Games of the Generation: No Man's Sky does exploration in the best possible way

No Man's Sky
No Man's Sky (Image credit: Hello Games)
Games of the Generation

As we approach the launch of the PS5 and Xbox Series X, TechRadar is looking back at the games that made this generation great. This week's entry? No Man's Sky (2016).

Before No Man's Sky was released in 2016, I had its reveal poster up on my wall, but when it came out to stark criticism, I took that poster down, likely replacing it with yet another classic Bond poster or a map of a loved place. The fact I'm now arguing that No Man's Sky is the best game of the console generation should testify to just how affecting it is.

No Man's Sky is, to sum up a massive experience in just a few words, a planet-hopping exploration game where you play as a traveller (that's literally your character's name) as you fly between different planets, slowly upgrading your ship, a home base, and eventually your own space armada, in order to explore even further.

No Man's Sky's world is its real pearl - it's a procedural-generated universe, with the animals, landscape, trees, atmosphere, buildings and even color grade and music on each generated from a single algorithm. It's absolutely huge, with 18 quintillion planets (18,446,744,073,709,551,616, to be exact, so many it'd take you 584 billion years to explore if you visited every planet for a second), and that's not counting the myriad space stations and other things to find between planets. 

It can easily take you up to 100 hours to even begin to feel you've seen everything on offer, and many people have spent a lot more time than that on the game.

Calling No Man's Sky by Hello Games one of the games of the generation might be considered a contentious point, given it was received very poorly upon release, but in its current for four years on, it's more than deserving of the title. In fact, that rags-to-riches change is one of the reasons it's one of the more interesting games from a historical perspective.

The game has been on a journey

(Image credit: Hello Games)

The state of a game on release is no longer indicative of its enduring popularity or quality - if that wasn't already proven by MMOs or frequently patched or updated games, it certainly is by No Man's Sky.

No Man's Sky was reviled upon release, for reasons varying from incredibly pedantic to entirely legitimate, and if you haven't been following the game since, it's easy to assume that's how it remains. The truth is, though, that the game has seen frequent patches and updates, and as of No Man's Sky NEXT in 2018, can generally be seen as a good game.

Well, some would argue it's now a 'great' game (as I am about to), but it's hard to deny the game is now much closer to the one advertized prior to its release.

Some could argue a game should be sold in a 'finished' state (to borrow that slightly-presumptuous vernacular), especially journalists who don't want to have to keep revisiting a game over time, but No Man's Sky sets a commendable precedent for future games - if a game is generally unpopular, it could change. It's clear Hello Games, who made No Many's Sky, have put a lot of effort into 'fixing' the game since.

Later games are clearly starting to follow that pattern too - Fallout 76 (2018) was abhorred almost as much as No Man's Sky upon release, but that's actually getting pretty fantastic now, thanks to its own major expansions. Developers have learned they don't have to abandon a game if it's received poorly, and that if they put work in, the game can build up a fan following. Such is the case with No Man's Sky - just look at how busy its Reddit is.

No Man's Sky is still evolving - the day before this article was written, the Desolation update was announced, which adds even more to the game - people who didn't like it to begin with can revisit it to find a completely new experience. It's worth mentioning this was all written about the post-NEXT but pre-Desolation version of the game.

Travel is transcendental

(Image credit: Steam)

No Man's Sky first succeeded in grabbing me not when I first tried it, but when I played during the Covid-19 lockdown - the joy and freedom of jetting between planets, of adventuring through snowy plains, mushroom bogs or hills full of enigmatic monuments, starkly juxtaposed my reality of the same four walls every day.

Travel - both in real life and in story - is a sublime thing , and any game to get it right stops being that, and becomes an 'experience'. No Man's Sky gets travel and adventure right more than any other open-world or experiential game - you forget you're looking at a screen and controlling it with joysticks, and become that space traveller.

Each planet feels different, and no matter how long you play the game, you'll keep stumbling across new biomes, animals, buildings, monuments. The very prospect of discovery and adventure can keep you going, keep encouraging you to document a planet, hop in your spaceship, and visit a moon, a new planet, a new solar system.

In No Man's Sky you quickly forget the 'gamified' elements like combat, collecting materials, upgrading your ship, trading, building your base, completing milestones - when you hop in your ship all you want to do is point it to the heavens and keep flying straight until you've reached an new undiscovered planet to explore.

The world is beautiful - maybe not in a graphical way, but given I was playing on a 1080p projector that would be hard to tell - it looked beautiful in a way the natural world can, with its patterns and juxtapositions and grand scale. Sometimes during work days I'd load up No Man's Sky in the background and set my ship to drift over a planet, the scenes and vistas forming a relaxing backdrop to an otherwise-miserable flat, or maybe I'd point my ship towards another planet without entering hyper-speed, as it'd take me my whole eight-hour work day to get there.

The music is utterly fantastic too - it's procedural generated similar to the world, but based on songs by 65daysofstatic. It's used fairly sparsely, but when it pops up it really helps set the atmosphere.

Travel in No Man's Sky, as in real life, stops being about the destination, or even the journey, but becomes about you. You can do any amount of soul-searching from behind the controls of a spaceship with a ringed planet on the horizon, or trudging through a verdant forest, more so than in any narrative game that tries to force revelation upon you.

Anyone who's stood at the top of a mountain, or alone in a clearing in a forest, or by the endless sea, and had some revelation or epiphany or even just a moment of self-reflection or indescribable sublimity, will know what it's like to play No Man's Sky - you frequently get the same feeling. If you enjoy the feeling of how tiny you are in such a big world, No Man's Sky will make you feel that even more since it's so, so much bigger than Earth.

Everyone knows that feeling to some extent. As John Muir famously queried, "Who has not felt the urge to throw a loaf of bread and a pound of tea in an old sack and jump over the back fence", except in this case you're throwing some carbon and oxygen in your inventory and jumping into the nearest black hole.

The only game close to having the same effect as this is Minecraft, though most people find themselves spending more time on that game mining and crafting than exploring, so No Man's Sky feels like the full experience.

If the points in this section have seem disjointed and confused, that's partly the point, because No Man's Sky is the closest games have gotten to art (without wanting to touch on the 'games as art' debate). No Man's Sky doesn't answer questions, it causes you to ask them, it gets you lost in its vastness so much that you ask things unrelated to it, about your place in the world and its place in you. It's like staring at a picture by Casper David Friedrich, JMW Turner, Monet, but you get to jump in and visit that sea of fog Friedrich's wanderer was above.

No Man's Sky isn't the game for you if you want to be told a specific story or converted into a way of thinking or feeling - it's a messy, bizarre, beautiful canvas for you to find your own meaning. Instead if you want to visit beautiful worlds and have numerous experiences of self-discovery, (then utterly fail to articulate them in any kind of way that does them justice, as in this case), No Man's Sky is the best game for that.

Tom Bedford

Tom Bedford was deputy phones editor on TechRadar until late 2022, having worked his way up from staff writer. Though he specialized in phones and tablets, he also took on other tech like electric scooters, smartwatches, fitness, mobile gaming and more. He is based in London, UK and now works for the entertainment site What To Watch.

He graduated in American Literature and Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. Prior to working on TechRadar, he freelanced in tech, gaming and entertainment, and also spent many years working as a mixologist. He also currently works in film as a screenwriter, director and producer.