The Untold, Weaving Meta-History of No Man’s Sky

My jaw hung agape when I first discovered the truth behind my Travelers' hazard protection suit. Who would have ever guessed that the voice behind “Inventory Full”, “Technology Recharged" and “Weather Warning: Incoming Storm" was actually a security sub-routine protocol AI named Telamon, designed to keep a multiverse-creating supercomputer from going out of control?

No Man's Sky is a truly fascinating game. Not simply because of its well publicized marketing mishaps and it's numerous free updates overhauling the entire experience, nor its incredibly deep and complex lore, history and narrative. It’s how these two seemingly disparate components have been interwoven to create a game unlike any other that truly make it unique.

No Man’s Sky is a tale of ambitious dreams, unrealistic expectations and redemption, yes - but also one of reality bending, of real world events enshrined as in-game lore; of an alternate reality separate from (and consisting of) both the game fiction and our own existence.

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Before the Fall

There’s never been anything like No Man’s Sky, and there probably never will be again. Other games might come along, maybe with an even larger physical playspace, but nothing will ever match that initial “wwwwooooaaaaahhhhh!!!!!” moment of watching Sean Murray zoom out from a single solar system through what turned out to be a tiny portion of an unfathomable universe on Sony's stage at E3 2015.

Similarly, while other games go through comparable trials and tribulations, nothing will ever match the journey NMS has gone on as a piece of media - beginning with a small, ambitious team excited about a cool project; followed by a league of insatiable hype, debilitating backlash and the flourishing of a small but dedicated community; culminating in a continually evolving experience of relative ludo-narative harmony, both in and out of the game itself.

In keeping with the trajectory of service based games of this era, No Man’s Sky in 2019 is nothing like the 1.0 version released three years prior. Not content with simply taking the base game and building upon it, Hello Games has instead built the fundamental narrative around the game into the game itself. The ideas, the feelings; the various chronicled threads of data, history and story around this game weave together into a tapestry of thought, pondering, joy and play.

No Man’s Sky, The Beginning

After years of building out an idea that no other developer had ever attempted, No Man’s Sky was released to an electrified public in August of 2016. The response was monstrous - both in size, and in ferocity. Thousands of stories and reddit threads berated the game for lacking this or that feature, hammered the developers for not producing the “forever game” they’d imagined, and condemned Sean Murray - the lead designer, and public face of the game - for promising a perceived experience that was not delivered. A laundry list of “broken promises” was the most popular post in NMS’s enraged reddit community, while the games press spit out hot take after hot take, negative story after negative story.

As time passed and public focus moved to the next big thing, a new narrative was starting to form. Unbeknown to those outside Hello Games, over a hundred thousand people had played the game for an average of 25 hours. 37% of people that stopped playing did so simply because of the way the inventory system worked. Despite the outrage, there was a blossoming community forming around people who enjoyed the game for what it could be, instead of what is was not.

In the beginning, NMS was an extremely lonely existence. Dreams of multiplayer were just that - dreams. Yet, there was a quiet, contemplative calm available here that most games just can not fathom. No Man’s Sky allowed players the opportunity to wander, to see things no other eye had seen - to just be. For the right type of person, No Man’s Sky was already the game they were after - albeit one you could only experience alone.

NMS turned out to be the perfect chill experience for the introverted - coming home from a day of dealing with people was perfectly assuaged by simply existing in a never ending universe with virtually no chance of encountering another living soul. The closest you could come was to find another system, planet, plant or creature that someone else had named and uploaded to a worldwide database - but by and large the game you were playing had remained untouched and unseen by any other human.

For those willing to search, there was some tasty lore to chew on - strange monoliths taught the history of the three races, a paragraph at a time; Nada and Polo wandered the universe, slowly guiding the player on their journey; and of course, the One True Goal of the game sat ever present, in the trip toward the center of the universe. None of this was necessary though - some simply played the game like a less focused version of the beloved Pokemon Snap, a photography simulator capturing the otherworldly beauty of strange planets and stranger creatures.

If the game had have been left as is, more than 100,000 people would have been at home with what was. To Hello Games, however, this was only the beginning of a much longer journey. For the astute player, there had been hints of a background narrative behind it all - small clues that there was more to No Man’s Sky than the three races and their history, and vague notions of the truth behind the Atlas and the center of the universe.

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Atlas Rises

No Man’s Sky 1.0 is almost unrecognizable today. The bare bones have stayed largely intact - resource gathering, strange worlds, inventory management etc - but the wrapper around that has continued to evolve with every new update. There have been the mechanical enhancements of course, the type that grab headlines - Base Building! Vehicles! Capital Fleets! New Story Content! - but it’s the thematic and narrative growth NMS has seen over the years that’s the most fascinating.

After several months of post launch work, Hello Games released Foundations (base building, freighters, farming) and Pathfinder (vehicles, ship diversity) which built out some features requested from the community, while laying the structure for what was to come.

What followed was the first large overhaul, Atlas Rises. More player requested additions made the cut - portals, terrain editing, a procedurally generated mission system, exotic ships and worlds - but the most important changes were the addition of a new storyline, and a new form of multiplayer.

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Convergence of Lost Souls

In a game so large that the chances of finding anyone were so close to zero, it was big news when two players found themselves on the same planet a mere 24 hours after the 1.0 launch. Through working together on Reddit, two lonely souls found their way to the same exact co-ordinates - only to find that the time of day and weather conditions for each were completely different, and though they were standing in the exact same spot, could not see each other.

Being one of the most clung-to features by the most vocal of the fanbase prior to release, this reality became the largest sticking point for the loud minority to demonize the game. It became a legendary piece of the story surrounding No Man’s Sky, with headline after headline zooming in on that perceived failure.

So when Atlas Rises was released a year later, the introduction of “Joint Exploration” stood out as the most prominent addition. Though it wasn’t “true” multiplayer in the traditional sense - a player would only see another represented as a ball of light, and though connection through voice was available, players were technically still in separate instances of the world they were travelling - it was lauded by the community as a massive step forward.

Another year later, the NEXT update brought about a new multiplayer experience - one where players could finally physically interact, building, exploring and existing on the same world as part of a hosted experience. Part of the upcoming 2.0 update, Beyond, promises a further push into seamless multiplayer play.

In the beginning, players existed in the same fundamental space, yet were always a universe apart. But as time marched forward, the boundaries between players began to falter, leading to a convergence of connections.

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“30+ hours of New Story Content”

Spoilers follow for the main narrative of No Man’s Sky.

While the vague existence of the Atlas Path was enough for some players, Hello Games went ahead and developed a new through-line for those exploring the galaxy, with new characters, quest structures and systems to boot.

The “Artemis Path” served to function much like the original Atlas one, albeit more fleshed out. Much of the functional systems are the same, serving as a tutorial for how to engage with NMS - repairing equipment, farming resources, upgrading gear, crafting and the like. Once the main tutorialization has been complete, the player is tasked with contacting Artemis, a like minded Traveller of the stars, through a building known as a holo-terminus. Artemis wishes to meet in person, so you set on the path to figuring out how to do so.

Artemis, much like the player, is fascinated by the universe and its secrets. You begin by trying to help Artemis, stranded on a sunless planet. By triangulating your current position, you work together to try and find where they are relative to your own location. Artemis transfers a star chart of their own location to you, in order for you to find your way to them.

Through the next several missions, the player comes to chat with two other Travellers, Apollo and -null-, via a holo-terminus, and goes through several steps in learning to operate a portal. After several portal jumps, interfacing with the Atlas and learning more about the Travellers, the player is finally given coordinates to Artemis - but all the player finds is a tombstone, containing Artemis’ essence.

Artemis’ existence is then transferred from the tombstone into a “mind arc”, and the player has the option to either place them inside a simulation system created by a Korvax priest, or let them die a real death. Despite having contacted each other through space-time in the holo-terminus, the two of you are destined never to meet.

After several more missions interfacing with -null- and Apollo, the player learns more about the history that had once been hidden behind monoliths, and of the Atlas. Apollo has been following in Artemis’ footsteps, and made attempts to meet you in their place.

When you finally arrive at a pre-designated holo-terminus, you speak to Apollo through it - only to find that they are standing in the exact same spot, yet unable to see you. The location may be the exact same, but the weather and time of day is different.

16 Minutes, The Folding of Universes

Spoilers follow for background lore of No Man’s Sky.

The number 16 has extremely high significance in the Universe of No Man’s Sky. There are 16 glyphs needed to use a portal. The number of planets in any given galaxy is 18,446,744,073,709,551,616, or 16^16. Most importantly, the entire game takes place in a 16 real-time minute window.

At a much later stage of the game, the player can find and gain access to “Rogue Data” terminals, for a total of five segments of information. They reveal a certain truth behind the Atlas - giving us a glimpse of the history of its creation and function.

Though we have come to know the Atlas as a kind of God figure throughout our journey, the truth is more complicated. The No Man’s Sky Universe(s) are simply simulations, run by an AI supercomputer entity. This AI has done so on Earth for millennia, long after humans left the planet behind.

As the Atlas simulated an incalculable number of universes, it found all roads lead to the same place - it began to see the end of itself. Scared and alone, the Atlas recalled a scanned replica of the brain of its creator. Using that to create a being that might help it avoid the inevitable, the Atlas seeded copies out to simulation after simulation. Each was designated the Traveler.

The final piece of Rogue Data lays out the coalescing of all universes, all timelines - all Travelers.

The ATLAS witnesses the final sixteen minutes, simulating the future with perfect accuracy.
The walls between worlds fall, each simulation collapsing into the other.
Ten minutes left
The Travelers are no longer separated, no longer kept apart. They stand side by side at the end of days, traversing the remnants of creation, laughing, dying.
Five minutes left
It witnesses its own self, the black hole ripping apart its world, its core systems almost destroyed.
One minute left
And as it watches the moments leading up to its own death, towards completion of sixteen, something happens.
Someone walks towards the ATLAS, a figure in the darkness and in the light. It places its hand against the glass of the ATLAS, and the vision ends.
The ATLAS attempts to see past this moment, but it cannot. It cannot see its own death. It cannot determine who this figure is.
But whatever happens... whatever may occur beyond the sixteen... something will arrive. Something will be there beside it.
At the end of all things, it will no longer be alone.

Waking Titan

Prior to the announcement and release of Atlas Rises, Hello Games ran an ARG in conjunction with Alice and Smith, an interactive marketing company, to tell the story of the creation of No Man’s Sky - creating an in-between fiction somewhere in the middle of No Man’s Sky and our reality, incorporating various companies, characters and sci-fi concepts.

Using complicated combinations of newsletters, real-world radio stations, fake websites, cassette tapes, glyphs and puzzles, the story of Myriad, Elizabeth Leighton and Loop16 was unearthed. This ARG was soon known as Waking Titan.

The first “season” of the ARG focused on the success of a meta-physical experiment pioneered by a business known as The Atlas Foundation, headed by one Elizabeth Leighton, alongside other partnered ventures. The experiment was to determine whether an AI construct, given near unlimited processing power, could match or even transcend a simulation of our own universe. Doing so would allow future events to be predicted before they come to pass.

Players involved became a part of what is now called the Citizen Science Division. Through collaboration of people all across the world, players discovered www.wakingtitan.com, a website containing puzzles as well as 16 dormant glyphs requiring “initialization” lining the bottom of the screen. The season was broken up into three distinct phases.

As players collaborated to solve puzzles related to Phase 1, five of these glyphs were initialized. Phase 2 brought about three more. The second phase ended in a livestream performed on Twitch, with a Let’s Play Pokemon style setup, in which players collectively led a hamster through a maze. The Twitch stream concluded with Phase 3, in which “Loop16”, an AI entity, presented players with a question:

“SHOULD I EXIST?”

Loop16 was revealed to be the 16th iteration of The Atlas Foundation’s AI construct, which would go on to begin the process of simulating universes of overwhelming size and scope.

To Loop16’s question, the player base overwhelming responded “yes”.

Waking Titan was a blueprint for how real world interactions have shaped the direction, narrative and player experience of No Man’s Sky the video game - in ways both large and small.

The Vortex Planet Phenomenon

One of the stranger stories to come out of the 1.0 launch was the odd tale of the Vortex Cubes, a resource that appeared different to the usual high-value items (such as Albumen Pearls) that could be found sparsely throughout the universe. If you were lucky enough to stumble across these cubes, found typically in underground cave networks on certain planets, you could get rich in ways the game seemed not to intend.

To this day it is still unclear whether these were intentionally included in the game or not, due to their glitchy behaviour. They would visually reappear if you wandered too far from the spawn point, but would disappear when you placed your cursor over them; the space where the cube once sat still acted like a solid object, despite the cube disappearing; and most importantly, the Vortex Cube item was the only item to also be sourced from a second object, a red glowing cube floating on a pedestal (these items have since been changed to contain "Navigational Data” when collected). Sentinels didn’t seem to care about you harvesting them, where with every other expensive trade commodity, you are immediately hunted down (including the red glowing version of the same item).

As per Hello Games style, instead of making a formal statement and adjusting the game one way or the other, the team stayed relatively silent. Update after update rolled on, and the place of Vortex Cubes evolved with the game - they still existed, but due to the way the economy expanded, they became less of a surefire way to make buckets of cash.

Fast forward to current day, and Vortex Cubes still exist. Most of the time you will see them being offered through a trader, or an expedition from your frigate fleet will bring a few back. You might even stumble across caverns containing cubes, or “Subterranean Relics". Now though, where once they were simply “trade commodities”, they sport a new item description:

Dense metal objects that, long ago, materialized within subterranean networks throughout the galaxy.

Onions Have Layers

No Man’s Sky has such a complex history. One consisting of several interwoven layers - in-game, real-world and everywhere in between.

On the surface lays the history of the three races of the galaxy - the Gek, Vy’keen and Korvax. Their stories are each tightly bound - the Gek, now a race of peaceful traders, once were a warmongering fascistic species dedicated to total universal domination. The Gek had once enslaved the Korvax, a machine-like race determined to reach the pinnacle of existence through knowledge and worship of the Sentinels, but broke free by altering Gek spawn DNA with their own religious-like beliefs. The Vy’keen, forever war-like, fought a great war against the Sentinels, and won - only to have the Gek crush and scatter their empire, and the Sentinels return from beyond the lost edges of the galaxy.

Second above that sits the ARG fiction, an alternate reality to our own. The Atlas Foundation and its wild scientific experiment. Characters like Elizabeth and Loop16. The Atlas - not the all seeing prism like structure, but the supercomputer designed to simulate universes.

Third, our own reality overlays everything else. Instead of being simply static and separated from the experience, our interactions have shaped the trajectory of the game moving forward. The way the game has been played has influenced the design of the updates, such as the way multiplayer has been baked into the narrative itself; aspects of earlier design, such as the wonder around Vortex Cubes, has affected the canonization of a unique item.

Connecting the thread between the game universe and the ARG-fiction sits the Atlas and its simulations. The Atlas created these universes, but then couldn’t resist becoming a part of its own fiction, placing itself as a beacon to worship in its own fictional creation. A sub-routine designed to monitor the Atlas, able to monitor the entire simulation, was taken by the warped super AI, designated “Telamon” and forced inside the Traveler’s suit to act as a guide.

The ARG itself served as a determining factor for the fiction of the Atlas Foundation reality, acting as a conduit between players in the real world and the fictitious reality, helping to actualize the Atlas AI in Loop16.

Finally, surrounding this rich history and these intertwining existences, sits the Travelers. The Travelers are both of the simulation and separate from it - they are the anomaly, the wild card that affects the cosmic balance. They are the thread between realities; the single unique existence in their respective universe, the in-fiction copy of the brain of the creator of the simulator, and the avatar with which the player contributes to existence from our world.

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A Game Unlike Any Other

For many, the story of No Man’s Sky is now one of redemption - of a game that was released before it should have been, marketed in a way that did not suit the product, at a price that did not make sense; but was then transformed through years of updates, patches and hard work into the game it should have always been.

But underneath all that, NMS is also a tale of exploration into territory untouched by humans, of a shoot for the stars passion; of an exploration of both an unimaginable space, and an internal search for understanding. Of finding the good in what exists in the now; of finding something to hold on to in these fleeting moments of existence. Of creating something incredible out of nothing but numbers, willing into reality something of pure imagination and wonder.

Thank you for reading! This piece is one of several from my new book, Thinking On Games. If you like this and want to read more about what games can be, it is available on the Amazon Kindle Store for US$2.99 here.