Archaeology in No Man’s Sky: Before and after.


Archaeology and archaeological missions are now part of No Man’s Sky in the version 1.5 “NEXT” update. Much like the Archaeology skill and mechanic in World of Warcraft’s “Cataclysm” update, these NMS missions allow the budding games archaeologist to complete basic find-and-recover tasks assigned by a space station’s mission agent. Players must have reached at least a level 5 reputation with the Explorers Guild, which is accomplished by completing a chain of procedurally generated tasks ranging from scanning wildlife to finding missing people. While players can conduct simple archaeological excavation on their own through finding ruins, what follows below is an example of an archaeological mission as defined by the game itself. After the walkthrough I’ll write about how this squares up (or doesn’t) with actual archaeological practice.


NPC Korvax quest-giver Mathematician Entity Zomerlya always has jobs, and today he has a client who needs an artifact. Titled “Thought-Provoking Knowledge”, the quest objective is to collect three ancient keys. The mission back-story reads as follows:

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Getting the archaeological mission from an NPC

The client believes they have found an ancient genetic link between the Gek and the Vy’keen. Such information could prove politically destabilizing, so they seek additional proof from the fossil records. They require relics of all types. The pieces will be scanned and the records entered into their personal database. The client advises that pirates in this system have recently entered the artifact market, and that field agents should take appropriate caution.

The reward for completing the mission is 236 Nanites, a special currency used by players to buy technological blueprints. The client? “The Monolith.” Typically one would expect a person or organization to fund such an expedition, but in this case it appears to be one of the storytelling markers that dot planets across the universe. Why would a machine—a node in a network—require archaeological data?

In a few lines the mission text communicates what archaeologists already know: archaeology is political, and evidence can be used for political ends. It is unfortunate that this paleontological enterprise is classed as archaeology, but this might have been a decision of convenience on which of the four guilds and mission types would be the best fit for the quest. Note that the reward is for quest completion and is not payment for the artifact itself (which, as seen below, is over 100,000 units). A player could choose to abandon the mission and either keep the artifact to hoard or to sell on the open market. The mission states that the artifacts will be scanned and uploaded into a database meaning that the mission is scientific and not a “tomb-raiding” quest. The quest text also acknowledges looting behavior in the local pirate group. For only a few lines, the quest is surprisingly complex.

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To the dig van!

I start the mission looking for an “appropriate dig site”, and my head-up display (HUD) shows a glowing treasure chest icon marking the location to which to fly and land. Apparently this location will provide “clues” as to where to dig.

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Instructions from the client

I land at a “plaque”, a three-dimensional, digital historical marker. Millions of these exist across the universe, all procedurally generated with text about the history of the game’s three races: Gek, Korvax, Vy’keen. This plaque, when activated, gives me the option to “seek knowledge of the past”, but it comes at a cost: 25 Mordite. Mordite is an element that comes from killing animals. Small animals yield 5 Mordite, and larger ones give more. In effect, the plaque is demanding a sacrifice. For those players who do not wish to kill animals in the game, it is possible to grow plants that produce Mordite, which can be harvested.

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History is always this easy

Through my sacrifice, I am notified: “historical data revealed.” Dig site coordinates appear on my HUD, and it’s a quick flight to a set of half-buried ruins in the desert nearby.

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The dig van has GPS

In earlier versions of the game ruins were never buried and existed in four basic types. The ruins communicate an air of mystery and antiquity, and that sense of mystery continues about a culture, now gone, that existed before the three current races in the game.

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Arriving at the site in the dark. Typical.

In order to find exactly where to dig, I activate the scanner in my visor to conduct some remote sensing revealing the location of three artifact fragments and a large crate.

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Remote sensing is fun

I don’t have to excavate the first fragment, but instead open a stonelike box to recover an “ancient key.”

The second artifact lies buried nearby, about 5 m down. I excavate with my Terrain Manipulator, boring a tidy, person-sized hole at a safe angle down to the next box. Opening it reveals another ancient key. I repeat the process of scan-and-dig to find the third and final key.

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Nice, gentle slope for safety

It is now time to excavate the artifact crate.

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About to pay a visit to Crate & Barrow

Centrally located among the ruins lies the large artifact crate.

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This is just like when we dug Atari

I could choose to continue excavating the overburden to reveal the rest of the ruins, but the quest demands my focus.

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Insert key. Open lock. I wonder if my face is going to melt off.

To open the crate, I must use the three ancient keys, which are removed from my inventory. Ancient crates in NMS contain mechanisms that the keys disable, the latches falling away before the hinged chest opens. The text on the screen indicates that such security measures are in place to protect “valuable treasure”, and it is here that NMS resorts to the use of the “t” word when describing artifacts. Cynic that I can be, it might be possible that in this context “treasure” is used as it is for UK heritage, meaning items of value located in a single, hidden spot. “Looting” is nowhere to be found in the game.

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Treasure. Why is it always treasure?

Opening the crate adds the artifact to my inventory: “primeval ornthiod wings.” The green icon contains a fossil emblem.

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A fossil! This *is* archaeology…. (And sometimes there are bones)

Investigating the artifact further, I learn that the fossil is only 327 years old, and has a current market value of 139,001 units. Descriptive text about the fossil sample reads: “It is impossible to look at this fossil without wondering what sort of life this creature lived and how it fitted it in the local ecosystem.” Note that the artifact, its age, its value, its name, and its description are all procedurally generated, the text coming from algorithms and code and not strictly from the game-writer’s keyboard.

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This fossil is 327 years old.

Artifact recovered, my next step in the quest is to transmit the data to the client at a Trade Terminal, which I locate through my HUD.

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Time to share the data.

Another short flight brings me to a trading post where the artifact upload link is clearly marked.

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The local Internet cafe where I will share this sensitive data in a totally secure environment.

The terminal accessed, it notifies me: “Database connection active… full 4D historical scan in progress… Artifact scan complete! Consent to upload to archaeological data store?” My single option is to upload the data, although I could sneak away and sell the fossil at another Trade Terminal, abandoning the quest while losing reputation with the Korvax in doing so. I upload the data, feeling this is very much in the spirit of the Archaeological Data Service or OpenContext.

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You can upload . . . or upload.

After a short wait, the Terminal states that the artifact has been scanned and uploaded, and the database registration is complete. This automated collections management system has also removed the artifact from my inventory.

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Success! This mission has gone by in a bit of a blur.

The final leg of the quest sends me back to the original quest-giver aboard the local space station. I register the quest’s completion and am rewarded the promised 236 Nanites for my effort. I gain reputation with both the Korvax and with the Explorers Guild. There are no more archaeology quests at this time, but every space station is different and could hold additional jobs for this itinerant CRM professional in space, an intergalactic shovel bum.

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Time to get paid. Ah, the life of a contract archaeologist . . . .


I enjoyed the archaeology quest in NMS, which I found to be detailed and fun. It raised a number of issues regarding potential artifact piracy, of ethnic politics, which I had not seen before in a game. I had to make two ethical choices: 1) sacrifice animals for the dig’s location, and 2) whether or not to upload the artifact. I could have sold it instead. I was paid for my time, and not for the artifact itself, which was uploaded for use by the monolith “client”, part of an information-gathering network of nodes. I got to explore, locate ruins, conduct remote sensing, do an informal surface survey, and excavate, reporting back when finished. I had become a contract archaeologist. I am interested to see what other procedurally generated archaeology quests appear on the mission board, and if the artifacts slowly weave together a story about the anonymous antiquities found on nearly every planet. Hopefully there won’t be too many more fossils (besides me).

—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming


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