What’s the difference between No Man’s Sky and Euro Truck Simulator 2? Just about everything, really. Euro Truck Simulator 2 is a 2012 game about driving a truck around Europe. You buy a truck, do odd jobs taking cargo from A to B, and you get to explore the roads of Europe along the way. No Man’s Sky is a 2016 game about flying your spaceship around a terrifyingly huge procedurally generated universe. It was released to exceedingly hyperbolic press, and fell a little flat, eventually making a long, painful climb back into the good graces of the gaming community with multiple free updates. Worth having a look at the Wikipedia page, if you’re interested in the controversy, although you will fall down a rabbit hole. Like the game itself, the ongoing critical discourse is seemingly inexhaustible.
There are some similarities too, though. Both games are about transport. No Man’s Sky has some of the basic features of Truck Simulator: you can take on jobs and transport goods around for profit. You can damage your transport if you bash into things. Both games are about speed, scale, distance. But even then, the differences in how those themes are managed make them seem totally alien to each other. No Man’s Sky is focused on survival mechanics and scrounging for supplies, while Truck Simulator is about driving trucks. No Man’s Sky liberates you (or isolates you?) from civil society, setting you out into the wilderness of space with only the most superficial contact with other people. Truck Simulator integrates you into the social fabric, having you cart about supplies for different companies, and share the road with other vehicles. You have to obey traffic lights in Truck Simulator. Don’t see those in No Man’s Sky. Probably the most obvious difference, themes aside, is even just the colours. No Man’s Sky is built around a loud, almost neon palette – bold, science-fiction-y oranges and blues. Truck Simulator is a bit more muted in its palette, bit more salt of the earth. The sort of colours you’d expect from a game about driving trucks.
So I originally started playing these games at about the same time. I was struck by their similarities, but – more specifically by the fact that they were so different despite their obvious shared features. They are sharply, aggressively different to each other, in the way that only very similar things can be. Today I want to focus on the way that each game thinks about space. We’ll start with No Man’s Sky.
The first thing to know about No Man’s Sky is that it’s big. It’s too big. According to the game’s wiki, there are “255 unique galaxies, which in turn comprise around 3 to 4 billion regions, each of which contain more than 122 and up to hundreds of star systems. All star systems feature from 1-6 planets and moons, and usually a single space station.” Assuming the smallest of each of those figures, that’s – what, 3 billion times 122, assuming only one planet per system, which is obviously an underestimate – that’s 366,000,000,000 planets. Minimum. It’s somewhere between that and two trillion. And even an individual planet is pretty huge. In the image below, I’m in my spaceship, with my destination listed in the middle of the screen. It’s two hours away. That’s two real hours, two whole real-world hours, to get to that abandoned building. Fuck that. I mean – luckily, you know, if you get out of the planet’s atmosphere you can fly a lot faster, so at that point you just fly up and out of the atmosphere and quickly nip over the horizon. Takes maybe a couple minutes, tops.
So here’s the question. With worlds and galaxies and an entire universe that’s all this big, what do you do? It’s less an existential question and more a practical one. Are you really going to spend two hours to get to that abandoned building, just to pick up some shitty nanites? Course not. But what about half an hour? Twenty minutes? Individual mileage will vary as to how long you’re willing to take, but at some point, everybody’s going to go right, fuck this, and fly up out of the atmosphere and zoom at high speeds to their destination. At some point, we all find the distance so unreasonably large that we’ll ratchet up the speed and truncate the time of travel. Two hours will become a minute and a half, and you’ll reach your destination, and you’ll collect your nanites, and you’ll fuck off somewhere new. In No Man’s Sky, space is something we tolerate. We tolerate it for as long as we derive pleasure from it, and then we put it aside and get to where we want to be.
In Euro Truck Simulator 2, on the other hand, we find a very different attitude to space. The general game map is shrunk and massively simplified, with only 70 available cities across the whole of Europe (in the base game, at least), and a time scale of roughly 20:1. That is, three minutes in the real world equals an hour in game-time – so if you have a three hour journey, it’ll take you about nine minutes to play. Immediately, then, this game has a more accessible setup. It’s shortened and simplified. And your relationship with the environment is totally different. In Truck Simulator, the journey is the the bulk of the game. There isn’t really a way to cut down on the time it takes to get from one place to another – and even if you could, you wouldn’t want to. That’s not what the game’s about. It’s about trundling. You’re on the highway, and you’re checking your GPS, checking the other lanes in case you have to turn to get onto the overpass. You’re keeping an eye on the fuel, the speed limit, you’re thinking about when you’ll take your next nap break. It’s a game about simulating the minutiae of driving, allowing you to experience driving as an aesthetic, separated from all the serious and sometimes life-threatening consequences of driving in the real world. If fiction is a space that allows us to explore emotions and ideas in a safe and insulated way, then Euro Truck Simulator 2 is great fiction. And the distances that do exist in the game are a key part of that. If you’re driving from Metz to Paris, it’s going to take three hours. Truck Simulator will whittle that down for you, bringing it into a more manageable timeframe, but there’s still a consistent sense of scale. Proportionately longer journeys will take a proportionately longer amount of time. And that’s okay. It’s enjoyable, even. You’re there for the travel aesthetic.
When we compare Truck Simulator and No Man’s Sky, we can see how these different spatial aesthetics are poles apart. In No Man’s Sky, space is in some sense held at a distance. It’s a fact of the universe, and the scale is truly inhuman – but so are your technologies for overcoming it. The distances, while staggering, are largely optional. In some ways No Man’s Sky falls between two stools. It’s very big, which, you know, is great for creating a grandiose sense of scale – but the downside is that it’s so big that it’s unwieldy. You’ve only got eighty years in your life, tops, and you’re not going to spend a whole two hours travelling to some abandoned building. On the other hand, if you decide to shrink your travel time and use your pulse engine (your fastest travel option within the confines of a single system), it ends up being a bit boring. I’ve had instances where I’m travelling to a planet that’s maybe two minutes away, at pulse engine speed, and you just sit there. There’s nothing to do, nothing particular to look at. You just wait for the numbers to tick down. I wouldn’t call it bad, per se, because I think that would just be criticising No Man’s Sky for not being Truck Simulator. And that’s not fair – they’re different games with different artistic goals. The point is more that No Man’s Sky presents us with a really unusual cluster of distance-related themes. We’re invited to appreciate the soaring scale of the universe, but then as soon as we want to circumvent it or cut it short and get stuff done, it boils down to a dull couple minutes on auto-pilot. Euro Truck Simulator 2, on the other hand, is interested in travel as an aesthetic experience. The journey is the goal. No Man’s Sky allows you to be interested in travel as an aesthetic experience if you want, although it’s pretty thin on the ground in that area, in terms of game mechanics (particularly compared to Truck Simulator or any of the other travel-focused simulator games), and more pointedly, as soon as you decide you’re not all that interested in the journey and that you’d rather just get to your destination, the travel that remains becomes something of a chore. Again, that’s not so much a criticism of No Man’s Sky – if anything, it’s an appreciation of how it perfectly inverts the aesthetic of travel that we find in more traditional travel games like Truck Simulator 2.