No Man’s Sky releases tomorrow, August 9th, on the Playstation 4; its PC version releases three days later on the 12th. For several months I have debated whether or not to stamp the word “premortem” in front of this game, and with the launch blazingly imminent now, that ambivalence persists even as I write this. In my post announcing this series, for which No Man’s Sky now makes the maiden voyage, I expressed that Premortem is less a predictive gesture than a nebulous disquiet moved by an unwanted and climbing worry. No Man’s Sky is a strange first assignment because, despite the many trailers and stage demonstrations which have by now explored the game’s collective systems in detail—for example, combat and crafting—the exact nature of the experience that creator Sean Murray and developer Hello Games are aiming to provide players with remains nebulous.
What pushed me to write this finally, with few hours left before the game’s release and fewer still before its review embargo lifts for the press, was, by turns, Murray’s explanation for the embargo’s close proximity to the big launch and his response to the news that a physical copy had been leaked online while others were firing their way into the wild via hair-trigger retailers. I believe him when he claims he doesn’t want the game spoiled, and delayed the embargo for that reason, but there lies the problem. Remember, No Man’s Sky was presented from day one as a randomly, spontaneously generated universe; one whose arithmetic guarantees with all but the rarest exception that no two players will have the same experience. Separate from the odds of players encountering one another in the game—effectively non-existent—there are in principle enough planets to discover (Murray estimates a possible 18,446,744,073,709,551,616) that the notion of having the game “spoiled” for oneself seems absurd. So why is Murray worried?
At least as far back as December, 2014, we’ve known that No Man’s Sky, unlike our own universe, has a center and an end; you can reach it, if you’re surpassingly efficient, after “40 to 100 hours” of playtime. The claim made by the game’s original leaker that it instead takes only “30-40” hours is a non sequitur given that the player admits to having found an exploit to farm in-game currency—currency which directly effects the transportational capabilities, speed included, of one’s spacecraft—in pre-release code. Thirty hours or one hundred, the number itself does not concern me; rather, I find it disappointing that a game 18 quintillion planets large—functionally infinite—has a center.
As a species, the only substitute for solipsism we have learned to accept is strangeness. Strangeness which, if not for being true, would be impossible to accept. I call 18 quintillion planets “functionally infinite” because it is, no less than an infinite number would have been, literally more than we can comprehend. The number itself isn’t strange; it’s a number, a fact—the truth, if we suppose Murray is honest (I do). No, what is strange is the effort: the effort to visualize all of those worlds, to process the cosmic sheathe they collectively not only imply, but necessitate. A quintillion, or an infinity: our imaginations are no match for these, which is precisely why we’re drawn to try. They bring us, in a New York minute, to a precipice. They pull our better faculties every which way.
A center pulls us its way, even if we aren’t certain which way that is. Because the fact alone that we know there is a center does two things: it depreciates for us on a fundamental, psychological level everything that isn’t the center, and it creates an initiative for the player where the moment-by-moment initiative of the player, neutral and unprejudiced, was meant to create the experience for them. Mining an underwater cave teeming with tentacled-sharks, followed by dogfighting alien airships against the corona of twin fuchsia suns, then warping to a far removed arm of the galaxy where neither sharks nor fuchsia anything exists: this was No Man’s Sky’s pitch. With a defined center, however, it’s closer to thatgamecompany’s Journey with the mountain covered up.
Rather than being a simple conceptual contradiction, perhaps Hello Games included this stairway to heaven, conscious of the contradiction or not, concerned over it or not, because they had another, disparate reason to provide a linearity within the labyrinth—a stabilizer for the strangeness. What if the ‘how’ of the game, by which I mean how you play it, makes the ‘what’ less appealing? What if it isn’t engaging enough to fuel the crusade of a hundred planets, nevermind any suffixed commas and zeroes beyond that? This question was nascent for the game, and it has persisted despite the fact that the games press has, for months now, had opportunities to play it.
All available glimpses of the systems with which the player navigates, survives, and thrives in No Man’s Sky suggest a mechanically crude game by design. Hello Games’s ambitions may be toward a Minecraftian model, by which I mean creative ambition spent in all areas but mechanics—which is a respectable and often befitting strategy. Yet however much No Man’s Sky makes good on the imagination it has stimulated since its announcement over two years ago, I worry that it will be a victim of its own success here. Minecraft’s pastel retro block-iverse implies neither mechanical depth nor its appropriateness, but No Man’s Sky invites the mind to frolic and muse. If by placing the initial stress on ‘what’ and not ‘how’ Murray and co. were attempting to speak with silence, the curiosity which resulted over the latter are proof that it didn’t work. Prepare for liftoff, all the same, fellow travelers. We’re about to find out what does.