Let’s get something out of the way. Being just shy of entering my sixth decade, I am officially what I used to refer to as ‘an old fart.’ Not sure how this happened, but I’m dealing with it with world-weary humor and longer attempts to get up from the couch. This also means that I’m not quite the young buck any more when it comes to video games. My hand/eye coordination is no longer sharp enough to get Lara to that seemingly unreachable alcove in the Bolivian temple, my reflexes have dulled to the point where fifth place in any race is a win in my book, and being trash-talked by a twelve-year-old, killing me for the umpteenth time while I try to figure out where I am on the map, has lost its glamour.
I became aware of No Man’s Sky when a trailer emerged from E3 in 2014, which proved to be enough to win the game several awards based on promise alone. In that trailer we gazed through the eyes of a cosmic explorer as they emerged from a cave into bright orange sunlight and traversed a landscape so exotically hued that all it was missing was Doug McClure standing in the middle with one sleeve ripped off.
Then the explorer dodged a few skittish antelope-types and rounded a group of towering dinosaurs before hopping into a small craft and blasting off from the planet surface. Moments later (which included zero loading screens) the explorer was in space, joining in a skirmish and zooming down to a different planet to pick off a trio of interstellar ne’er-do-wells. The whole trailer was extremely impressive due to its seamless game play, but it was the aesthetic of the video clip that really captured my imagination. The color palette and fanciful forms were a breath of fresh air compared to the modern penchant for dark and gritty™ and that immediately had me reaching for the nostalgia goggles.
I unearthed interviews and videos from a tiny band of indie developers nestled in England called Hello Games and my interest was piqued further still. I was delighted when I saw an interview with lead artist Grant Duncan, who alluded that the game was inspired by sci-fi book covers of the 70s by the likes of Chris Foss, John Harris and Peter Elson.
Cover art by Chris Foss
Then I heard lead programmer and face of Hello Games, Sean Murray, speak of his love affair with Herbert’s Dune, which prompted him to start developing No Man’s Sky. Here was a group of young developers with the mindset of my generation and suddenly I felt that this game was being made for me.
At this point I should probably explain what No Man’s Sky is for any readers who have managed to avoid all mention of it. This is most certainly a skip-friendly paragraph for the rest of you. No Man’s Sky is a strange beast. Part survival, part exploration, on the surface the purpose of the game appears to be wandering aimlessly in previously undiscovered landscapes, something we could be doing with Pokémon GO. However, there’s more to it than that. The potential vastness of the game (see below) means that Hello Games have created the ultimate sandbox; an entire universe for us mortals to do with as we wish.
This includes the aforementioned exploration, trading with alien races, a bit of piracy if that’s your cup of tea, a smidgen of biological and geological research, archeology, and xenocide for the youths. You are equipped with a multi-tool; a hand-held device that serves as a scanner, excavator and blaster. This device, along with your ship, can be upgraded using the resources you plunder from innocent planets and asteroids. You can also upgrade your spacesuit to better withstand the more extreme weather that some systems will welcome you with, such as acid rain, sand storms and the kind of temperatures that would make a tardigrade put a scarf on.
Depressingly, it has been suggested that 99.9% of the planets in the game will go undiscovered, and of the ones that are ruined by humans, only about 10% will sustain any kind of interesting life forms. That’s not to say the other rocks are barren – they may indeed be loaded with precious resources or feature mysterious ruins, caves and dungeons to be explored – but anyone expecting to fire up the game and immediately start frolicking with six-legged Pandorian lambs is in for a nasty shock. Everything in the game is destructible should that be your preferred method to take out life’s frustrations, but be warned – every planet and pocket of space is patrolled by robot sentinels, and they will not let you get away with any murderous shenanigans.
For those of you scared at the thought of aimless wandering, there is a goal of sorts. At the center of the universe is a bright light, brighter than any star around it. If you like your games to have a conclusion, then you are expected to head toward the center. There you will discover something. Nobody but the developers knows what it is yet, but speculation is rife, and I can guarantee that one or two folks will skip planetary exploration and head straight there in the hope that they can plant their flag and spoil it for everyone else.
As new images were unveiled, and more details began to emerge, my anticipation grew. The details were extraordinary — the numbers, staggering. In a space nutshell, the game is procedurally generated as you play. As far as I can ascertain, this means that math is involved, along with pseudorandom number generators, a ‘superformula’ equation and fractal sorcery. I try not to dwell too long on this sort of stuff, but I gather some folks get very excited by it. At the end of the day it means that players will encounter infinite variations of flora and fauna as well as unique landscapes, weather systems and structures. All of this takes place in a universe populated by some eighteen quintillion planets. That’s a jolly large number. To put it in perspective, that means if you were to visit one planet every second, it would take you over five hundred billion years to do so. As a wise man once said, “Space is big. Really big.”
Despite being ‘far too busy’ to indulge in any joystick-fiddling, I now found myself being lured like Mothra to a burning skyscraper. I needed to learn more, and so I dug deeper. New tidbits came to light; players would get to name anything they discovered thus sating their God-lust, alien artifacts and languages were there to be deciphered, trading would take place, factions would rise, space-ferrets would be encountered.
I was being seduced by the mere idea of a game. Apparently the procedural magicks were also being cast on the ships in the game, thus no two would be alike. This was evident as more video snippets sneaked out; we saw ships that resembled the attractive offspring of colonial vipers and x-wings, bulbous craft that wouldn’t look out of place on a Frank R. Paul magazine cover and giant cruisers that looked like Ron Cobb concept art. The familiar imagery didn’t stop there. We were treated to vistas dominated by monoliths torn from A.C. Clarke’s novels, portals that put me in mind of Harry Harrison’s MTs and even sand worms.
I was becoming overly excited and needed a dose of reality, so naturally I hunted for groups on Facebook. Perhaps a bit of negativity would temper my giddiness. Sure enough, when I joined some rapidly expanding groups I found comments of dissention. Expectations were too high, the purpose was unclear and, the biggest complaint of all, we would be playing alone.
No Man’s Sky can legitimately be called a multiplayer game since we will all be playing in the same universe. However, the sheer scale of the universe means that the likelihood of actually bumping into another player is extremely remote. It should be noted that the probability of doing so exponentially increases as one travels closer to the center and for me that is a compelling argument to stay away from the bright light. Some of the players’ solitude fears have been dispelled by the explanation that we would be playing in spatial ‘bubbles’, and that other players might be able to invade our personal space for friendly banter or, more likely, twelve-year-old maliciousness, but this topic continues to be the number one bugbear for potential players and I can understand their concerns without subscribing to them.
We live in a time where sharing is the norm. MMORPGs have allowed us to play online with our friends for two decades since Ultima Online popularized the genre in 1997 (I don’t mean to ignore the old guard such as Crowther’s Adventure, MUD or even the grandpappy of them all, Mazewar, but I’m basing this timeframe on accessibility and player populations) and it seems these days our life experiences are only validated by the number of likes and shares they receive.
I read more than a few comments on various forums where gamers expressed confusion and trepidation at the thought of being alone in the game, to the point where the potential loneliness was the reason why they were not pre-ordering it. Of course, solo gaming is not a new concept and if anything is thriving through the resurgence of DOOM and the success of Alien: Isolation, however these games have light at the end of the tunnel, albeit murky light at the end of a particularly grim tunnel, but a conclusion all the same.
Despite the central goal, No Man’s Sky could actually be played for a lifetime without ever reaching that bright star, or meeting another player and, aside from the retro-aesthetic, this is the reason I am so looking forward to immersing myself in it. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read the human rulebook and understand that we are supposed to be social animals but there’s a time and place for everything.
In real life I promise to be bubbly and gregarious to the point of nausea, but when I’m exploring the No Man’s Sky universe I do not need distractions. I’d hate to find myself exploring a strange new world called YoMommasButt IV, I dread to think I might seek out new life and new civilizations only to find them tagged and wiped out by Alienshafter76, and I want to boldly go somewhere that doesn’t have a mile-long phallus etched into its surface.
As I hacked my way through the Facebook jungle, I came across a couple of new groups, smaller groups, and I was hearing similar concerns to my own. Closer inspection of these commentators revealed that they were of my generation; in fact many were Baby Boomers, trumping my Generation X gang by a couple of decades. It appeared we were of a singular mind when the same names kept cropping up, Asimov and Herbert, Le Guin and Heinlein, Dick, Bradbury, Vonnegut, McCaffrey and Niven.
We had all been drawn to this new game by the same promise; that we could explore the fictional universes we had fallen in love with, but our newly invigorated desire to mash buttons came at a price. Suddenly our chats had turned from excited speculation over the purpose of mysterious structures in the middle of purple deserts to the hardware needed to play the game.
Some of us went out and bought consoles for the first time since the Atari 2600, and were perplexed by the lack of a big red button. The rest of us steadfastly stuck to our PCs that have served us faithfully while running Final Draft 4 or Excel spreadsheets, and this brought its own challenges. Now the old dogs would have to learn new tricks, specifically figuring out what CPU lurked within the metal box under their desks, locating where the RAM was leaking out, and what the hell an nVidia GTX 480 graphics card looked like. The younger bucks were very supportive and guided us in much the same way that I teach my mother-in-law how to use her iPad every day instead of ridiculing us, as is their prerogative.
Private messaging with some members revealed even more. Some of us were casual gamers; dabbling in any RPGs that reminded us of the ‘good old days’ while others were more on the ball, fully immersed in the worlds of Mass Effect, Fallout or GTA. One or two had never played a video game in their life. The prospect of No Man’s Sky was drawing us out of the shadows, squinting in the glare of our monitors, forcing us to get up to speed with acronyms that were tossed around like confetti; NPCs, FPS, DoT which, it transpires, means ‘damage over time’ and not ‘department of transport’, although the results are similar. Through our conversations we learned that we all had different objectives. Some wanted to explore as many systems as possible, compiling video and images to share online, others were drawn to the deep space aspect and were considering a life of piracy (the rogues) while at least one of us decided that he would spend the first six months or so investigating just one planet, fully investigating and mapping it out.
One common element did emerge though; most of us had played Battlezone thirty-five years ago, back when it was considered cutting edge, and we all agreed that Atari’s groundbreaking game had caused an itch we’ve being trying to scratch ever since. Playing in open-ended worlds such as Azeroth, Tamriel and Liberty City had almost relieved this itch, but we were still stuck on an island or in a city or on one planet, and no matter how high we leveled up, it was always possible to reach a plateau.
The scale of No Man’s Sky suggests it is a game we can play for the rest of our lives, it could even become a multi-generational game, and the itch can finally be dealt with. We will reach those mountains on the horizon.
No Man’s Sky is being released on August 9th 2016, exclusively for Playstation 4 and PC.
Neil Baker’s last article for us was The H.P. Source: Why I Chose Mythos and Magic to Launch my Publishing House. He is an author, illustrator, outdoor educator and owner of April Moon Books (AprilMoonBooks.com). He will be publishing his latest anthology at the end of the year, a book stuffed full of optimistic science fiction that has no place in today’s society. He currently lives near Toronto with his family and is officially an old fart.