Screenshot: Sony

In February of 1990, at the request of Carl Sagan, NASA turned space probe Voyager 1 around to take a photograph of the Earth from a distance of 6 billion kilometers. Meditating on this image, Sagan later suggested that, having now been confronted with our own cosmic insignificance, it was paradoxically more important than ever to treat other people as though their lives mattered: “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.” For Sagan, the image was noteworthy not just for its humbling scale but for the incredible contradictions it depicted. This image made our greatest accomplishments invisibly tiny and rendered our egocentric species a footnote in a portrait of emptiness. It would force him, and later he would force us, to redefine what we considered small or large, important or tedious, valuable or worthless.

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No Man’s Sky, the much-anticipated space simulator from England’s Hello Games, speaks in that same language of distance and size, and like the “Pale Blue Dot” image, it’s a work containing many contradictions. It offers the implicit promise of limitless possibilities but is imprisoned by its own limitations. It’s a game of inconceivably vast scale in which interplanetary and even interstellar travel is trivially fast and simple. It’s a survival simulation in which resources are plentiful and death is inconsequential. It’s also capable of generating tremendous meaning from emptiness and isolation. Like astronomy, No Man’s Sky concerns itself with an incredible amount of space and requires a proportionate investment of time to be properly understood. That word, “investment,” is no accident. You’ll get as much out of No Man’s Sky as you’re willing to put into it.

Screenshot: Sony

No Man’s Sky is an enormous game constructed from a small number of pieces. After visiting a few worlds, some of those pieces will become familiar: mushrooms, canines, ungulates, skittering insects, and waddling tyrannosaurs, sometimes with stripes or horns or vestigial wings. These forms appear regularly enough and with little enough variation to occasionally induce boredom, but their frequent recurrences have the secondary effect of heightening the joy of finding something new. After seeing two dozen varieties of dog, encountering a hopping plant-like gelatinous substance feels like discovering something beautifully impossible. These are the moments when No Man’s Sky becomes its best self, when it’s actually able to deliver on the wonder it admires in its pulpier influences. Its slow-burn pacing is part of what makes these moments possible. If they happened more often, or if the most common species of animal were zanier by default, it would only inspire the boredom of sensory overload instead.

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The game’s planets are built from a limited toolset as well, and the world-generating algorithm that created them holds their usefulness as its highest priority. Even the most barren rocks tend to be dense with resources and activities. This is a concession the game makes to playability at the expense of variety, so you’ll never encounter a Saharan expanse of truly inhospitable wasteland, but you’ll also never find yourself stuck with nothing to do. Over time, this can cause the galaxy’s planets to feel homogenous, a procession of Roger Dean landscapes with only superficial differences, but it also paints a portrait of an unusually benevolent universe. Far from an indifferent void or an absentee clock-maker, the creator of No Man’s Sky is practically a helicopter parent, ensuring its millions of children are well fed and kept out of traumatizing harm. Even the vacuum of space between planets is lousy with easily mined fuel-dispensing asteroids.

Screenshot: Sony

The number of activities you can perform in No Man’s Sky is quite small, and gaining progress requires you to repeat them constantly. Upon landing on a planet you speak with the locals, mine resources, scan the local wildlife, then move on. At worst, those repetitions are chores. At best, they’re like rituals. Indeed, despite its science-fiction trappings, No Man’s Sky frequently evokes religious experiences. Your traveler is not really an explorer—you never visit a planet unknown to the galaxy’s intelligent species—they’re a pilgrim, traveling toward their sacred destination slowly and alone. They’re a monastic figure, empty-pocketed and performing small acts of charity throughout the cosmos in exchange for meager alms. In their quest for knowledge, they practice academic pursuits like biology and archaeology, but they also seek regular guidance from a robotic priest. When the traveler comes to a new world, they perform their rituals and move on, the planets of the universe becoming beads in their cosmic rosary.

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It may sound like a tall order considering the game’s scale, but No Man’s Sky works best when you’re willing to meet it halfway. Like the psychedelic book covers that inspired it, it’s evocative of science-fiction themes without describing anything restrictively specific, and some meaning of your own has to be projected onto it before it will make sense. Above all else, it requires a proper commitment of time. It’s as much a hobby as it is a game: an activity that requires patience, diligence, and the capacity to be awed by sights that are quietly profound. The experience won’t suit every temperament, but to give up on an entire universe for inspiring awe too infrequently or for not inspiring the specific awe you’d prefer would be like abandoning bird-watching after a single hour without an exciting specimen. As Carl Sagan said, “Imagination will often carry us towards worlds that never were. But without it, we go nowhere.”

Purchase No Man’s Sky for PlayStation 4 here, which helps support The A.V. Club.