Every particle in the universe is accounted for. The precise shape and position of every blade of grass on every planet has been calculated. Every snowflake and every raindrop has been numbered. On the screen before us, mountains rise sharply and erode into gently rolling hills, before finally subsiding into desert. Millions of years pass in an instant.
Here, in a dim room half an hour south of London, a tribe of programmers sit bowed at their computers, creating a vast digital cosmos. Or rather, through the science of procedural generation, they are making a program that allows a universe to create itself.
The ambitious project will be released as a video game this June under the title No Man’s Sky. In the game, randomly-placed astronauts isolated from one another by millions of lightyears must find their own existential purpose as they traverse a galaxy of 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 unique planets.
“The physics of every other game—it’s faked,” the chief architect Sean Murray explained. “When you’re on a planet, you’re surrounded by a skybox—a cube that someone has painted stars or clouds onto. If there is a day to night cycle, it happens because they are slowly transitioning between a series of different boxes.” The skybox is also a barrier beyond which the player can never pass. The stars are merely points of light. In No Man’s Sky however, every star is a place that you can go. The universe is infinite. The edges extend out into a lifeless abyss that you can plunge into forever.