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Why No Man's Sky Has Been A Chimera

Why ask what you do in NMS?

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My overriding impression of No Man’s Sky’s since its reveal has been of its desire to create a wonderful space. I mean that in the sense of a space that inspires wonder – the kind of feeling I get when I unexpectedly happen upon a curious insect and am reminded of how much of the world is still unknown to me.

But there always seemed to be this really awkward relationship between No Man’s Sky pursuit of that sensation and what that meant in terms of mechanics, of objectives, of any kind of directed space. When I met Sean Murray at E3 last year we touched on the ideas of keeping people engaged with a world. The challenge didn’t seem so much creating wonder but combining it with engagement that extends beyond those initial encounters and keeps a player coming back. At the time, and at a subsequent hands-on, the engagement seemed to stem from the systems in place to keep you moving onward, never settling down, and continuing to explore towards the centre of the game’s galaxy.

I was disconcerted, then, by yesterday’s blog post titled What Do You Do In No Man’s Sky and another the day before in which Murray reveals and then reaffirms that base building is coming in a future update.

“We want to create something that feels more real and people have stories from, rather than just an ambient experience,” Murray told me at E3. “We want people to have real experiences and that means making choices and feeling like this is you, your character and what’s around you is real and the adversity of the world. Even though you will say it’s less appealing to have that, you’re wrong!

“It loses that sense of wonder – I totally get it – I have to upgrade my ship, I have collect money and I’ve done that before. But, one, we think we’re doing it in a way which really fits with the world and two, we think it gives real meaning to that discovery because you’ve had to fight for it. You’ve had to make clever decisions. That’s what we want to deliver. You’re living out your sci-fi fantasy and when you tell me your story of what you’ve done in the game it sounds like a legitimate science-fiction story.”

At the time it sounded like the idea was so focused around this nomadic existence where the game systems would combine to push you onwards. The resources and technology you found would be more advanced and valuable as you moved towards the centre of the universe, less as you moved outwards. The idea of reaching the centre would give you an overall, easy-to-hold-in-your-head aim but around the edges of that there would be reward loops that you could hopefully get absorbed in, maybe becoming a trader or following some other path.

When I went for a hands-on preview earlier this year, that was the first time I had a sense of how any of this might start coming together as a workable reality, though. Inventories, alien encounters, crafting, potentially trading, surviving extremes of temperature and of hostile fauna… That was all in there. I had a short time with it (particularly compared to the dozens (even hundreds) of hours a game like this would ideally see you put in if it’s executed well) so I had no idea how it would hold up over time but I did end up with an account that reads like a sci-fi story of sorts.

But that impetus to keep moving still felt like an integral part of the game. It still felt like a unifying element within the various systems – this nomadic streak. No home planets, no pets. Here’s the relevant part from the preview:

“The game mechanics are also a point where the team needs to keep tight control. They’ve gone with a core set which are all geared around getting people to move and to explore. You can’t build because that encourages you to set down roots, there’s no multiplayer (encountering another player would be more akin to Journey, perhaps, and is expected to be an incredibly rare event) because multiplayer encourages people to cluster and stay.”

I’m listening back to that section of the interview now and here’s the relevant part (it was cut from the preview piece because that piece was initially really long and suffered for it):

“It’s really funny talking to people who have maybe come into the office from the community and things like that or that we had in playing the game or journalists and stuff, and they will always have this one feature and they’re almost angry, like ‘Why can’t I do x?’ – pet creatures or something like that. Most of the time it’s because that would encourage you to set down roots and a lot of gameplay mechanics actually do that because games are often constrained or about that. So, for instance, building – being able to build a house or something like that. Then you wouldn’t want to go out and explore. If we had some sort of full-blown multiplayer death-match thing that would bring loads of people together. We want people to go out and explore.

“I guess the thing that’s maybe obvious or maybe not is that this is a big canvas. The reason people ask [these things] is you can look at it and go ‘Yes, that would work’”. It would be so easy to imagine as you were walking around that you could plant some plants – wouldn’t that be nice? It’s almost an obvious question to ask why can’t I do that. It kills me a little bit because we’ve had to cut a lot of those ideas but they’re not gone, they’re kind of in a box and I would like the opportunity after the game comes out, if it was popular and it was successful and people were enjoying it, I guess we could then have a sensible conversation?”

So this desire to keep the player moving acted as a tenet guiding the feature set and keeping the game focused in some way, but there was also the suggestion that at some point it might recede in importance or the game could become something else. Listening back is a slightly odd experience because I remember that the feeling after I’d been playing for a while was that this push to keep moving was really important, informing pretty much every aspect of what I’d played. It’s why planets at that point wouldn’t have multiple biomes and so on. But having read the most recent updates which talk about adding base building and owning giant space freighters, the quote seems so much more about reigning in the impulse towards feature creep until you’re in a position to open that box and examine those features you’ve had to set aside so far.

Murray’s post on the official site yesterday went through a kind of outline of what you actually do in the game. The post is a fair bit longer but here are his bullet points:

  • Exploring a universe of pretty procedurally generated worlds, with beautiful creatures
  • Trading with NPCs
  • Combat against robots/mechs and cool space battles
  • Survival/crafting in a universe sized sandbox
    An awesome procedural soundtrack from my genuine favourite band
  • For one small moment, you might feel like you’ve stepped into a sci-fi book cover
  • And the thing I wanted to say, and what I’ve been setting up with the talk of previews and early interviews and the like, is that I don’t think people are asking what you do because they haven’t seen the footage or the interviews or read the blog posts or the news articles that have added detail on particular aspects. Or at least, not for the most part. I feel like people might be asking “what do you actually do” as a shorthand for “what is the core of this thing that makes it something I can conceptualise and understand as a coherent game.” I think it’s about the gap between actions you can perform and the experience that they create.

    One definition of games which I have and which sometimes comes in useful at moments like this is that games are artworks that try to express ideas through a particular intertwining of systems which you are expected to interact with and which generally alter in response to some concept of progression. Knowing something of the systems and how they work in other contexts helps you to try and build a picture – a kind of vague sketch rather than a detailed image – of what the whole might feel like before you have a chance to play it.

    I think that’s why the question of what you actually do has come up so much with No Man’s Sky. The game has felt so resistant to being known through descriptions of its systems so perhaps there’s a suspicion that more knowledge of the latter would lead to a more knowable former. For me, this idea of movement/nomadism felt really important, not least because it offered a shape to this game and helped underpin the ideas of exploration and wonderment. I think that’s why I was so disconcerted to read that base building was being added next. It’s not that I hate building bases, but that it directly contradicts a version of the game I was able to hold in my head. The game suddenly felt like this slippery thing again.

    I don’t claim to have any special insider insight for this point, but No Man’s Sky’s final form has seemed like a fluid thing that was being altered during development to try and clothe the far more difficult-to-pin-down sensation of being an explorer of the unknown or, as Murray puts it in that list, “like you’ve stepped into a sci-fi book cover”. From his blogs over the last few days and what the team will be working on next I still don’t feel like I know what No Man’s Sky will become – if they’ve found the right clothes for the idea yet.

    I’ll get to play it in its official release form later this week and it will become a concrete experience where I can point to anecdotes and explain what I liked, what I didn’t, and what it is in relation to me. But the experience of watching No Man’s Sky as it’s moved towards a release date has been a peculiar one. The word I keep reaching for is “evanescent” – it’s been this thing fans or journalists would reach for and that would then dissolve or change somehow. Obviously the game itself was always a thing, existing in various forms and states of completion in the Hello Games offices. But the public perception of it was uniquely unstable; a chimera which will now slink away as the game trickles into full release.

    Disclosure: Our Alec did some writing for No Man’s Sky. He won’t be writing about it for us anymore. Obviously I have no such constraints :D

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    Philippa Warr

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