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Expectation Vs Experience, And Why I've No Idea What No Man's Sky Will Be Like

Hype-no-tism

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I’ve been thinking about expectations a bit, recently. Not least with No Man’s Sky only moments away. And not least because Graham recently wrote about how he sometimes prefers to enjoy the expectations more than the games themselves. Few games have so many expectations hanging around their neck like mighty millstones as next week’s indie space adventure, and it means it’ll be released into a frenzied madness of people’s own imaginations with which it can never compete. But unlike Graham I don’t enjoy the build-up at all – in fact, as contrary as this is to my job, I try to ignore it as much as possible.

That definitely needs a bit more explaining. I don’t ignore games during development, clearly, or I’d struggle to do my job properly. But I definitely compartmentalise in a way I’ve developed over the last couple of decades, allowing myself to see – perhaps write about – the latest trailer for Game X, and yet not decide what I think Game X is going to be like despite it.

No Man’s Sky has certainly made that tricky, after the enormous Summer fuss it’s seen over the last few years. I feel enormously for Hello Games in that respect, this small indie studio in my home town of Guildford, suddenly treated like a AAA developer with the marketing hype of a desperate Sony behind them. I don’t imagine it was ever anyone at the studio’s intent to stand up in front of tens of millions of eyes and say, “We’re going to build something infinitely complex,” when they clearly weren’t, can’t, etc. They certainly over-promised, but the receiving ears and eyes took it far further, and now no matter what they release it’s going to fall short of an imagined impossibility.

The reason I’ve been thinking about it is I’m down to review the game. And that adds a whole other dynamic to the expectation thing. One of the most tiresome comments that gets left on reviews is, “You clearly expected this game to be X, you made your mind up before you started writing.” It’s one of those comments that manages to be rude in multiple ways at once, not just implying that the author is being dishonest in some way, but also loudly declaring that the author is incapable of doing their job. And the thing is, I’ve never made my mind up about a game before I’ve started playing it, because – well – that would be really stupid.

The reason I play games, as a critic, is in order to make my mind up about them. Were I capable of the prescience required to decide my opinions without all the hours of actually playing a game, I could save so much time! I could write all my reviews for the next six months now, and then take the rest of the year off! As it happens, curse it, I’m not in possession of such soothsaying abilities, and as such have to go through the whole ordeal of playing the darned things. And since I’m there, doing that, I may as well make my mind up during all that palaver rather than waste even more time trying to do it beforehand.

Of course, this accusation speaks much more of the accuser than the innocent, handsome victim, because it betrays an attitude where minds are made up before events, where brand loyalty overrides reality, expectation defines experience, heart rules head. And I just cannot ever allow myself to think that way – it would be madness. My job is to report my experiences of a game, critically evaluate it, and attempting to do that based on anything other than playing the game itself is shitballs crazy.

But of course I heard the hype about No Man’s Sky. I saw those early E3 videos. I watched in actual slack-jawed horror at the embarrassing IGN hands-on-brains-off videos. And I started to imagine. I started to consider how I’d play it. And I’ve had to force myself to stop. I can’t pretend I didn’t decide I wanted to spend endless hours needlessly exploring alien planets without care for finding the centre of the universe (this is, I swear, the extent of what I understand you can do in the game), and of course I’ve no idea if this is something the game will offer me. Perhaps there will be restrictions, imperatives, enforced space shopping, maybe it turns into a corridor shooter? I don’t know, because I haven’t played it! And I’ve very deliberately not watched the trailers from the last few weeks knowing that the review is coming up. I genuinely don’t want to know more now than you explore planets and eventually go toward the centre.

Oddly enough, when I read a book I don’t want to know what happens after page 20 or so, and when I watch a film I rarely find out what happens at the end before I sit down. Games are a far more complex experience than a sequential narrative, but the same rules apply for me expanded to the criteria of mechanics, activities, and so on. The less I expect, the better time I have with a good game, and the better job I do of reporting what I’ve actually experienced, rather than what I expected. At least, I try. It’s really hard.

I know that I’ve gone into games expecting them to be terrible, because they’re made by developers who’ve only made terrible games, or haven’t been able to avoid what other people have said about them. But I think that offers you the opportunity to be pleasantly surprised. Going in expecting something spectacular means even greatness can feel disappointing, and that’s never helpful for anyone. So, as a rule, I assume as little as I can, and instead opt to hope to have a good time. Then just write down what it was like when I played it. That’s my plan for No Man’s Sky.

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John Walker

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One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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