“So what do you actually do?” It’s worrying that this has been the biggest question surrounding No Man’s Sky for the duration of its public existence. At the same time, that mystery is what has probably kept us engaged for the past two years. Every time one of its features is outlined it’s like a math professor rambling incoherently at a class of dimwits looking up at him with bemused faces and admiring eyes. “How?” we ask. “HOW?!”
Even if No Man’s Sky ends up being actually quite mediocre when played, the way its creators have flabbergasted us by firing out numbers too high to fully understand, and stories of tiny drones doing mass quality assurance, has proven entertaining. Its slow-reveal presentation has been a masterwork of engaging our curiosity and sustaining our disbelief.
But now it’s time to start breaking down that mystery a bit at a time. The Lovecraftian monster that embodies everything unknown on the stage in front of us must be revealed for its scaffolding and recorded sound effects. The illusion demystified. This arrives in the form of an 18-minute long video of No Man’s Sky programmer Sean Murray sitting down with IGN to demonstrate and explain a little more about it.
There are a few big ideas to take away from Murray’s words that help us digest what No Man’s Sky is all about. But there’s one scrap of knowledge bigger than the rest. While any suggestion that there’s any specific way to play the game is held at arm’s length by Murray, he does talk about a somewhat universal goal. It’s the center of the universe. You start on an outer ring of the universe and, without any prompting, you’ll probably end up working towards the center. Why? It’s the biggest light that shines in the game’s galaxy map. And as with the beacon that called you wordlessly from the distance in thatgamecompany’s Journey, that light will draw you in, and upon arrival it’ll reveal something that Murray says will satisfy most players enough to decide that they’ve essentially completed the game.
Typical. One mystery down, up pops another to eat away at us. But this is more comfortable isn’t it? We now know that there’s a spine holding No Man’s Sky together. As Game Informer put it some months ago, there’s an endgame. Before, we had been flailing around in the unknown, riding on the backs of promises hoping that a destination would magically appear. It might be how you felt upon leaving education, yet to find a vocation that fit—a place, a person, a point. The entirety of life was before us. Now what? You can’t explore forever. But the existential crisis is over and we can move on with our lives in what we presume is the right direction.
In retrospect, isn’t this antithetical to what gripped us so much about No Man’s Sky up until now? It promised this entire universe to us, not unlike our own, full of opportunity and beauty to salvage. But this idea was too big. It was an impossible monster that would swallow us up. The game’s scale and apparent lack of objective (outside of watching alien creatures roaming) was too close to the truth we cover over in our own lives. This is why we’ve built structures over the years, institutions that hold us together and give us purpose—without them there is none. It could be argued (and I’m sure it will be) that this is the foundation of, say, religion. Lost? Join our church and know your way. It’s why, when we think for ourselves for too long, we end up asking what the meaning of life is. The answer is probably too terrifying for us to handle: there isn’t one. Some people find god, some people get stuck into a career, but we’re all trying to cope with the overwhelming vastness of existence and its possible pointlessness.
This is why we invent and consume. And if there’s one reassurance for us after IGN’s in-depth look at No Man’s Sky it’s that there will be plenty of crafting and consuming to do (watch the second video above). We’ll all be happy just eating shit up and pouring it out someplace else. We’ll mine resources, discover creatures, shoot sentinels (and get GTA-style wanted stars in return), and turn everything we interact with into Units to be sold on for upgrades to ships, suits, and weapons. All of it subservient to the grander pursuit of reaching the center of the universe: travelling further and further, exploring toxic planets with our new breathing machines, finding even rarer minerals for a bigger payout. It’s a game of turning procedurally generated atoms into experience and commodity. And so, you can do whatever you want in No Man’s Sky, but your humanness will make sure that above all you’ll keep busy.