The Lost City of D: Archaeology in the Legacy Hub of No Man’s Sky

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View towards the portal on Drogradur, surrounded by communication terminals.

Climate change forced an entire civilization to evacuate to the stars. It’s the inspiration for the action in Christopher Nolan’s 2014 film Interstellar, but it also just happened here on Earth, albeit inside a video game. The planet Drogradur was a temperate, resource-filled Utopia of citizen scientists in No Man’s Sky, a game consisting of a procedurally generated universe-sized universe containing a quintillion worlds awaiting discovery and settlement. With the release of a major update to the game, “Atlas Rises,” on August 9, 2017, the climate (and landscape) of every planet in the universe changed literally overnight. Drogradur went from something approaching paradise to a mountainous arctic wasteland with daytime temperatures hovering at -70F, uninhabitable.

Drogradur was the capital planet of the Galactic Hub, a series of systems within a region of the Euclid galaxy. The Hub, created by user 7101334, became a destination in NMS, a place for players to tour, but also to settle. The universe of NMS is lonely, and signs of human occupation are incredibly rare. In my 13 months of playing, I never encountered anything placed by another player, each system and planet discovered by me for the first time. The idea of the Galactic Hub and Planet Drogradur changed all that for me, knowing that there was a public enclave out there in space. And when their Pompeii event happened, the archaeologist in me began thinking of what a mass migration by human players in a video game might look like. Suddenly the No Man’s Sky Archaeological Survey had a real purpose and something concrete to study.

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Drogradur’s portal surrounded by communications terminals, my ship to right.

The Legacy Hub Archaeological Project (L-HAP) will spend the next few months documenting what the original colonists left behind on Drogradur. How did this climate-driven exodus compare with those that happen in the natural world? I am curious to see what was left and where and by whom. I want to see how far across the planet the colonists’ occupation spread, seeing if there are concentrations of human-placed features and their focal point in the landscape. I want to compare the current landscape of Drogradur against what the Galactic Hub recorded about its old location. I want to read and record the messages left behind by the settler-scientists as memorials that surround the planet’s portal from which I exited on September 14, 2017. This is not unlike the work being done by Profs. Bill Caraher and his colleagues for their North Dakota Man Camp project, which examines the modern settlement of the Bakken Oil Fields, and I hope to follow their field methods for survey and documentation.

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Communication terminals left by other players, viewed from a distance in my ship. These markers can be seen from space, inviting visitors.

Prior to establishing a formal NMSAS presence on Drogradur, I wrote to the team’s two ethicists, Catherine Flick and L. Meghan Dennis, asking what the protocol was for conducting archaeological research and establishing a “dig house” on a synthetic world once inhabited (and then completely abandoned) by human beings. I was advised to make contact with the founder of the Galactic Hub first in order to ask permission to conduct the work and to claim a base from which to safely operate. This is not unlike getting a permit and asking a landowner for permission to survey/excavate. Almost immediately after contacting 7101334, I received a very positive reply, excerpted here:

Welcome to the vacated ruins of our former home! Very glad to hear you’ve taken such an interest in it. You may want to try locating abandoned bases in other systems, because only one base is visible per system (in other words, although you’ll find tons of Communication Stations, you’ll only find one abandoned base on Drogradur). It’s possible my base in the Einhander or in the HUB3-G-D4 Asoiaf system could still be visible, as old bases sometimes linger. There may be players still living in the old Hub, or some who put down the game and never came back. You can also experience firsthand why we left when you visit planets like Territorium de Caesarus, where the planet names and fauna lists are bugged and show content which is no longer available. You’ll actually have quite a lot to do as an archaeologist in the Legacy Region. Thanks for taking the time to do this, very interested to see your results.

I also received additional advice from Dennis about the ethics of fieldwork in this synthetic environment:

1) You need to be set up outside the viewshed of the site, as the entry/exit to the area is an important part of the utilized landscape. So not in LOS of the entry.

2) It’s fine to have your operations generally on the planet, and near (with the above caveat) occupation or usage areas. You will need to document what impact your presence has in the environment/area/site.

3) If you encounter anyone who hasn’t moved, you need their consent to engage with their areas.

As I do want L-HAP to be one of my PhD case studies at the University of York’s Centre for Digital Heritage, I will now submit my project proposal to the department’s ethics review board prior to initiating a formal archaeological investigation of the remains of Drogradur.

So what did I find in my first few hours in this deserted Utopia? Arriving through the portal, I was immediately filled with wonder as a welcoming message in Italian splashed across my screen. Spread out in front of me and all around the portal, dozens of communication terminals buzzed brightly in the wintry air. As I walked down the ramp, other messages appeared. I could interact with each terminal to see who placed them and when. It was like reading tombstones in a graveyard in a ghost town. It was like reading notes found in 100 bottles from people who loved this place and had to leave it. Most of the terminals cluster around the portal, and then fan out into the landscape around the ring of hills surrounding the space, and then up peaks of short mountains. More distant terminals beckon with icons on the horizon, placed near landmarks and other features in the landscape, abandoned bases, monoliths, buildings. The video below shows my travel to Drogradur where I set up the first archaeological field station on the rim overlooking the portal and terminals.

The sheer scale of human presence here is daunting, and I’ll need to prepare a project plan in order to determine the best way to document and preserve what is here. This will likely include (later) interviews with the Galactic Hub’s citizens and their Council, the group that ultimately decided to evacuate to the stars. Before I can gather oral histories of the place, I’ll need ethics board approval, which I hope will happen quickly.

I will now begin creating the formal L-HAP project plan, and once it’s ready I will share it publicly here on the blog for comments/suggestions. The video below is of a flyover of Drogradur beginning at the space station.

Tim Ingold once wrote about wonder and archaeology, and I think archaeologists can get so bogged down in the details of things that we forget to look up from time to time to marvel at the spaces we work in. My own personal sense of wonder was reactivated immediately upon stepping through the portal into another world within this synthetic universe, as if I had discovered a lost city. I was surrounded by other humans (or what remained of them), and didn’t feel so lonely anymore after over a year of solitary travel.

How to Get to the Legacy Hub (SPOILERS)

The Legacy Hub lies over 600,000 light-years away from the center of the Euclid galaxy. With average warp drives capable of making 500–1,500 light-years in a trip (your mileage may vary), the pilgrimage is a long one, even if you decide to play “black hole roulette” in an attempt to shortcut the journey. With NMS version 1.3, there is another, quicker way to arrive on Drogradur: portals.


Drogradur’s portal address (image: ACoupleOfIrishFolk)

Portals existed in NMS from the beginning, but only became active with the Atlas Rises update. Members of the Galactic Hub posted the portal address of the capital world on their wiki shortly thereafter. In order to travel to Drogradur by portal, however, players must complete the game’s “Traveller” quest line, and then collect all 16 glyphs in order to punch in the address at a portal’s terminal. It took me about 20 hours of gameplay to collect all 16 glyphs (later versions of 1.3 “nerfed” the ability to return to the same Traveller to receive multiple glyphs), but this method was considerably faster than warping 300,000 light-years from my current location to the Hub. Once I arrived and received permission to build on Drogradur, I was able to import some of my original base materials, plus my Nomad exocraft, and later my spaceship. Here’s the strategy I used to make the trip and set up the excavation house:

Glyphs. Do not search for glyphs in caves. I found all 16 glyphs by encountering Travellers in space stations, observatories, trading posts, and transmission towers. When encountering a Traveller, sometimes you will have the option to ask them where they’re from, which costs 100 nanites (digital currency dispensed from many types of buildings, and sometimes given as rewards). At other times, you will need to talk to a Traveller twice in order to get a location from them. Travel to their grave marker (noted as a heritage symbol on your HUD), and activate it, unlocking the glyph when prompted. To more “quickly” find Travellers, talk to NPCs and ask for directions, which will unlock locations to these facilities, or you can also encounter these buildings at random during flyovers. If you’re lucky, one of those buildings will have a Traveller in it. Note that I never found more than one Traveller per system visited, although that might just be my bad luck. I was never given a duplicate glyph. Patience is rewarded. On occasion I received glyphs in back-to-back systems after a single warp. You must have all 16 glyphs in order to activate a portal, even if a planet’s address uses only a handful of symbols.

Portals. Once you have all 16 glyphs, it’s time to find a portal. I’ve found that the easiest way to do this is to warp to a larger system (four or more planets), land on the largest planet, and then plant a signal booster. After activating the signal booster, choose the “Monolith” option to get directions. Travel to the monolith, activate it, and select the “show portal location” option, paying with the artifact that the monolith requests (e.g., Gek charm). The portal location will appear on the HUD as a purple heritage icon. Travel to the portal. It will need all of its 16 glyphs charged by feeding each glyph with blue, yellow, and red resources (any will work; they don’t need to be rare). Once all glyphs have been charged to 100%, the portal will give the “Activate” option. Select that and then enter the portal address of the world to travel to. The portal will activate. Walk through to the new planet.

Settlement. If you elect to move your base to a world accessed via portal and wish to import your ship, do the following: prior to going through the portal, collect enough resources to build a signal booster and an exocraft bay, which can now be built on any world (not just your homeworld). Travel through the portal. Build a signal booster, activate it, and choose “Habitable Base.” You may need to repeat this a few times to find a base nearby. Once the base is identified, build an exocraft bay and summon your land vehicle. Drive to the new base and activate it. Once claimed, drive back to the portal. Walk back through the portal to the world you recently left. Get in your ship and fly to the space station. Walk to the fast-travel portal in the space station, activate it, and choose your new base from the list of travel options. You will arrive at your new base, and your ship will be waiting outside.

—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming


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