The first time I hopped in my spaceship, I flew up through the atmosphere and found a point in space where I could look down on the world from which I’d come. I wanted to see a few things. I was deeply curious. A whole universe was promised for me to explore. I didn’t know it would all be destroyed. I can’t show you that planet now. It’s gone. It’s gone, yet I’m still exploring.
From what I remember, from those early days of playing No Man’s Sky, that first planet was three quarters full, a mottled green, with a light wisp of clouds. I looked for the poles, where the thin atmosphere’s glow faded and, finding it, set my course to land at the top of the world. Once I set down again, everything around me looked similar to the spot I’d flown away from. I had hoped it would be colder, covered in snow like a pole should be, but realistically I suspected the planet would likely consist of a single biome. I understood the limitations of generating a universe in a video game.
Still fascinated and burning with questions, I turned my attention to the sun. I charted its path and grew puzzled. I was at the pole, so the sun should not have been so high, it should have been nearer the horizon. Something was wrong. I hopped back in my ship and flew into space to observe the planet’s rotation from out there. The planet did not appear to spin. I was certain that couldn’t be right. Sean Murray, the game’s creator, spoke clearly about how each planet’s day/night cycle was generated by the physics of its orbits and rotation on its axis. He even spoke about how a planet’s distance from the sun would affect its climate.
I was very much looking forward to this, because I saw great potential for teaching kids about planetary physics. But, as I would discover, those physics did not exist. Even to this day, after two years of revisions, the planets and moons in No Man’s Sky do not orbit their suns or even rotate — they do not move at all. Instead, a day/night cycle is faked with a baffling hand wave. The sun arcs across the sky based entirely on where it was at landing. Shadows only roughly align to the sun’s apparent position. Then night falls and those shadows slowly crawl back to their starting position, like the winding of a toy. It is a very superficial replacement for physics and one that ceases to function once you leave the ground. In space, the sun is fixed and so days last forever from orbit. Maybe there is a metaphor here, but I couldn’t say what it means.
I let it go. There were other things to discover. Mountains. Grasslands. Spaceships flying in perpetual triads over planets and moons. Sometimes I would get out of my ship and so many alien creatures would appear that my processor struggled to keep up. No Man’s Sky is an astounding achievement. If nothing else, Hello Games has created a jaw-dropping space-art generator that utterly delights the boy in me who once poured over books of 1980’s Sci-Fi art. As a game, three updates along, it remains a gorgeous, meditative but abominably written mess from a narrative point of view. I love it, but I am also filled with confusion by what it is. Sean Murray, just today, posted his affection for several reviews which question whether this is a game at all. I’m okay with that. This is an amazing toy.
I’d have happily paid $60 to fly around a bunch of planets looking at aliens made from various pieces pinned together with, if not grace, then technical achievement. Examining any of these creatures for more than a moment or two is disappointing as they all share the same handful of behaviors, entirely divorced the from the worlds they inhabit. But for a moment, when you see them darting, bouncing or lumbering around, they are breathtaking. It’s best to tour lightly, and move on. If there is a subtext to this game, it is about impermanence — the sad fact that nothing lasts. The universe didn’t. Why should anything else?
The game was eventually given a story. It tells a surprisingly melancholy tale of mortality and forgetting, and a deep, desperate longing to remember, see and explore. The existential trappings are marred by an abysmal delivery. For a game that is a technical and graphical marvel, the story is delivered through a “tell don’t show” text adventure whose mechanics have nothing to do with the game.
That element only got worse when its larger story was grafted on top of what lore existed in the early universe. The mood was very much at odds with the almost goofy sense of wonder offered by a game that occasionally turns up planetfuls of what can only be described as dancing pineapples.
No Man’s Sky probably never needed a story or lore. It might have been fine for the player to take in the beauty of the universe and imagine the stories themselves. Players of open world games have grown to love emergent game play and the stories that are created around it.
No Man’s Sky’s creator has never explained anything, or provided a moment’s insight into why many so features he promised failed to materialize. For an object of exploration that is fueled by curiosity, I find it bizarre that he, or anyone, would expect that curiosity to evaporate the way those promised features did. The sun still travels a strange path.
Many fans are still stinging from what they saw as outright lies (a suit was even filed in the U.K.) and the silence that followed them. Many others blindly defend the Hello Games armed with conjecture and a near religious fervor, hanging onto any word from the team, and especially Murray. When contact was eventually made, it was in the most cryptic and oblique ways imaginable. Rather than explain any rationale, an online ARG (alternate reality game) was offered up to tease at what features might turn up in each update. The game outside No Man’s Sky continues at this very moment, consisting of clues inside clues that are as oblique and as they are un-forthcoming.
Take for example, an audio file released recently from a fictional website, offered up after certain responses were given to a fictional online “dreamer.” The audio is filtered and atomized to the point of containing little more than a few sound effects. In order to find the clue, it must be opened in audio visualizing software, which yields a string of glyph-like symbols:
When translated , it reads: “is joining your game.”
If you are flashing to shades of Ralphie in A Christmas Story, decoding his secret message to “Be sure to drunk your Ovaltine,” you’re on the right track.
All of this is in service of building hype for an update to a game two years after launch. As updates have been issued, the game has improved and grown more beautiful and interesting for it. But improving the universe came a cost: the complete and total destruction of the universe.
In order to improve things like terrain generation and the distribution of alien creatures, the math that defined the universe had to change. Even small changes to the math meant that in an instant, the universe as players knew it was wiped out and replaced by what is, in essence, an alternate reality. All of it was gone with little more than a patch note’s warning the day it happened.
I lost a beautiful moon I’d discovered and settled, with winding rivers and canyons that could have formed the backdrop of an entire game anywhere else. Meanwhile a community of hundreds had spent months working together to chart a corner of the galaxy to share their amazing discoveries. They called it a Galactic Hub. All of it was wiped away.
Was this an accident? Or part of the greater story of impermanence? Is Murray trying to teach his “followers” a lesson? Like me, the community of the Galactic Hub picked up with a collective shrug and found a new part of the galaxy to settle. There are always new planets to explore. But is it worth cataloging them? Does it matter? Looming in the background is the question of whether it will happen again. In a week’s time the NEXT update arrives, described by Hello Games as its biggest ever. Will it be accompanied by another soft apocalypse? If it does or it doesn’t, how will it work? Nobody knows, because no words of reassurance or warning have been offered. There is no way for dedicated players to prepare. Instead they live under the capricious whims of an opaque god who invites them to disentangle a mountain of cryptic clues. Thus far, months in, these have offered little more than a whiff of rings around planets. Tonight, Murray asked his followers to jump through another hoop and view a song on YouTube about a space goat a million times before a trailer will be released — an ad for a game the most loyal followers already own.
The changes with each update, it must be said, have nearly all been improvements. It isn’t as if Murray and his team aren’t trying to make things better. But if early complaints about a lack of clear (or any) communication were heard, it is hard to understand why this is the way forward. I don’t know if the complete destruction of the universe is a crime, but in criminal work a core principal is to determine means, motive and opportunity. The means here is the math and the opportunity is the update, but what is the motive?
I may sound discontent, but I’m not. On the contrary, I’ve spent hours upon hours wandering from planet to planet, taking pictures and hoping the next planet is even weirder or more beautiful. Sometimes it is. Sometimes I weary and let the game sit for a while. I’m not upset, but I am baffled. I don’t understand why no one has explained in two years what happened. It isn’t just rotating planets I wonder about, or the choice to wrap a text adventure inside the experiences. The list is long:
- Where is the infamous sand worm from the trailer?
- Why is this game under-pinned by a deeply anti-environmental, colonialist subtext?
- Why are there places to sit, everywhere, when you can’t sit down?
- Why did Murray persist in pretending players could meet, even as the first two players arrived at the same location and proved it was not possible?
- Why does it appear that every crashed ship you come across came in for a hard landing backwards?
I want to understand. Why is this game the way it is? What happened to get us here? Why were these the decisions behind the game? All of it would help to understand what is coming NEXT. Will the universe be destroyed, again?
As I said above, I can’t love a game fueled by curiosity and not be curious about it. The game’s maker knows people love a good mystery — or even a bad one, yet the biggest mystery is no closer to being solved. In a week’s time I will log in again as the game updates and who knows what will happen. Will other players be able to kill me? Will my beloved spaceship be destroyed? Will there be new wonders to explore and will others be able to help me? Some of my questions will be answered, but not the one I most want to comprehend, the why behind it all. That will surely remain unanswered and my curiosity will go on.