As I warp into the system known as The Heart of Unity, it doesn't seem as if anything special is happening. Five planets and a handful of moons slowly orbit a sun that casts an aquamarine light into the void between. My stellar guides have already entered the orbit of Terra1, a green and blue sphere that, from my vantage amid an asteroid belt, looks pretty Earthlike.
I've been invited to tour one tiny portion of No Man's Sky's infinite, procedurally-generated universe, where a community project a year in the making flung its doors wide open in a sudden gesture of goodwill. UNity1 is the brainchild of several disparate factions and communities. It originally planned to provide an in-game, faction-neutral meeting ground for politicking, ambassadorial discussions and the arbitration of disagreements. They chose a planet, spent months erecting infrastructure, and looped in the leaders of some of the playerbase's largest civilisations, such as The United Federation of Traders and Galactic Hub, in anticipation of a big public reveal.
Then the coronavirus pandemic changed everyone's lives. "In three weeks I met thousands at work, screened countless people and in walking outside the scarcity of human interaction was almost creepy," says Lillihop. She runs the NMSCafé Discord server and has coordinated much of the planning on UNity1. Outside of No Man's Sky, she works at a reception at a hospital. "There's anger and fear, loneliness and loss, and that's not even the day-to-day."
Lillihop spoke with friends and peers about what they could offer members of their communities. All of them knew someone who had lost their job or struggled with working from home. Others spoke about being separated from family or friends, as cities, then entire states and countries enacted shelter-in-place orders. They felt like they needed to do something big.
Terra1 isn't the first planet she and friend DG_Squared planned for my tour. We began with Foundation, a planet in an entirely different system called The Dawn of Unity. It's a relic of that initial plan: a year-long celebration of the player-created Unification Day to allow builders, explorers, wiki curators, and everyone else a space to express their passion together. We land, appropriately, at a small café built on a hill overlooking a small pond, where I'm allowed to get my bearings while my guides discuss routes. Travelling quickly around the planet means zipping into the thin upper atmosphere of Foundation before arcing back down. I'm shown personalised bases, art projects and edifices to the idea of intergalactic companionship. They're empty now, and Foundation won't host any more builds. UNity1's members raised stakes two weeks ago and immediately began work on preparing The Heart of Unity for the public at large.
"We talked and decided that's the gift," Lillihop says. "We wanted it to be from the whole community, and we wanted it to mean something. This is where the unity comes through, in a very human way."
Back on Terra1, I boost out on my own towards one of the several base markers filling the horizon of my HUD. The seaside cabin I find there is humble compared to the extensive bunkers and soaring temples I've seen previously. There are wide windows set into the wooden walls and floors, providing a clear look at both the docks and ocean below. This is AMandy226's new home, and like an increasing number of players, she found UNity1 when she needed it most.
She started actively playing No Man's Sky in December, transitioning from a long affair with the free-to-play MMO World of Tanks. The exploration and discovery aspects immediately appealed to her, but those first steps in the universe were rough going. Like many fledgling Travellers, she went online in search of aid and eventually discovered the No Man's Sky Amino. This networking app might not sling around Twitter or Discord-sized weight, but the official community does boast over 42,000 members.
She fell into conversation with a more seasoned player who goes by the moniker Governor Tarkin. He helped her figure out the basics and begin working her way through the game's core story missions. She admits being somewhat nonplussed at the response from Tarkin and others.
"Most of my past groups were in PvP games, so talk centred on being good at the game, or winning, or how much better you are than someone else," AMandy226 says. "A lot of that conversation isn't very positive."
Somewhere amid their conversations, Tarkin asked if she had heard of Unity1. He explained she could play how she wanted while always having neighbours relatively close by; no stipulations, just a promise to "not be a jerk". She was intrigued and agreed to come check it out.
Standing on the docks of that base, constructed of the most basic materials, I remember AMandy226 told me she and her family live near the coast of Northern California. She is a public school teacher, currently earning a degree so she can teach special education classes. California was one of the first states to enact social distancing measures and order non-essential businesses to close, along with public schools. Before the pandemic, she and her family enjoyed taking frequent walks amid the forests and beaches in her area. This digital home, a sanctuary on one planet among countless others, reflects that love and appreciation.
"It's a community oriented thing for me - a place to let go and do what I want," AMandy226 says. "I've noticed other games aren't very community oriented and they even look down on newer players. UNity1 is the exact opposite of all that."
Her fellow Travellers in The Heart of Unity are an eclectic bunch, counting popular YouTube builders, podcasters, and lore hounds among their number. But AMandy226 has taken up with the Indominus Legion on the nearby desert planet of Hades1. I find it difficult to square the warm-voiced social butterfly with a group whose base looks straight out of Warhammer 40,000, with every surface dyed either black or red, but she likes the alternative playstyle they offer. While the warmongering commandos may not publicly admit it, their newest conscript describes them as "a really great bunch of guys". Perhaps more importantly, it's offered her structure and camaraderie during a time punctuated by isolation.
"Often, when I go to work, I'm by myself. I don't get to see a lot of my coworkers," AMandy226 says. "Right now, with all this going on we need an outlet for continuing to talk with people. A lot of the time, it's not even about No Man's Sky. We talk about our families or what's going on in our neighbourhood while you're playing."
AMandy226 says the UNity1 base has become her home, and she looks forward to logging in to see how things have changed while she is away. No Man's Sky's multiplayer technology limits synchronous play for groups larger than four, but members can still see progress marked in what you construct. As my tour guides lead me around, they remark with wonder and pride at how certain projects are progressing. Their hopes of Unity1 becoming a place of expression and connection seem to be paying off.
"With all of these stresses in life, NMS has become my release for everything," AMandy226 says. "I am a very social person, so for me to not be able to socialise every day or go to work... But now I can't wait for my husband to go to work so I can jump in the game, play with my friends, and see what cool builds they're working on. I don't see myself ever leaving."
Governor Tarkin is exceedingly polite for someone styled after an Imperial Grand Moff. The self-described Star Wars fan has been involved in the UNity1 project since the beginning, and now acts as chauffeur for new players, acclimating more every day to life in The Heart. Most receive a care package, of sorts, in the form of basic elements gathered from Tarkin's regional mining operations.
"I think of it as somebody that's down on their luck in real life - they're just unable to get somewhere," Tarkin says. "It's like when a community comes together to help provide you with the supplies that you need to be able to get along, to function, to help you find a place to live, your groceries, you know? We help you deal with your little slice of life right there in No Man's Sky and the UNity1 hub."
Tarkin works construction in Alabama, and his job is considered essential by the state. He feels fortunate that precaution and early action from local leaders have so far mitigated the spread of the coronavirus. He also knows the work he does in the game is considered by many to be just as essential.
"If you need a place to escape from issues you may have outside of the game, we're here for you, we got a spot for you," Tarkin says. "You know, this could be the new norm for a while. So being able to get together and do things somewhere where you have more control over how your life plays out can really help."
The Island of Fayetteville is near the end of my tour through The Heart of Unity. Lillihop doesn't think her work compares to the citadels and monuments, labyrinths and spires elsewhere in the system. It's small enough that one of us has to park our ships elsewhere and swim across. There's a single tree, a cross lit up in lights, a futuristic food truck, and a dock extending into the waters. This is a version of home Lillihop brought into UNity1, reminding her of places and landmarks from a city in lockdown.
She, DG_Squared, and the other caretakers of UNity1 have asked everyone who joins their community to do something similar: bring a part of the real world you miss into No Man's Sky, and share it with others. So far everyone has settled close, but I'm told 250 planets within the region of Weylan's Quadrant are ready for new Travellers. My home state of Texas is under construction, and, true to form, it encompasses an entire planet on its own.
Connecting with other players in No Man's Sky was originally meant to be a profound moment, even as developer Hello Games added group content and a multiplayer hub. But those in UNity1 are looking for something more mundane, and yet more essential. "It's almost like a second job. So that, in a way, kind of makes me feel like it's still business as usual," says Tarkin. "You know, like, we could still have the normalcy that we're looking for when it comes to the game."