18 quintillion of them, goes the marketing behind No Man's Sky, procedurally generated and committed to disk for everyone to slowly pull apart.

Considering the fact many games screw things up trying to produce ten interesting levels, it's understandable you might be leery about the prospect of a functionally unlimited amount of explorable worlds. But No Man's Sky has an ace up its sleeve.

Beneath the hood of the bright and inviting visuals is an algorithm that blasts flat spheres with sine waves, fills them with strange fauna and flora, gives them lakes, oceans and streams. It's an algorithm for creating life where there is none, for making worlds out of featureless orbs.

Not every planet is created equal. You might at any point land on a world filled with verdant grassland, quiet forests, or a suffocating smog that makes finding a place to set your ship down almost impossible. The surface might be too hot for you to safely walk on, or far too cold without the right gear, or perhaps the game's mathematical smarts will spit out a perfect storm of hostile landscape, lethal wildlife, and hyper-aggressive robotic guardians, the latter activated if you fight back against the animals or begin breaking down structures for raw materials. It's all a bit like riling up the cops in a GTA game, only with tiny drones dispensing red-hot-laser-beam bursts of justice.

For all the many worlds out there, though, the overwhelming tone of the game, as I'm seeing it so far (having actually played it, at a preview event in March) is loneliness. Occasionally you'll meet NPC alien races, which are the only things in the game that don't react to your presence with indifference or overt violence, but they don't even speak your language at first. Or, rather, you don't speak theirs—you'll have to learn to converse as the game progresses. They'll help or hinder you based on how well you communicate with them, but even with this limited interactivity with other humanoid, sentient life, the overwhelming feeling of disconnect between the player and relatable peers, even if they're AI, is strong.

In theory, there are other humans out there in No Man's Sky's galaxies, other gamers working toward the center of the universe—where I hope that the game's designer Sean Murray, the man who's led the shaping of this game across five years of late nights, has left a Peter Molyneux–like video for the lucky space-farer that arrives first, and to discover and name every planet, animal, and tree after their first pet, long-lost love, or favorite snack food. The thing is, this universe is so big, and so sparse, that casual players might never find a trace of another living soul. You'll maybe never meet these other players, getting to know them only by the trail of textual dick jokes worn by the many organisms they leave in their wake.

What's the point in seeing attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion or C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate if you can't do it with some company? If you want to show something you've discovered to someone else directly, you'll need to stream it or upload a video, perhaps name one of the grotesque creatures "this looks like a weird horse lol" in the hope that someone finds it a few months down the line and agrees that, yes, it does look like a weird horse. Otherwise, you might get the crushing sense of being alone in the face of this universe's sheer indifference.

So what do you do in a game world that doesn't give a shit about you?

You could always try talking to the planets. The AI entities in No Man's Sky may not care about you, and the virtual dirt might not respond, but instead of focusing on the fact the game is largely ignoring you, the player, slayer of a thousand beasts, rescuer of a thousand princesses and conqueror of a thousand video games before this one, why not try finding solace in hopping between the many worlds?

Even from my cursory flypast of the game's early stages, these worlds are as varied, characterful, and developed as any triple-A video game character, and each one's differences are plain to see as you circle above them, in search of a safe landing site. Each planet, whether teeming with life or virtually barren, has plenty to see and do. Want to explore a hole in the ground? You can do that. Want to make your own hole in the ground? Go for it. Sadly, the holes won't track for different players (fortunate, when you consider every planet is going to be scored with cocks and swastikas within hours of the game's launch) and you won't be able to leave any meaningful mark on the landscape around you. But the game more than makes up for that by giving you near-unlimited space to roam within, a ship that can land nearly anywhere and a complete lack of loading screens.

Floating through the vast emptiness of space in a vessel made for one might be lonely, but there's a certain beauty to the isolation when you're standing on a mountain no one else has ever summited, on a planet no one else has ever visited, looking out over a vista no one else has ever shared on Twitter before. I didn't really understand No Man's Sky during my springtime playtest, but now, months later and with the game out in mere days, I get the appeal.

Follow Jake Tucker on Twitter.