The closest analogue to what the team at Hello Games has achieved with No Man’s Sky is improvised jazz. Instead of riffing on the mathematical structure of music to create somatic responses in listeners, though, it uses math to abstract the very essence of curiosity and wonder.
Think about Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. You might be hearing Miles Davis’s flittering trumpet riffs already or the syncopated grooves of Bill Evans’ piano lines. If you’re getting chills just thinking about “Freddie Freeloader,” it’s alright. I do too. But how are we experiencing “So What” or “Flamenco Sketches?”
It begins with Miles Davis and his band. Some of the greatest musicians of the last two hundred years came together and used mathematics to create an externalized abstraction of melancholy. With the exception of that which is atonal, everything we understand about the formal construction of music is math. Pitch, chords, scales, riffs, keys… they can all be expressed mathematically, and even if you can’t read music, you can sense the patterns and mathematical contrasts that emerge. We experience this as melody. Jazz in particular is built around finding new avenues and new complexity in the elegance of those formal patterns. Miles Davis and his crew understood that certain sounds have explicit physical responses and used the restrictions of specific scales and keys and then improvised within those restrictions in live takes to create an impressionist wall of sadness and beauty.
Of course, when we listen to Kind of Blue, we aren’t actually hearing Miles Davis play no matter how romantic that notion might be. A record is a complex system for storing data. And because sound is just vibrations and there are clear physical laws (aka math) for how vibration works, sound can be coded. If you have the technology to measure those waves, all sounds can be represented through this code and we’ve had this technology since the 1800s. Vinyl records store this information by etching vibrations into the grooves of the records. When you hold a vinyl record, you’re holding the precursor to digital information storage. It just operates with tiny etchings instead of 1s and 0s.
We can’t listen to pure data storage though. A vinyl record is simply the potential for music. It needs a tool to read this information in order for us to experience it. That’s where the turntable comes in. The stylus/cartridge of your turntable reads the coded vibrations in your record and converts them back into sound. And then, through extraordinarily complex systems in our brain, we “hear” music and experience all of its seemingly ineffable hold over us as people.
Now that No Man’s Sky is out, we can all finally stop kvetching about “how it plays.” The answer to that question is… serviceably at best and horrifically bug-driven and tedious at worst. But the aesthetic and metaphysical implications of the game are so fascinating and intoxicating that it’s hard to muster too much outrage about the game’s hard crashes, stiff combat, and endless inventory management.
At some point, we’ve all looked up at the stars and wondered what’s out there. And the answer to that query is simultaneously fairly certain and totally beyond our grasp.
The part that’s fairly certain is that space is mostly empty. We’re not simply talking about the vast reaches of nothingness between stars, although the majority of the universe as we know it is that nothingness. We’re also talking about the observable truth that even the celestial bodies that exist within these star systems are barren and devoid of life. They are churning orbs of molten rock or giant balls of roiling gas or long-dead collections of dust simply waiting to be engulfed by their parent star. A handful of planets might have ice and maybe even water if their temperature is right, but odds are that they’re devoid of any “life” except the most basic possible microbes. Life as we understand it—multicellular complexity at the smallest end of the spectrum and sentience at the other—is rare and only able to exist because the incomprehensible vastness of the universe means that someplace, somewhere, a star and a planet fill the hyper-specific requirements for the formation of life even though all the data out there points to how incredibly unlikely that is to happen.
And so the part of the question that is beyond our grasp isn’t the almost total emptiness of space; it’s what exists in those other subatomic stretches of space where life has managed to take hold. And one of the things that makes No Man’s Sky so fascinating is that it can balance the terrifying loneliness of existence with the vibrant ecstasy of creation itself.
Enough people have written about the procedural generation of No Man’s Sky and how it works. It isn’t infinite. It isn’t random. It’s built with knowing restrictions. That No Man’s Sky exists at a cosmic scale is almost insignificant to the player. We’ll never see 99.9% of it. The meaning of the game’s scale is simply the potential the scale offers. Much like our actual universe, we find it interesting because we know it exists and we wonder what its furthest reaches hold.
What makes No Man’s Sky’s procedural generation interesting is much of what made Miles Davis’s jazz interesting: it’s ruled by its restrictions. Hello Games could have chosen to make lush planets more plentiful (and, in fact, did make life more plentiful in the launch day patch). They could have taken the Starbound approach and populated their planets with semi-functioning social systems. But while No Man’s Sky universe isn’t nearly as empty as the actual universe, it quickly establishes that one of its raisons d’etre is to contextualize the player’s total insignificance and the cosmic insignificance of life period. It is the videogame version of Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot”—only it gives youthe chance to physically explore swaths of the emptiness we usually only conceptualize.
If No Man’s Sky’s only accomplishment were that it portrayed all of that emptiness, it would be unnecessary. Games have been capable of that since the original Elite. And the game isn’t special simply because it can populate its worlds with life. It’s the fact that the game, at a mathematical level, was able to populate those worlds with life and landscapes that pluck chaos out of the observable order of nature.
Imagine the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen in nature in person. It can be an animal. It can be tree or a plant. It can be a mountain or a forest. What makes that thing you’re imagining special? My answer is this little cliffside near Blackwater Falls State Park in my home state of West Virginia. The Appalachian Mountains are some of the oldest mountains in the world. That’s why they’ve been weathered down to hills after millennia of erosion. But here in this little corner of the state in the remote and impoverished Tucker County, there are still legitimate cliffs. And they rise out of a sea of hills and trees like towering monoliths. You can get to the top of the tallest one through a walking trail and if you’re willing to risk it, you can leave the safe observation deck and dangle your legs over rocks and look down to the tops of trees that are hundreds of feet below you.
Physics (once again: math) caused the Appalachian Mountains to form the way they have.And then, for brief little spurts, those particular physical forces didn’t act on that cliffside, and now the magic of that lookout exists. The Grand Canyon is memorable because in the vastness of the desert, a river spent thousands of years cutting its way through rock until we have the Grand Canyon as we know it today in all of its spectacle and incongruity. Out of the great patterned order of science, degrees of entropy always arise and it’s that entropy that provides the flavor of the universe.
And No Man’s Sky’s most notable achievement is how it’s able to abstract that chaos amongst the order. It abstracts life which is itself an anomaly among the ordered emptiness of the game’s space. It abstracts geology. I landed on a planet that was full of titanic chunks of land snaking above and into the Earth for as far as the eye could see. Even in my spaceship where I could nearly see the curvature of the planet, I could still see these earthen snakes flying over the landscape in neat diagonal rows. It was a striking analogue of the sine waves that generate the landscapes in the first place. And I assumed that I had somehow found a mathematically perfect planet and that it would be cool conceptually but boring as hell once I landed and there was just this sea of snake-like land masses.
I was wrong. The game’s often disastrous texture pop-in had fooled me (and not for the first or last time). I found myself on a plain, overflowing with purple grass with the occasional green patch acting as a highlight. Crab-like stone edifices were jutting out of the earth. Auburn trees lined the distance. And the giant snake suddenly felt real. It was there. That portion of the pattern was the only part I could see. I could see that it had flaws. I could see that there were trees and grass coating its surface as well. And beneath it, another, more solid hill was reaching up to the snake just above it. Here amongst this actually visible pattern of a mathematical function, I found the deviations at the heart of why we feel mystified by nature.
No Man’s Sky didn’t handcraft what I was seeing, but Hello had made a system where it was somehow possible. With the exception of a handful of games like The Witcher 3, games with traditional 3D modeling always feel… wrong when they try to present nature. It feels too ordered,too designed. The trees and grass never feel unruly enough. Most games place practicality or a cutesy aesthetic over what is the actual essence of nature: chaos. And through the restrictions on their math, Hello Games found the formula for the magic of a memorable landscape. We wonder at that which is different. Then the game throws its deliberately hyper-aesthetic color palette and astronomy to craft imagery that’s more in line with our traditional notions of art. It is both the natural and the fantastic
That fusion of the traditionally scientific and the deliberately aesthetic is the core of a game that functions entirely on asking players to contextualize their surroundings. Why am I here? What do I look like? What are these floating robots? Who are these talking toad creatures? What will be over that hill? When will I see life again? In No Man’s Sky, you’re always asking yourself “how” or “why,” and these are the questions at the center of the scientific method and scientific curiosity. Why does something happen and not something else? In No Man’s Sky, we know that “maths” (a word I can no longer hear without immediately hearing Sean Murray’s excited Australian accent) generate everything. But we, the player, can wonder at the power of applied math to achieve things we’ve never seen applied math achieve before… or at least not to this scale and level of detail.
And then, the game itself explicitly brings up these ideas in its story. It lacks the narrative complexity of other existential philosophy-driven games like The Talos Principle, but it still reminds the players that it should meditate on the essence and purpose of the places they visit. It gets that the purpose of science is the satisfaction of a curious mind, not some nirvana-esque reward. And it humbles the player because it should remind them that we too live in a mechanical universe guided by rules. No Man’s Sky comes nowhere close to capturing the actual complexity of life. There are no emotions. There is no sentience. Even the lushest planets have miniscule ecosystems compared to the seeming infinite variety on Earth. But, the game shows how much of what we understand about the world can be simulated given a computer with enough power and the right code. We’ve shown that, with the help of mathematical restrictions, an aesthetic can be procedurally generated. That something that instinctually feels as abstract as “aesthetics” can be generated entirely through math and formulas says something provocative about what art is.
Miles Davis used modality and math with his trumpet to evoke melancholy. When we listen to it, we are listening to the mechanical reproduction of the mathematical encoding of that mathematical evocation. Hello Games used math to make us ponder the loneliness of the universe, to ponder the mechanical nature of the universe, and to feel a sense of wonder at the chaos of nature. When we play the game, we are watching/interacting with/listening to a digital reproduction of the mathematical encoding of No Man’s Sky’s mathematical evocations of wonder. When Kind of Blue is just in your hands and not being played, it’s just information on a disc. When it’s played, it becomes a universe of jazz exploration. When a location in No Man’s Sky isn’t being observed, it doesn’t exist. It’s just the potential in its formula in a program (possibly on a disc). When we play it, it becomes a tiny thread in an actual vast universe.
No Man’s Sky was developed by Hello Games. Our review is based on the Playstation 4 version. It is also available for PC.
Don Saas is a music and games journalist based out of West Virginia. If you want to see his rants about movies and pro wrestling, you can find him on Twitter here.