No Man’s Sky

No Man's Sky splashscreen

Science fiction is arguably the most freeing genre to write in. Almost any other genre can be slotted into it, and the range of hard to soft sci-fi means a writer/director/artist can do just about anything he or she wants. It’s one of the main reasons I’m drawn to write sci-fi (science fantasy, in my case).

No Man’s Sky, an upcoming game from Hello Games, seems set to relight the fire under our imaginations and renew our love of sci-fi. This isn’t the bleak dystopian or post-apocalyptic sci-fi that we’ve got used to lately. This is the colourful, vibrant frontier imagined in so many 70s and 80s sci-fi book covers. Sean Murray, the game’s creator, specifically credits the cover artwork of Chris Foss as inspiring the game. That is his view of what science fiction is.

I was watching when the game was first announced and have been looking forward to it ever since. I wrote an article about it not long after, saying:

During Spike’s VGX 2013 awards – catastrophically co-hosted by Joel McHale – a little game studio called Hello Games showed us a glimpse of their new game, No Man’s Sky. In the midst of games such as The Last Of Us, Titanfall, Grand Theft Auto 5, etc., this unknown game – from the tiny group of indie developers of Joe Danger – stole the show.

No Man’s Sky is, for all intents and purposes, infinite. We could buy the game on release day and we’ll have died of old age before we’ve explored every planet in it. A single planet could easily be the size of Earth. Think about that for a moment. Think about a game like Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto. It takes a while to wander around them, doesn’t it? No Man’s Sky has Earth-sized planets that you can get out of your spaceship and walk around. You could probably spend a few months exploring every inch of a single planet (on foot). There are billions and billions of these planets. Actually, I think the number is eighteen quintillion, give or take.

This is all made possible by the procedurally generated worlds. To put it simply, it would be impossible for the Hello Games team (initially 4 people) to create the galaxy and planets and lifeforms by hand the way other games are done. The team, therefore, created a system whereby they put in rough blueprints, and then the game takes those blueprints and their constraints to create unique flora and fauna, planets, terrain, weather, etc. The game does this on the fly as you play – it isn’t preloaded. And those constraints ensure that there’s a degree of realism to how and where plants grow, the physiology of animals, and so on. This results in players experiencing worlds that the developers themselves have never seen.

Most importantly to someone like me, it creates a much more real sense of exploration and discovery. You are literally, and quite genuinely, discovering these digital worlds and creatures that no one has come across before. That said, I can imagine the novelty could wear off after a while, especially when you start to recognise elements – ‘oh, look, that mouse has the same head as the dinosaur three planets ago’.

Sean Murray is reluctant to say too much about the lore of the universe and the storyline of the game. Which makes sense – it’s a game about discovery, after all. It sounds, though, like the story will be quite loose and in the background. Rather than having goals, we’ll have reasons to do things. This is where our imaginations will take over.

I’m not too sure what kind of things we’ll be able to do. We can mine, we can shoot things from our spaceship, and we can buy new ships and equipment. Other than that, it’s a bit of a mystery. My biggest concern for the game is that it will rely too much on the player’s sense of wonder and expect us to keep playing for the sense of discovery. As I said, the novelty of this won’t last long, so there needs to be actual gameplay that keeps us playing.

No Man's Sky

That said, we will no doubt end up creating our own storylines, our own narratives to go along with what we’re doing. That will be a fresh take on gaming for some people – we’re used to being told this is who you are, this is what you’re doing, and this is why you’re doing it.

I’ve said before that I hate how most games throw in a story as an excuse for shooting anything that moves, and that proper writers, like Rhianna Pratchett (Tomb Raider, Heavenly Sword, etc.), need to be employed from the start to create an immersive, properly next-gen (now current gen, I suppose) game. I might even write another post ranting about that at some point. But the equal of creating a story-rich game is perhaps to do just what No Man’s Sky seems to be doing: let us create our story.

It won’t surprise regular readers (or as regular as you can be with my infrequent ramblings) to hear that I have my own ideas for games if anyone was foolish enough to give me a game studio. No Man’s Sky is, amongst others, the kind of game I would want to make. Create a rich galaxy, a background story, and let the player do whatever they want. I want to craft a galaxy and its inhabitants and then let the player loose to make their mark on it.

Of course, I would want to go a little further – put more options and whatnot in. That would mean more funding. More funding means more constraints by a publisher. There’s a reason most games these days are so formulaic. The publishers are terrified of putting money into something that isn’t tried and tested. Much better to take a game that sold well, put a new coat of paint on it, change the name slightly, and push it out into the wide world.

Hello Games doesn’t have this problem, because they are indie developers. This is probably the only reason they are able to do what they are doing. Sean Murray worked at EA, so he knows the industry well enough to know to stay away from becoming the industry.

Anyway, there are many articles out there about No Man’s Sky, so there’s not much point in me going on and on. If you’re interested enough to have got to the end of this article, you’ve probably already read some of those other articles.

Suffice to say I am looking forward to become a frontiersman.

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