I don’t know where I am. This is a strange world to me, and unkind. I have no memory of how I came to be here, but in exchange for this amnesia, I have been given technology that shields me from the harsh surroundings. It is greedy for fuel, but it suffices. I can explore.
Way back in the long ago of 2016, a game called No Man’s Sky was released. Its launch was accompanied with a huge amount of hype and an equal amount of disappointment. The promise of multiple galaxies worth of exploration was undermined by a lack of things to do and procedurally generated worlds that were unique in their details but repetitive in sum. Add to that a lack of functioning multiplayer gameplay and No Man’s Sky was, at launch, a vast expanse of loneliness.
Near where I came to consciousness, I found a crashed ship. Half wrecked and unfit for the skies, it seemed an omen of a past better forgotten. I chose to leave it behind and struck out instead in search of habitation. From local plants and rocks I can keep the technology that preserves me fuelled. This world is severe, but it sustains me.
Over the next few years, Hello Games, the developer of No Man’s Sky, released a stream of patches and updates for the game that expanded the things a player could do and added variety to the countless worlds. (Thus making No Man’s Sky one of the few things on this benighted planet to have improved continuously since 2016.) And somewhere along the way, I jumped on board. I woke on a strange planet and set out to explore the worlds beyond.
This world is not untouched. I came across an abandoned facility, built who knows how many years ago. Buried in its technology, I came across a signal. Somewhere across the hills and valleys of this world, a distress signal still calls out. My existence has been graced with a direction.
Since then, it’s become one of my more-played games. I’ve explored through many updates, constructing an array of bases across many worlds, and managing a fleet of fully upgraded ships from my capital ship. I have, in other words, done pretty much everything the game has to offer. For the past year or so, I was only dipping back in whenever something new was released.
There are techniques for survival that this world has taught me. Carbon and Sodium will serve to maintain life support and power, but it is more efficient to craft fuel cells and life pods for these purposes. To do so requires delving into caves in search of rarer minerals, which also offers the benefit of temporary protection from the harsh environment of the surface. However, the caves extend for many miles and not all paths lead back to the harsh light of day.
This is the problem of procedurally generated content. After a while, you’re just going to be seeing variations on what you’ve seen before. A new gameplay loop, such as the corrupted sentinels and sentinel ships introduced in the last update, “Interceptor,” can be woven into the setting, but any narrative essentially sits on top of the game world. My bases and ships may be all my own work, but the story I’ve experienced is the same as anyone else’s.
My efforts to survive on this world are not unopposed. There are sentinels here that object violently to my plundering; robotic guardians that float in peace across the surface but gather in wrath when I transgress. I have learned to avoid their gaze and so endure. The few other aliens I have encountered have been isolated traders or scientists. I lack a language they would understand, but I have been able to trade with them for credits and equipment that might serve me later.
An answer to this dilemma recently presented itself. Watching a YouTuber’s public play session, I saw a new option for a new game: ignore the starter ship. Rather than accept the nearby crashed ship that the game directs you towards, head out into the wilderness and look for other options: follow a distress signal to a crashed ship, come across a crashed ship by chance, or find a trading post and buy one of the ships that lands there.
The distress signal that I follow is far distant, but my journey grows swifter. Scavenged technology has improved both my survival suit and my mining tool. My jet pack now carries me across narrow valleys and cushions my descent from great heights. My scanner can now detect buildings at a greater distance. Still, I must not be careless. Even with these improvements, I could easily die from a fall or neglecting my protection or sustenance.
The first time I tried this, I got lucky. A distress signal pointed me to a crashed ship only an hour’s travel away. Quite quickly, I was spacebound, trading in my scavenged ship for a pristine model and prospering across several systems. However, the sense of immersion in the world for that first few hours was so impressive, that I decided to up the difficulty. I started again in Survival mode (in which several basic technologies are unavailable at the start) and Iron Man (one life only, with the save game deleted on death). The result was interesting…
I wish I could convey to you the feeling of skimming millimetres over a ridge line, then landing soft-footed on the next peak. To clamber to the top of a mesa in order to survey the land for miles around, then cast yourself to the winds and direct your fall wherever you wish to go. To play hide and seek with implacable robotic guardians, like some scavenging imp. This world is harsh, yes, but there is joy here. Still, I have travelled for many hours and my quarry feels as far distant as ever.
This time, I started on a desert world. I quickly located another distress signal … 18 hours travel away. No problem, I figured, I’ll head that way and find another signal or a crashed ship along the way. Several game sessions later, and every distress signal pointed the same way. I’d enhanced my suit and mining tool with the technology I’d found along the way, but it looked like I was in this for the long haul.
In the shadow of a wrecked freighter, I came across a trading post. I’d gathered credits and hoped to bargain for one of the ships that landed there, but it seemed that what I owned was insufficient. Until I remembered one other thing I possessed: knowledge of the location of the ship I had abandoned. A trader in a small scientific vessel was willing to accept the prospect of salvage in addition to everything else I offered. I was no longer bound to the surface of this world.
About halfway through my trek, I picked up the signal of a crashed freighter. It was a bit of a detour but not too far away. So I ventured that way and picked over the gigantic ruin. On the way back to my route, I stumbled across a trading post. In No Man’s Sky, this is one of two kinds of places (the other being the space port that most systems have) where you can be guaranteed to encounter landing ships. I initially scavenged in the area for valuable goods to increase my credit count, but when I realised the trade-in value of the starter ship, the skies belonged to me.
I do not know where I will go now. I do not know if I have a past to discover. I do not know how far this universe I inhabit extends. But I will never forget the world on which this life of mine began.
Ultimately, once you’ve made it into space, the game’s story reintegrates with the rest of the NMS experience as crafted by Hello Games. But that first world? The struggle to survive and find a way off the surface forced me to actually engage with the starter world, to write a little story of perseverance in my own head. And that story is unique and solely mine. It’s opened my eyes, and the next time I go back to a game I feel I’ve played out, I’ll first ask myself how changing just one rule might change the narrative.