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One year on from the release of one of the most anticipated video games ever, we need to have a serious talk about the ‘ending’ of No Man’s Sky.

A funny thing happens, when you run a website: sometimes you can become aware of news stories or trends in peculiar ways.

Yes, there are traditional news outlets and social media; of course we use those. But we also have a number of pieces that are typically quiet in terms of traffic, that if they suddenly start getting lots of views? We know something is up.

Case in point: this write-up of Zoe Quinn’s talk on comedy in games from 2015’s Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco. Very few people read two year old conference write-ups on a daily basis, as a rule. It would be nice if they did, but those things have a finite lifespan. It might get one or two views a week under normal circumstances, but if there’s been some sort of ‘gamergate’ flare up on Reddit or 4chan, it could see hundreds of views in an hour.

I imagine they’re very disappointed to find it’s a very straight-faced, fact-based write-up of Quinn’s talk on using humour in games like Depression Quest. There’s nothing in that article that is in any way inflammatory or antagonistic towards Quinn – and for the record, we’re entirely against that sort of thing – but that doesn’t stop angry internet mouth-breathers searching every seemingly-unrelated square inch of the web for some fresh mud they can sling.

And the other example that immediately springs to mind is a write-up of Sean Murray’s demo of a pre-release build of No Man’s Sky to IGN, back in July 2015. Why? Because it’s called ‘No Man’s Sky: Peter Molyneux discovered at centre of universe’ (and if there are three things that are guaranteed to get gamers wound up, they are No Man’s Sky, what happens at the centre of No Man’s Sky, and Peter Molyneux).

If the internet is getting all bent out of shape about Murray, Hello Games, and No Man’s Sky, that piece rockets to the top of the stats. We followed the analytics to try and figure what was going on – in the beginning, before we realised that was a portal into some hellish alt-right echo chamber – and saw that people were fixated on the idea of Murray talking openly about Peter Molyneux.

That he was aspiring to be a ‘bigger con-man’ than Molyneux.

That he was ‘modelling Hello Games’ in 22cans’ image.

That the ‘warning signs’ were ‘there all along’.

That it was a ‘coded message’, an open admission that he ‘planned to hoodwink’ the world.

And many more things that are far too offensive to repeat. God, I wish I could forget some of the things I read, following those links.

But the thing is, none of that is true (except in the minds of the most fervent conspiratorial loons). That was an off-hand joke, said on the spur of the moment, by an indie developer who was having fun demonstrating his technology to an informed industry player who was clearly impressed.

Making jokes about Peter Molyneux – or Spore, or Alien: Colonial Marines, or Duke Nukem: Forever, or – is such a cliquey thing to do, in video game terms. That moment was like two bros from different colleges realising they were from the same frat, and both knew the secret handshake (or something… I’m from the UK and our universities are far too sensible for that). It was just a joke, just another example of an off-hand comment from an indie developer (with no press training or PR backup) letting his enthusiasm and inexperience of the big leagues get the better of him.

But people still reference that one off-hand remark, and our article quoting it, as evidence that the ‘ending’ to No Man’s Sky was always intended to be a disappointment. A rug pull. A hoodwink.

And the really sad thing is not just the animosity itself, but that it stops people from realising that the ‘ending’ to No Man’s Sky is actually bloody brilliant, in its own way.

Spoiler warning: We’re going to be discussing the ‘ending’ to No Man’s Sky in detail. If you haven’t got that far yet, and/or you don’t want to know what lies at the end of the journey, then this is your last chance to run away.

No Man's Sky "Pausing in the purple valley"
Credit: Blake Patterson via Flickr

End game

In theory, there’s no right or wrong way to play a game like No Man’s Sky. It’s a near-infinite universe of near-infinite possibilities, so presumably you can play it however the hell you want, right?

Well, here at Thumbsticks Towers, we subscribe to the theory that there is one ‘right’ way to play No Man’s Sky: like you’re playing the original Elite, back in the 1980s.

For the uninitiated (read: anyone too young to remember Elite the first time around) you should read Keith Stuart’s piece on it, over on The Guardian. That’s a really good primer on how playing Elite felt back then: completely aimless, with absolutely no purpose to it, but gloriously freeing as a result. I even did the same thing as Keith, making my own little cockpit around my computer, and it made for some of the finest gaming experiences of my formative years.

The only real way to play Elite was to bumble about the galaxy, somewhere between Firefly and The Littlest Hobo, doing whatever the hell you wanted. There were no missions, other than those you set yourself. There was no objective, other than the desire to keep going, and the need to obtain resources to do so. The only driver was to press on and to see as much of the universe as possible, like going on an interstellar gap year, backpacking around the cosmos.

And that’s how we feel everyone should play No Man’s Sky. It’s such an incredible universe – take a look at Twitter account No Man’s Pics, that captures and shares beautiful images of No Man’s Sky, if you don’t believe that – that following any sort of objective feels like a drag, a millstone around your neck.

If you’re too busy chasing the Atlas path, you might forget to look up and experience the wonder all around you, is what we’re saying. When you do, it’s liberating.

But people got hung up on the idea of ‘beating’ No Man’s Sky, as they do with most games. The scope and ambition of the game only heightened this desire among the players. Even the nutter who dropped $1,300 US on a broken street date copy of the game managed to race there in around 30 hours, thanks to a resource spamming loophole that was quickly closed in the day one patch, rather than simply savouring the universe in which he was the only inhabitant for a few glorious days.

So people tore down the Atlas path, as fast as they could, hoping to find some sort of meaningful closure to their madcap Gumball Rally dash across the galaxy when they finally got there. And when they did, they were greeted with this:

Seriously, there are spoilers coming right now – fly you fools!

Which upset a lot of people.

Do you know how difficult it was to find a clip of someone completing the first galaxy in No Man’s Sky that isn’t absolutely ruined by an expletive-laden rant as they realise what’s happened?

Really. Fucking. Difficult.

What the hell just happened?

When you get to the centre of the galaxy at the ‘ending’ of No Man’s Sky, you travel into it. This is a game about boldly going and seeking out if ever we saw one, so it makes sense that you’d dive straight in with both feet, consequences be damned.

And the net result is a familiar one: from the centre of one galaxy, you’re expelled to the outer reaches of the next, and the game begins again exactly as it did, hundreds of hours previous. You’re marooned, in your tiny tub of a ship, stricken by damage from its travails in the previous galaxy’s centre, on a randomly selected planet at the outer spiral of a new galaxy.

People were upset because they felt like they’d done it all for nothing. People invested hundreds of hours in getting somewhere, only to find that somewhere was effectively a green warp pipe back to the start. I totally understand that. It’s like getting to the end of a TV show and finding out it was all just a dream.

Except in No Man’s Sky, it wasn’t all just a dream. It was just the beginning.

Think back, for a moment, to the promises that Sean Murray made during the development and promotion of No Man’s Sky. No, not weirdly specific things that might have been alluded to, or mentioned, or coaxed out of him, or that he said “Sure, why not?” to, when he probably should have just said “no” (but in his excited naivety, he didn’t).

Not giant worms, or alien factions, or species predating one another, or any of that other crap everyone got hung up on – and remember that No Man’s Sky is just really clever maths, it doesn’t contain the pillars of creation – but the one specific thing that he did promise, over and over again: that No Man’s Sky is a game that you could feasibly play forever, if you want to.

Forever. Ad infinitum. The never-ending story. To infinity, and beyond!

However you want to slice it, the one thing that Hello Games hung their little indie hat on was the notion that this game could go on forever, if you wanted to keep playing. That could be falling in love with the planet you first landed on and never leaving – easier with the subsequent base-building and surface-vehicle updates – or it could be trying to visit every single planet and speck of rock in the galaxy, or anywhere in between.

That’s the beauty of No Man’s Sky, in a nutshell. Nobody’s telling you that you have to follow any direction, and the Atlas path is entirely optional. But if you do reach the end of it and the centre of the galaxy, either by accident or because you were driven to its siren call? You get to start that whole adventure all over again.

And if you reach the centre of that galaxy? Well guess what, buddy: there’s another whole new one waiting for you to explore. And if you reach the centre of that galaxy? Strap on your space pants, kiddo, because you’re going round again. And if you reach the centre of that galaxy…?

The ending of No Man’s Sky isn’t just brilliant, or limitless; it’s a meditation on reincarnation. The universe is endless, and so are your attempts at living it, if you only believe in it enough to keep going around.

No Man's Sky "Ever Onward"
Credit: Blake Patterson via Flickr

I don’t know what I was expecting

People normally love a New Game+ mode but for some reason, that was the last thing they wanted at the end of No Man’s Sky. But this isn’t just a regular New Game+.

This is New Game+, No Man’s Sky style. And what does that mean? It’s not New Game+, it’s New Game Infinity, or New Game Ouroboros, or New Game∞.

What baffles me the most about the response to the ‘ending’ of No Man’s Sky is that I don’t know what people were expecting, or perhaps more pertinently, what they would rather have found instead of that ultimate New Game∞ mode.

I get that people might not have liked it. I hear that it may have been frustrating. I understand that people might have felt it rendered their hundreds of hours of play moot. I also get that people might have found the game repetitive and would rather not have been presented with the option of repeating it until the end of time.

But tell me – seriously, I’m asking now – what would have been a better conclusion to No Man’s Sky than New Game∞? Some hokey FMV, perhaps of making the final leap home, and then the credits roll? Maybe a bit of avant garde existential poetry, or a reading from Friedrich Nietzsche by a brilliant Thesp like Charles Dance? Sean Murray’s face superimposed onto God’s on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? Peter Molyneux’s head on a spike, like Romero’s at the end of Doom 2?

Or how about a white light, and then nothing? Because really, when it all comes down to it, that’s what’s waiting for us, in the end. But No Man’s Sky gives you a chance at another life, at an infinite number of lives among the infinite stars, if you only care to keep pushing forward and living them.

  1. Well spoken words. I agree with it all. NoMan’sSky is before it’s time. Our impatient fast paced slow to pause and think ones wasn’t ready for such a game. But a select few are.

  2. How about just not have the “quest” in the first place if the point is just to aimlessly discover? Because the key needs to tease you, or maybe Sony just needed to tease you, to get you to buy the thing in the first place. “Well can you come up with something better?” is not a defense, it’s a copout.

    1. There’s a reason RPGs have a lot of fetch quests: because people have a tendency to search for direction in games, and if there isn’t any, it can make it hard for them to go anywhere. At all. A tiny bit of forward momentum – like the Atlas path, or the ‘Go defeat Ganon’ instruction at the beginning of Breath of the Wild – provides the impetus for people to do something rather than being frozen in indecision.

      Game design has changed a lot since the days of Elite and I think people would genuinely struggle with entirely aimless nowadays.

      And the point of the Atlas path isn’t so much to ‘finish’ the game, per se, it’s to get players to the start of the ‘next’ one, and the revelation of the possibly endless ones to follow. So my point wasn’t really ‘you come up with something better’ so much as… can you think of anything else that would have been more fitting for a theoretically endless game, than an ending that keeps beginning again? 🙂

  3. Very very well written. I waited to get the game until it was out for a bit. I read the hype, the blogs, then the release, the attacks (ohh those darn heavy worded attacks), and so forth.

    Then, setting the hype, the good/bad aside, I bought, installed and have now played it for many 100+ hours. It is wonderful, awe inspiring (coming from a programmer with 30+ years experience, the math and logic = some pretty amazing results).

    If course, I am not in the main group of people who buy games to see how ‘fast’ they can complete it. I am an explorer, an examiner, a person who enjoys the moment for the moment, not for the goal. From back in the original Wolfenstein game in the 80s to this, I always explore corners, behind bushes, up/down/left/right/in/out, to see not only what was purposefully placed/created, but, those things that are side-notes, but, still neat to find. Like in Fallout – Las Vegas, when I look behind bushes and find a tin can, etc. Even in the original Wolfenstein, I hacked the map files and caused all the walls to disappear, which was cool because the monsters thought they were still there and I could see the entire floor of monsters/traps/etc. *grin/smile*. <– just showing how I approach games. The attacks/bad words/etc. towards Hello/Sean/etc. were mostly about what was 'expected' and not what it 'is'. And even to this day, the Steam reviews are flooded with people holding on to those expectations as fuel for their fires. Meanwhile, I (as those who do enjoy it for what it is) play the game, enjoy the time, the massive variety (which really isn't unlimited, for those who do coding, his system is built on 64bit values and a 64 bit value has a maximum size of 18 Quadrillion planets, animals parts, etc.) and the enjoyment of finding what is just around the corner. Thank you again for the well written article, thoughts and perspectives. In case you want a look into who 'I' am, I created/place my art work at http://timeforyourmind.com . I love making art, when not making code.


  4. Honestly, I would’ve wanted what I thought Murray was hinting towards, which is this:
    As we get closer, we would see more players, then maybe the community would declare a few planets or stations as metting spots, then as Murray said, the center is just the beginning. Then the game would spawn a new universe and we would have co-op with up to 4 friends, since we would be carrying a 4 person lobby around us, since that was stated as well.
    I never thought it would end, i thought since it was said that the center is where the real game begins, that something multiple people could experience together, since the start is single player and near the center would be a kind of multiplayer hub of sorts.
    But that was my take on it.

  5. Some people get it; a lot of people don’t. You get it. You see both what this game is and what it can be. Brilliantly stated, and beautifully conceived. Great work!

  6. Um, are you guys high or something? This game is a waste of time, and just because it gives you some causality as reason for existing doesn’t change that…

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