Kris Graft is editor-in-chief, Gamasutra (@krisgraft)
One: An indifferent universe
During the several hours I've spent so far with Hello Games' No Man’s Sky, a quote crossed my mind a few times – the one about how the universe isn’t actively trying to end our existence, rather it just doesn’t care; the latter being the more existentially terrifying of the two.
Carl Sagan said it this way:
“The universe seems neither benign nor hostile, merely indifferent”
Stanley Kubrick said it like this:
“The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death — however mutable man may be able to make them — our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”
There are a lot of games these days – great games – that pit players against the environment and its inhabitants: Don’t Starve, The Long Dark, and The Forest to name just a few. Those games convey a certain hostility – their worlds treat players as a foreign object that must be erradicated. And that’s part of the fun of those games. But No Man’s Sky feels different from other games in the survival genre. It’s a game whose apparent hostilities are just a byproduct of the universe’s indifference to your existence.
This feeling of insignificance is an intentional result of scope of the game, which is made possible by the game’s much-touted procedural generation technology. The tech of No Man’s Sky expertly serves one of the main themes of the game: that you are a speck of dust on a rock in the middle of a vast universe, virtually alone. Hello Games has said there are 18 quintrillion planets in the game – a number so large that it is essentially meaningless. At the same time, you know that there are other explorers out there in the vastness of space. The idea that there are other people out there somewhere in the void – people who you’ll never run into – accentuates the feeling of being alone and lost among strange planets.
Usually, size is touted by game developers as content that would take a very long time to experience, typically talked about in terms of commercial bang-for-the-buck. For No Man’s Sky, the game’s tech is the foundation of a narrative: the universe is essentially infinite, you’ll never see it all, and if you were gone, it’d keep on going because it’s its own being. The universe doesn't welcome you, doesn't reject you. It just doesn't care. These are not your rocks and minerals, not your ancient alien ruins, not your glowing green fungus or your six-legged feathered dino-giraffe. And this definitely ain’t your sky, man.
Two: What do you do here
It’s been interesting watching the launch of No Man’s Sky. Ridiculous day-one patch drama aside, it’s the ambiguous marketing that has drawn my attention.
Since the game’s first teaser trailer in December 2013, people had been trying to figure out what No Man’s Sky is “about” or what you “do” in the game. During press tours, Hello Games’ Sean Murray feels the need to disclose that players kind of just go from planet to planet and…hang out. Scan some fish. Mine some rocks. Whoops, you made a robot sentinel mad by mining too many rocks. You can be a trader, and just trade materials on the galactic market. You could live in a cave for while?
No Man’s Sky’s chilled-out personality and survival-lite gameplay sits uncomfortably when juxtaposed against expectations and astronomical hype that are typically reserved for the most bombastic, big-budget triple-A multiplayer shoot-fests. Big companies with a lot of money and resources have perfected the way those kinds of game are marketed. Audiences understand those games because they fit in nice, pre-defined genres, and consumers typically know what to expect and what you “do” in those games.
That kind of understanding did not exist with No Man’s Sky. For a moment, I’d theorized that maybe Hello Games was being purposely vague about the premise of No Man’s Sky; that the studio wanted to keep it shrouded in mystery, just like how the next planet over harbors the unknown.
But nope. Now I can see that Hello Games was trying to explain what No Man’s Sky was this whole time. It’s a boring conclusion, but a chilled-out synth-driven space exploration survival game like No Man’s Sky is, simply, difficult to market.
And I’m seeing this play out, as fans and media finally get their hands on the game. I knew that the game had extremely high expectations, but am only now realizing that, due to the ambiguity of the game’s marketing, the game also had extremely wide expectations. No wonder Murray and co. have been stressed out. People were expecting No Man’s Sky to be the best space sim (it’s not one), best multiplayer action shooter (it’s not that at all), best pure exploration game (sorry, there are a lot of survival elements), or whatever else. Meanwhile, I was totally blissful in my ignorance of what the final product would be, and am pleased with the results. I guess I win:
no man's sky is the proc-gen hipster-synth spacefaring chill version of the long dark and I'm loving it so far— Kris Graft (@krisgraft) August 9, 2016
Perhaps the (clichéd) takeaway here is to make the game you want to make, and focus on that and not the marketing bulletpoints. No Man’s Sky sold itself so well that the creators couldn’t keep up with why people were wanting to buy. With its grand but simple concept based on the idea of infinite sci-fi, the game itself ran away with the marketing and players were left to figure things out for themselves, sometimes by buying the game.
What an ideal creative and commercial situation that is.
Three: But seriously, appreciate the proc-gen
While many people will debate about how good the game systems of No Man’s Sky are, or discuss the virtues and shortfalls of the overall experience, most will agree that this is a significant realization of the massive promise of procedural generation in video games. Hello Games took “procedurally-generated content” beyond a buzzterm, using the method to create millions of fully-realized, visually cohesive worlds for a game that is destined for financial success. That’s not to take away from the other successful games that use procedural generation, but No Man’s Sky’s scope, scale, and visuals are unmatched in modern procedurally-generated games. It's an immensely impressive feat, particularly considering the small size of Hello Games.
A great overview of the game’s procedural art comes from a GDC 2015 talk from Hello Games art director Grant Duncan. Getting No Man’s Sky to look the way it does was not only a technical challenge, but also a cultural challenge within the studio.
No Man’s Sky’s beautiful procedural worlds were not a forgone conclusion – for all the potential advantages of procedural generation, there was plenty of opportunity to mess everything up. As Duncan put it: “That’s one of the things about procedural generation. It is incredibly good and incredibly fast at making really shit art. You would not believe how fast it is.”
Make sure to check out how Hello Games made the sausage right here: