Mankind’s fascination with the cosmos is as old as intellect itself. Cave drawings in Lascaux, France depict the Summer Triangle and Pleiades constellations along the more famous images of bulls and other animals. One can only imagine what the prehistoric artists thought when they beheld the limitless night sky.
In modern times, public and private exploration ventures have satisfied some of our curiosities about space. We are blessed to live in an era when NASA scientists can pore over images of Martian mineral deposits and venture capitalists can buy themselves a taste of rocket science.
Still, aficionados of the field envision even greater discoveries to be made and achievements to be accomplished. The realm of science fiction is mulling over, and even working towards, these aspirations.
Here, grand possibilities receive imaginative test runs, limited only by our ability to suspend disbelief. The most ambitious recent addition to this genre’s multimedia canon is a video game, one primarily focused on simulating space exploration and planetary discovery via single-occupant starship.
Explore 18 Quintillion Planets
“No Man’s Sky” began as the pet project of Sean Murray, managing director at the independent studio Hello Games. It was one of the most highly anticipated games in recent memory. Post-release, the discussion has focused on features that may or may not have been promised and then left out of the final product, as well as the ensuing frustration felt by fans who expected something different.
Even so, there’s a much deeper conversation to be had about concept and design. While the game is less action-packed, more repetitive, and not as interactive as people believed it would be, these supposed shortcomings may actually make it a better venue for meditating on the metaphysical implications of space exploration. As a science fiction title that is basically about doing nothing but discovering unknown planets, “No Man’s Sky” is as much a video game as it is commentary on man’s incessant longing to understand the universe.
Consider, to start, the size of the game’s playable area. It is indeed a proper universe made up of more than 18 quintillion planets. (Our own universe is thought to contain 10^24 planets. This is a notable step up in magnitude, though perhaps the difference between “mindbogglingly large” and “unfathomably massive” has no practical significance.) The popularity of a game whose scope even approaches that of our own universe is an indication of people’s existential yearnings. Players are describing it as both beautiful and lonely, a combination akin to real space exploration.
The number 18 quintillion is wont to inspire a certain angst in its beholders. No one can possibly visit every single planet in “No Man’s Sky,” which is equally stressful for completionists and for daydreamers who stop to marvel that a single man-made thing can be so large.
Why would Hello Games even make a game so large that most of it will never actually be played? Maybe because in doing so, they have made their simulation all the more immersive. Even in the domain of nonfiction, scientists doubt that we will ever know just how big the universe is, let alone visit its farthest reaches. (At least, not without turning into the Starchild first.) A game that closely mirrors reality allows for a better examination of it.
A Work of Science Fiction
The universe in “No Man’s Sky” is also remarkably similar in structure to our own. Each planet in the game is algorithmically populated by unique plants, animals, and topography. The computational process by which this takes place, known as procedural generation, lends itself heavily to the proposition that all life and reality originates in mathematical processes.
If a team of software developers were able to coax their computers into automatically producing a universe fully populated by quintillions of living, breathing ecologies, it is that much easier to believe a higher power employed similar (but not the same) methods to create our own cosmos. In this way, “No Man’s Sky” as a piece of science fiction speaks to humanity’s eternal questions of how life is created and whether we are alone in this universe.
These are rather deep subjects for a video game, but not new. Previously, the astrophysicist Mario Livio has asked, “Is God a Mathematician?” acknowledging that the makeup of the universe is equal parts beautiful and orderly. This is duality holds true also for the universe in “No Man’s Sky,” though as mentioned above, it is not the same as our own. While the in-game universe borrows elements from reality, it places these in relatively high densities, ostensibly for the purposes of producing a more interesting video game than a completely true-to-life simulation of space travel.
In the first few days of the game’s release, message boards and review sites were awash in screen shots of the bizarre flora and fauna found in plentitude on any given planet: two-legged reptile/mammal hybrids, magenta-leafed trees, neon lakes. Notably, some players posted shots of planets they found in-game that more closely resemble Earth.
A special level of enthusiasm accompanies these discoveries. They do, after all, offer some sort of hint as to just how miraculous our little blue dot is. While on the whole the in-game universe isn’t realistic, it does provide a helpful contrast for thinking about the galactic wastelands that most real planets are.
Thinking about space is probably as much a part of “No Man’s Sky” as collecting resources, warding off space pirates, or trading with friendly life forms. Ultimately, it is a science-fiction meditation on the size and scope of the universe, not a triple-A action-adventure title. So as profound as the game is, its developers and fans expected more. “No Man’s Sky” faced fever-pitch disappointment in the first two weeks of its release, indicating not just how very important its subject matter is to millions of people, but how insatiable their curiosity is.
Indeed, our fascination with the stars is as boundless as the stars themselves. It’s likely that no matter what Hello Games accomplished, their project still would have fallen short of people’s desires, because no space explorers—not NASA, not SpaceX, and not a tiny, London-based game development studio—have been able to answer our deepest questions about why we are here.