I left my first planet in the early hours of the morning.
It was a simple affair, when all was said and done. I farmed resources; I fixed my ship; I rocketed into the atmosphere and beyond without a single false start or stumble. With my TV's volume on low, the roar of space travel was closer to the buzz of my AC unit than the fanfare of a first launch. A brief swell in the music, and a message flash on screen — that was my congratulations. No one yelling or smiling or saying anything at all; not a single other human was around to witness my achievement.
This — learning to love your own success, even when it exists in a vacuum — may be the single most common experience a player has in No Man's Sky. There are 18 quintillion procedurally generated worlds in Hello Games' space sandbox, and you'll explore them all alone. It's not the game we expected, but something better: a dive into loneliness and solitude in a way few games have ever achieved.
The things they left behind
No Man's Sky players exist in a connected universe, but this is not a multiplayer game. According to Hello Games, the chances of players crossing paths is "pretty much zero." We've seen this tested. Two players, after happening upon a common planet, fervently tried to meet one another. They streamed their efforts on Twitch, only to find themselves in the same place at seemingly different points in the day — two star-crossed explorers separated by space, time and perhaps bad Wi-Fi.
The lack of overt multiplayer in a game as vast as No Man's Sky has been a turnoff for some, sparking player complaints and a silly discussion of "how hard" it is to add to a game. This is missing the point.
No Man's Sky doesn't give a damn about you
No Man's Sky is an exercise in isolation, more so than a regular single-player experience, because it feels as though it's meant to be shared. It's impossible to see everything the game has to offer on your own; no matter how many times you beat it, you'll never truly experience it all. And, unlike your typical single-player game, No Man's Sky does not exist in a bubble. The game may be unimaginably large, but with enough time and players, it's still possible to discover footprints left by others: planets, systems, species they've named, and places they've seen. Another player may have stood where you now stand only minutes ago, but you might as well be scavenging ancient ruins.
These markers serve as both a connection to other players and a reminder that in this game we are truly, deeply alone. There is something poetic in the Twitch streamers' discovery that they couldn't find each other, and something profoundly sad — like missing a loved one who left for a long trip just moments before you got home. Critics and players alike tend to heap praise on the games that connect us, but we have so few words for the ones that remind us of what it feels like to be on our own.
Being alone is hard. It's also an essential part of being a person. Instead of drowning in that crushing sense of loneliness, however, No Man's Sky encourages us to embrace it. The game has a plot. You have a purpose. But it's also possible to spend the entirety of your time doing nothing at all. Like the real world, No Man's Sky doesn't give a damn about you or what you do. You have to find joy in things for you and only you, because no one else is around to share it.
One of the greatest privileges of adult life is the power to turn everyone else off, but it's also one of the most fleeting. We only shoulder more responsibility as we get older; more obligations to family, friends and work. I may never "beat" No Man's Sky, but its true appeal has never been in its ending. It peddles a commodity more rare than any you'll find on the surface of its planets: the luxury of being alone.