No Man’s Sky is a massive experiment in procedurally generated game-making. Developer Hello Games used an algorithm to spawn a game world of unprecedented size and scope. It’s packed with alien worlds — 18 quintillion planets, by the developer’s count — for players to explore on foot, and fly between in their personal spaceship.
Other developers, particularly indie game makers with small teams, have used procedurally generated environments to great effect, but never for a project of this scale. Generally, procedural generation seems to be a good option for filling in the gaps between the important parts of game development, or to make disposable levels to mix up the monotony of games you play over and over. In this case, however, it has created the game’s primary selling point, a persistent universe so large that few players will ever visit the same planets.
Technically, No Man’s Sky delivers the idea Hello Games promised — a massive sci-fi playground for you to explore. However, once you’ve spent some time poking around, it’s hard not to notice that the playground feels empty. While there are many places to find and objects to interact with on each planet, they are separated by large swaths of random and often strangely familiar territory. You may feel like you’ve experienced everything novel in No Man’s Sky’s universe after exploring only a fraction of what was created.
Where am I?
No Man’s Sky drops you onto a random planet, next to a broken ship. The game tells you to fix the ship, fly into space, then jump through hyperspace to a new solar system. From there, you are more or less on your own. Even in that tutorial phase, you can spend as little or as much time as you like on any planet.
And there’s room to wander. We can’t overstate how large No Man’s Sky is. Every planet would take hours to cross — real hours, not in-game. Over steep mountain ranges, giant underground caverns, and large oceans, there is a real sense of space, of wilderness — presumably because most of these areas weren’t made as part of a level. Each planet is separated by minutes, if not hours, of open space, which is filled with minerals, plants, creatures, and items.
Exploring those first few planets and systems is dream-like. The game’s penchant for bright, hyper-saturated colors often generates picturesque scenes that leave you aching to take a close look at everything around you. Some have sarcastically labeled No Man’s Sky a “desktop wallpaper generator,” but there’s some truth to that. I spent many hours cataloging every rock, tree, and animal on a planet with a deep purple sky and wavy, day-glo green plantlife; every time I told myself I had seen enough and should move on, I stumbled on a deeply beautiful new scene.
Have I been here before?
That sense of discovery, however, is short-lived. While No Man’s Sky may have an incomprehensible number of individually generated planets, they are all clearly bred from very similar stock. Though some planets are lush, many of them are barren, and dozens of worlds I visited were recognizably similar. Most were mountainous, with rolling hills and steep valleys. Many of them had floating islands and rock formations. Many of the plants, animals, and buildings repeated from planet to planet. Even geographic features like caverns are oddly prevalent across planets. (Most planets, I found, have at least one very large cave filled with red plutonium crystals.)
At the same time, there are common real-world environments I never saw. I never landed on a flat planet. I swam in lakes and oceans, but never found a river or creek. If there are volcanoes in No Man’s Sky, I have yet to find them.
We can’t overstate how immense No Man’s Sky feels.
The lack of resources off which the game shaped its seemingly infinite variations becomes more apparent when you encounter buildings, sentient beings, and other markings of civilization. Though they’re mostly made up of wild vegetation and mineral deposits, every planet has a light sprinkling of stone ruins from alien species, and space-age camps inhabited by their descendants. Though they come in different shapes and sizes, the structures look very similar. Every manufacturing facility is pretty much the same, and there are only a handful of different kinds of buildings and outposts to interact with. After half a dozen hours, you’ve likely experienced most of them.
Almost a year since launch, No Man’s Sky has evolved to put a larger focus on player-created content. Given the game’s scale, its impact could be seen as negligible. Players can now create their own bases and share them with friends through Steam Workshop on PC — one of the only meaningful ways the game has used internet connectivity — and more options for building these bases have been added over time. Still, it does little to change the fact that planets all begin to blend together.
That sameness, however, creates some of the game’s most powerful moments. After hopping from planet to planet and finding desert after desert after desert, dropping into the atmosphere of a planet covered almost entirely by oceans can take your breath away. Amidst the dozens of creatures, you will sometimes stumble upon one that both looks amazing and original. No one will tell you when the big moments will come. Some, like the first time you fly into space, are obvious, but I couldn’t have predicted the genuine trepidation I felt trying to approach and scan a giant hopping mushroom. This is both the greatest strength and biggest flaw of No Man’s Sky. You have to make your own fun.
Where am I going?
Your first few star systems, which you can move through in a few hours or a few dozen, several potential “paths” become clear. The most obvious of these, referred to as “the Atlas path,” imparts a thin narrative layer over your journey. The Atlas path sends players on a distinct route, which will lead you to a mysterious omnipotent power.
Following the Atlas path will bring you as close to figuring out “what’s going on” in No Man’s Sky. While the game rarely feels persistent from planet to planet, some gameplay elements like the omnipresent robot “sentinels” that fly around most planets and attack whenever they catch you mining or destroying too much of the world, do give you some sense that universe is a single, connected place.
Figuring the game out, however, is not a requirement. At various times the game also alludes to traveling through black holes to reach the center of the universe, and studying the game’s flora and fauna, as potential goals. At the same time, some of my friends and colleagues have come up with their own goals, such as making as much money as possible, learning alien languages one word at a time, decking out their ships and gear, or completely exploring planets and naming all of the creatures and plants on them. These goals seem just as engaging as the ones the game nudges you toward. If you want to spend your time collecting different ships or even building race tracks instead of reaching the game’s fabled center, you totally can.
Regardless of what path you choose, the moment-to-moment gameplay boils down to resource management. Whether you’re gathering basic materials to make more fuel for your hyperdrive, or hunting for a rare mineral so you can upgrade your shield and explore a brutally radioactive world, most of your time will be spent gathering resources, either by picking plants or breaking rocks with a mining laser. You’ll turn those resources into items or money.
Though fascinating at first, engaging intelligent aliens feels incredibly transactional. Most alien encounters are effectively small adventure game-style puzzles. There are three alien species in No Man’s Sky, each with their own language, which you can learn over time. Every conversation features a small amount of alien dialogue — if you know and individual word, it will be translated — and a contextual description with a few potential responses. Depending on what you choose, they will be happy or sad. If you choose well, you often receive an item or resource. It is clear that earning an item is the primary reason to talk to most aliens, because the game will not allow you to talk to some of them if your inventory is full.
Once you’ve seen enough planets, and the freedom of being able to travel from world to world on a whim no longer feels so whimsical, No Man’s Sky rapidly descends into tedium. There is no area of the game — no combat, no puzzles, no navigation — as stressful as the inventory management screen. Though you can store materials and supplies in your suit or on your ship, your inventory is extremely limited. You will spend more brainpower deciding what minerals to keep and what to throw away than you will on any other choice, although an update now lets you stack certain items in your ship’s inventory. The fact these choices rarely have meaningful consequences makes the time spent feel wasteful.
Why am I here?
You will, on occasion, do something other than shoot rocks with a laser. Some planets will have hostile wildlife for you to fight off, and you will meet and chat with aliens at outposts and space stations you find along the way. But these are trivialities, rather than alternative in-game “career paths.” You can steal cargo from anonymous ships, but it wouldn’t make sense to base your entire game around being a “space pirate.” While you can outfit your ship for space combat, and get in deep space dogfights, the combat itself is very simple, and the loot is similar to what you’d acquire and build through mining. The consequences of stealing — attack ships coming after you — disappears when you die or escape, unless you manage to stow your resources in your base’s containers.
This gets to the heart of what makes the game feel so empty. While vast and spectacular, No Man’s Sky’s world is completely inert. You will, as far as I know, never see two other characters talking to each other — and you’ll never feel like you’re actually interacting with any of them, either. While it is made clear that the various sentient aliens you meet represent larger civilizations, there is no connective tissue between any of them, and it doesn’t appear that they have a home world to explore. Nothing matters, save for how much space is in your inventory. That makes No Man’s Sky incredibly freeing and relaxing, but it can also make it difficult to invest in the game.
No Man’s Sky is fascinating, and is able to draw out feelings that few video games have — genuine wonder, and a sense of philosophical scale most people only encounter when thinking about “big” concepts. Unfortunately, when you take a closer look, or a longer one, those sensations fade and leave you with what will feel like a dull, repetitive sandbox to a lot of players. The first five planets of your No Man’s Sky experience will be glorious. The rest may leave you wanting more.