Now her field of study is about to be celebrated in a hot new space-exploration game, No Man’s Sky. The game features 18 quintillion possible planets—all randomly generated, accessible for surveying and unique to the last.
Sounds promising, said Lakdawalla, now senior editor at the Planetary Society in Pasadena, California. “I really love the idea of going into a new place, where nobody’s ever been before, and trying to find out the geography and different kinds of life that are there,” she said.
No Man’s Sky (NMS), which doesn’t yet have a release date, employs a method called procedural generation for random creation of virtual worlds’ appearances, plants, animals, and resources. But the developers at Hello Games first leaned heavily upon science, from molecules to suns, to set this enormous stage.
Planetary experts are eager to see their work in a title that looks like it’ll be a blockbuster, judging from a buzz that sometimes reaches hyperspace. “It’s exciting that what we do is starting to have a real, positive effect on the gaming industry,” said Konstantin Batygin, an assistant professor of planetary science at Caltech, also in Pasadena.
Sean Murray, the creative force behind NMS, has said one simple rule designers followed was ensuring a planet’s distance from the sun determined the likelihood of moisture—the real-life “habitable zone” concept.
“The color of the water in the atmosphere will derive from what the liquid is; we model the refractions to give you a modeled atmosphere,” Murray said in an interview with MIT Technology Review.
NMS contains hostile worlds, where the explorer must be protected by an upgraded spaceship or protective suit. For parallels, we can look to own solar system: Venus’s atmosphere features clouds of sulfuric acid; on Saturn’s moon Titan, it rains methane. And 40 light-years away, on 55 Cancri e, the side facing the sun gets so hot the planet’s surface could be molten metal.
The first trailer for NMS, which in December 2013 unveiled the game’s development to great acclaim, starts in the ocean shallows, a menacing shark cruising past a crashed spaceship. And at the screen’s side, a small readout provides the breakdown of the surrounding liquid: There is 0.7 percent sodium chloride—salt—creating a salinity level habitable to some species of coastal sharks.
Joshua Lothringer, a video-game enthusiast and graduate student in the University of Arizona’s Department of Planetary Sciences, appreciates these touches. “There’s definitely a craving for that, among science fiction fans: the ‘hard’ science fiction; getting things right,” Lothringer said. “Whether it’s the composition of a salty lake or specifics of space travel—Delta-v and how much thrust you need—that detail is something people pay attention to.”
And a University of Southern California gaming-industry expert agrees that weaving reality into a fantasy world—or even 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 of them—is good marketing.
“I think it does make a difference [among game buyers],” said Richard Lemarchand, an associate professor in the Interactive Media Division of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. “Modern audiences are sophisticated.”
A complementary game, Lemarchand said, is Kerbal Space Program, with its demanding goal of building and launching a spacecraft, using real-world parts, and explosive rocket fuel.
Lemarchand himself has been a game designer, and he also has a science background and interest in space exploration. He’s well qualified to judge whether Hello Games, a small, independent studio based near London, can ground NMS in a degree of reality while still making it captivating and playable. Going from preview videos and word-of mouth: They can. “Hello Games has been incredibly skillful around this subject matter,” Lemarchand said.
Murray has acknowledged some rules had to be bent or even broken for gameplay’s sake. To highlight the drama of a spaceship’s approach to or departure from a planet, the density of the atmosphere had to be reversed from real life: thinner close to the ground, but thickening as the player climbs higher. Also, Murray wanted every planet to be explorable, which means no gas giants. Batygin says this is a shame, because the moons orbiting gas giant Jupiter are some of the most fascinating bodies in our solar system.
But the scientists understand. Lakdawalla noted the compression of time and space is a must for an interstellar game.
And if NMS lives up to advanced billing, then it will be held in high esteem with other works of entertainment that got things right. For Batygin, that was the Mass Effect games; Lothringer said Star Wars has done well in creating realistic planets. Lakdawalla, with her knowledge of astronomy, might have already discovered a clue the size of a supergiant star for how to play successfully.
In a recent preview video, as the galactic map focuses on fictional solar system, the display lists the star Ethaedair’s “spectral type” as G2m. This is more than just scientific-looking window-dressing—It’s the Morgan–Keenan (MK) system of stellar classification describing a G-type main-sequence star, much like our sun, with “abnormally strong ‘metals’ (elements other than hydrogen and helium).”
And this is where prospective space explorers should take notes.
“Older stars weren’t built with as many heavy elements as third-generation stars like our [sun],” Lakdawalla said. “You wind up with different proportions of minerals and substances to build your world.”
For a game in which mining plays a crucial role—obtaining and combining minerals is how players upgrade their ship, scanner, weapon, and more—spectral types may be key in knowing which worlds to scour for rare resources.
If the scientists had a unanimous complaint about No Man’s Sky, it concerned something out of their field: the animals. These creatures, just as procedurally generated as their home planets, appear strange and pieced together but not alien—like how a platypus is weirder to look at than, separately, a duck’s bill, beaver’s tail, and otter’s feet.
Lakdawalla pointed out the presence of many tetrapods (four-limbed vertebrate), which may just be the result of evolution on a planet with Earth’s specific gravity. Batygin raised an eyebrow upon seeing, in a far-off world, creatures that looked suspiciously like dinosaurs.
But here Lemarchand, who worked with the Uncharted franchise, stood up for his fellow programmers. “When we are depicting fantastical worlds, we face a real challenge around depicting things the audience can relate to,” Lemarchand said. “There’s a fine line to be walked in making something that could be realistic—but is so weird we can barely understand what we’re looking at, let alone have some kind of relation to it.”
When these researchers finally do get to play No Man’s Sky, what will they name their discovered planets? That’s a feature promised to players by Hello Games, as well the opportunity to name the creatures found. Lakdawalla, in her role as “evangelist” at the Planetary Society, has run naming contests, giving the public opportunities to identify asteroids or missions of exploration. And from that experience, she knows the two most common proposed names are the entrants’ or those of someone close to them.
But if players were to observe astronomical naming conventions, it might be a boring man’s sky. As Batygin said, recently discovered exoplanet Kepler-452b was tagged with a name considered exciting. Lothringer wondered if people would theme their names. For example, the International Astronomical Union uses characters from Shakespeare’s plays to name the moons of Uranus. Those who want an orderly galaxy might want to consider Lakdawalla’s suggestion of handing out names alphabetically.
Lakdawalla admitted she struggled with the naming idea—until being struck with an idea both practical and poetic.
“I would go from place to place until I found someplace perfect, and then would call it ‘Home.’”