The common cries of disappointment that surround No Man’s Sky stem from the exciting idea of an infinite universe clashing with the harsh reality of an infinite universe.
There are two endings to No Man's Sky, and both are the very definition of anti-climactic. Fans that were already disappointed with the game latched onto the endings as justification for their feelings, undeniable proof that No Man's Sky was a creative failure. But they're wrong.
The endings certainly lack spectacle, especially the kind of destructive spectacle that defines a lot of games, but that's the point. When you think about what kind of game No Man's Sky is -- the ideas it expresses, the things it considers important, and the things that it wants you to consider important -- then these anticlimaxes become inevitable and revelatory. Together, they make a quiet yet grandiose statement about life's relationship to the universe, expressed through the mechanics of gameplay.
In the build up to the release of No Man’s Sky, Hello Games emphasized the size of the universe more than anything else. Heck, the soundtrack is titled “Music for an Infinite Universe”/ An IGN preview from Gamescom 2014 described the game with this anecdote:
In the early days of development, the team was using a 32-bit number to generate all the planets in the universe. It seemed like plenty at the time, and as [Hello Games co-founder] Sean told us, 'with that 32-bit number it would take you four or five thousand years to see every planet if you spent only a second on each one.' However, the team wasn’t satisfied with that level of cosmic scale and wanted to go even further, partially in response to message board threads saying that there’s no way No Man’s Sky universe can be truly infinite because all technology has a limitation. While technically correct, Sean let us know that the team at Hello Games upped the ante and the No Man’s Sky universe is now being created using a 64-bit number.
That’s two to the power of 64 planets, which Sean tells us would take about five billion years to explore if you spent one second on each; and that's with no bathroom breaks. Given that the Earth’s sun has about 4.6 billion years of fuel left before it flickers out and dies, that pretty much ensures no one will ever see every planet in No Man’s Sky. So yeah, not infinite, but really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really big. Even bigger than what you’re thinking right now. No, bigger.
It’s clear that Hello Games takes pride in the size of their game, but games are always being marketed and hyped based on their size. Destiny was compared to Halo: Reach and GTA V was compared to GTA IV, but the talk from Hello Games feels different -- at least in retrospect.
When those other developers talk about the size of their games, there's an implication that all that space will be filled with stuff to do. When those games talk about size, they're really talking about content -- or at least that’s the unspoken assumption by a majority of gamers. But when Hello Games talked about size, they continually stressed size over anything else to the point where people were unclear about the actual gameplay systems in the actual game right up until release. Gamers might see value in size as a means to engaging with more content, but Hello Games sees value in size itself. An infinite universe is valuable purely because it’s an infinite universe, regardless of what you can or can’t do in that universe. The size itself is awesome. That’s the central belief that No Man’s Sky tries to instill in the player.
The closest thing to a story in the game is the Atlas Path, a series of encounters with a monolithic red orb that had some role in the creation of the universe. We’re essentially on a quest to meet God, but by the end, our unnamed Traveler only finds emptiness in the destination.
Initially, we undertake the journey seeing purpose and importance in the destination. The text of one Atlas visit reads: “The act of discovery for discovery’s sake now seems like a foolish conceit. I have rejected the random and untethered path of the itinerant, and I am better for it”.
About halfway through our journey we learn the truth of the universe: “The code that underpins the universe comes to me in glimpses, half-remembered visions. Existence as a synthetic, governed by monolithic, complex algorithms. A program, as infinite as a universe. I am drawing back the veil on reality and what I see there is terrifying.”
Realizing we’re part of a simulation is terrifying because now we must question our motivation: "What drives me on? Is it curiosity, free will? This is the illusion; I have become automata, I am the experiment and the observer. This universe was created for my journey. It is built about the path that I follow.”
When we finally reach the end, we use the items that we’ve collected thus far to create a new star, and with it, a new traveler on a new journey. We fulfill our part in this cycle, and once we complete this part, our destiny, the role for which we were programmed and created, we are left unsatisfied: “My journey is complete. A great sense of fulfillment washes over me, but fades as I realize that, for all my efforts, I am unchanged.”
We’re then left to find our own way through the universe, to find a purpose in life beyond this end goal. There’s still the matter of getting to the center of the galaxy, another goal that promises revelations, but traveling to the galactic center just transports us back to the outer edge to start over: a kind of New Game+. Our ultimate destination is the start of another journey.
This quiet and anticlimactic non-ending has annoyed and infuriated many people, but it’s actually a perfect ending for this game.
G. Christopher Williams wrote a piece for PopMatters about teleology and No Man’s Sky, how the game tries to provide us with a sense of divine purpose, even as the procedural generation argues against divine purpose.
The word teleology is derived from the Greek word for 'purpose' (telos), and indeed, it is purpose that one questions in a randomly generated universe. Human beings like ends, goals, and purposes. They make our existence seem important, or to be rather circular about it, they make our existence seem purposeful.
[...]While the player can do as he or she wishes in this procedurally randomly generated world, the task of “reaching the center of the universe” is a suggestion of a goal given to the player at the beginning of the game. So, while many players were fascinated by the idea of simply exploring a less than deliberately designed universe, many players also presumed that, perhaps, a purpose for doing so might be made clear at that location. An answer to 'Why do what we do in this universe?' might emerge from reaching that externally assigned goal.
No Man’s Sky actually walks a fascinating teleological line. The universe clearly has a purpose in that it’s a simulation, something specifically designed. On the other hand, it was created by complex algorithms, not hand-crafted, which undercuts that assumption of purpose. On the other other hand, the algorithms were hand-crafted, so this randomly generated universe must be working off of some kind of predetermined blueprint.
Then there’s us. Part of our purpose is to create another traveler like us. We’re part of a cycle, both special and insignificant, a small cog in a giant machine, but still a cog in the machine nonetheless. This is why we follow the Atlas Path. The other part of our purpose is to explore the universe. This is why we head to the galactic center. These are vague goals with no satisfactory resolution, which seems to argue against a teleological universe (There’s no reason for existence. We simply exist.), but that’s not actually true. When we consider these endings within the context of the fiction, No Man’s Sky is actually quite explicit about what purpose we should seek in the randomness.
Atlas is the god of this universe, but it is not omnipotent. It probably didn't create the universe (that was the work of the complex algorithms governing this simulation of reality), but it does control how we interact with the universe. If it's not the creator, it is most certainly the caretaker. Atlas did, however, create the monoliths and the sentinels, and the former artifacts gave rise to intelligent life: “The Korvax Echoes tell of a time, long ago, when the Monoliths of Atlas woke the civilizations of the Outer Edge. Their presence filled them with a desire for knowledge.” This naturally raises the question: “Why create life?”
The sentinels provide the answer. They protect the divine universe from that life, killing anything that destroys too much of the universe. Intelligent life was created with a natural desire for knowledge, but if it starts to destroy the universe as it was created, then the sentinels punish them. Clearly, Atlas is telling us that there’s a proper way to live and an improper way to live. Atlas didn't create life because it wanted to be worshiped. It created life because it wanted the universe itself to be worshiped. Well, okay, not worshiped exactly, it's not looking to start a religion, more like ... to be appreciated. The invisible algorithms are an artist, Atlas is the artist’s assistant, we’re the audience, and the universe is the art. We were created to admire and marvel at this art, its diversity, its repetition, and most importantly its size, and then to invite others to do the same.
If we assume this to be true, if the purpose of life is to admire the space around us, then any journey is a means of fulfilling that purpose, and any ending contradicts that purpose. It’s important to note that we learn the true nature of the universe in the middle of our journey, not at the end. The journey brings revelation and understanding. The destination brings a stop to the revelations and understanding. Being reset after reaching the galactic center seems anticlimactic, but it’s really an exclamation point on the idea that the game has been expressing the whole time. The infinite universe is awesome.
No Man’s Sky walks a fine teleological line. The universe is random, but life is not. The universe is procedurally generated, but we are made with a purpose. Our purpose is to admire the randomness, to marvel at the infinite procedural generation.
Ultimately, No Man’s Sky doesn’t care how the universe was created, whether through a Big Bang, divine intervention, or complex algorithms. The end result is the same, and the end result is wondrous. The universe is infinite. Think about that, let a true understanding of that scale sink in as you travel from star to star, then be awed by the impossible magnitude of it all and realize that an ending was never possible.