One wintry Minnesota morning when I was nine or ten, in the cold, dark hours before the sun would peek over the snowy woods and fields to the east of our farm, my mother shook me awake and asked me to go outside with her. I followed her downstairs, where she put on her old green parka and I, blinkingly, fumbled into my downy coat and snowpants. We went outside and she pointed to the night sky. At once I was filled with wonder and fear.
The aurora borealis, the Northern Lights, stretched and writhed in the sky above like a shimmering emerald snake wrapped around the world. As my mother walked to the barn, a milk pail dangling in her hand, I cowered beside her while stealing glances at the sky. As she went about her chores in the barnyard, I hid inside a doorway and peered upwards. For the first time in my life, I became aware of something utterly, even incomprehensibly, beyond myself. In that moment, I became like the stargazers of the Middle Ages, who looked on the night sky and saw not mere radiation and configurations of gas particles but the gates of heaven itself.
Around the same time, on the other side of the planet, the night sky of the Australian outback captured the imagination of another youth. Sean Murray, an Irishman whose family transplanted to the outback during his childhood, spent his evenings spellbound by the vast, twinkling vision of the Milky Way galaxy that blanketed the night sky. Unobscured by the light pollution of cities, Murray’s sky glittered and glistened in luminous brilliance. Murray grew up to be a programmer and video game developer. He worked on a variety of different projects and eventually launched a small, independent game studio called Hello Games. Through it all he never gave up on his fascination with wandering the stars. On August 9, after several years of development fraught with delays, Murray’s small studio released their latest project, No Man’s Sky, a highly anticipated sci-fi space exploration game set in a galaxy without end.
Hello Games’s small team set out to accomplish an impossible feat. Harnessing some clever mathematics, No Man’s Sky generates whole galaxies of unique star systems populated with a number of individual planets, each with their own particular flora and fauna.
The possibility of exploring an infinite galaxy teeming with wonders immediately captured the imaginations of gamers since the first videos and screenshots surfaced more than two years ago. But, along with the hype, there has come a nagging skepticism whether Hello Games could actually pull off the promise of an infinite living galaxy to explore. Now that the game has released, gamers are finding out that, impressively, No Man’s Sky follows through on that promise. But even as the game fascinates with unfettered exploration, it cannot escape the limits imposed on the imagination by our modern worldview.
The Final Frontier
Players awake next to a crashed starship on a strange, unnamed planet. After a brief tutorial, the player must repair their starship before setting out to travel the stars. Once a player has a handle on the basic mechanics, they are free to explore planets, gather resources, and catalogue alien plants and animals as they please. In that sense, the gameplay echoes the exploits of a 19th-century natural philosopher as much as a far-future galactic explorer.
In No Man’s Sky, the player hops between planets and stars with ease. Interacting with alien races and buried ancient artifacts are a basic affair, conducted with a few quick button presses. Overall, the game is much more interested in the player staring out across its beautiful vistas than fiddling about with complex systems.