The Physics of ‘No Man’s Sky’ Is Close Enough
The expansive new game gets as close to real physics as one can get — with a few caveats.
People were making predictions about the physics of No Man’s Sky even before the game had been released. For a long time, the game’s creators had adamantly maintained they were designing a simulated environment that would adhere pretty closely to the laws of physics. The result was something close — but not quite what we know as the real world’s laws of physics. And that’s probably a good thing for gamers seeking to play something that’s, you know, fun.
After all, for a game that tasks you with traveling through interstellar space to exploring other worlds all within a tiny little starship, you need to enjoy some degree of flexibility that allows you to actually travel between places in a relatively short amount of time. You’ll want to hurtle past asteroids and cosmic dust with a varying degree of both challenge and ease.
At the same time, adhering to the normal laws of physics actually contributes to the notion of unexpected challenge. Imagine making a quick landing on a new planet from an orbital space station, and minutes later launching back up to make it back to the station. Suddenly, it’s vanished. Was the station destroyed? Did a glitch delete? Did it go invisible?
If you recall your elementary school physical science lessons, planets rotate. An orbital spacecraft will orbit a planet. Put those two things together, and the notion of launching back up into space from the exact spot you landed means a highly unlikely chance you’re going to find the space station exactly where you left it.
In an interview with The Atlantic, chief game designer Sean Murray explains that the physics behind every other game is fake. Things are structured to cycle through simulations like a bizarre digital version of the weather and sky control system used in the film The Truman Show.
“With us,” Murray told The Atlantic, “when you’re on a planet, you can see as far as the curvature of that planet. If you walked for years, you could walk all the way around it, arriving back exactly where you started. Our day to night cycle is happening because the planet is rotating on its axis as it spins around the sun. There is real physics to that.”
Nevertheless, No Man’s Sky is a game that’s meant to entertain its players. Murray and his team have certainly taken some liberties with the laws of physics the game is attempting to simulate. For example, the moons that orbit planets have to adhere to certain Newtonian laws that stipulate how close that rock can get to the planet without becoming totally pulled in and slamming into the planet itself. In the game, however, the programmers have allowed certain moons to remain closer to the planet than physically permissible in real life. Even neighboring planets need to retain some sort of healthy distance from one another if they’re to maintain a realistic gravity for life to evolve and thrive, but the game has no qualms with showing off gargantuan portraits of nearby worlds in the horizon.
To hop around from world to world, players move faster than the speed of light in their ships — an impossibility for any object that’s not light itself. A world that’s a dozen or so light-years away takes less than half a minute to travel to (loading times notwithstanding). That’s not simply pushing the envelope a bit — that’s doing so at a multiplicity of hundreds of millions of times over.
That’s not even taking into account the fact that such high speeds would create time dilation effects and cause players to observe time passing aberrantly.
Perhaps one of the strangest notions behind how the laws of physics in the game work falls in line with the behavior of everything else in the game. No Man’s Sky only renders things that the player is actually immediately interacting with or can see in the surrounding area. Everything else in the game technically doesn’t exist until you get there. Nevertheless, the objects or alien lifeforms that are doing things worlds away still operate by a given formula that dictates what they will do when you finally make it there.
In that same vein, the game’s physics work the same way — they don’t necessarily exist until you finally interact with them, but the seed for them is already implanted in the game’s massive code.
Despite those limitations, No Man’s Sky probably gets closer to real world physics than any game before it. It’s actually incredible to think a game that was meant to be “chill” managed to pin down the forces of nature as accurately it has.