Every location and species in No Man’s Sky is automatically assigned a name by the game’s computer, but players are encouraged to come up with their own and receive a monetary reward for doing so every time. It’s possible to avoid labeling things, but doing so quickly makes the game near-impossible to navigate, since the computer-generated monikers are forgettable gibberish. Some players take an extremely literal approach, labeling dangerous planets with some variation of “DON’T GO HERE.” This being the internet age, others have leaned hard on current memes and topical events—are you surprised there’s already a Harambe system? Or a Planet Trump? The game’s blank slate can invite people to resort to pop-culture references just to avoid overthinking a new name, but the more creative the idea, the more satisfying it is.
My own approach hasn’t been very consistent—sometimes I use the names of people I know, or fictional characters, or random objects I might spot in the room, cataloging species as Anchorman’s Brick Tamland might profess his love for a lamp. One morning, I was eating a bagel as I landed on a particularly salmon-pink moon, so I dubbed it “Lox”; after that, everything else in that solar system had to be named after the bagel topping it most closely resembled. But sometimes I’ll spend hours on a planet before deciding what to call it, getting caught up trying to think of something both evocative and appropriate for its features (be they lakes of radioactive waste, red-budded flowers that grow 50 feet into the sky, or hellish storms that kick up every 10 minutes).
When I first saw the trailer for No Man’s Sky, I never would have guessed the game would primarily be about communication and the power of words. But without the ability to name things, I don’t know that No Man’s Sky would have held up for me as well as a gaming experience. Its central “goal,” which involves charting a course toward the center of the galaxy, doesn’t strike me as a particularly interesting use of my time when I could instead be a free agent, slowly building my own map of the stars. Language is important elsewhere in the game: There are three major alien races you encounter over your journeys, and over time you compile a vocabulary so you can interact with them in more advanced ways.
No Man’s Sky isn’t the first of its kind to allow for such personalization. The many iterations of the Civilization series allow players to call their cities whatever they want (though the default options are all rooted in real-world history). When I first fired up the X-COM games, in which players direct a team of soldiers to fight an enemy invasion force, I wasn’t particularly interested. But when I realized you could rename the grunts (which I did, immediately, after people I knew), my investment in their well-being skyrocketed, and I quickly found myself fiercely protective of their skills and promotions, and completely unwilling to leave any of them behind. The brilliant fantasy game Darkest Dungeon—a medieval take on the same formula that can end with custom-named players going insane or turning on their teammates—was a similarly wrenching gameplay experience.