I’m entering the atmosphere of this planet in full knowledge that I don’t have the fuel to lift off again. Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue, but the weather strongly tends towards acid rain and the average temperature is well above 150°F. So when I’m landed, I’m going to have to be quick about harvesting some plutonium (an odd choice for fuel considering its rarity on Earth) to use for my ship’s launch thrusters. When I get out to do so, my life support systems immediately begin using power and I realize my harvesting tool is low on juice as well. I could easily die here, alone and hundreds of light years from the nearest real-life human.
The main enemy in No Man’s Sky is scarcity. Everything from your space-suit’s life support systems to the hyperdrive you use to travel between planets requires some amount of resources to power and repair. Most planets are not friendly in conditions. They can be frozen to -200 degrees, or +200 or both in a day. Windstorms and acid rain can sap away at your suit’s life support systems. You are truly subservient to the environment in No Man’s Sky.
There is a stunning variety of animal and plant life present in the game. All environments and the inhabitants thereof are generated by an algorithm, meaning that the game’s creators can’t be fully aware of all the billions of worlds existing in their fictional galaxy. I have seen flying worms, giant predatory dinosaur-like creatures that chase me on sight, and what can only be described as a hopping pineapple. Each planet is its own ecosystem. Most creatures are uninterested or fearful of you, though a few do seem to chase me or attack in defense. Some attack each other.
To be fair, the ecosystems are somewhat limited. I have yet to see truly giant trees rivaling the redwoods of my own real-life planet. I haven’t seen icebergs or glaciers, because each planet only has one real biome. There are no ice-caps or climate differences on each world, which is disappointing, but typical in science fiction (think Hoth or Tatooine from Star Wars). I haven’t seen a running river, which would likely be too computationally expensive to generate. All oceans and lakes seem to be static at a certain sea level. There are no differences in gravity between worlds, most likely to simplify gameplay. Star systems have planets and moons are not to realistic scale, with planets and moons far closer than they should be, probably for visual effect.
Some of the design limitations are interesting from an environmental perspective. There are orbiting space stations, but no cities to speak of. The sparse planetary settlements have at most a few inhabitants in a few buildings. Did the civilization of this fictional galaxy suffer some calamity which decimated its population? Or did they make a conscious decision to spread out and dismantle their cities in subservience to environmental preservation? Perhaps No Man’s Sky is the most extreme manifestation of the Kuznets curve. As human societies mature and living situations improve, their policies begin to value conservation and public health instead of economic growth.
In this way, the civilization of No Man’s Sky has achieved a near-environmental utopia. The player’s actions, however are interesting in their persistence. When you destroy a plant or harvest resources, they do not return. The changes that you make are truly persistent, and the game does not fill back in the gaps. As I rode my buggy over the surface of my own planet, I felt a twinge of regret running over the strange coral-like creatures in the warm canyons between stretches of tundra, because they will not regenerate.
No Man’s Sky has been heavily criticized by many players, who felt it didn’t live up to the hype it received before release. Several updates have been added to improve the core gameplay and story in the last year. Regardless of the improvements of the game itself, I find the concept and environmental ideas in the game to be engrossing. As a real-life naturalist, the experience of exploration and nature-watching in a game is also fun, with the added novelty of knowing that every creature I see has likely never been observed before.