Playing God: No Man's Sky Redefines Gaming

You don’t need to be a gamer to feel the primordial thrill of exploring No Man’s Sky’s infinite universe.

With its quaint flower beds and crumbling medieval castle, the town of Guildford, Surrey, 40 minutes southwest from London by train, doesn’t exactly scream “video-game capital of the world.” Nor do its rows of unremarkable brick townhouses seem a natural point of departure for the next phase of human exploration. Yet in the ground-floor offices of Hello Games, a boutique company with just a few well-reviewed but modest motorbiking games under its belt, a small team of young designers aspires to redefine gaming by creating a near-infinite universe from scratch. 

Ever since an early trailer was released in 2013, the space epic No Man’s Sky has become one of the most anticipated video games in recent memory. The attraction? The more than 18 quintillion unique planets that the game makes available to players. The intent is to replicate the sensation that early humans had while looking at the night sky: a collective sense of wonder, fear, and desire. “It’s so hard to get true exploration, that feeling of Wow, I’m in a real place,” says Sean Murray, Hello’s co-founder and creative director, on a sunny day in August. Lithe, bearded, and gregarious, the 35-year-old talks quickly and with an Aussie-inflected Hibernian lilt that betrays both his Irish parentage and a childhood spent in the Australian outback, gazing at the stars. 

The idea for No Man’s Sky emerged, as ridiculously ambitious ideas often do, over drinks. “It was just this pub-conversation sort of thing,” Murray recalls. “I remember us gathered around saying, ‘So, actual planets, then. Actual planet-sized planets.’”To render such a vast cosmos with a staff of just 13, Hello Games relied on a technique called “procedural generation,” which uses a computer algorithm to turn a single seed of an object in the game world—a four-legged creature, a rock formation, a plant, a spaceship—into millions of variations. Though it does adhere to a certain aesthetic (a gorgeous one at that, inspired by the covers of ’70s sci-fi paperbacks), the No Man’s Sky universe depends on randomness just as life on Earth depends on chance mutations. As in our universe, there is no guarantee that a given planet will be inhabited or inhabitable, and landscapes can range from the psychedelic to the mundane. A player could spend weeks on one planet and only see a fraction of it. 

When it is released for Playstation 4 and Windows, likely next year, No Man’s Sky should appeal to both gamers and non-gamers. It has a nominal objective—to reach the center of the universe—and you can trade resources, hunt wild game, and engage in galactic dogfights. But the pacing of No Man’s Sky will be more Solaris than Star Wars. Murray wants players to rigorously document and dutifully share their discoveries with the online community, like modern Magellans or latter-day Darwins. 

No Man’s Sky is a deeply personal work, inspired by Murray’s own travels. Wanderlust is a quintessentially Irish impulse, Murray says, one to which his parents weren’t immune. After a stint farming in Ireland, Murray’s father decided to move his wife and five children across the world to a million-acre farm in Queensland, Australia. “There were these massive wide-open spaces, being completely alone basically—dinosaur fossils and crazy night skies, as well,” Murray recalls. “My parents claim full ownership of No Man’s Sky.” 

What he remembers most about living in the unforgiving outback are his father’s survival tips–always carry matches; light fire at dawn, noon, and dusk; don’t try to find shade. A decade ago, after his snowmobile broke down during a failed trip to see the Northern Lights, Murray watched his pack of cotravelers move farther and farther ahead, their guiding tracks getting slowly buried in the snow. For the first time since his childhood, he felt that sense of danger once again, and he wanted to bring that to the world of No Man’s Sky

“We want people to have to really earn this exploration, to fight to survive,” Murray says. “Go further. Just find your way in the universe.”