I've explored vast planetary systems, interacted with countless alien races, all from the comfort of my living room. Sadly, I'll never live out the dream of so many young dorks — to explore the far reaches of space, or even just to visit our moon.
That's where "No Man's Sky" comes in.
In "No Man's Sky" you're a lone explorer with a spaceship, a mining tool for resources, and a tremendous amount of ambition. Forget about the complex launch countdowns and breaking off of launch rockets — simply hop in your sweet starcruiser and jet from alien planet to outer space in seconds.
There's no complex backstory to learn, no lore book to explore. You're not embodying an overly confident space marine on a quest to "save the galaxy," or rallying a ragtag group of misfits who must come together to take on an ancient evil. You're just an explorer, and your only goal — if you choose to follow it — is to get to the center of the universe.
What happens when you get there? Your guess is as good as ours. I spent around 12 hours with "No Man's Sky" over the weekend, and as far as I can tell I'm nowhere near the center of the (vast) universe in the game. Instead, I spent that time hopping from planet to moon to planet, stopping every now and again at an interstellar trading post to exchange rare materials for space money.
The game works like this:
You start on an alien planet, you've got a space ship, and your first goal is to upgrade your space ship.
Why upgrade? So you can explore deeper reaches of the universe, in a quest to reach the center.
But, oh, this planet is quite nice. Maybe we'll stay here and explore for a bit.
That last bit is how "No Man's Sky" got me.
Like any good explorer, the main character (you) in "No Man's Sky" is armed with a scanner for identifying and recording alien life (both flora and fauna). Other than the reward you feel in your heart for having discovered a bunch of neat stuff, there is no real in-game reward for this level of record-keeping.
But every time I scaled a massive hill, I discovered a new savannah teeming with life.
And for every plant/animal I discovered and recorded, the library of the universe filled out a bit more. As I uploaded these discoveries to the game's main server, I realized that I was helping to fill out the collective knowledge of the universe (powered by the millions of people who are about to buy the game).
That same concept of collective discovery applies to the entire game.
"No Man's Sky" is the largest open-world game ever made. There are over 18 quintillion (18,000,000,000,000,000,000) planets to explore, the vast majority of which have life. All that space, and there's no map — the closest you'll get is the star map you see above. See all the stars above? Those are suns, each of which has several planets/moons orbiting.
To say "No Man's Sky" is a big game is to vastly misrepresent how ridiculous huge it is. It's literally impossible to explore in full.
And that's why the game's small team of creators is relying on the collective power of millions of players to discover and upload the plants/animals/moons/planets/galaxies they discover. There's even an in-game incentive to sharing your discoveries (money, which you can use to upgrade your mining tool/ship/space suit).
Sure, the game has space battles (space pirates want to steal your cargo). And there are structures on the alien planets you visit, sometimes inhabited by one or two aliens (who are, in my experience, rarely hostile). There's even a robot-powered police force that exists on every planet — the more animals you kill, the more resources you mine, the "hotter" you become to the space fuzz.
Don't wanna deal with the space police? You're welcome to shoot them down. But, just like in "Grand Theft Auto," the police are only going to come back with reinforcements.
Like this guy right here, straight out of "Star Wars":
All that said, to be completely frank, this isn't the point of the game. You could spend all your time maximizing weapons to take out space police, but the shooting isn't very fun nor is it rewarding.
Besides, don't you want to get back to exploring?
The answer is almost certainly an emphatic yes, you do. I've explored dozens of planets, and no two were alike. Some have what look like sea creatures flying majestically through the air. Others have animals that look like hopping mushrooms. Some are entirely desert, while others are entirely ice.
All of them, however, have underground systems waiting for you to explore. And every planet I've encountered has buildings to visit, where unknown treasures await. Maybe you'll find a blueprint for a sweet jetpack upgrade! Or maybe you'll have to solve a relatively simple puzzle tied to the long-ago death of an alien.
The sense of mystery, pervasive in every aspect of "No Man's Sky," is what drives me forward. I spent a huge portion of the weekend playing as much of "No Man's Sky" as possible (so that I could write this piece). That sense of mystery, however, is what drives me to rush home tonight and play the game.