When No Man’s Sky launched last year, an archaeology PhD student led a team of 30 players on a survey intending to understand the algorithms that built the game’s worlds. This initial foray didn’t pan out, as the game was missing features he needed to properly excavate. But after the 1.3 update, which radically altered No Man’s Sky’s planet generation, he’s not only gotten better tools to dig with, but also an abandoned civilization to explore.
“My whole reason for existence as an archaeologist these days is to find out how to do archaeology in a synthetic world,” Andrew Reinhard told me over Skype. He studies history through excavating artifacts, and though he once specialized in Greek vase painting, he’s now a PhD student at the University of York in the UK, where he works with their Center for Digital Heritage. While a lot of people think of archaeology something tangible and physical, Reinhard says that for him, video games themselves are archaeological sites. “They’re made by people for other people,” he said. “Games change over time with different versions just like sites change over time.” Using the methodology of archaeology in a digital, non-physical space like a video game is the backbone of his research.
Reinhard and his team were all pretty excited for No Man’s Sky to launch, both as academics and as players. They had made plans for how they would begin to try to survey the sites, doing field walks and flyovers to look at the landscape. But as the team got into the game, they realized that the tools they needed just weren’t there. At launch the game didn’t have cardinal directions on the compass, so getting his team members to the same spots on planet was incredibly difficult. Over time, his group of 30 dwindled off to work on their own projects, PhDs, or returned to their lives.
Months later, Reinhard decided to return for the latest update, patch 1.3. New tools, like the terraforming gun, allow him to more easily manipulate the terrain, and now that the game has cardinal directions, field walking should be much easier. Reinhard has one more exciting new development as well—No Man’s Sky had gained abandoned civilizations like the Galactic Hub. The Galactic Hub was a player directed project that seeks to create and organized community for players to more or less call home, and was first settled in the Lennon star system of the Euclid galaxy. The original site for the No Man’s Sky Galactic Hub project had been radically altered by patch 1.3, which changed how planets were generated. The community was forced to leave their bases, farms and communication terminals behind, which Reinhard intends to excavate just like any other civilization.
When he first landed, he followed a pop up that should have pointed him to a shared base, as well as a couple dozen communication terminals with messages from former Hub residents. When he landed there was no base to be found, and Reinhard theorized it must be underground. So, he started digging.
“What I discovered through tunneling is that the base and the two dozen communication terminals are buried under the bedrock, which the Terrain Manipulator cannot cut through,” he wrote in a blog post. “I attempted to tunnel to other nearby terminals, but it’s clear that these are under the bedrock, too. So while I can pinpoint the locations of these terminals and of the base, I will never be able to read what they say or identify who left them.”
While excavating the Legacy Hub is exciting, Reinhard also describes it as eerie. Player bases have defaulted to a single round building.
Shared bases have retained their architecture, but they’re just creepily empty, like a base he discovered made by a player called dwshort.
“I’d never seen [a shared base] in the wild before, so finding dwshort’s base was a revelation. It’s beautiful, clean, and stocked with a renewable, sustainable cash-crop. But the lights were on and no one was home,” Reinhard said. Furthermore, although he’d been greeted with a welcome message the first time he’d visited dwshort’s base, when he’d returned the next day that message was gone, and had reverted to the default. “To lose such a simple human connection was sad, but it’s unclear if it was intentional or accidental,” Reinhard said.
Nearby, he also found a grouping of Communication Terminals in the air. Players can’t place objects like that in the air however—what he was actually looking at was the outline of a now lost mountain. The messages on the Communication Terminals even referenced climbing. “It is clear that these terminals mark the previous disposition of the planet’s landscape prior to v1.3, and even gives a hint to the shape,” Reinhard wrote. “There used to be a mountain here, but now it is only sand.”
It’s early days for this second attempt at excavating No Man’s Sky, but Reinhard’s writings are quite optimistic. “The results of today’s initial explorations of planet Pr might mark the first in-game excavation of a human-player settlement buried by a catastrophic event that had consequences unintended by the game’s developer,” he wrote after his first look at the the Legacy Hub. For now, Reinhard is making a new mission plan and dividing up the planets in the Legacy Hub between himself and the rest of the team. Who knows what else they’ll find, buried beneath the digital bedrock?