Space is lonely, even the name implies distance and solitude. On Earth, we are often just a few feet or yards from other people, but just a quick jump to the closest solar system (Alpha Centauri) would take four years traveling at the speed of light. Even Mars, the closest planet to Earth, is six months away by contemporary space travel. You can fly to China in twelve hours, drive from New York to LA in two or three days, but in space, time is stretched out and distance becomes truly unfathomable. So for a game like No Man’s Sky, which to some degree prides itself on its realistic scale of size to the universe, it should come as no surprise just how lonely playing the game can be. As the title of the game implies, there is no one around, and the gameplay echoes this concept like a blunt object over the head.
To call intelligent life scarce in No Man’s Sky would be an understatement. The player traverses vast uncategorized planets filled with plants, animals, and fish, but often little to nothing that can talk to the player. There are occasional intelligent aliens that the player runs into, but these encounters are brief and due to the game’s science fiction leanings, are spoken in a language that the player often doesn’t understand. There is a debate as to whether or not No Man’s Sky has “true” multiplayer, in which two players can be on the same planet simultaneously and hang out, but even if it does, the chances of running into another player are about the same as running into another human if there were only a dozen on earth.
This, combined with the player’s scientific cataloging of mostly unresponsive species, large amounts of time spent traveling, the inclusion of sentinel robots that attack you if you do wrong but otherwise serve no purpose for you, leads to a game that feels more lonely than any other game that I’ve ever played. There is a true sense of distance when one is in No Man’s Sky that is ever present, ever looming over the player. You cannot escape yourself in No Man’s Sky there is little to do but analyze the self.
This loneliness is a very unique feeling for a video game. Even when I play other “lonely” games like Metroid Prime, The Long Dark, Alien: Isolation, or Braid, there is this overarching knowledge that the locations that the player are traversing are well traveled — that the path ahead has been tried and worn — if not by other players, then by the non player characters whose prior presence gives life to an otherwise lifeless place. No Man’s Sky offers no such recourse from isolation, but rather embraces a feeling of environmental ennui. You are walking upon the frontier, an unfathomable distance away from any civilization, a foreign explorer unsure of what they have just stepped into.
I would be remiss to say that this isn’t necessarily a positive thing for No Man’s Sky but is a fantastic thing for gaming. Because most games are preoccupied with keeping the player busy, there is rarely an intentional moment of listlessness like what takes up nearly the entirety of No Man’s Sky. Yet, this feeling isn’t exactly pleasant, in fact it sometimes makes No Man’s Sky feel a lot more boring than it actually is. There is a lot to do in the game, in fact more than any other game ever (supposedly). While the game’s activities may be occasionally recursive, an intentional player can keep finding interesting planets and solar systems to explore if they are committed. I do not consider the game boring, and I’m not trying to redefine “boring” to get you to like No Man’s Sky. Instead, I want to point out that this otherwise interesting game is like a snake charmer with a flute, mesmerizing the player and drawing out of them a feeling of ennui that cannot be easily duplicated by traditional video games.
Art imitates life. Even the most esoteric pieces of art are meant to be stabs at existence, at placing us in the universe as beings. I recently watched the film Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, which like No Man’s Sky, pursues this feeling of introverted distance and space. In the film, we follow a Japanese woman with little skill with English as she searches for the treasure from the film Fargo in northern Minnesota in the dead of winter. There is little dialogue, but the film is filled with beautiful images of the cold, vast, and deadly place that is the far north in winter. Similarly, in No Man’s Sky, the player exists in a surpassingly beautiful place, but one that is also cold, vast, and deadly.
This feeling is uncomfortable, unsettling, and occasionally awful. Playing Overwatch afterwards feels like I’m changing mediums, not just games. If Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter‘s natural beauty and strong sense of listlessness led to critical acclaim, does that mean No Man’s Sky is great? Not necessarily, but it does make me question my preconceived notions of what makes a “good video game.” Is fun king? What is drama in a game without dialogue? How long can one peer alone into the soul of the universe before they go mad? No Man’s Sky may be a dull game covered up by natural beauty, or it may be a beautiful game replicating not just the divine vastness of space, but also its supreme loneliness.