During the 2013 Spike VGX game awards show, Joe Danger developer Hello Games revealed No Man’s Sky, an exploration-based sci-fi game in which players travel to procedurally generated planets in their own personal aircraft.
The trailer was a compilation of in-game actions, including swimming, running on the planet surface, and flying a small spacecraft inside and outside of a planet’s respective atmosphere. It was impressive, and a stark deviation from Hello Games’ previous cartoon-y projects.
Three years later we find ourselves on the eve of No Man’s Sky’s launch, and the stakes could not be stacked higher against a game developed by a small ten-person indie studio. So much hype, so many insurmountable expectations, such hyperbole built up the foundation of No Man’s Sky so much that it cannot possibly satisfy everyone upon release. In fact, I am fully expecting a huge backlash against it, and the only thing to blame will be its messaging.
No Man’s Sky is what happens when buzzwords successfully take root and begin to grow. During E3 2014, Hello Games’ managing director Sean Murray took to the stage, rolling out an impressive level of vague-but-promising buzzwords and hype phrases in such a neat package it’s hard not to get excited listening to them.
“This universe we’ve created...it’s so vast, it’s so boundless. It’s actually infinite. We don’t even know what’s out there,” he said wistfully.
“Infinite” is the key word here, used over and over as often as “innovative” and “unique” are thrown out during so many other reveal events. It's the key phrase, a magic word used to describe something bigger than it can ever realistically be. But damn, does it sound good to the ears of people who are growing tired of multi-sequel franchises.
Murray’s use of “infinite” becomes a dangerous concoction when it’s mixed with the other confusing messages of No Man’s Sky. “Infinite” suggests endless possibilities and ways to interact with the universe, a veritable fountain of opportunity. But realistically, No Man’s Sky has limitations. You’ll just never hear them say that.
Instead, the constant narrative behind No Man’s Sky is basically “The world (or in this case, universe) is your oyster,” combined with this need to emphasize that everyone’s games will be different depending on what they choose to do.
Realistically, No Man’s Sky is a survival game not unlike many of those found in Steam Early Access. The gameplay loop is actually pretty standard; travel to planets, land on the surface, discover creatures, environments, and biomes, name things, fight a few hostiles, collect resources, craft, and depart the planet’s surface in search of another. It’s a lot of survive with some added exploration and discovery for good measure.
Even the supposed quintillion planets is a bit embellished, when you consider the limitations of procedural generation. Sure, every planet will be different. But how different? There’s realistically only so many ways moving parts can combine to create something wholly new, and the changes will likely vary from being drastically different to a slight deviation from planets you’ve visited before.
And yet, No Man’s Sky has been built up with three years’ worth of hype, having been lauded by many as the last game you’ll ever have to play. It’s seen as one of the most ambitious, one of the biggest, one of the most impressive feats ever accomplished on a gaming system, all before anyone’s had a proper chance to experience it for themselves. It’s the ultimate form of hype, the fully-evolved result of what happens when a marketing campaign takes things a bit too far for its own good.
My prediction? No Man’s Sky is going to be fine. It will look pretty, perform technically well, and deliver on having a nearly-endless number of places to explore. But it will not be the end-all game so many are hoping for, which could create some backlash upon release.
The biggest issue with No Man’s Sky’s marketing campaign is the continued refusal to fully answer questions, instead opting for an open-ended, we-won’t-tell-you-what-to-do approach. For every definitive “yes” or “no” answer, we get “maybe,” “sort of,” and “if you want that.” Multiplayer? Yes, but you probably won’t encounter anyone else on account it’s a massive universe and there’s too much to explore. Space combat? Yeah, although that’s not necessarily the main point of the game. Character customization? Sort of.
It’s a series of qualifiers, half-statements without any concrete details. Which is arguably more dangerous than delivering definitive yes and no answers to each of these questions. “Maybes” build expectations. “Sort ofs” means there’s a chance. “If you want” allows for seemingly endless possibilities, no matter how limited the technical aspects of a game might be. All of these add up to open interpretations, allowing a person’s imagination to run wild and concoct a very specific vision in which they project their wishes and dreams until they’ve built an impossibly large, cohesive product that can never actually exist in its entirety.
Right now, the narrative driving the hot anticipation of No Man’s Sky is that it’s a be-all, end-all; it is the last game you’ll ever have to play, a game in which one can literally live out their every space fantasy. Fly a spacecraft, engage in epic dogfights, explore planets, see new creatures, label your findings, and embark on a Lewis and Clark-esque adventure unlike anything you’ve seen before. Spend billions of years exploring before you ever reach the elusive ‘center’ of the universe, never tiring of the process, constantly feeding your imagination and insatiable need for discovery.
In reality, No Man’s Sky is a survival game with a lot of ground to explore. But how long until that becomes tiresome? How long until you grow bored with tagging creatures and planets with your own goofy, probably meme-related names? What happens when you exhaust the upgrades? Will there be a rewarding end to collecting resources beyond merely crafting or trading? And in a galaxy devoid of NPC life, what will make your interactions unique or special?
“It’s up to you,” seems to be the definitive answer. And as much as I want to believe, that may be the most dangerous answer to fan the ever-increasing flames of hype.