Why No Man’s Sky Is The Most Necessary Game

I’m writing this while sitting on a train. It’s almost full, packed with commuters. Most have their heads down looking at the tiny screens of their phones. Schoolkids argue loudly about something I can’t quite hear. Some people are just waiting, staring out the windows. Staring at the floor. Eating some chips. Everyone on public transportation is on pause, between one thing and the next. Worried about their destination. Excited to get there or dreading the moment they arrive.

This is what a large number of human beings do every day. Locked in a steel box, eager to be somewhere else. It is a bizarre modern practice but it has become completely mundane for millions. A lot do it because they require money for food and shelter. Otherwise they will die hungry and alone. They invented trains and all the corresponding destinations. They pay close attention when to exit and are ready to get instantly annoyed if the train isn’t quick enough. They will spend years, decades, perhaps even centuries doing this. Or at least until teleportation is commercially available.

This story has been retimed, partially to coincide with the release of the Beyond update this week, but also as a reflection on No Man’s Sky before it initially launched, and where the game stands today.

Sean Murray, one of the directors at Hello Games, has said that within the universe of No Man’s Sky there are 18 quintillion planets. To put that in perspective, the only things on this single planet we call Earth that would perhaps amount to a quintillion are atoms, drops of water and the amount of times some radio stations still play Chumbawamba. Probably even after that meagre comparison, it still wouldn’t be enough to match the scope of this game. It has also been said that in order to visit every single planet, you would have to set aside roughly 585 billion real-world years. Even if an understanding supervisor granted you that much time off work, it’s still not guaranteed that a Platinum Trophy awaits you at the end.

When No Man’s Sky was first revealed in December 2013, it took people’s breath away. Wedged in amongst developer interviews, musical acts and Joel McHale discussing his genitals, a two-minute trailer appeared on the VGX Video Game Awards which instantly stole the show. It captured people’s imaginations so immediately that it was the only thing that rose from the ashes of the program. Everyone wanted to know more about this surprise announcement which came from, astonishingly, the studio that made Joe Danger.

Since then, the desire throughout the video game industry to play No Man’s Sky has grown exponentially.

I’m writing this during a birthday celebration at work. Everyone’s standing in a circle eating cake. They exchange small talk and barely tolerate hearing about each other’s tedious, bleak lives secretly wishing they could be anywhere else. They couldn’t possibly care about your wine tasting or hospital visits. But they pretend to listen just so things don’t get weird and uncomfortable in this place. A place they have to be in all day. Every day.

All procedurally generated, every planet in No Man’s Sky will be somehow different. Snow, dust storms, rain, toxic environments and every variation imaginable lay in wait to discover. Discovered by you. When landing on a planet, it is highly unlikely anyone will have set foot on its surface before. Step out of your ship and explore. That’s what you’re here to do. There are creatures wandering about, dangerous robot sentries, trading posts, space battles, black holes and you can even land your ship on an asteroid. All of it waiting for you and you alone. Technically there will be other players in No Man’s Sky but it will be rare to cross paths with another human. You’ll be essentially exploring this universe in solitude.

One of the smartest things about the marketing for No Man’s Sky is prolonging the questions. Hello Games have created a virtual universe. Not one filled with linear story missions or cannon fodder enemies. This universe is open and endless. A place of discovery and wonder. And most of it is still unknown because its creators refuse to disclose its secrets. Since the game’s announcement, the question of “what do you do?” went from a legitimate query about the game’s contents to an annoying meme and back again.

Everyone wrestled with the desire to know more and wanting to jump in completely blind. For most people upon seeing even a few minutes of the game, it has always been a question of how to play No Man’s Sky, not if.

I’m writing this while watching the news. From here, humans look like a catastrophic mistake. According to the World Health Organisation, over 50 million humans die every year. The leading causes in medium-to-high income countries are heart disease and cancers. In low-income countries, more than six million children under the age of five die each year from malnutrition and childbirth complications. Traffic related deaths number in the thousands every day with over a million per year. Add that to the rest of the injury-related deaths (including murder) and it’s over five million. Strangely enough, nowhere does the World Health Organisation list ‘old age’ as a common cause of death. Perhaps the number is too small to even bother recording.

Most death seems to be preventable. Not in the long term of course but human beings certainly are comfortable in accepting premature expiration as a normal thing. You would think this to be cause for worldwide alarm but it’s not the case. Humans are too busy to care. They concern themselves with pointing out their differences or beliefs. Or promote their advantages over other less-fortunate people in ways to make them feel superior. Or blame others for their own intolerance. Some of them are even using these things in the hopes of being elected into positions of power. And they have support. 2016 seems to be moving the goalposts on an almost daily basis for what humans will accept as normal. What previously seemed insane to accept is slowly becoming standard to tolerate.

In October 2015, Sean Murray appeared as a guest on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. They talked about the vast size and scope of the game and showed off some of the planets and creatures. For a game developer, international exposure like this is almost unheard of. A mainstream television show with millions of viewers is a platform usually reserved for blockbuster movie stars and musicians. But here was Colbert, basically calling Murray a god for creating a second universe for people to dive into and play around with. And the crowd loved it. The video of the segment has over a million views on YouTube. Which would be remarkable were it not for No Man’s Sky‘s own gameplay videos already breaking the 5 million mark.

Everyone wants to play No Man’s Sky and it didn’t take much to convince them. After watching the two-minute trailer in 2013, it would have close to impossible to find someone who wasn’t completely sold on the game. To go out there into deep space and have the freedom and opportunity to explore it all on your own is something most people dream about as kids. Not only to visit strange planets but be the very first person to set foot on them has been a tremendously appealing notion in all varieties of science-fiction since humans started looking up at the stars. It’s a fascination held by every civilization throughout history whether from a scientific or religious viewpoint. What’s out there and how far can they go? Humans want to know. For better or worse, a collective desire to explore the universe is something most people share regardless of who they like or dislike. Regardless of what they do or don’t believe in. Regardless of whether they have love or hate in their veins.

I’m writing this while watching a live stream of NASA footage. The unmanned spacecraft Juno, launched in 2011, is entering the orbit of Jupiter. For the next 20 months, Juno will orbit the largest planet in our solar system to get a clearer picture of its atmospheric composition, mass and magnetic field. It took five years to reach Jupiter. Travelling through cold, dark space so humans could learn just a little more about their tiny, tiny, tiny corner of the universe. Missions like this are commonplace for NASA. The Cassini is currently orbiting Saturn and studying its moons. The Dawn space probe reached the dwarf planet Ceres in May 2015 while the rovers Curiosity and Opportunity are moving along the surface of Mars. Opportunity is currently twelve years past the point where it was supposed to break down and fail. But it’s still going, gathering data about the planet and sending it back to Earth.

As incredible as these achievements are, a human being hasn’t left the low orbit of Earth since 1972. Apollo 17 departed from the surface of the moon in December of that year and since then, astronauts haven’t travelled further than the International Space Station. That was 44 years ago. A lot has happened on Earth in that time and not all of it has been good. 2016 feels like it’s leading up to something and from the track record it has laid down as of this writing, humans are naturally worried about where that might be. How much more intolerance, horror and absurdity can we witness in a single calendar year? How often can it happen for it to become even more commonplace and accepted than it already is? Are human beings in real trouble and as a collective group, what can they do to help themselves?

Every astronaut that travelled into space and turned to look at the Earth has had a common revelation. The planet is small. So small and fragile. It’s just hanging there in a black void, housing all of our history and probably most of our future. They describe it as the most amazing sight in the universe. Even if they were standing on the moon or could see countless stars, almost everyone who has left the Earth has said they couldn’t take their eyes off our home planet. Any problems or differences human beings may have on the surface instantly disappear and mean nothing in the blackness of space. From out here, two countries going to war seems about as important as an overdue gas bill.

After more than three years in development, No Man’s Sky will be available on August 10, 2016. Despite everyone’s ravenous desire to play it, the team at Hello Games might be the ones most relieved when it is finally released. Their concept of an entire universe will ultimately be delivered. And for the rest of Earth’s humans, the game holds a promise of something that can instantly cause them to dream bigger than the tiny planet they stand on. Infinite possibilities and endless discovery. A solitary experience of galactic exploration beyond everything we know.

No Man’s Sky might just be the game we all need in 2016.


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