When you fly your spaceship into a planet’s atmosphere in the exploration video game No Man’s Sky, the first impression you get is one of color—the new surface might be dotted with angry red-veined mountains, or poisonous green lakes, or fields of aquamarine grass. As you hop out of your ship, you get initial readings on the planet’s atmosphere, its toxicity, and the aggressiveness of its flora and fauna. In a different, more formulaic sort of game, this information would exist only to prepare you for intense battles ahead, but in No Man’s Sky, if you don’t like the look of the place, you can leave immediately. Before doing so, there’s only one objective you must fulfill: naming the place you just stumbled upon.
No Man’s Sky is a daunting, boundless game that has equally delighted and befuddled fans since its release earlier this month. Promising an essentially infinite universe of solar systems for players to explore, it presents the player with so many options that gameplay can almost feel aimless, or existentially crushing. Why even bother to poke around one planet when there are roughly 18 quintillion more you’ll never get to? But in my first few weeks of obsessive gameplay, No Man’s Sky led me past this intimidating question by simply allowing me to name whatever I discover, whether that’s solar systems, planets, valleys, mountains, or animals—even if this straightforward creative task often stumps me for longer than more ostensibly challenging video-game puzzles.
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.
Like right now watching people naming stuff, in our beautiful universe, on our server— Sean Murray (@NoMansSky) August 8, 2016
Journalists ¯\_(シ)_/¯ pic.twitter.com/rbZm4yeX8o
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.
But these are all games that make you want to protect your cities, or soldiers, or knights in shining armor because of their special aliases. In No Man’s Sky, the planets can’t be hurt, and their natural inhabitants may even try to attack newcomers. No doubt this side of the game appeals most to the archivist, the slightly obsessive-compulsive type who might breathe a sigh of satisfied relief at the sight of every planet they’ve visited and cataloged in the game’s menu screens.
Perhaps that’s why No Man’s Sky’s engaged users have dropped dramatically since its launch. A game built for curators doesn’t sound like a blockbuster, hyped-up marketing aside. The quaint thrill of naming things might not mean much to people living on a planet that’s already been so thoroughly charted; the romantic idea of The Explorer seems to belong to a different era. But Wednesday’s news about Proxima Centauri, Earth’s closest neighbor, is a reminder of something No Man’s Sky remaining fanbase knows well: The universe is a vast place, and humans have yet to see it all.