You can't take the sky from me
The highlight of the VGX, aside from Joel McHale's unrelenting irreverence, was the unexpected, unlikely No Man's Sky from the creators of Joe Danger.
Much of the afternoon centered around content that was not particularly new or different. A Borderlands game in Telltale's signature style. A PS4 and Xbox One port of Tomb Raider, which came out early this year. Cranky Kong's reveal for Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, which was supposed to already have been out this year, before a delay. More trailers for games we've already seen. Was there anything new in that Destiny trailer? I couldn't tell. "I think the bikes are new," Max Scoville said. I must have blinked because I didn't see them.
No Man's Sky was exciting. It's new. A new IP. It has an apostrophe in its name. Even the name feels slightly antagonistic set against the backdrop of the hollow, sterile, sheet-metal sound stage that was the show. The title has multiple words. It's shows you the sky, but is clear you have no claim to stake.
I sat down with developer Hello Games before the reveal and got a lot more context on the ambitious project -- an infinite space fantasy.
"Not many developers seem to be, but we're excited to make a next-gen game," Hello Games' Sean Murray explains. "We want to make something that's next gen in terms of experience and gameplay, not graphics." Whereas other jumps practically built -- or facilitated the building of -- genres (3D sandbox games), this one "just seems so incremental."
I couldn't help but agree. I have a PS4 sitting in a box that I probably won't feel compelled to unpack until The Witness releases despite a handful of titles I'm sure I'd have fun with (mostly Resogun and its indie ilk). Even Watch Dogs, the game people were excitingly wetting themselves over as the harbinger of "next gen" is coming to what are now last generation's systems.
Murray's answer to the quandary is an idea that has been with the team since Joe Danger. Sitting slightly hunched, teetering, on the edge of a square, lime-green ottoman larger than a coffee table, Murray tries to prep me on what they're about to show.
It could be nerves that keep him rocking, hands wringing as he periodically looks down at his shoeless feet. It could be jet lag that sees his introductory spiel more of a ramble, plucking trains of thought arbitrarily. I think it's more than that, though. It's excitement, bubbling under a surface of caution and put-togetherness. His vacillating, wry smile -- it's like he can't believe he's actually getting to make this game.
"A lot of independent developers plateau," Murray says. It's not even that they do it consciously or willingly -- it's that they inadvertently set up fan expectations for what sort of content they make. It's a bit like being a typecast actor, like when Jim Carrey started making serious films instead of screwed-up faces. Murray primes me with the word, "sci-fi," but not like that -- not like what you're thinking -- he's quick to note. No Man's Sky is a world of science fantasy, of the science-fiction novel book covers that fascinated Murray in his youth. Art by Dean Ellis. Something from Moebius. The sort of colors that covered Asimov and Heinlein long before games dully fused sci-fi with grit and space marines. "At least three suns," he jokes.
I'm told this new project -- I hadn't even been told its name yet -- is "about exploration." But not like that, I'm told; not "ambient wandering." There is a boundary and facileness to contemporary exploration in games, even in things as expansive as Fallout, where you are on the lookout for out the way areas of interest. You and every other player finds the same cool side story in the same cool dilapidated town. No Man's Sky has been procedurally generated. It is technically not infinite, but practically so. For someone to try and explore it all would be "literally impossible. They would die first." This is true frontiersmanship. Space is the place.
The trailer begins underwater with translucent fish of bright, emanating blues and greens. It could almost pass for a tropical earth reef until you exit the water onto a beach lined with cinnamon trees and umber hedgerow. It's jarring. The team chose planets and worlds that more closely mirrored earth to show off to help us get our bearing in this space world. Everything in the trailer came from the same solar system -- a small fraction of the universe. Jumping into your ship and erupting through the clouds looks so meaningful, never leaving the first person.
"You are a small thing in this universe," Murray says. "You are on your own. You are not significant." You're not safe. The suit and ship empower you, but you are not safe. I'm not sure from what you are not safe from. Other players? Or a hostile, apathetic universe? Those Beetlejuice-esque sand snakes? Both? I'm told you "won't feel alone."
Other players will play a role in this experience, but not through traditional multiplayer. Everyone starts at sort of an edge of space, the circumference of an enormous circle. You can consider all the planets "like rooms in a roguelike." Ultimately, the goal is progress deeper and deeper towards the core of the universe, which becomes harder and harder; more and more unfamiliar. What happens along the way is up in the air.
You can chart planets on an intergalactic map that all players can see. If you're the first one to play No Man's Sky and you see a planet in the distance and land on it, you can chart it, forever, for everyone, with your name on it. The Amerigo Vespucci of worlds. You might choose not to chart it, either. Maybe it has some resource you'd rather not someone else come exploit.
"Some strange people I don't understand but am happy they exist will set up a strange hermit life and live out their whole life on one cool planet," Murray says. It seems as viable a path as braving the cool apathy of space, little about the game as we know.
I think of some Swiss Family Robinson group nestled in a four mooned paradise replete with lush, bio-luminescent fauna and erupting phosphorus geysers. Sci-fi is just the adventure story on a grand scale. It's about exploration, about discovery. Discovery of worlds that don't make sense, that dazzle, that confuse, and that explain themselves, ultimately, if you pay close enough attention.
"The thrust of next-gen consoles is moving towards movie cinematics," Murray says, "and everyone's experience is the same." The team believes divergence to be far more interesting. That choice -- not false binary, facile "this or that" choices -- gives what you do meaning. You can tell your own stories of the planet you landed on that no one else has ever seen, rather than if you let a character live or die.
This whole universe exists. It is present, always. There won't be load times or menus. You won't leave first person -- it embeds you in that universe. What you can see, you can go to. What you can't yet see, too. "We don't have a skybox in the game. Our sky is a color, not a physical object. There are elements in the atmosphere that reflect light in different ways." Just like the clouds you fly through in the trailer, there is a permanence, a continuance.
Yes, this is a heck of a lot of high-concept ballyhoo. Something about No Man's Sky's brief, fleeting trailer captured me, though, and talking at length with the team about the ideas behind it -- I'm excited. We don't have anything resembling a release date, or even an anticipated platform, but I'll gladly wait. If it can deliver on Hello Games' grand, ambitious attempts, it's going to be something special.