Five minutes into No Man's Sky and I have discovered a new planet, shot an innocent unicorn-lizard creature — literally the first sign of life I had seen — and angered a fleet of space police drones.
Let me back up first. I’m at a suite overlooking the Los Angeles Convention Center meeting with Sean Murray, Managing Director for No Man’s Sky developer Hello Games. No Man's Sky is a space exploration game that promises to support 18 quintillion procedurally-generated worlds (that's 18 trailed by 18 zeros), each of which are massive, colorful planets covered in various climates and procedurally-generated creatures. The ultimate "goal," if you need an incentive, is to explore your way to the very center of the universe. It’s a very ambitious project, especially given that the entirety of Hello Games is less than a dozen people.
18 quintillion worlds
Murray and I are talking about intergalactic continuity — how the math behind the game works so that each procedurally-generated planet will be the same for each player who visits (presumably because the "input" is based at least in part on spatial coordinates). On a couch behind us, another developer is typing away on a laptop trying to find bugs in the game’s code. Sean is swimming through a lake on the planet Konanko scanning for new aquatic life. Above us looms a large trading post.
Then he hands me the controller and tells me to go find a new planet. I thumb left through the dense cloud of dots and press X into the ether. A name pops up for a planet called Dreapolys. Like all things in this game, the name is procedurally generated, too, and if you're the first to find the planet, you can rename it. That goes into the cloud for others to see; Murray promises they’ll try their best to find and remove offensive (likely genital-related) titles.
I warp into Dreapolys’ orbit. On stage at the E3 2015 demo, this took about five seconds. Here it's more like 20 seconds — still surprisingly quick, and something Murray says will be quicker by the time the game is released. I twist the nose of my spaceship to and fro to get a feel for my surroundings. I look to the large planet below and begin my descent to the dark side of Dreapolys. Murray points out that I should probably start moving towards the brighter side of planet; by the time I break into the atmosphere, I'm at the edge of daylight.
Landing is thankfully easy — just press triangle and my spaceship will find the next suitable spot and drop down.
The part where I land is less grass and more rock, looking out over several small lakes. Still, it's serene; large, simple-shaped crystals of bold colors jut out of the surface. If I blast them with my "gun" — which is also used for scanning the environment — I can collect minerals to use in crafting upgrades for my gun, suit, or spaceship. I can also sell these minerals at various trading posts for space money and buy nicer guns, suits, and spaceships (you can only have one of each at any given time).
I scan the environment, looking for new creatures to add to my logbook. At the same time, a group of pink blurs are jumping past me. There was no imminent threat — I don't even think they noticed me. I shot at the crowd and killed one with my first shot.
Nice job, me. I'm already upsetting the ecosystem with unprovoked murder.
The best way I could describe the creature is a pink, elongated unicorn / lizard hybrid. I'd like to say it was a mistake, that I had pressed the wrong button and intended to scan him. Nope. I think I was just curious what would happen. Nearby, a stout bunny / gnome-looking thing looks up at me, clearly judging my actions. Then he looks past me and quickly hops away as I notice a glow at my feet. Cue the space police.
As Murray tells me, mining (ie "shooting and collecting") crystals and minor terraforming are fair game. Kill a living creature, however, and your wanted level goes up. The first responders are the tiny floating drones that emanate a light and shoot lasers. Killing one also only took a single shot, immediately raising my wanted level. Two more drones fly in, followed by an AT-AT-like walker. I scan to try and find my spaceship, but I've wandered too far away. I'm going to die here. The screen very quickly goes to black, with a quote from Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos laid over it (I can’t remember what it was exactly; Hello Games’ Alex Wiltshire tells me the game will rotate through a series of classic science fiction quotes — and one from Jaden Smith). The penalty of death is that all my progress on the planet — anything I scanned or collected — is lost.
This whole story takes places over maybe ten minutes of playtime. If this is what No Man's Sky is — exploring random planets, doing dumb things, and telling your friends about it — I think I'd be very happy.
There’s no release date set for No Man's Sky — Murray says they were originally planning to announce it at E3 but those plans had changed (he didn’t elaborate on why) — for both PlayStation 4 and PC.
If you ever find yourself in Dreapolys and see a judgmental gnome bunny thing hopping, please remember what it's had to witness and tell it I'm sorry.