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No Man’s Sky is an existential crisis simulator disguised as a space exploration game

It’s cold and lonely and empty and unsatisfying. It’s also worth your time.

At Recode’s annual Code Conference in June, venture capitalist Elon Musk made the provocative argument that reality is not reality at all, but a massive simulation built on top of some other reality.

“There’s a billion-to-one chance we’re living in base reality,” he said.

Musk’s idea isn’t a new one: Philosophers and science fiction authors have been toying with versions of it for years. But part of what made Musk’s notion interesting was that it rested entirely on a simple extrapolation from the trajectory of the video game industry.

“Forty years ago we had Pong,” he said. “Like, two rectangles and a dot. That was what games were. Now, 40 years later, we have photorealistic 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously, and it's getting better every year.”

Musk also cited advancements in virtual reality, noting that with any rate of improvement, games and reality will eventually be indistinguishable. It could take 10,000 years, he cautioned, but that’s “nothing on the evolutionary scale.”

Thanks to No Man’s Sky, a new video game from the indie studio Hello Games, you don’t have to wait 10,000 years. The game sets players loose in a massive artificial universe, with 18 quintillion — yes, that’s an 18 with 18 zeros after it — fully explorable planets, each the (virtual) size of a planet in our reality. The universe is procedurally generated, meaning that its planets and creatures are “built” on the fly, as you discover them, by an all-controlling algorithm, as opposed to being custom-made by a human designer.

Unlike most games, which program individual objects to behave as desired, there’s a consistent internal physics controlling everything in the game, from the flora and fauna to the rotation of the planets. The universe in No Man’s Sky is so big that no one, including its designers, will ever see all or even most of it. Exploring every planet would take billions of years.

Think of it as a very early stage proof of concept of Musk’s idea: a vast simulated reality built on top of our own. It’s a unique and fascinating experience that questions the nature of games, and perhaps even of reality itself.

No Man’s Sky often feels tedious. But if you make a point to pause and appreciate its vastness, it can be transfixing.

Okay, so the universe in No Man’s Sky is really, really big. But what, exactly, do you do in it?

That’s been the biggest question surrounding the game ever since an early, tantalizing glimpse of the gameplay debuted at VGX in 2013. Despite scads of prerelease publicity and hype, the moment-to-moment experience of No Man’s Sky remained somewhat fuzzy until its release.

Even when the game finally became available, that uncertainty lingered. On the day it hit stores, creator Sean Murray published a defensive-seeming blog post with the question — “What do you do in No Man’s Sky?”as the title. The honest answer is, “Not much.”

For the most part, the game revolves around exploring and crafting, with some trading and combat thrown in. You start with a mining beam, the sci-fi equivalent of Minecraft’s pickaxe, that allows you to destroy and harvest various resources — everything from basic elements like carbon and zinc to rarer, weirder stuff like omegon and murrine.

These elements can be used to upgrade your mining beam, making it faster and more powerful, or to add on and improve various weapons to assist you in combat. Of course, that’s assuming you can figure out how: Among its many frustrations, the game is remarkably opaque, refusing to teach players how it should be played.

The exploration is often glorious — especially at first, when the game feels truly limitless. But the endless, repetitive crafting is a drag. And crafting constitutes the bulk of the game.

When the game starts, you’re stranded on a planet with a broken spaceship. The planet’s characteristics are different for everyone, but in most every case it’s lush and beautiful, inhabited by strange creatures and littered with rocks and plants that you can gather and convert into resources.

Gathering those resources in sufficient amounts and correct combinations is the key to repairing your spaceship, and to playing the game. Once your ship is up and running, you can fly off at your leisure, to explore the local planets or gather more resources — which are necessary to keep your ship running, to keep you alive while exploring the surface of planets, to move between star systems.

This basic premise should appeal to bakers and home cocktail enthusiasts, those who enjoy finding ingredients and following formulas. But it will ultimately fail anyone who doesn’t value the process more than the outcome, because it lacks the tasty payoff of a sugary muffin or adult beverage. At times it comes across less like a sci-fi adventure and more like the world’s most pointless virtual cookbook.

There’s a nesting doll quality to many of the game’s recipes. Early on, for example, I had to build and charge my ship’s Hyperdrive. That required me to scour planetary surfaces for heridium, in addition to obtaining or crafting some antimatter. The recipe for antimatter calls for another craftable ingredient, electron vapor, whose recipe calls for yet another craftable ingredient, suspension fluid. It’s crafting all the way down.

The reward for gathering and combining all of this interstellar stuff is a trip to another star system ... where you can begin the process of exploring and crafting all over again, before moving on to the next sun and its planets to do the same. In some cases, you can obtain ingredients through trading, or via the whims of inscrutable aliens, but the objective, always, is to craft more so you can explore more, in an endless, monotonous loop of non-achievement.

The game, meanwhile, lacks the mission structure or well-developed connecting narrative of other exploration-based titles, and its combat sequences are rote and irritating rather than exciting, coming across as unwelcome distractions from the already brutal crafting grind.

But maybe that’s the wrong way to think about this game. Maybe for No Man’s Sky, traditional objective-based, tactically intricate gameplay isn’t the point. Creator Murray has said that when he plays the game, he often likes to stop and just watch the world, to watch spaceships pass in and out of the game’s spaceports, to admire the self-sustaining beauty of the system.

I know the feeling. As I bummed around from planet to planet, collecting and combining, I too found myself stopping to take in the world around me, to watch it go through the motions of its existence. There’s a hypnotic quality to the game’s vast virtual ecosystem, and it makes for trippy, transfixing viewing. No Man’s Sky is the lava lamp of video games, the most elaborate and expansive screensaver ever designed.

The game doesn’t seem to have a point ... and that may be the point

The longer I played, the more I began to wonder, “Is No Man’s Sky even a game?” Most games try to give you a reason for completing their tasks: upgrades to your avatar’s abilities that change the gameplay, the advancement of the game’s narrative. Most games are bound, in some way, by rules or a defined field of play.

But No Man’s Sky is practically endless; its enormous size and scale makes it effectively infinite. There are upgrades available, but for the most part they are inconsequential, slightly improved versions of what you already have. And while the game does contain a loose narrative that you can pick up if you follow the right path, even that just leads you back to the beginning, to the endless loop of crafting and exploring.

Even after hours of gathering and exploring, I could never quite figure out why I was playing. That almost certainly explains why the response from fans and critics has been so tepid.

No Man’s Sky is an incredibly ambitious game that was as hyped as much as any big-budget franchise blockbuster, with extensive features and previews on prominent gaming sites. It inspired a lot of hope in fans — but the reality didn’t live up to what they imagined. (To be fair, a number of gameplay features that were promised early on seem to have been cut before release.)

Instead, as Murray has said, “It's a weird game, it's a niche game, and it's a very, very chill game." Which is a nicer way of saying there’s no overarching purpose, no point, no meaning other than perpetuating the grind.

And yet — aren’t most video games ultimately pointless? They send you out to complete virtual tasks in a virtual world, to repetitively collect items and combat imaginary opponents, to solve puzzles or manage systems that have no bearing on the real world. They are all just elegant time wasters, designed to distract you from the real world, to let you pretend, for a moment, that it is not messy and frustrating with no certain payoff, but clear and contained and knowable, with a reward guaranteed at the end.

The difference is that No Man’s Sky does not attempt to disguise its nature. Instead, by refusing to provide you with a purpose, it forces you to reconcile with the essential emptiness of its universe, with the pointlessness of a game whose only reward is the opportunity to continue playing the game. It is cold and lonely and empty and unsatisfying — and that may be the point. It is an existential crisis simulator, an infinite, interactive reflection on mortal ennui.

The day after the game was released, Musk tweeted that he hoped to play it soon, musing that “maybe reality is just a series of nested simulations all the way down.” No Man’s Sky doesn’t prove this hypothesis — far from it — but it offers a glimpse of how such a concept might work, and what sorts of questions it might raise. What do you do in No Man’s Sky? What do you do in life? One possible answer is play No Man’s Sky.

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