A video game as big as a galaxy

The game’s chief architect is a thirty-four-year-old computer programmer named Sean Murray. He is tall and thin, with a beard and hair that he allows to wander beyond the boundaries of a trim; his uniform is a pair of bluejeans and a plaid shirt. In 2006, frustrated by the impersonal quality of corporate game development, Murray left a successful career with Electronic Arts, one of the largest manufacturers of video games in the world. He believes in small teams and in the idea that creativity emerges from constraint, and so, in 2008, he and three friends founded a tiny company called Hello Games, using money he raised by selling his home. Since then, its sole product has been a game called Joe Danger, about a down-and-out stuntman whose primary skill is jumping over stuff with a motorcycle. Joe Danger, released in several iterations, earned a reputation for playability and humor. (In one version, it is possible to perform stunts as a cupcake riding a bike.) But it was hardly the obvious predecessor to a fully formed digital cosmos. No Man’s Sky will, for all practical purposes, be infinite. Players will begin at the outer edges of a galaxy containing 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 unique planets. By comparison, the game space of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas appears to be about fourteen square miles.

From the moment Murray unveiled a hastily built trailer for No Man’s Sky, in late 2013, on the Spike TV network, anticipation for the game has taken on an aspect of delirium. For a big-budget franchise like Grand Theft Auto—what people in the industry call a triple-A game—an “announcement trailer” typically features carefully scripted, action-filled vignettes that present a simulacrum of actual play. The No Man’s Sky trailer, which was homemade, featured a minute or so of the actual game: a recording of Murray exploring a planet, beginning undersea, then boarding a ship, flying into space, and engaging in combat. The footage communicated nothing concrete about the game play, but the graphics were rendered with an artistic finesse rarely seen in games, and the arc of Murray’s journey—the unbroken sweep from ocean to land to heavens—implied an unprecedented range of possible discovery…

On the Spike TV set, Murray looked downward, as if shielding his eyes, but he also projected fanboy enthusiasm. “It is a huge game,” he said. “I can’t really do it justice. We wanted to make a game about exploration, and we wanted to make something that was real.” Nearly all video games rely on digital façades, drawn by artists, to give the illusion of an explorable world that is far larger than it really is, but No Man’s Sky will contain no such contrivance. Murray’s trailer featured luxuriant scenes of crashed ships on arctic terrain, giant sandworms—a galaxy of exotic dangers. “That planet on the horizon, which you see on the trailer, that’s a real place,” he said on the set. At the time, Murray was working on the game with only three other people, and when he told the show’s hosts they reacted incredulously. “If it is nighttime, and you are in space, and you see stars, those are real stars,” he added. “Those are suns, and they have planets around them—and you can go and visit them.”