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No Man’s Sky expects you to do the heavy lifting of the universe

No Man’s Sky expects you to do the heavy lifting of the universe

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A summary of The Library of Babel, one of my favorite corners of the internet, reads like the log-line of a forgotten episode of The Twilight Zone: though the Library of Babel contains every book from human civilization, you will never find the story you’re looking for.

Created by writer and programmer Jonathan Basile, his friends, and a very busy bot, Babel is intended to make available within an internet archive every book that has and ever will be published. The project has already produced, according to the About page, roughly 10 to the 4,677th power books. Safe to say the catalog far exceeds that of every library on the planet combined. There is no creative logic or reasoning to the bot’s creative process, just a brute force exercise that churns what feels like an infinite combination of 1,312,000 available characters. Visit for yourself. At best, you’ll spot a handful of English words peppered onto page after page after page of gibberish. Because free of curation, guidance, and craft, gibberish becomes the default. The goal is scale, not style.

The library contains every book, but you'll never find what you want

If all of this sounds familiar, perhaps you’ve been playing the much anticipated No Man’s Sky. A sort of video game equivalent of this experimental library, the creators of No Man’s Sky have used algorithms to create a virtual universe to scale. That is to say, the game includes 18 quintillion planets, each a bit larger or smaller than our own, and randomly populated with its own flora and fauna.

Like Babel’s books, No Man’s Sky’s planets are abstractions, long stretches of procedurally generated valleys, mountains, and oceans lightly sprinkled with prefabricated space colonies and objectives that garnish the spaces with purpose.

A universe of 18 quintillion planets exudes a sense of sameness

Within the first few hours, players learn to walk, shoot, mine, craft, and ultimately hop from one planet to the next via spacecraft. The colors, sizes, and shapes of things vary, but the 18 quintillions planets never quite manage to best the richness of setting you will find in an anthology of sci-fi short stories or the seven main Star Wars films.

Where Babel combines its million-plus characters, No Man’s Sky also builds with a finite collection of materials, assembling its worlds and creatures from a deep pool of art assets and code. Babel’s variety of made-up words is charming, but a million of its pages are rarely as interesting as one well-constructed sentence. Something similar can be said for the umpteenth planet of No Man’s Sky.

No Man's Sky

There’s minimal motivation and curation here, particularly compared to expensive blockbuster video games which are often designed, for better and worse, to hold the players hand as they cross the proverbial street. For decades, games have trained players that going down a hidden path leads to treasure. In No Man’s Sky, a secret path leads to an infinite amount of even more paths. Or it simply ends. The game expects its players to shirk decades of Pavlovian training and find the reward in the journey itself.

Don't find meaning; make it

In this way, this universe’s flaws — the lack of curation, of intentional flow — fold in on themselves, becoming invitations for the player to fill in the blanks: don't find meaning in this universe, make it. The game offers little info on the smallest critter to the largest galaxy, and instead invites us to name our discoveries.

That is, unquestionably, No Man’s Sky’s strength: the ease with which it nurtures curiosity. I have so many questions, some silly, others heady, most somewhere in-between. Like why should I care about the one planet and its population when there are seemingly infinite others? Why not bleed the universe of its materials in pursuit of constant forward momentum. The game’s answer is curiously the omniscient and ever-judgmental eye of Santa Claus: Robotic police hover the universe, punishing those who misbehave. Even the answers lead to questions. Who pays the taxes for these robots' upkeep? Truly, I want to know.

But there are also the practical questions: the who, what, when, where, why, and how. Where should I next? Who will I meet? What will I make? Running beneath all of these is the tacit hope of finding a planet where, by luck of the algorithm, the universe clicks. Like science’s hope of finding another Earth, maybe the next planet of No Man’s Sky will have a biome with just the right combination of materials to unintentionally inspire that sense of meaning in us. Maybe the next page in the Library of Babel will, by pure coincidence, have a line from Hamlet.

The next page might be Hamlet

An artificial layer of gaminess — crafting, trade, and progress toward the center of the universe — has been built around No Man’s Sky planets, nobly attempting to give them purpose, to remedy its aimlessness. But I’ve found pleasure in No Man’s Sky more as conceptual art than as a mainstream video game meant to be solved or completed.

After all, I don’t visit the Library of Babel to read a book. I open the endless pages because they combine to achieve a holistic power: this page of nonsense is one of countless variables, some of which will be discovered, on their own, by the most important minds that aren’t yet born. They’re free of context, and yet they contextualize everything I’ve ever read or will read or won’t read.

And yet, No Man’s Sky, somehow, does something even more spectacular. It frames our itty-bitty place in the universe. Is it fun or well-made or any of the things I think a game should aspire to be? I'm still unsure. But it humbles. What other game does that?