In England an hour from London, a team of highly skilled programmers are busy creating a vast digital cosmos. Or rather should I say they are making a program that allows a universe to create itself.
This ambitious project is being 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 light-years must find their own existential purpose as they traverse a galaxy of 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 unique planets.
Here is a trailer to the game:
As in nature itself, the same formulas emerge again and again—often in disparate places. Particularly prolific throughout No Man’s Sky (and nature) is the use of fractal geometry—repeating patterns that manifest similarly at every level of magnification. “If you look at a leaf very closely,” Murray illustrated, “there is a main stock running through the center with little tributaries radiating out. Farther away, you’ll see a similar pattern in the branches of the trees. You’ll see it if you look at the landscape, as streams feed into larger rivers. And, farther still—there are similar patterns in a galaxy.”
“When I go out in nature, I don’t even see terrain anymore,” the programmer laughed. “All I see are mathematical functions and graphs. I’ll pick up a stone and begin thinking about the shape of it. What formula could have given you that?”
“For two humans to chance upon one another in this vast cosmos would be an almost impossible event—one capable of evoking real awe.”
Discover the secret to creating a universe that takes billions of years to fully explore. Here is a video explaining how No Man’s Sky infinite universe actually works:
In a universe designed without mirrors, as this one is, the only way that you could ever view yourself would be to ask another player to look at you and describe what they see. Considering the inconceivable vastness of this cosmos however, for two humans to ever chance upon one another would be an almost impossible event—one capable of evoking real awe.
For the No Man’s Sky team, that feeling of awe is exactly the point. In the words of programmer Hazel McKendrick, “You’re not the God of this universe. You’re not all powerful. You can’t build a gun so big that you’re unstoppable. You should be small and a little bit scared, I think, all the time.”
Murray traces this feeling of sublime obliteration to his childhood deep in the Australian outback. “My parents managed this big ranch of one and a quarter million acres. It had a gold mine. It had seven airstrips. You don’t get there by road—you have to fly in. We were very much on our own, and we went out every morning to check that the machines that were keeping us alive were still working. It was the closest thing to the surface of Mars. We were alone for hundreds and hundreds of miles. There was just this incredible feeling—knowing that you’re this little dot in this massive landscape.”
Through the use of procedural generation, No Man’s Sky ensures that each planet will be a surprise, even to the programmers. Every creature, AI-guided alien spacecraft, or landscape is a pseudo-random product of the computer program itself. The universe is essentially as unknown to the people who made it as it is to the people who play in it—and ultimately, it is destined to remain that way.
“People will stop playing long before even .1 percent of everything has been discovered,” Murray reflected. “That’s just how games are. I would be foolish to think anything else. It’s a sad thought though. When we fly through the galactic map, we see all the stars, each of which will have planets around them, and life, and ecology—and the vast, vast, vast majority will never be visited. At some point the servers will be shut down. It will all be turned off, and it will be us who pull the plug.”