No Man’s Sky: five years of meteors, mining and metaphysics

As it celebrates with a teaser of a new update, the strange, metaphysical space exploration has survived a tricky take-off and retained its vital spirit

Expanded and improved ... No Man’s Sky.
As soon as I set foot on my first planet in No Man’s Sky five years ago, dying almost immediately in the boiling atmosphere of an utterly barren, deserted world, I was hooked. Here at last, was a space game for the rest of us, and by the rest of us I mean kids who grew up watching Silent Running and Solaris, and reading the trippy existential sci-fi of Ray Bradbury, Stanisław Lem and Ursula K le Guin. Here was a space game with no space marines, where making a bad decision on a hostile alien planet or in some distant asteroid belt could have deadly ramifications, and where existence among the stars was about toil and patience and long periods of silent travel.

This wasn’t how everyone felt about the game upon its much-hyped launch in 2016. No Man’s Sky was famously revealed at the 2014 Game Awards, a hugely popular showcase for new mega-budget blockbusters, the gaming equivalent of advertising during the Super Bowl. This high-profile introduction, together with some ludicrously ambitious plans from tiny Guildford developer Hello Games, led to wild expectations – a gigantically detailed massively multiplayer space opera, combining elements of Elite Dangerous, Eve Online and Star Citizen into one giant production.

No Man’s Sky wasn’t that game (at least, not back then). It was a strange, lonely space exploration sim, giving players a small craft and some laser tools to wrestle resources from often ugly procedurally generated planets. These rocks, chemicals and components could be sold at space stations to buy slightly better equipment, and an oblique storyline was unpicked through hours of mining, trading and travel. But that was it. You were on your own – metaphorically and literally. On release there was furious controversy. Many felt their expectations hadn’t been met; YouTube videos listed frenzied complaints, revealed bugs and made unflattering comparisons with pre-release promises, pulling in hundreds of thousands of views. And of course, this being the video-games industry, the development team and their families were threatened with violence.

Somehow, amid this bewildering maelstrom, Hello Games kept working. Over five years, No Man’s Sky has been expanded and improved through a series of updates and additions – all free. Players can now construct bases on planets, explore landscapes in robotic suits, buy huge freighters to seek out new galaxies, have pets. Friends can also meet up and explore together or visit each other’s base stations – like an intergalactic version of Animal Crossing. Another major update was announced as part of the game’s fifth birthday celebrations.

No Man’s Sky remains, however, an unashamedly strange, metaphysical space exploration adventure, a chill-out experience as much as a game. It is about the lonely beauty of distant travel, about finding places that maybe no one else has ever seen, and trying to stay alive there, often accompanied only by the wonderful ambient soundtrack from 65daysofstatic. You can sit out under purple skies and watch meteors explode as they enter the atmosphere, or see starcraft zoom past in formation; you can view distant space battles from orbit, accompanied by the rattling hum of your engines.

When I wrote a defensive polemic about No Man’s Sky just after its release, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such anger, such vicious recrimination, from gamers in the comments section and on forums. They listed bugs and broken promises at me for days. But the game was always what I expected, and despite all the excellent improvements and additions, it still retains its original spirit. It is Roy Batty’s Blade Runner speech, it is Kubrick’s Star Gate sequence, it’s the SF book cover art of Chris Foss and Bruce Pennington rendered into life. Ultimately, No Man’s Sky is the interactive embodiment of Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell’s famous quote about space travel:

“Something happens to you out there.”

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