Since its announcement No Man’s Sky has exploded brains with the promise of unfettered space exploration. Can it beat the hype? Josh Drummond reckons it won’t, but not for the reasons you think.
The game-changing game trailer that will change gaming begins with a black screen. Text flashes that assures us that all footage is captured in real time, and every atom of what we’re about to see is “procedural.”
From a first person perspective, we swim in an underwater landscape, filled with strange fish. We emerge (dripping) on to a beach. Vivid red grass and trees flare against a blue sky, filled with a bright moon. Turning right, we see a spaceship, as three other ships fly overhead. We get into the ship, we take off, and climb into the sky.
The ship’s speed grows, and as it does, we see quick flashes of other worlds, of strange ships and living beings. Back in our ship, it pulls up, up into the clouds… and, seamlessly, it flies through, leaving them behind. The sky darkens, and we see a space station, surrounded by darting ships, trailing bright tails of light.
This is the first time anyone has ever seen this happen in a video game.
The first people to see footage of No Man’s Sky, at the 2013 VGX gaming expo, were astonished. So were the millions who viewed it online soon after, and for good reason. They were seeing something that had never been done before: a first-person video game that procedurally generated entire, populated worlds – entire solar systems, entire galaxies – and the space in between them. Not only that, but the video suggested that you, player, could play in this space, in No Man’s Sky.
At this, gamers everywhere went fucking nuts. I know, because I did too.
About a decade ago, I was living in a small town with a temporary job as a plasterer’s labourer. It was a stop-gap job – I was making decisions about what I was going to do with life, and I’d settled on law school, for reasons that didn’t make much sense at the time and definitely don’t now. In the meantime, I plastered. I helped with solid plastering, which is basically applying concrete to walls. I quite liked the job, mainly because my boss was a solid sort and we used to spend entire days seeing who could come up with the worst puns. It was a solid job.
But sometimes we’d do gypsum plastering, which was the worst. It meant, after my boss had slapped the stuff on the roof, I’d spend the day – and I really do mean “the day” in the sense of “eight to ten hours”, sanding it, usually on my own. Sanding plaster is a kind of existential hell. When you are sanding, there is nothing to do but sanding. Sanding, and escaping into a vivid fantasy world, which is what I did. No, not those kind of fantasies. Rather than composing mental letters that began “Dear Penthouse Forum,” I went instead to space.
During my plastering stint I spent my time starting to doubt the essential truths of Christianity and playing a dated shareware game called Escape Velocity Nova. It was a top-down 2D space shooter with an overwrought You Are The Chosen One space-opera plot, right down to the narrative text being written in the second person. I loved it, not least because you could explore a 2D galaxy and land on a set of 2D planets. Landing on any of these brought up a single snapshot of a mysterious world, sometimes like ours, and sometimes like ours but with more Photoshop filters. But it was during my gypsum-sanding sessions that the game really came into its own. Staring at another unyielding seam of plaster, I conjured intense daydreams – more like hallucinations, really – about a game that currently existed only in my head. It would be like EV Nova, with trading and combat and an emergent narrative, but real-er. It would have planets you could roam on and explore, with hidden caves and treasures and alien creatures you could interact with (read: kill.) Ships with real immersive cockpits and a gigantic galaxy to fly them in. I figured something like it would exist one day, perhaps in the year 2100. For then I was content to dream.
As the years went by it seemed like 2100 was overly optimistic. In the mid to late 2000s, space sims went abruptly, entirely out of fashion. I got into other games – in 2004, I accidentally spent a week’s money on 50 megabytes of Waikato University internet data looking up preview videos of Halo 2 – but none of them sparked my imagination the way that my lame little space game and tripping balls on gypsum plaster dust had done. I thought my fantasy game would remain in my head forever, but I never really forgot about it.
Flash forward to 2013. The reaction to the No Man’s Sky trailer was cataclysmic. It wasn’t just me who’d longed for a singular space game. Everyone who had ever seen Star Wars or Star Trek or Firefly or had read Ready Player One or who’d ever just stared up at the night sky and thought that if only they had their own space-ship they’d be off like a shot – we all shared the same dream, the same escapist fantasy, and there were millions of us.
Sean Murray, the lead programmer on No Man’s Sky, had dreamed it too, as a child brought up on an Australian Outback sheep station, hundreds of kilometres from the nearest person, under a pitch sky thick with bright stars. Unlike nearly everyone else on the planet, Sean had the skills to bring his dream to life. He’d quit his job as a programmer on blockbuster games like Criterion’s Burnout to head a small, independent studio called Hello Games. They brought out a fun motorcycle-stunt platformer called Joe Danger, and a sequel. They were doing all right, making money, getting a reputation. Then Sean walled off a section of the Hello Games office, taking a select few programmers to work intensively on something they called Project Skyscraper. The rest of the their team had no idea what they were up to.
It turned out they were building a universe. They did it with procedural generation, a programming method that allows algorithms to build near infinite variations on a starting “seed.” Plenty of games make use of this technique already – Minecraft builds its near-infinite block-world with procedural generation, and even in games like Grand Theft Auto, the worlds of which are mostly hand-crafted by gigantic teams of artists and programmers, procedural generation is used to produce repetitive world elements like grass or trees.
When No Man’s Sky’s procedural universe was first put together, Sean Murray cut a now-famous trailer (which, it turned out, was comprised of footage of various planets he’d found and liked) set to music by Sean’s favourite band, British shoegaze prog-rock outfit 65DaysOfStatic, and sent it out into the world. He didn’t know if people would like it. Some fellow developers even advised against showing the game at all, saying people wouldn’t get it. “You work really hard, you put together an announcement trailer and you want the whole world to love it,” Sean told Newshub’s Dan Rutledge in 2015. “But you don’t actually expect them to.”
It turned out the whole world did love it. People talked about their response to that first trailer like it was a religious experience. They talked of gasping, even of laughing aloud or crying, as the ship rocketed through the atmosphere and broke through into space. “Every time I hear about No Man’s Sky I cry. It may very well be the last game I ever buy. Literal dream come true,” said one fan – representative of millions – on Twitter.
Never mind that all anyone really knew about No Man’s Sky was that the game was big – really big, vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big. That was all they needed to know. Hello Games created an infinite blank canvas, and on to it people projected infinite expectations. As they did, a counter-movement arose – a legion of cynics.
A word that you hear a lot in video game discussions is hype. That’s what a lot of people started saying that No Man’s Sky was. All hype. But what is hype? And how is it made? And why is it bad?
Hype, as it relates to games, starts with falling in love with your own idea of what something will be. If that was all it was, it’d be mostly harmless. But when there are are millions of gamers, all actively contributing to each other’s head-canons via the Internet, it becomes something else entirely; a mad beast, capable of swallowing actual games whole. Hype is a shared fantasy – a collective hallucination about the nature of a currently non-existent thing. It’s the un-death of the author; a mass repurposing of a text often before it’s even written.
At the time of writing, No Man’s Sky has featured on the Reddit front page about six or seven times. It’s also been a top trending topic on Twitter. It’s been featured in not just the gaming press, but the Guardian, the Atlantic, and the New Yorker – all outlets that aren’t known for video gaming coverage. After E3 2015, the Hello Games team were courted by Kanye West and feted by Steven Spielberg, had a private audience with Elon Musk, and Sean Murray even demonstrated No Man’s Sky on the Colbert Report. It’s entirely possible that No Man’s Sky is the most hyped game of all time – of all time! Whose fault is that? Well, if you’re reading this, it’s a good chance that it is – at least partly – yours.
Hype isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Fans bask in it, live for it, glorying in what a game could be. If hype could be distilled into a lotion, they would rub it on their bodies. “SO HYPED FOR THIS GAME RIGHT NOW,” reads the average comment on the r/nomansskythegame subreddit, a board dedicated to Hello Games’ still-hypothetical epic.
But it can be a bad thing, especially when the internet’s legions of jaded, cynical – and, one might suggest, entitled – gamers take it upon themselves to speak truth to hype. When the game trended on Twitter and Reddit yet again – in response to the news that No Man’s Sky would retail for $60USD, or “full price”, there were a lot of comments like this:
“I still feel this game is reeeeeally going to let down a lot of people who are expecting it to be more than it is,” suggested plagues138, on the r/games subreddit, for which he received 241 upvotes, or Fake Internet Points.
“Yep,” replied anaemic (for a score of 91 FIPs). “Spore 2 here we come.”
Spore. Read anything about No Man’s Sky and you’ll soon come across this word, for good reason. Spore was a game that – prior to No Man’s Sky – probably had more hype surrounding it than any other. And – despite being a very well-reviewed game, holding an average score of 4/5 on game review aggregator Metacritic – among gamers, it’s near-universally used as a byword for disappointment.
“From Single Cell to Galactic God, evolve your creature in a universe of your own creations,” the game’s description on PC download service Steam reads. “Play through Spore‘s five evolutionary stages: Cell, Creature, Tribe, Civilization, and Space. Each stage has its own unique style, challenges, and goals.”
Ambitious! Spore had an impeccable pedigree; development was spearheaded by Will Wright, legendary creator of Sim City. It promised to be a kind of Sim Everything. And one of the things that people were most excited about was that at the end of the game, having mastered space travel, you could take your very own home-grown species out into an infinite, procedurally-generated universe as galactic conquerors.
That reliance on procedural generation is the main similarity that Spore shares with No Man’s Sky (as well as, weirdly, the same win condition – both games task the player with reaching the centre of the galaxy, for some reason). But Spore never faced a great deal of criticism for its use of procedural generation. Instead, most of the game’s detractors charged that the gameplay simply lacked depth. “The chief failing of Spore is that it’s trying to be five games, each one a shallow and cut down equivalent of another game,” The Escapist’s Zero Punctuation said. But somehow No Man’s Sky has been tarred with Spore’s brush. They’re both big games with big ideas that make heavy use of procedural generation. They both enjoyed, or were the victims of, incredible levels of hype. Therefore, No Man’s Sky will suck.
On the face of it, the fact that a game should be judged and found wanting because of people’s fantasy of what it might be like is absolutely absurd, yet it happens all the time. It happens on the individual level – one person fantasising about what a particular game might be like and being disappointed when reality doesn’t match up – and on a grander scale as well. A good chunk of the gaming press relies on this fact explicitly. Reams of articles are written, variously, on what No Man’s Sky might be like, or what it should be like, and 5 Reasons Why No Man’s Sky Is Going To Be A Big Disappointment. And so on. The writers of these articles never seem to acknowledge the role they play in actively contributing to the hype, even when they’re actively decrying it. Why would they? They’re producing click-bait. Hype suits them just fine. They’re among the first to inflate expectations, and the first to attack any given game for not delivering on them. Either way, people click.
However, it’s not just gamers and the gaming press who contribute to hype. Just as often, the game-makers are to blame.
Game developers are well known for over-egging expectation about their upcoming products. It’s a vital marketing tool, and it’s only natural to talk to everyone who will listen about the cool new toy you’ve made. Peter Molyneux, developer of Black & White and Fable, is infamous for this. When Fable was in early development he’d suggest that trees in the game-world would grow over time, starting with a single seed that your avatar could plant. People immediately took this idea and ran with it. Obviously, Fable would be nothing short of a complete fantasy world-sim, where every action would ripple throughout the world. When Fable came out, it was a solid fantasy romp with some good ideas that didn’t do a lot of the special things that Peter had suggested it would.
“After Fable, there was pretty dark time where people looked at the game and compared it with what I said in the press, and they felt cheated,” Peter told Develop. “I realised that we just couldn’t keep on doing that. But that was very much a reflection of how we worked, because what I was talking about in the press was what we were experimenting with at that moment, and a lot of those experiments would sort of come out as you were making the game. So I’d be talking about trees growing, and then we’d cut trees growing, and people would, of course, feel cheated. So I made a rule: I will not talk about any concrete mechanics unless I can actually show you them in game… People understandably get enormously upset about it – it’s like seeing a trailer for a film and seeing Batman die, but then he doesn’t die in the film; it would just be wrong”
But Hello Games has never done this. Sean Murray cringes his way through interviews. Despite being proud of what he’s making, he seems to hate showing the game. He peppers every gameplay showcase with caveats. “When it’s finished,” he says. When talking about the game, he frequently ends sentences “…if it’s any good.” And unlike with Spore, which saw entire conference sessions devoted to gameplay and a playable demo released before the actual game came out, Hello Games have been resolutely vague about what happens in No Man’s Sky. What’s remarkable about the way that the game has been marketed so far isn’t what we have been told. It’s how Hello Games has gone out of their way to not tell anyone much at all.
“What do you do in No Man’s Sky?” If you were hunting for information about the game during the time from that first announcement trailer up until March, you’d come across this question everywhere. When there’s a dearth of information about any upcoming, widely-awaited piece of media (or even a new piece of tech, like a new iPhone), fans go into overdrive, and it can get way beyond weird. If you like Game of Thrones it might be instructive to nip over to r/ASOIAF, the subreddit for A Song Of Ice And Fire (the collective noun for George RR Martin’s blockbuster fantasy book series). The Romans over at r/ASOIAF are crazy, and it’s the wait for Martin’s forthcoming(?) book, The Winds of Winter, that has driven them nuts. The theories they’re spinning about what the new book will contain range all the way from entirely plausible to barking. A lot of the people doing this are reasonably self-aware about it, and they’ve given a name to the mad theorising; “tinfoil.” The same thing was – is – happening with No Man’s Sky. A small cottage industry, devoted to either madly speculating about the game or furiously decrying it, has sprung up, and the products of their labour can be found in pretty much any gaming forum. By way of example, feel free to head over to the Steam forums for No Man’s Sky if you want to see some world-class shitposting.
Back in reality, Hello Games say they’re avoiding discussing the details because they don’t want to contribute to the enormous hype around the game, or to spoil the surprises that No Man’s Sky has in store. Skeptics say that they’re keeping quiet for opposite reasons: to build up hype and to hide that the game has no actual gameplay. I hope it’s the former, but either could be true. The game isn’t due out until June 21 of this year, there’s no way of telling until then. However, there’s at least one skeptical criticism that’s easy to dismiss – loosely paraphrased, that “all you do is fly around and land on planets and walk around and shoot and look at stuff.” As a criticism, it’s asinine. All you do in Mario is jump, all you do in Call Of Duty is shoot enemies, and all you do in Minecraft is play with blocks. Any game can sound boring when it’s boiled down to its core gameplay elements.
Over time, the argument that no-one knows what you do in No Man’s Sky has been losing weight. Since the beginning of this March, a wealth of gameplay details have been revealed. What do you do in No Man’s Sky? Much like in Journey, you’re trying to reach a destination – in this case, the centre of the galaxy, and you might even see another player. You mine and harvest for resources in a vast, procedurally generated game-world, like Minecraft. You work to survive in hostile environments, like Don’t Starve. You can blow stuff up and kill things and steal from NPCs and avoid the cops, like in Grand Theft Auto. You can trade within a vast galactic economy, like EV Nova or Elite. One recently revealed feature is that you can meet and converse with NPCs representing a particular faction or race – much like in venerated PC game Star Control II. To do this, it’s necessary to learn alien languages, which you can do by visiting 2001: A Space Oddessey-style monoliths and receiving knowledge.
This last is the sort of feature that makes No Man’s Sky sound much less like the “walking simulator” many feared, and more like an actual game, so why not announce it sooner? Hello Games said they didn’t want to raise expectations. They’re doing something almost no games developer does these days. In an age of Early Access and money-grubbing DLC, they’re trying to release a finished, standalone product, and they’re trying to keep what happens in the game – including a good chunk of the gameplay mechanics – a secret.
“I… I worry about disappointing people,” Sean Murray told Game Informer. “Like, we are going to deliver on everything we said, I hope, that’s certainly the plan, but… the interest around the game, some people are going to expect some things that aren’t in the game – that aren’t in any game.”
Will the game live up to the hype? No. No matter how much Hello Games tries to manage expectations, they will outstrip reality. No Man’s Sky – not through any fault of the developers, for once, or its fans or detractors, or even of the gaming press – has encapsulated too many space-faring fantasies to be weighed merely on its own merits. It will be judged not against what it actually is, but people’s fantasies of what it should be.
But when it actually comes out, and hype settles into reality, will it be any good? That remains to be seen. All we can do for now is dream.
No Man’s Sky releases on 22 June in New Zealand on PlayStation 4 and PC.
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