For two years now, on and off, I’ve been playing a game called No Man’s Sky. If you’ve heard of it, you’ve probably heard about the negative reaction it got when it came out and apparently didn’t live up to some people’s expectations. Personally, it was exactly what I expected when it first arrived, and two years later I’m still blown away by it.
The simplest description of the game is that it’s about exploring the universe. In fact, it’s about exploring an infinite, procedurally generated universe, which means that pretty much anywhere you go you’re alone. I think it was this last aspect of the game that led to most of the negative reactions. Personally, I like bumbling about exploring planets without any particular aim in mind. Apart from anything else, the game landscapes are quite often stunningly beautiful.
In about a month, the game will be undergoing another major update, and I’m playing as often as I can to achieve a few of my own personal goals before that happens. The last major update led to enormous upheavals, including planetary climates changing completely, and in some cases land levels altering substantially too. And it’s rumoured that this update may lead to all players losing all their current save games and having to start all over again.
If that happens, that’s OK with me – but as I say, I do want to achieve a few things before then. One of those is to achieve a particular game milestone, which involves spending 32 in-game days on a planet classified as “extreme”. This means either an extreme climate or very tetchy drone sentinels. Or possibly both. Every time you leave your chosen planet to go somewhere more hospitable, your counter resets, so if you want to hit the milestone you have to be prepared to spend a lot of time planetside dodging sentinels or hiding in a cave. You can also stand your player character in a building, where they won’t be using up life support resources or being attacked, then go to bed in real life and come back eight hours later having achieved the goal without any effort. But that seems rather dull to me.
So I’ve spent a lot of time in recent days standing about on a particular planet (actually a moon). It’s called Takahokunea, and I like to think that maybe in the far past it was surveyed by a crew with at least some Maori blood. (New Zealanders seem to get everywhere, so this seems highly probable.) Planets and moons in No Man’s Sky vary widely, as you’d expect, and some of them have quite a lot of buildings of various sorts where you can shelter. This one isn’t like that, so I’ve set up my HQ by parking my spaceship on a small plateau where there’s a galactic trade terminal (to sell any tradeable commodities I happen to come across) and a nearby cave.
There’s nothing much else within any kind of reasonable walking distance, and time spent in your spaceship doesn’t count towards the total for the milestone, so I spend my game time ambling aimlessly around the countryside, trying not to get trampled on by the fortunately friendly – if clumsy – local fauna, and shooting down vast numbers of drone sentinels, which, because this is an extreme planet, attack me on sight. I’ve also learned some stuff about the mechanics of the game that I hadn’t previously appreciated when I simply landed on a planet, did a particular task then left again. And other than the odd burst of adrenalin when I’m under attack, I’m finding the whole experience to be extremely meditative. Earlier today I stood for a while on a large rock, on a flat area of blueish grass atop a tall pink cliff and watched the sunrise sweeping across the neighbouring planet.
Later, while I was talking to my mother on the phone, I directed my character into the cave and stayed there for a bit, surrounded by the drifting mysterious motes of light that you find in caves (I’ve never worked out what they are).
In this game, once you’ve got past the initial scramble to repair your spaceship and equip yourself with basic kit, it can all be very restful, if that’s how you choose to play. And god knows with the hideous things going on in the news in the real world at the moment, we all need a bit of mental peace sometimes. I’d highly recommend standing on a planet, just waiting for time to pass, as a form of mindfulness meditation.
Of course, I’m not the only person playing the game. And some of them are doing even weirder or more meaningful things than standing about on a pink and blue planet watching the sun rise.
For example, someone recently built a giant pachinko machine. Given that my own base looks like half a dozen garden sheds shoved together, I find this kind of thing enormously impressive, although even more lavish constructions have been made by other players (more on this below).
The Pilgrim’s Path describes one player’s walk around an entire planet, taking about 45 hours of game playing time. Reading between the lines, he had the kind of experience you’d expect if you walked around a planet – doubt, exhilaration, wonder, fear – ultimately coming away with something much more profound than you’d get from 45 hours of playing something like Grand Theft Auto. He also learned just how supportive the NMS community can be, with people giving him advice and encouragement, and ultimately cheering him on via a live stream of the final hour of his epic journey.
And Andrew Reinhard, the guy who led the excavation of the Atari burial ground, is doing archaeology in No Man’s Sky, specifically surveying the remains of the human habitations and material culture of the original Galactic Hub, which underwent sometimes catastrophic changes during the Atlas Rises update. These sites include Glenn William’s Memorial, a planet with a model of Deep Thought, another with a ziggurat tomb and of course Dudenbeaumodeme, the site of the Pilgrim’s Path circumnavigation – not strictly part of the Galactic Hub, but interesting because many other players had been there since the original visitor. [Note: While aimlessly exploring this particular moon, I found what look like steps, cut in the rock. I’m pretty sure they’re just an accident of the topography, but it made me look even more carefully at the landscape.]
And while researching this article, I came across this story, which I hadn’t previously encountered, but in many ways doesn’t surprise me. If ever a game could change – or save – lives it’d be No Man’s Sky.