One year ago today I put up a post about a forthcoming game that I am very excited about called No Man’s Sky. One year after that posting, the release of the game is now imminent on August 9th. There’s been a lot of attention on this game and a lot of hype about the boundaries it promises to break, so before it drops and we all find out what surprises it truly holds I want to wax philosophical one last time.
One of the comments I heard that made me pause the longest was a person saying they hadn’t been this excited for a videogame release since Super Mario Brothers 2. Just let that sink in for a second. Super Mario Brothers 2 came out for the NES in 1988. Almost 30 years ago. Which also says something maybe about the age-group of people who are really fired up for this game, and why.
If tomorrow there was a Call of Duty game released which attained perfect review scores and was praised for design of the highest caliber with exquisite attention to detail and peerless action, I doubt I’d play it. Why? It’s not because I’d doubt the reviews, it’s just because… I’ve “done that.” Not only have I done it, I have done it so many times, that it’s been done, completely. Done into dust. I’m simply finished with doing that. Over. Finito. This can happen with any genre within an art form. Like heavy metal music. There was a time in my life when I was totally into it and now the page has turned and I just can’t stomach any more. Maybe it’s because you become so familiar with the common devices and the tropes of the genre that even what’s new doesn’t feel new anymore? A new Metallica album? I just can’t. It might be new, but it sounds so familiar. What’s new is no longer new.
This kind of fatigue has set in for me, and a lot of other players my age when it comes to games. On top of that, as we grow older life expands to fill your free time. Obligations, other hobbies, working, or broadly speaking other parts of life that you want to do—they all fill in the gaps and free time spent playing games gets put onto a smaller and smaller portion of the backburner. And yet we still never forget this medium because we experienced the magic that it can contain. We have seen, and felt that alchemy.
There was an excellent, far-reaching piece at Kotaku (which feels strange to say, given their recent track record) discussing why No Man’s Sky is the most necessary game of 2016—a great read even for the mildly interested. While that author focuses on world events and social norms my own reasons are simpler. Personally the last game I felt this excited for was Red Dead Redemption. One, because it was a very underserved segment of the gaming market (westerns) and maybe two, because I was moving to Texas right as the game was coming out. Red Dead promised to do something new: put you “there” in the wild west. And when I played the game, that’s exactly the aspect which made it so great. In Red Dead it’s all about the little moments between the action. When you walk up to the edge of a cliff to take in the scenery and a hawk flies over your head with a searing call. When you camp out in the wilderness and see a bold sunrise above the rocks in the distance. When you pause your horse to get your bearings and some faint trumpets remind you that you’re in Mexican territory.
Little moments of color like those are what made Red Dead. Before its release skeptics were panning it as GTA with horses. And sure, there were plenty of action scenes where that’s pretty much what it was, but it also had its own tone going on, much different than GTA’s. I never wrote about Red Dead on here, mostly because it was so loved and so praised by the gaming community that to heap a bunch more words onto that bandwagon didn’t seem necessary. But action isn’t what made Red Dead—in fact it could have had far less action with worse mechanics and still been practically just as good, because the main strength of the game stood on atmosphere.
That’s the connection between Red Dead and No Man’s Sky: Atmosphere. Moods. For me personally, that’s the biggest unknown question about what it can provide. With No Man’s Sky, the creators have deliberately withheld a ton of information about the game, even this close to launch. Nowhere is this more glaringly obvious than the most recent trailers put out by Sony. The whole premise of the “Fight” trailer is to showcase combat, yet we’re presented with 1 second quick-cuts showing just teasers. Really? Even with less than 20 days remaining until release we’re keeping things this close to the chest? And the creators keep conflating the words galaxy and universe, in what I can only assume is either a running joke or more likely, a deliberate obfuscation of these terms to avoid any hint of what the “journey to the center” actually means. This is in stark contrast to the information-rich, National Geographic documentary-style trailers that preceded the launch of RDR, which were some of the best gaming trailers I think I’ve ever seen. This kind of secrecy right up to the 11th hour is maybe a red flag, but I’m going out on a limb and trust that Hello Games knows what they’re doing and just want to keep it fresh for individual players to discover.
Putting all those questions aside, the thing I’m most excited for in this game are the vistas. The dramatic scenery and strange discoveries. And that is the very beating heart of the game, the core of what it promises to deliver. I gotta say I’m knocked out by the fantastic aesthetics of the buildings and the spaceships in this game and I will definitely spend a long time hunting neat looking stuff for screenshots. Procedural generation will also lend a strange sense of responsibility to actually “experience” your experience since everything you see will likely be yours and yours alone. It’s guaranteed that new designs will always keep coming and something really rad will be truly rare to the point that a sweet looking spaceship might literally never be seen again, by you or anyone else! Let alone something even harder to find like a neat cave or a cool nocturnal creature. Given the sheer vastness of the NMS universe, even the most beautiful, enchanting planet you find will probably never be explored again.
Which brings us back to the idea of “new.” With that stupefying number of eighteen quintillion planets available to explore in this universe (Wait, galaxy? Universe? Galaxy?), how many hours can we pour into No Man’s Sky before what’s new no longer feels new anymore? How much exploring will it take before the feeling of predictability sets in, and I begin to think to myself okay, here’s another new Starfighter design that I’ve never seen… but I’ve pretty much seen that design before in a slightly different paintjob or with different wings. Answering that question is perhaps the main journey of No Man’s Sky and getting there, almost with zero doubt, will be a fascinating, entertaining time whether it resides at the center of the 1st galaxy or my 5th.
But backing up a step further, that journey isn’t the only factor in the longevity of NMS. Obviously games don’t live or die by freshness, as the latest incarnation of Call of Duty 17 can attest. Like in Red Dead, it’ll be the thousand little moments along the way. The quiet moments between the action where you pause to look around, finding yourself transfixed by some calm scenery. The sound of the wind as you stand atop a small hill on a planet of blue colored grasses. The eerie stillness of a cratered moon, devoid of life. The distant calls of three-headed dinosaur-like beasts moving in a herd on the horizon. The feeling of relief as you find a cave to flee nocturnal predators on a planet where you explored until nightfall caught you off-guard, far away from your ship. And the feeling of safety as you finally return to your ship, your spacefaring horse of steel, chock full of goodies you snagged on a dangerous planet, ready to escape to the nearest space station and cash in. These moments are my hopes for the game. We’ll see if I can find them among—without hyperbole—the largest explorable universe the medium of video gaming has ever produced.