Counting Down to ‘No Man’s Sky’

Some thoughts about an upcoming little space simulator. What I like about No Man’s Sky straight away is the title. It speaks to the imagination in young and old alike while summoning ideas of a space that can be a dangerous place where being careful, considerate or collaborative could pay off. The description ‘Adventure Survival Game’ sums up its appeal. A bit like life really. So the game has the potential to fill an eternal bit of ‘space’ inside us for a good while. The question is though, in these months prior to its release is: how much of a creative platform will it actually be able to provide?

no mans' sky artwork

I love the cover that summons nostalgia for old sci-fi books and 1980s cassette-based video games (with deeper colours). This spacecraft looks cool too; a solid nod to Battlestar Galactica fighter and Origin’s Wing Commander (which owed so much to that former 1970s TV series anyway). Sean Murray – head of Hello Games‘s big release – is the new Chris Roberts in a time now when gaming is so much bigger. But Roberts has gone bigger too; just check out Star Citizen (his new project) to see the sheer ambition of some of the more crowd-funded space simulations.

They’re all on to a good thing. Spaceships are the magical cars of children – and older ones – where dinosaurs are the ideal monsters. This game has both. As a kid – some of us – used to sit in unwanted cardboard boxes and draw buttons on the flaps with big red pens. The engines would start and you’d dream of flying around the room and out of the window. You’d ‘have’ to imagine adventures and encounters which invariably would involve crashes and laughter, and sellotape on your decorated box especially if siblings were around.

Yes, it’s the dream of being in control. A spaceship is a personal, magical thing to a kid, even more so when spaceflights used to actually launch on the TV news regularly. Everyone was on a mission for humanity so you’d have to be responsible, reporting back to base HQ. These days, though, non-stop kids channels cut hours out of Lego space station building. Then came all the movies and games including Wing Commander on PC.

It’s grown more elaborate. They want us to spend a lot of hours in space. Just look up ‘persistant world‘ on Wikipedia. No Man’s Sky seems set to be another technological landmark in what games can deliver, featuring a ‘procedurally-generated’ galaxy. A worrying idea to any seasoned player of games who will immediately wonder about the glue that will hold the thing together …but maybe not to a kid. It’s a bit like digital Lego, with enough of a platform and wizardry developers can now deliver something like Minecraft. They will take our imaginations and feed them while ensuring we are managing ourselves correctly: our spaceships, our spacesuits, our decisions to test our resources here or there. Trade stuff. Earn money. A bit like life. A bit like survival. They even get a chance to show us amazing things; a bit of science even (see Elite: Dangerous and the 1:1 model of the Milky Way.) It’s just a shame we can’t stop our ageing process and develop faster-than-light travel, for then we might actually be able to go somewhere in the real universe.

Let’s backtrack. Most space simulations have to involve some fighting. The war in Wing Commander had us fighting space cats. But – when it finished loading correctly – it was amazing. Why? Branching storylines. These are difficult things to pull off just ask any writer. However, this campaign against the ‘Kilrathi’ felt like a persistant universe because it was written carefully. Your success or failure in the missions would impact on the whole war campaign. Basically, you got the chance to fail a mission and see the results; your wingmen struggling to cope. It led to some strange sights, like the re-appearance of such wingmen long after their demise, but overall it put kids right into a war effort; it was ace. You can read more of my notes on this title here: ‘I Am Still the Wing Commander‘. Around the same time, Lucasart’s X-Wing titles had us fiddling with energy settings and wishing we could land on planets or other spaceships and do something other than fighting for once. There’s a whole lot of other games I could mention but the point I’ll reach is that if we are now entering an age of multiplayer gaming, rich sandboxes and persistant universes, I hope they manage to fit some point to it all, some human element, story or aspect that will keep the whole platform is a state of mystery or elevation.

wing commander cockpit

Yes, we can see some very addictive elements in the hype surrounding No Man’s Sky, despite dinosaurs and spacecraft. The idea of discovering unknown planets, finding things, leaving traces, talking to aliens, upgrading components. Apparently there are few specific quests or missions but there are consequences to your actions, orientated around some big pull to the centre of the galaxy. Is this the bit of attraction that everyone hopes will be there too? As mentioned, there can be only one thing stronger than providing a good story; the cardboard box itself; the accessible platform for the creation of one’s own stories (see the Lore of No Man’s Sky post on their site). As games get bigger and more advanced, this powerful feature can bring an enormous longevity and depth.

However, I remember basic internet forums filled with user-designed Doom levels and mods for that classic first-person shooter (new version from Bethesda out soon). With these, there seemed to be an ambition to create more personal missions yes but also the ultimate, the most surprising, linear level for the player – with the best mix of monsters possible. Or it was the custom-made level that made you immersed in a movie-inspired scenario? This is the beauty of the more linear experience: you can know and appreciate a guiding hand. Without this, the experience can become too empty and open. I hope I’m just being naive about what will be possible in ‘Adventure Survival’ mode.

These days I can see myself sitting more in my cardboard box sipping tea (the price of games can do this to the wallet) instead of bothering to explore the more dangerous, unexpected planets where I’m not greatly adapted (because I’ve not spent the hundred amount of hours upgrading equipment). I might even last a bit longer that way. Yet I also like the sense I’m seeing and doing something, besides just shooting a space pirate and getting wonderfully lost. Despite a dislike of cut-scenes, I do like some kind of story or mystery – or science – to combine with the resonating visuals. It might stand in nicely for a moon trip or a Michael Crighton novel on a holiday to an expensive resort. And will the mystery have any meaning or relevance?

nomanssky

The PEGI rating for this game is seven and over but I’m not ashamed. I’ll be reserving a copy and supporting the industry. I’m sure it will offer a lot fo fun. Games are now opportunities to more closely experience concepts, stories, mysteries and share creative experience with friends and family; to be at least a little bit more social than before. Apparently there’ll be a booklet included too, maybe a little bit like the Wing Commander one, in that great age when we always had booklets with our games.

Youtube/Google might profit from this creative platform angle too, with the PS4 feeding straight into it. Who’ll get the ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ for either providing the most amusing commentary or showing off the rarest aspect in the game? You can strap into my adventures on my channel – just be warned about the tea addiction. I’m sorry to say that ‘live-streaming’ is not something I think I’ll ever find time for.

You’ll be relieved to hear that – finally – I borrowed a car spaceship and launched off to university for some real adventure. I could listen to my own music in the car at last. There I’d meet people and learn things (and play split-screen games of Nintendo Mario Cart racing into the night). But I’d also begin to manage myself and resources. Mistakes would be made out there but we were all on a journey. University was a platform where we could share our intended journeys and talk and discuss experiences real and imagined and oh yeah …do some work somewhere.

With game worlds like No Man’s Sky there’s no harm in starting early. But modern ‘cardboard boxes’ these days are pricey and you need some imagination yourself to get by in life. To dream up the next big adventures, with the rewards and discoveries they bring back…

I better sign off with these ramblings and just report that, in this age where all our gadgets and devices are stealing our time, I’m enjoying the quiet anticipation of this one, particular, expansive title for my console, with all it aims to fulfill… Oh, and if proves successful – giving us a decent balance of gameplay and sustained reward – can the Star Wars universe be procedurally-generated? Or has that one become one already?