No Man’s Sky is a Study in Size

“The greatest mystery the universe offers is not life but size. Size encompasses life, and the Tower encompasses size. The child, who is most at home with wonder, says: Daddy, what is above the sky? And the father says: The darkness of space. The child: What is beyond space? The father: The galaxy. The child: Beyond the galaxy? The father: Another galaxy. The child: Beyond the other galaxies? The father: No one knows.
“You see? Size defeats us.”

– The Man in Black, The Gunslinger

At launch, No Man’s Sky was a strange thing. If you judged it on the merits of its gameplay, there was plenty to dislike. If you judged it on the merits of its exploration, there was a surprising (apparent) limit to what was out there for you to find, whether hand-crafted or procedurally generated. Even its most ardent defenders would be hard-pressed contesting these points. Sure, its universe was unknowably massive, but if the gameplay was boring and the structures, waypoints, and relics were all the same, why bother? I felt this way at first.  However, one evening as I left work, it dawned on me what this game had to offer: not engaging gameplay, nor limitless exploration.  These were merely window dressing for size. No Man’s Sky was, and still is, a size simulator, and it contextualizes size better than anything else I’ve seen.

 

In my first evening playing NMS, I flew from my starting planet into orbit, and from there I touched on and explored all the planets in my first solar system. Satisfied, and pretty impressed with the game’s technological achievements, I went to bed. The next day, on my way home from work, I spotted the moon rising into the afternoon sky. As it was nearly full, I could see its craters, its roundness, and (though I had looked at the moon countless times in my life) for the first time, it seemed close. I could conceive of its distance. It was less a concept of the moon, this flat disc in the sky, than it had been the day before. It felt tangible, as if it was as much a part of the physical world I inhabit as the car I sat in, or the road I drove down. I saw depth in the sky where before I had seen none.I didn’t find God or anything. I muttered, “Huh.” I held the moon’s alabaster gaze a little longer than I normally do. Later that night, aware and quite personally critical of NMS’ many flaws, I still happily turned it on and dove back in for an hour or two. I didn’t find anything that surprised me, I didn’t find a gun that felt good to shoot, I didn’t find a ship that felt good to fly, but to this day, I continue to benefit from how NMS illustrates relative size on a massive scale.

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