Ok, so we know that No Man’s Sky is going to be really (really, reeeeeeally) big, we know that it’s created using some breathtakingly impressive procedural generation and maths-ey type stuff, and we know that it looks stunning, but what about all the actual gameplay?! What will we be doing, be able to do, in the midst of all this superlative size, quality, scenery and suchlike? Afterall, gameplay is a fairly integral part of, like, gaming, so regardless of how extraordinary No Man’s Sky is in other respects (or even precisely because of that) it’s going to be slightly disappointing if it’s a load of old balls when it comes to all the actual button-pressing stuff, right?!
Well, the good news is that we do have some information on these aspects of the game, and the even better news is that it’s all pretty damn cool too. Sean Murray has been keen to point out that there won’t be missions to find “five lost space chickens”, and that what we can do is very much up to us.Rather bizarrely, it’s this that has left some people feeling like the game might be boring, or even suggesting that Hello Games have spent so much time and attention on all the other stuff that they’ve actually forgotten to make the game something people want to play.
I very much beg to differ with this point of view, for a few key reasons, which, should you allow me a few minutes of your time, I shall be more than happy to bang on about at length, starting right about now…..
Firstly, I know exactly what Murray is referring to when he mentions those “Space Chickens”. Whilst no game (as far as I know – but I’m willing to be corrected) features an actual mission to locate lost space chickens (although, as Farmville gets increasingly desperate, who knows, eh!?), countless games do feature a core group of ridiculously asinine missions at various points, which are, for want of a better word, shite!!
When they’re towards the beginning of a game, I tend to have more tolerance, because I appreciate that it’s a reasonably good way of learning the ropes, or having a look around (and about a bazillion times better than reading an instruction booklet), but even supposedly sandbox games have a tendency to have frustrating gameplay/narrative “bottlenecks” throughout the game. In fact, sometimes these are even more frustrating in sandbox games because they can, effectively, balls-up alot of your work and/or experience up to that point, and it can be quite contextually jarring. So if, for example, you’ve been playing a particular game, choosing to be all stealthy like a goddam Ninja for the majority of side-missions and general exploration (and being very successful with it), only to be forced into doing a particular mission all guns a-blazing, it feels particularly incongruous within your overall gameplay experience.
Similarly, how many times have we seen a cut-scene play out, and helplessly watch our character do something exceptionally stupid (which we’d have never have done in a million years if we were free to approach the scenario however we liked), and been left to clean up their shit afterwards?
Anyways, for those reasons alone, when we’re told that we can approach No Man’s Sky however we like, because there are no “missions” per se, I see this as a very welcome thing. If you genuinely want to play the intrepid explorer, never even firing a weapon in anger, the game’s not necessarily going to stop you taking that road. And if, conversely, you do want to fly around terrorising people with flying death-dealing fighter ships, and never want to even think about stealth: knock yourself out. Essentially, the “game” isn’t going to force you towards one or the other for the sake of narrative progression, or worse, to show off some little gimmick the game’s developers are feeling particularly smug about. We’ve been told that there’ll be a few “core concepts” that will “encourage” us forward, but, overall, it is, literally, our experience to create, live and play as we see fit.
Now, obviously things get slightly more complicated when you factor in the “multiplayer” aspects of the game, but this is where the sheer size of NMS becomes a blessing. This isn’t going to be a COD map remember, and if you do want to be left alone to study volcanoes, or the mating habits of purple Brontosaurus whatsits, there’s every chance you can be, because everything’s so murrf@ck’n huge. If you genuinely don’t want to shoot people in the face, ever, then you may very well end up passing your time without having to do so, because you’re probably a fair distance from the nearest guy who needs shooting in the face. Brilliant, eh!?
It’s also worth pointing out at this juncture that you don’t even have to have the online option turned on. Sean Murray has emphasized that online functionality is a big part of the No Man’s Sky experience – particularly in relation to information being uploaded as people find x, y or z – but that the game doesn’t require a permanent internet connection. I’m a fairly private gamer, and generally not a big fan of people randomly wandering into my game, but 500 billion years of solitude might be a bit much, even for me. Nevertheless, it’s a great option to have, and further enhances the ability to make No Man’s Sky the game that you want it to be!
Finally, I’m genuinely excited about the No Space Chickens Aspect (NoSCA?) because it’s not only an awesome type of freedom, but also because it’s very much in keeping with the type of Sci Fi that Hello Games have repeatedly told us inspired the game in the first place. This proper, old-school Science Fiction was very much about exploration, discovery, and a pure, jaw-dropping sense of wonder: think Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, or Isaac Asimov. This type of Sci Fi wasn’t just about lasers and westerns set in space, but about weird new worlds, the limits of human endeavour, and huge, sweeping flights of fantasy and imagination.
Recently, Sci-Fi in TV, film, and especially videogames has often just been an excuse to have various creatures shooting each other with ever more futuristic weaponry, and, as fun as it can be, it’s not particularly inspiring, and it’s certainly not that original. By staying true to these older origins, *and* resisting the temptation to force contrived space warfare on us in order to move a narrative forward, Hello Games are really making a statement. Sure, it might not be for everyone, but shiiiiit, if shooting various types of aliens in the face is your bag, it’s not like you’re short of options, right!? I mean, I enjoy all of that too, but I also really enjoy the more speculative, imaginative Science Fiction, and to be honest, there ain’t a real lot of that around in gaming right now.
When you take the two themes together (freedom and Old-School Science Fiction), what we’re left with is, hopefully, a genuinely original and exciting videogame experience, and one that goes beyond that of just an interactive, but entirely pre-planned (and predictable) narrative. In essence, there’s 500 billion years worth of space to do pretty much whatever you want in; exploration, space-piracy, astronony, biology, mining, colonising, bounty-hunting. The possibilities are, as near as damn-it, endless, and the only limits are your imagination and initiative (or lack thereof).
And (this is the really cool bit, I think), once you’ve decided on a particular approach (which you can still change at any point, remember) the game essentially exists purely to facilitate and augment your own, personal narrative. You won’t be sent on tenuous missions to explore particular planets, or be forced to make contact with particular factions, but will be free to discover and interact with them on your own terms, and in your own way. All the strange and wonderful things that exist in the No Man’s Sky universe are all out there, somewhere, but they’re for you to find, and incorporate into the game you’re playing, naturally and organically.
And whilst I appreciate that this might not be everyone’s cup of tea, suggesting that an almost infinite universe (with an almost infinite number of possibilities) will be effing boring, is not so much missing the point, as it is under-shooting it by, say, about 500 billion years. Hello Games are certainly not afraid to be iconoclasts, and, for me, the fact that they’re giving gamers some respect, and aren’t spoon feeding us trite, or convoluted stories because that’s what they’re “supposed” to do, is yet another reason why I’m spectacularly excited about No Man’s Sky.