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 players never have to stop exploring it.
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 fairly empty, even two years later and after massive content additions. While there are many places to find and objects to interact with on each planet, they are separated by large swaths of random, but 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 as you follow a minimalist narrative of trying to track down some strange signals that exist only for you. The first few hours of the game and the story that go with it function as the tutorial to teach you the deal with No Man’s Sky, which is that it’s mostly a game about mining components to build various technologies. The big updates since the game’s original launch have added new resources, mechanics like base-building and a larger narrative, and a lot of the early portion of the narrative is teaching you how all those new things work.
Before long, No Man’s Sky gets you off the ground and into space, and after you’ve been shown how everything works, it gives you an option. Pursue narrative objectives, or let wanderlust guide you through the void.
And there sure is 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, and are 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.
Haven’t 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.
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 from 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.
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 potential creature combinations, 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. There’s a lot to do, but you’ll have to make fun on your own.
Making that fun is a bit easier with the release of No Man’s Sky’s “NEXT” update. Two years after its launch, No Man’s Sky has evolved into a significantly more rounded product, with a big emphasis on player-created content, a multiplayer mode (finally), a more engaging narrative, and many more options to interact with the universe.
Along with the other additions, including the ability to build bases on planets that you can then teleport back to no matter where you wind up in the universe, multiplayer does a lot to make No Man’s Sky a more interesting and dynamic place for players to mess around, making more like Minecraft with spaceships. With other people, finding the fun and cool parts of No Man’s Sky takes a little less work, and the sandbox at least now has more ways to encourage exploration.
Where am I going?
In your first few star systems, which you can move through in a few hours or a few dozen, several potential “paths” become clear. You can choose to freely explore the universe, or follow the stories triggered by the weird messages you’re getting, in which you seek out the “Atlas” and learn the secrets of No Man’s Sky. The Atlas path sends players on a distinct route, which will lead you to a mysterious omnipotent power.
Following the Atlas path and interacting with the new characters added to the game through its many updates are as close to discovering “what’s going on” in No Man’s Sky as you’ll come. 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, give you some sense that universe is a single, connected place.
Figuring the what’s up with the Atlas, however, is not a requirement. No Man’s Sky offers several avenues to keep you busy in its world, beyond the original “reach the center of the universe” hook. Guilds now encourage you to go out and get into fights with space pirates, trade valuable goods, or just use your upgraded scanning visor to study the game’s flora and fauna. The addition of bases and huge freighters give you a chance to establish yourself in the universe to some degree.
The new additions flesh out No Man’s Sky to find ways of giving you something to do other than just look at planets, but with one persistent issue. They largely amount to lists of busywork to complete. Most of your goals as defined by No Man’s Sky as a variation of “collect 10 of x resource” or “kill 10 of x creature” or “build 10 of x machine.” No Man’s Sky has come a long way in giving players things to do in its universe, but they’re not imaginative or interesting tasks.
Regardless of what 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 picking plants or breaking rocks with a mining laser. You’ll turn those resources into items or money.
Most alien encounters are effectively small adventure game-style puzzles. There are four alien species in No Man’s Sky (a new one added in the “Atlas Rising” update a while ago), and three have their own languages, which you can learn over time. Every conversation features a small amount of alien dialogue — if you know an 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 or increasing your reputation among that race 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, even after two years of improvements. 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. 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, especially if you lean into the new options No Man’s Sky has added with its later updates. 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. Various guilds give you a little more of an option about what you want to do in the universe, but no system ever becomes deep or engaging. While you can outfit your ship for space combat, and get in deep space dogfights, the combat is very simple, and the loot is similar to what you’d acquire and build through mining. The consequences of fighting or 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, in many ways, 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’s 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 — especially with the ability to explore with more people, and to flip on “Creative Mode” and stop worrying about spending hours gathering junk and just mess around — 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.
Despite its updates, No Man’s Sky remains the same experience that it was at launch — just a better-realized version of it. The first five planets of your No Man’s Sky experience will be glorious. The rest may leave you wanting more.