It’s hard to conceive of the vastness of space. The numbers bandied about are so large, they are comprehensible only in the abstract: We talk about the size of the universe in terms of billions of light years; we try to make sense of what that means with images that scale up so quickly and exponentially that they boggle the mind. It can inspire awe but also a terrifying sort of existential agoraphobia, where the sheer immensity diminishes you to a point so small that you feel like you could disappear.
When you talk about the new space exploration game No Man’s Sky, a big number comes up a lot: 18 quintillion. That’s 18 followed by 15 zeros, and it’s roughly the number of distinct, entirely unique planets the game offers for exploration.
The universe and every planet in it is procedurally generated. That is, rather than worlds that have been handcrafted by their creators—an impossible feat on this scale—they are summoned into being by complex algorithms that randomize variables like size, terrain, weather, resources, flora, fauna, even the color of the sky. So far, I’ve found a tropical paradise of lush, purple grasses and labyrinthine caves full of green minerals that jut out from the ground in glittering fans; an oceanic world of yellow skies and rocky islands where black snake-dragons slither through the air; and a dinosaur planet where floating islands hang impossibly in the air and sentient mushrooms totter through the grass below. This radical diversity is at the heart of the game’s appeal: There’s no way to know what might come next, which is exactly why I keep finding myself drawn back to the game, despite its many less-transcendent moments.
Created by independent British developer Hello Games, No Man’s Sky was recently released for Windows and PlayStation 4 at the price of $60, after two years of escalating hype. Indeed, the slate of the game was both so big and so blank that it was easy for fans to project their most idealized and individual desires on to it, attracting a fervent and almost cultlike following in the years after the game’s announcement. In fact, Graham Smith at Rock Paper Shotgun wrote that he wished the game would never be released so that it could forever retain the promise of an unopened present, “a horizon-dwelling object of pure imagination and the beginning of its life as something more real and undoubtedly more finite.”
Although procedurally generated games are nothing new (nor are procedurally generated space games set in gigantic universes), No Man’s Sky stands apart for both its staggering scope and its decision to create a game that doesn’t revolve around space battles: They can happen occasionally, but are side quests at most. Instead, it’s devoted to the lonely, deeply rewarding experience of discovery, and the pioneering thrill of true discovery. You have no idea what to expect when you set foot on a new planet—no one does, not even the developers.
Despite its algorithmic origins, the No Man’s Sky universe is not an ad hoc experience that assembles itself uniquely for each player, but a static space where all 18 quintillion planets are fixed and fully fleshed out destinations, each one just waiting to be explored. The game is so astoundingly large that the vast majority of its universe will never be unearthed. “People will stop playing long before even 0.1 percent of everything has been discovered,” developer Sean Murray told the Atlantic. This is particularly remarkable when you consider that nearly every game gets mapped, streamed, and deconstructed into intricate, blow-by-blow walkthroughs within days or hours of its release. No Man’s Sky will never end, will never run out. Everything you touch is perpetual frontier.
Although video game fandoms have a reputation for intensity, the tenor of the No Man’s Sky fandom often felt less like enthusiasts waiting excitedly for a piece of entertainment and more like acolytes waiting with bated breath for a religious ascension. When Hello Games announced that No Man’s Sky would be delayed until two months after its projected June 2016 release date, the developers—and even one writer who simply reported on the story—were deluged with death threats. At Vice, Austin Walker examined how the expectations had swelled to almost mythological proportions, transforming No Man’s Sky into what some believed was the last game they’d ever need: “one infinite leisure product that can be a permanent, pleasurable escape from our bills and our bodies, from our politics and our pain.”
Since nothing infuriates the faithful like their objects of worship being revealed as mortal, the response to the game’s release has been conflicted at best, peppered with proclamations of disappointment and accusations of false advertising. Although some of the criticisms were grounded in specific concerns about the lack of multiplayer or unflattering comparisons to the original trailers for the game, many of them were measured less against the game itself and more against the impossible expectations.
The vastness and variation of the game inevitably make it, at times, mundane; when the possibilities are nigh-limitless, they can’t all be interesting. The relative majesty and wonder of the planets comes down to the luck of the draw; sometimes you get enchanting worlds of bioluminescent mushrooms and mysterious alien obelisks, and sometimes you get a boring gray rock covered in mist.
Much like the universe itself, the world of No Man’s Sky is mostly nothing, and a great deal of time is spent holding down buttons for minutes at a time to travel between point A and point B. While it drives home the thematic refrain of just how big space is, it’s also a lot of time zoning out at the stars flying by like you’re staring at a mid-’90s screensaver. Your voyages are also interrupted every few minutes by reminders that your life support, shielding, and fuel are perpetually dwindling, and you had best go scavenge iron or plutonium from some nearby rocks. Much of the actual gaminess also revolves around mining resources and crafting various items in increasingly complicated combinations; you need suspension fluid to make electron vapor, which you need to make antimatter, which you need to make a warp cell, and on and on.
All of which is to say that No Man’s Sky is probably a lot like real space exploration: often very boring, except when it’s sublime. It was difficult to tell whether I felt underwhelmed or overwhelmed, bored or enchanted. Although my first play through the game left me feeling nonplussed, I nonetheless found myself wanting to go back and play it again within hours, to land on just one more planet, open one more door.
There’s a tension, always, between the pleasures of whatever place you’re visiting and the FOMO siren song of the galactic highway, promising anything and everything and nothing, but always something different. Although it’s easy to lose yourself for hours on particularly lush planets and not come close to seeing all there is to see, eventually you’ve got to be moving on. After all, it’s an awfully big universe out there, and you’ve got nearly 18 quintillion more stops to go.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.