No Man’s Sky, Hello Games’ Massive Online Math Simulation, is really good at evoking the weird, psychedelic vibes of classic science fiction, generating fascinating worlds and creatures to marvel at or shamelessly exploit, and, most importantly, making us feel puny and insignificant. One of the best parts of this vast, uncaring and strangely pastel galaxy is that all those fuzzy synths and geometrically-upsetting aliens inspire the kind of sweeping, slightly self-indulgent thoughts that sci-fi fans can’t get enough of.
If you like confronting the stark reality of your impermanence in the face of unrelenting time and your impossible smallness in the grand scheme of a chaotic and random universe… here’s some other sci-fi, or something. I have to lie down.
Ursula K. Le Guin is one of the most influential science fiction writers ever, and she’s required reading for anyone who gets all tingly thinking about life on other worlds. Her works use sci-fi as a means of exploring life that functions totally differently from our own, presenting hypothetical alternatives to how societies could develop and in the process providing an often radical new perspective on how we live and what that suggests.
The Left Hand of Darkness follows Genly Ai when he is sent on a diplomatic mission to the world Gethan. Gethan’s inhabitants are ambisexual, and their society does not have human gender roles. The book follows Ai’s attempts to understand the Gethan way of life and convince them to join an alliance. If you’ve wondered how the aliens of No Man’s Sky might live, The Left Hand of Darkness presents one fascinating possibility.
Surprisingly spry 200 year-old Louis Gridley Wu is offered a spot on a voyage outside of known space to explore an ancient alien superstructure called a ringworld. He agrees mostly because he’s bored. Inevitably, the crew’s ship crash lands on the ringworld and Louis, the cat-alien “Speaks-to-Animals,” and young woman Teela Brown have to figure out a way off ringworld, in the process confronting its inhabitants and history.
Sound familiar? Ringworld was written in 1970, and included a lot of concepts that have become sci-fi standards. The ringworld is basically a Halo. The novel also spawned a bunch of sequels and prequels, comic books, ill-fated attempts at TV adaptations and weird ‘90s adventure games, so it’s got all the hallmarks of a classic. Besides, No Man’s Sky is about a bored person wandering the universe, too.
There are several reasons why Albert Camus’ meditation on absurdism belongs on this list. First of all, the essay recounts the classic Greek myth of Sisyphus, who is doomed to forever push a boulder up a hill only to have it fall back down. Even worse, Camus claims that the way for Sisyphus to be happy is to start to like it. To Camus, an absurd life requires revolt. For our purposes, that can mean an absurd game requires making your own fun.
If you haven’t reached No Man’s Sky endings, then spoilers: they ain’t great. No Man’s Sky isn’t about finding a hidden meaning somewhere in the stars; it’s about learning to love pushing the boulder, even though you’re probably going to see the same boulder on the next planet, just with a different color. I think that metaphor just got away from me.
Sebastián Cordero’s 2013 sci-fi drama seems slept on, which is a shame because its stripped-down scope and found-footage sensibilities give it a (ahem) down-to-earth quality that makes the tension surrounding the protagonists all the more immediate and uncomfortable.
Europa Report follows the crew of the first manned mission to Europa, one of Saturn’s moons. Because this is sci-fi, there are technical problems which disable communications and make leaving Europa impossible. As crew members fall victim to increasingly mysterious accidents, it becomes apparent that the crew is not alone.
If you’ve never suddenly had the suspicion that something in No Man’s Sky was watching you, Europa Report will help you get there. You’ll also probably be able to empathize with how the poor Europa crew members just cannot catch a break, especially when it comes to repairing this goddamn ship.
Duncan Jones’ 2009 indie darling has attained a revered status among fans of contemporary sci-fi media, and for good reason. The film follows Sam Bell, the sole operator of an otherwise fully automated mining facility on—you guessed it—the moon. Three weeks before the end of his three-year contract, Sam sees something strange on the lunar horizon and then awakens in an infirmary with an AI program telling him he can’t leave.
Moon is quintessential speculative sci-fi in the best way. Sam’s lonely life on the moon quickly becomes something much more sinister when he uncovers a secret that has consequences for far more people than just him and learns that his “three-year contract” may mean something different than he thought. Just what were all those abandoned buildings in No Man’s Sky for, anyway?
Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris is a weird, artistic Soviet sci-fi psychological drama filmed in 1972. That should be enough to sell any fan of No Man’s Sky, but it also happens to be considered one of the best sci-fi movies ever made. In Solaris, a scientific mission on the space station Solaris has come to a halt because its small crew have each undergone their own separate emotional breakdowns. Psychologist Kris Kelvin (sci-fi names) is sent to Solaris to discover what’s happened and get the mission back on track. As you can probably guess, things get bad, and weird.
Solaris is a perfect recommendation for anyone inspired by No Man’s Sky because it speculates as to what going to other stars and interacting with lifeforms we can’t understand or communicate with might do to us. When you’re out discovering endless new worlds, what do those worlds discover about you?
Modern day astronaut John Crichton (sci-fi names) is testing an experimental aircraft when he is hurled through a wormhole and winds up in a living spaceship called the Moya with a crew desperately trying to get away from space fascists called peacemakers.
Farscape is an ensemble-driven space drama in the vein of Firefly. Unlike, Firefly, it has more than one season. Episodes explore sci-fi premises like alternate realities, omnipotent aliens and space bugs (y’know, those space bugs) while also developing each of the Moya’s crew members and filling in their backstories. Think Mass Effect if Shepard made a bunch of nerdy pop culture references. Plus, if the living spaceship thing didn’t tip you off, things get pretty weird, and occasionally pretty silly.
The US government discovers an ancient alien device called a stargate that has the ability to network with other stargates on planets throughout the universe. We aren’t the only race using the stargates, however. Stargate SG-1’s primary antagonists are the Goa’uld, evil snake parasites that use humans as hosts. In order to combat this new threat, Earth sends several “SG” teams, including SG-1 (there it is) through the stargates and into the unknown.
Based on Roland Emmerich’s 1994 film Stargate, Stargate SG-1 is the longest-running American sci-fi TV series ever, airing from 1997 to 2007. Over the course of its ten seasons and two movies it weaves together speculative fiction and mythology to tell a complex story about diplomacy, war, teamwork and the nature of the universe. Plus, MacGyver is in it. Fuck yeah.
Obviously, Star Trek is a huge influence on virtually all sci-fi that came after it and so is an obvious choice, but Voyager in particular should be exciting for No Man’s Sky fans. Also, Captain Kathryn Janeway is a badass scientist action hero, which should be exciting for anyone.
In Voyager, the crew of the USS Voyager is sent into the Badlands of space to track down a missing ship piloted by rebels. However, as they search, a strange energy wave strands the Voyager on the far side of the galaxy. There, they discover that the rebels are also stranded, and the two parties are forced to form an unlikely alliance to make the long, uh, trek home.
Episodes of Voyager consist of this motley crew boldly going where no human has gone before, meeting and occasionally fighting with strange new life forms and making, and losing, friends.
This is, amazingly, exactly what the name implies. You are an engineer in space, designing and constructing your own ships and space stations among the stars or on asteroids and planets. Space Engineers has been in early access since 2013, but that hasn’t stopped it from gaining critical acclaim and a devoted community.
Keen Software, a small Czech-Republic indie studio, built Space Engineers from the ground up with their own engine, which they continue to refine. Realism was the founding concept of the sandbox game, so every building material and building platform has realistic physics and behaves the way you would think it would if you were, you know, a super genius building giant robots in space.
Before No Man’s Sky was fabricating a galaxy with math, computers and Sean Murray’s ability to rock a beard, Elite: Dangerous was using a 1:1 (!) scale galaxy as a playground for its hybrid MMO/single player space adventure. Think EvE Online, but a bit less scary. Starting with a spaceship and just a little money, the player can explore a couple billion star systems, join one of three factions, rank up to buy, make or steal better equipment and, of course, blow the hell out of each other.
If you like the endless-ness of No Man’s Sky but also actually want to interact with other human beings (weirdo), then Elite: Dangerous might be worth looking into.
In this rogue-like indie darling, you take command of a small crew on a mission to deliver information necessary to the survival of your alliance, while being pursued through dangerous space by a rebel fleet.
You can win or lose a playthrough of FTL in a couple hours (probably fewer, if you’re as bad at it as I am), and it’s meant to be played over and over. No two playthroughs of FTL are the same; as you travel to your destination, you’ll have randomized encounters with merchants, pirates, friendly and not-so-friendly aliens, slavers, angry rocks and more. In order to survive, you’ll have to upgrade your ship, conserve resources and make hard decisions.
FTL’s choices sting more than most RPGs ever could. Oh, it’s also very, very hard. I’ve never beaten the final boss. God, I want to beat the final boss.
This recommendation is tenuous, because you’ll have to play through a little of maybe the best RPG of the last generation to get to the good stuff. If you can find it in yourself to get past that dreck, however, any fan of No Man’s Sky will find it’s worth it. See, the Normandy has some state-of-the-art strip-mining equipment. Just select a planet, use the scanner to locate caches of those sweet sweet resources, fire your probe and…that’s it! You can also find distress signals, but don’t worry about that.
Mass Effect 2’s better-than-the-actual-game mini-game was clearly a defining influence on Hello Games as they figured out what players were actually going to do in their procedurally generated galaxy, and that makes it a must-play (?) for die-hard space prospectors. If you can get past the rest of that stuff. What kind of name is Garrus, anyhow?
Too obvious to mention-mentions: Star Trek, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Firefly, Cowboy Bebop, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien.
Harry Mackin has written for Game Informer, Playboy and other outlets. He’s on Twitter at @Shiitakeharry.