No Man’s Sky is a massive experiment in procedurally generated game-making. Developer Hello Games used an algorithm to spawn a game world of unprecedented size and scope. It’s packed with alien worlds — 18 quintillion planets, by the developer’s count — for players to explore on foot, and fly between in their personal spaceship.
Other developers, particularly indie game makers with small teams, have used procedurally generated environments to great effect, but never for a project of this scale. Generally, procedural generation seems to be a good option for filling in the gaps between the important parts of game development, or to make disposable levels to mix up the monotony of games you play over and over. In this case, however, it has created the game’s primary selling point, a persistent universe so large that few players will ever visit the same planets.
Technically, No Man’s Sky delivers the idea Hello Games promised — a massive sci-fi playgroundfor you to explore. However, once you’ve spent some time poking around, it’s hard not to notice that the playground feels empty. While there are many places to find and objects to interact with on each planet, they are separated by large swaths of random and often strangely familiar territory. You may feel like you’ve experienced everything novel in No Man’s Sky’s universe after exploring only a fraction of what was created.
WHERE AM I?
No Man’s Sky drops you onto a random planet, next to a broken ship. The game tells you to fix the ship, fly into space, then jump through hyperspace to a new solar system. From there, you are more or less on your own. Even in that tutorial phase, you can spend as little or as much time as you like on any planet.
And there’s room to wander. We can’t overstate how large No Man’s Sky is. Every planet would take hours to cross — real hours, not in-game. Over steep mountain ranges, giant underground caverns, and large oceans, there is a real sense of space, of wilderness — presumably because most of these areas weren’t made as part of a level. Each planet is separated by minutes, if not hours, of open space, which is filled with minerals, plants, creatures, and items.
Exploring those first few planets and systems is dream-like. The game’s penchant for bright, hyper-saturated colors often generates picturesque scenes that leave you aching to take a close look at everything around you. Some have sarcastically labeled No Man’s Sky a “desktop wallpaper generator,” but there’s some truth to that. I spent many hours cataloging every rock, tree, and animal on a planet with a deep purple sky and wavy, day-glo green plantlife; every time I told myself I had seen enough and should move on, I stumbled on a deeply beautiful new scene.