Yes, I may be inside a soundstage in Hollywood, California, stationed in front of a flat-screen with a PS4 controller in my hands. Hello Games senior producer Suzy Wallace may be explaining how I can mine crystals from the surface of this procedurally generated, neon planet to add a thermal protective layer to my spacesuit. But I’m also playing No Man’s Sky, and that means anything — from interstellar travel to slow, merciless death — is possible.
I may exaggerate, but only slightly. No Man’s Sky is the long-awaited title from Hello Games that will be landing on PCs and the PlayStation 4 on June 21st. It’s essentially a space-exploration sandbox: players are dropped into a universe filled with roughly 18 quintillion worlds, each filled with their own specific landscapes, attributes, and indigenous creatures. The object of the game is largely undefined: you can hang out and mine crystals from massive underground caverns, or you can build up your spaceship, sit on space trade routes, and blow passing ships to pieces. It’s all up for grabs, and what’s clear after playing the game for a half-hour is that no amount of hands-on or preview time can ever convey the full experience of the game; No Man’s Sky is a life simulation.
"I guess we have a vision in mind, and that vision is that people explore," Sean Murray, Hello Games' founder, tells me. "And they’re driven to explore in a way that is challenging." He outlines a scenario: in his game, if you’re on a frigid ice planet and see a distant mountain on the horizon, you’ll have to battle to get there. Upgrading your suit and weaponry; surviving the elements; facing off against the predators that stalk planets at night. The challenge of the journey itself imbues the end goal with gravitas. It has weight. "You’re just about able to make it to that mountain, and you stand at the top of it, and then you see the sunrise. That becomes a really meaningful moment for you. But if there was no challenge in between, and you were just able to walk there ambiently, then it has way less meaning."
Back on the planet, I’ve managed to get things in enough order to go exploring. A building looms on a hilltop in the distance, and with my jetpack I set off to take a visit. While every planet features its own distinct set of creatures and architecture, there is a common aesthetic, what feels like a mash-up of Robert Heinlein book covers and Chris Foss’ concept art from Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune. It’s fantastical, yet familiar, and while I don’t come across the X-wing riff that’s featured so prominently in the game’s marketing materials, it nevertheless feels like part of a cohesive universe.
I touch down, and suddenly a pack of creatures rush at me.
I don’t think; I simply react — and shoot. This is a game after all, and if you’re carrying around a laser gun then convention dictates you use the laser gun. One of the creatures tumbles to the ground in an awkward, sprawling, mess. It’s some sort of alien goat-thing, with yellow webbing stretched between its torso and limbs. I’d read about my colleague’s encounter with alien life in No Man’s Sky before, so I knew these things happened, but without any mission, directive, or larger narrative driving my actions and giving me a moral framework, I felt something altogether surprising: guilt.
I felt something altogether surprising: guilt
"All of the challenges in the game, all the mechanics, are trying to feed that feeling of giving your discoveries more meaning," Murray tells me. "What can we do to give the player a sense of purpose, and actually in some ways slow them down a little bit, and make them have to make sensible decisions. Like land on a planet, and immediately take off again because it’s too hazardous for them right now — and then they’re left with that gnawing feeling of ‘What was there?’"
Or the gnawing feeling of "Why did I kill the dumb goat thing when it was just minding its own business?" I use my binoculars to scan one of the creature’s friends. That lets me "discover" the species, and stake my claim by giving it a new name, if I want. I name it after my cat.
After being taken down by a combination of angry robot sentry droids (they didn’t approve of me using my weapon to mine crystals) and angry dinosaur-ish creatures (they didn’t approve of me me hurting animals), I make it to my ship and head off into space. It’s vast, overwhelming, and not because of the visuals alone. It’s hard to take in because I know each of those pinpricks of light is an actual destination — a realized world waiting to be discovered and explored. Murray says his team knows that 90 percent of them will never be seen by players, and the magnitude of it all is hard to process. I decide to head down to one of the planets, but as the atmosphere begins to heat up I’m hit with laser fire from behind, as another ship overtakes me.
I veer to the right and blow them out of the sky. There’s no shame this time.
True to the game’s promise, the new planet couldn’t be more different than the ice world I came from. Sweltering temperatures force me to dismantle my thermal protective layer, and rolling hills stretch out into the distance. A structure to my right is covered with primitive symbols, remnants of an alien language. I walk up to the object and interact with it; I’ve suddenly learned a new word in said language, which I’m told will come in handy when I start trading with different races and cultures. Everything is cumulative, it seems, with each discovery and interaction paying itself forward as you build a life and identity within the world.
I know my choices — become a space pirate, a miner, a do-good trader — will not only shape my future interactions in the game, but they’ll form my impressions of the game’s world as well. It’s the promise at the core of sandbox games: by letting the player do anything, the player becomes the ultimate author of their own experience, filling the world with an untold number of differing narratives that could never have been imagined by its creators.
But for now I just want to take a moment and look around. It’s awfully pretty inside No Man’s Sky.