Curious rover Jen Simpkins takes one small step for OPM into the brave new worlds of No Man’s Sky – and discovers a planet teeming with NSFW creatures…
Louil, 7.36pm. It’s around three degrees celsius. Dusk creeps over the never-before-explored planet; possibility stretches out toward the horizon. A soft thumping heralds the arrival of some form of life. We hold our breath… as an octopus-headed, cushion-bottomed ballbag with tentacle arms hops serenely, majestically into view. Hello Games’ Sean Murray and David Ream exchange a wide-eyed look. “What is that?” we ask. Murray replies, “We have no idea.”
That’s the magic of indie space adventure No Man’s Sky – even this close to its June launch, its own developers are constantly dumbfounded by it. Little wonder: its universe contains over 18 quintillion planets. “Even if a planet is discovered every second,” lead developer Murray once pointed out, “it’ll take 585 billion years to find them all.” All of them are procedurally-generated and therefore entirely undiscovered until you set foot on one, whereupon the terrain and everything on it will pop into randomised existence. Vivid vistas; unique plant species; six-legged mammals; mysterious landmarks. And evidently – if you’re lucky – bouncing octopus-ballbags.
Said scrotum’s unintentional creators seem nervous about our discovery. Gathering data on the beast is as simple as pointing and shooting: pressing w, our multitool gun scans it as an “Opsissi Lok.” We announce, gazing into its giant, glistening eyes (those round things are eyes, right?) that it’s brilliant. The developers’ relief is visible.
Hello Games is taking a risk with this experimental title, a concept reaching far beyond the bounds of their ironically safe side-scroller Joe Danger. Solar system upon solar system springs from the finite lines of code written in their tiny Guildford office. As Murray zooms out through the Galactic Map, nebulae twinkling with stars too numerous to ever be fully explored, he sighs, “Every now and again, it makes me think ‘F**k!’” He’s still as awestruck as we are.
So is the rest of the world. No Man’s Sky scooped Most Anticipated Game at the 2015 Game Awards: the prospect of discovering and making your mark on vibrant, virgin worlds is a palpably heady one. That’s exactly why the team is nervous. A sizeable chunk of No Man’s Sky will not be the acid-sweet rush of the vistas shown on The Late Show and these pages. A good nine-tenths, Murray warns us half-jokingly, will be “boring.”
Procedural generation means not every planet will be lush, and Murray wants you to “fight for your discoveries.” Indeed, neither of the two planets we visit – icy wasteland Balaki V or dull yellow Louil – is instantly charming. The former’s hypothermiainducing -162.5 degree climate has us boosting our suit’s shield with silicone from cargo drops in a panic; the latter lacks plant life and has a population too brown and spidery for our liking. Both we and another journalist start on Balaki V, but Louil is ours. A totally new world – another stepping stone to that elusive one-in-ten paradise. There are glimpses of beauty. We find cacti that would be dull, were it not for their turquoise mohawks. Murray’s right: these silly tufts feel “more meaningful” than the immediate discovery of a colour-drenched world. We can’t wait to get back in the ship and push on that bit further, that bit closer to the sun, to an uncharted utopia.
But No Man’s Sky isn’t just about gawping at whatever multi-limbed dinosaur or well-coiffed shrub the code throws out. There are four key ways to play: exploring, fighting, trading, and surviving. We’ve already got the hang of exploring, having planet-hopped in our starter spacecraft (toying with the UI during the ten-minute trip) and learnt to scan areas for interactive objects. This marks useful crafting resources contained in discarded tech, as well as landmarks such as beacons. Once you’ve got your bearings, markers melt away. It’s an elegant touch which, along with the removal of the minimap, encourages you to take in your surroundings. Soon enough, we find a procedurally-generated building.
“If you break into a factory, you can steal blueprints for product recipes,” Murray explains, suggesting we use our multitool’s laser on the sealed entrance. Suddenly, we’re not-sogently introduced to the second key way to play: fighting. Turns out angry little drones called Sentinels don’t appreciate you Italian Jobbing your way into structures. “Isn’t there a stealthier way to do this than blowing the bloody doors off?” we enquire over the buzz of robot guards and the throb of ominous music, firing shots back at our pursuers. The devs confirm that with decent tech, it’s possible.
Slipping inside, we disable alarms by selecting the correct option from a menu. We scamper down a hallway, make a left – and run into an NPC. Shocked, we turn to Murray. He’d previously stated that No Man’s Sky would be an NPC-free game.
“We didn’t want to overpromise,” he explains, adding that non-playable characters were “always intended” for the adventure. Chatting with the Korvax Scientist proves interesting; the television-faced robo-alien doesn’t exactly speak the Queen’s English. In fact, each race in the game (there are multiple: we’re also shown models for Orc-ish fighters and a diminutive birdfaced clan) uses its own procedurally-generated language.
“We’re not going to be able to write books in them,” says programmer David Ream. “They’ll be simple languages. The idea is that we want people to learn the languages and learn words as you go. But then also that you can predict and infer words that you might not have actually learned…” Interacting with NPCs increases your in-game vocabulary, translating words and helping you align with – or antagonise – certain alien races.
Interaction options evolve according to your behaviour. We’re into gathering info and sparing the lives of Louil’s aggressive dog/dinosaurs over slaughtering them, so the more cerebral Korvax race are perfect allies. “They’ll like you,” Ream notes. “Maybe you’ll have less options for other races, because you’ll sort of antagonise them by being boring, not aggressive, or not trading enough. And that will develop – that’s another procedural thing.”
Programmer Hazel McKendrick clarifies. “You’re making choices but we’re not casting moral judgement. You can align with whatever race you want, and do whatever you want. And you can rapidly change your character if you decide to turn against them – and they probably won’t like that very much. But it’s not about choosing the good thing or the bad thing, or saving the world.”
Murray agrees: “What NPCs and alien languages are really about is depth of exploration. The more that we can make that rewarding for people, the more real the universe becomes.” In our short time with the game, we do experience such a reality check. One option is to give the Korvax Scientist a gift from our inventory – surely a guaranteed way to score a fancy new multitool. Instead, the result is “The Korvax is confused.” It’s a wonderful cultureshock moment that reminds us that we’re the aliens in this universe.
If that’s getting a bit too real for you, then Don’t Panic – there’s a trading system. The Galactic Market is where you’ll buy and sell crafting materials. If you’re savvy about which races you trade with, you can craft tech or nab spaceships and weapons on the cheap.
It’s essential to surviving an unpredictable universe. What with gargantuan mutant creatures, toxic atmospheres and the risk involved in stealing blueprints, you’ll need to upgrade your gear to protect yourself from harm. And things are only going to get crazier as you journey towards the optional end goal of No Man’s Sky – the centre of the universe.
“We’ve tried to break the rules as you get closer to the centre,” art director Grant Duncan admits. “We can change everything about a planet as you get closer – we can make the terrain break all the rules, and we can break all the rules of atmosphere and trees and everything, so you can arrive on a planet where everything is unsettling and the creatures start moving in unsettling ways. So if you saw an elephant moving in the same way a dog does – if you take a dog skeleton, and tweak it until you basically get an elephant skeleton – you would be like ‘What the f**k?’ Hopefully, it all adds to the sense of ‘Urgh, what is this place?’-ness. We’re trying to get that feeling of moving forward.”
It’s certainly working. We can’t bear to put the pad down: the urge to keep travelling into the unknown and seeing more is actually overpowering. In the spirit of curiosity, we start testing a few more limits. We ask what secrets No Man’s Sky still has under wraps. Are there collectibles? Unlockables? We’re still missing the point, apparently. Murray pauses, and muses. “When you say secrets, I think of puzzle pieces hidden in some sort of platformer. Like the classic: ‘You start in a level but if you go backwards, there’s a coin back there’. Somebody placed that. So a developer knows it’s there, for a start, but also probably 25% of players will find it. It’s not really a secret. It’s not really a discovery. Somebody put it there for you to find, and purposefully put it there so that you would find it, because otherwise what would be the point?”
Our trip to Louil, on the other hand, uncovers actual secrets: scenes and NPCs and animals never before seen by anybody. Interacting with a runecovered monolith, completely unique to this planet, even teaches us a new word. It’s a genuine surprise.
“And I think that’s more meaningful,” Murray continues.
Not that there aren’t more tangible secrets to be unearthed. “There’s a massive amount of stuff we’re still keeping secret,” Murray confirms. So we keep digging. We’re intrigued by that space-suited player character, and previous hints that players never see themselves, but that others might clock them. We ask Grant Duncan whether he’s designed procedurally-generated protagonists. “I’m not going to tell you,” the art director laughs. “That’d be a spoiler, wouldn’t it?”
“Is it something you’ve thought about?” we follow up. “Oh yeah,” he smiles. “Definitely something we’ve thought about…”
THE SKY’S LIMITS
And what of the long-term future of No Man’s Sky? The team has also thought hard about that. “We’ve always said that really it’s a game you play solo. The universe is so huge, and we want people to go out and explore it. The moment we start allowing everyone to jump onto other people’s planets, people will just congregate or let other people do the exploration for them. We don’t want that… initially.
“But I hope that people will be pressing the Share button quite a lot, recording little creature GIFs and sharing that on Twitter,” Murray says. This is already a regular occurrence in the team’s private group chats. “There will be a ‘Photo Mode’,” he reveals, “where you can just kind of chill; the HUD will disappear, and then you can look around and use Share.
“If people are playing then we would want to hear what they want and be community driven. If people want animal husbandry, land vehicles, to share YouTube videos or link to [planet] seeds so other people can visit that planet… Stuff like that would be cool. But we have tried to remain true to the idea that we had in our heads years ago. I think success for us will be if very few people actually make it to the centre of the universe, and lots of people just go off and do their own thing. Some people are traders, some people are fighters, some people are survivalists, and yes, some people are explorers. And they don’t really care [about the end] because they’re off on their own journey. I’d be happy with that.”
We think about how we want to play, pointing out that making our own way through this sprawling universe could become crushingly lonely – and how that’s quite a beautiful concept. “It’s quite true to a lot of sci-fi stories, that lone explorer thing,” Murray nods. “Forging your own path. There’s a vulnerability to that. You’re just a small little speck in this universe. I quite like that.”
We sit on the floor of the demo room, thinking, sofas long abandoned – perhaps in a subconscious attempt to feel grounded.