The Power of No Man’s Sky Is Making You Feel Insignificant
This galaxy has a pulse. Freighters streak into view from its farthest reaches, nebulae throb in fluorescent hues, roving herds of creatures with near-infinite permutations dart and creep on the plains and through the forests of a billion billion worlds. As countless suns rise and set, as scouts struggle to catalogue every species, and as traders exploit life and land for untold wealth—the void triumphs.
No Man’s Sky, released this week on PlayStation 4 and PC, invokes a sense of scale like no videogame before it. In so doing, it offers perhaps the first semi-accurate presentation of the crushing majesty and endlessness of our own real universe.
If you’re familiar with Minecraft, you’ll feel a certain familiarity with No Man’s Sky right from the off as you wander, aimless, directionless, in a gargantuan world (or in this case, procedurally-generated quintillions of them), all the while seeking out metals and minerals, isotopes and silicates to fuel your vessel and craft new gadgets.
No Man’s Sky is the progeny of Minecraft just as Sonic the Hedgehog was born of Super Mario Bros. Though similar on the surface, cracking the veneer reveals them to be antipodes. Sonic was sold as a game that played “faster” than Mario, with its protagonist zipping and soaring where Mario merely ambled. And yet it was Mario, not Sonic, that had the more punishing timer, constantly pushing you forward, demanding speed.
Similarly, No Man’s Sky has been marketed as a game where you can do anything—go anywhere, travel the stars, conquer worlds! But that doesn’t quite mesh with what it actually is. Minecraft truly is about effecting change, about raw power. The mark you leave on the world is deeply transformational, and it is all-encompassing. No Man’s Sky does not share that solipsism. In its universe, I am meaningless. My journey is trivial in the scope of it all.
When I first land on a new planet, perhaps one with floating islands held aloft by some strange gravitational anomaly and littered with squirrel-horse hybrids, I feel powerful. My view grips the horizon, bringing all that lies within comes under my domain. I, after all, have cannons, a ship, lasers. It’s all mine.
But moments later, when I’ve stripped what I can from this no-name world on the edge of the cosmos, my ship lifts off with the softest of breaths, and I’m off, blasting into the endless vacuum. I leave nothing that lasts. No structures, no marks on the land besides what I took. And even then, what is one person against a galaxy? Indeed, at this scale what is ten million people? A billion?
My thoughts often turn to Carl Sagan’s essay “Pale Blue Dot.” Even on our home, the only world humans have ever known, we are minuscule. We may be warming the planet, we have caused thousands of species to go extinct, but if we were suddenly wiped out, the Earth would carry on, indifferent to the flicker of us.
That smallness, that utter insignificance, is profound, and one that we are woefully ill-equipped to understand. Our planet is so large in relation to us, our solar system that much more so, our galaxy more. Sagan and his former protégé Neil deGrasse Tyson have spent decades trying to impress upon us the fact of our own smallness.
Can a videogame do it?
No Man’s Sky doesn’t start with such lofty goals. The first few hours are banal. With little tutorial or direction, No Man’s Sky dashed me on the rocks of a barren world. Here, I gathered my tools, and prepared for my journey into the black. As ready as I felt, it was a couple more hours before I left that first star system. In the interim, I wrestled with an obnoxious inventory screen, shuffling various items and tools and resources about to make the best use of limited space.
I fear that this is the part that will lose a lot of people. It’s tedious, even boring. It’s also what makes up the majority of the game’s playtime. In the coming days and weeks, you’ll hear how often people talk about the wonder of finding new life, or seeing a vibrant pink planet with a striking green sunset, but the majority of the No Man’s Sky experience is far more prosaic.
Sean Murray, the game’s director, has said numerous times that it’s a “niche game,” intended for a smaller audience than its astonishing marketing budget would have you believe. None of this is a problem, necessarily. No Man’s Sky‘s best moments are small miracles. It really is hard to overstate just how incredible stepping foot on dozens of alien worlds is. Or how self-indulgent it is to name a world after its most precious resource, or just name it “Butts McGee.”
But then that gnawing realization comes back: No one will ever see my worlds. No one, besides myself, will know what I saw and who I was in this facsimile. It reminds me, consistently, of my own arrogance, my presumed meaning. No Man’s Sky says that we are all conceited for thinking that our lives have purpose. No Man’s Sky is predicated on the idea that there is poetry in the knowledge that we are as lonely and as small in its computer-generated space as we are here in reality.
I step away from the game feeling insignificant, but I take serenity in that. No matter my personal failings, no matter what kind of dark thoughts I hide in me, I don’t need to be the hero of the universe. Instead, I can enjoy life for its brief moments of joy. I refuse to take for granted the intimacy I share with loved ones, or the allure of our own world.
For all this, for all of its pretentious, for all of its own flaws, No Man’s Sky rightly deserves a place in a modern art museum. Like a home with doors that may never open, begging us to ponder what lies beyond, No Man’s Sky is an unanswerable question, but one I’m glad I asked.