Underwater, someone explores the wreckage of a crashed ship, swimming among exotic, alien fish. Then they surface onto an alien beach, bordered by tall red grass, before hopping into a spaceship, blasting into the sky, and zipping through an asteroid field in search of more celestial bodies. In 2013, a two-minute “announcement trailer” sparked an instant frenzy of anticipation in the world of video gaming. “Every planet unique. Every planet unexplored,” it boasted, promoting No Man’s Sky as a sort of cosmic Minecraft, a universe-sized sandbox for players to discover. How did the hype get so impossibly large, and could the game even hope to live up to its promise?
Three years later, after waves of fan excitement, multiple delays, and untold rumors about the game’s tortured development process, No Man’s Sky finally arrived on Tuesday and is available for purchase on the PlayStation 4 and PC. Booting the game up and navigating its world is as daunting as its early advertising suggested, and there’s certain mundanity to its early hours, perhaps befitting your avatar’s status as a speck in a giant universe. But it also turns the mere act of discovery into thrilling, fulfilling joy—this is a game whose objectives are liberated from a hackneyed story arc, and where agency is invested entirely in the player. There are no rails—simply jump in your ship, blast into space, and make your own adventure.
Despite its staggering size, No Man’s Sky was created by a a tiny British company called Hello Games (or, more specifically, by just four of its employees). Its co-founder Sean Murray wanted to visualize his dreams of embarking as an astronaut to unexplored alien worlds; he and his team created a complex game engine that could generate near-infinite random environments, plants, and creatures. The indie-game phenomenon Minecraft used similar technology to create a Neptune-sized planet with unpredictable landscapes for players to roam around on. No Man’s Sky takes that principle and multiplies it: Instead of one planet to explore, it has 18 quintillion.
It’s that boundless possibility, and the independent spirit of Hello Games, that made No Man’s Sky so appealing when it was first announced. The game exists in an online world that ever player is connected to; everyone is exploring the same universe in their own separate ships, naming planets, flora, and faunae that they discover and that other intrepid explorers might later stumble across. On paper, it sounds like a revolutionary title, one that could bust open new avenues for the medium of gaming. Super Mario 64 turned the side-scrolling platform game into a 360-degree experience. Metal Gear Solid presented itself as a work of living cinema, one the player could move through and affect with their actions. Grand Theft Auto turned the “sandbox game,” where players roam an open world, into an industry norm. No Man’s Sky aims to do the same, but with an open universe.
The early hours of the game are slow going, as it introduces its core mechanics one by one. Stranded on a planet, you have to harvest its minerals and isotopes to repair your ship; once you’re in space, you begin to learn the vagaries of interstellar navigation, first hopping around a local solar system before upgrading your engines to faster-than-light travel. The planetary landscapes are suitably bizarre: The skies are every color in the Crayola box (from pine green to burnt sienna), the ground covered in misshapen, glowing outcroppings, with hybrid animals walking around that look like escapees from the Island of Dr. Moreau.
You might stumble across remote outposts, or colossal space stations, and meet aliens looking to trade goods or initiate diplomacy. Much like Minecraft, No Man’s Sky takes a perverse pleasure in not making things easy—if you don’t speak the alien’s language (and you probably don’t), you’ll have to communicate through simple gestures to get things done. There’s an undeniably social aspect to a game this vast—already, the internet is pooling its resources to figure out the game’s secrets and pass around tips and hints. That collective spirit is part of Hello Games’ mission, but like many big titles, No Man’s Sky has also laid bare some of the more uncomfortable aspects of gaming fandom.
As anticipation built, the game’s subreddit became a hub of near-religious fervor, with fans speculating furiously about every last detail in every piece of promotional material. One fan spent more than $1,000 to obtain an unfinished preview copy of the game. Hello Games’ Murray was profiled by The New Yorker more than a year before the game’s release. He appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbertin October, demonstrating the massive scale of his game and letting the late-night host name a solar system after himself. “And I thought Morgan Freeman was God,” Colbert joked, referring to the episode’s other guest.
Online fandom can often get out of hand—witness the nightmare spawned by the Gamergate cadre, or the repeated harassment of critics and fans that plays out with the release of almost any superhero movie. Indeed, when the release date for No Man’s Sky was pushed from June 21 to August 9, some fans were apoplectic. The author of a Kotaku article announcing the delay, Jason Schreier, was bombarded with threats simply for reporting the news. Whether the game itself will live up to these impossible expectations seems almost beside the point—and it will likely take weeks, if not longer, for players to know for sure. But for now, early reaction seems undoubtedly positive.
No Man’s Sky has the advantage of being big enough to avoid scorching insta-takes from reviewers and fans. Even after hours of play, there’s a sense of barely scratching the surface of what it can offer. In contrast to a game like Minecraft, a pixelated indie creation that slowly built out its fandom over years of updates and small-scale tweaks, No Man’s Sky arrives burdened with a reputation as a game-changer, and it may turn off some casual players with its quiet beginning. But the first time you get your ship working, blast off into the atmosphere, and emerge into the starry void, there’s a sense of infinite possibility ahead—a feeling that few games in the history of the medium have ever inspired.