No Man's Sky's trailer, first broadcast on December 7th as part of the Spike VGX awards, opens by stating that the game's "every atom" is procedural. What follows shows a character emerging from an ocean full of fish, climbing inside a spaceship and flying into space in a single contiguous motion, interspersed with quick shots of different planet surfaces, gigantic space stations, space combat, deformable terrain and more.
It's fantastic, and exciting, and it leaves you with no sense of what the game is. The trailer shows you just enough to suggest it might contain everything you can imagine. It's the space game you always wanted, as far as you know.
Luckily I had an advantage. When I first saw the trailer, it was a few days before the VGXs, and it was with the nervous, tired, excitable Hello Games development team. I spent two hours afterwards quizzing them about procedural generation, but also about what you actually do in No Man's Sky.
Every player in No Man's Sky will begin their life somewhere along the edge of a galaxy. Everything in the trailer takes place in a single solar system near the galaxy's edge and, red grass aside, on Earth-like planets. "It helps to ground people and I think if we hadn't shown that, people would go, 'what the fuck?'" Sean Murray, lead developer on No Man's Sky, is choosing his words carefully. "It's quite weird to see a thing that isn't a fish, in the water. And so we have grounded the trailer in a particular solar system that kind of makes sense for people."
Which suggests it's not going to make sense later. The loose objective for players of No Man's Sky is to head away from the edge and towards the galaxy's centre. As you do, the planets you visit along the way become more mutated, more dangerous.
"I hate doing this, but it is the simplest way to give people hooks for the game. Games that we will get compared to, rather than I would compare us to, would be Minecraft, DayZ, but also Dark Souls to an extent and probably Journey." Murray is torn by these descriptions. "I hate the idea that people will go around and say, 'It's like Minecraft but in space.' Fuck off!"
Let's just get it out of the way. No Man's Sky is Minecraft in space. Also I would compare it to DayZ and Dark Souls. I haven't played much of Journey, so - twist - I'd throw in Spore instead.
I'm being an ass, but these are useful points of comparison for the ways in which No Man's Sky differs as much as for the ways in which it is similar.
As you make your way towards the centre of the galaxy, the planets you pass are stepping stones along the way. You'll land your ship on them and go hunting for resources. Those resources then, in some unexplained way, aid you in upgrading your ship and yourself. These upgrades allow you to travel larger distances, or maybe make you faster, or probably improve your guns. It's still ambiguous.
The other reason we're not seeing beyond these worlds is that Hello Games want No Man's Sky to be about discovery. "What we wanted to get across was a sort of frontiersmanship, a sense of mystery and wonder. For me exploration is seeing something no one has seen before, and for your experience to be unique."
This is also why the game is procedurally generated. At one point during the conversation, an odd, exciting question is raised: is No Man's Sky the first game without a skybox? If you're standing on a planet's surface and look up, every single dot in the sky is an actual star you can go visit. If you see a tree three miles away, you can walk to it and find out what's underneath it.
Exploration and resource gathering are the ways, really the only ways, in which the game is similar to Minecraft. The planets you land on aren't cube-shaped and it's unlikely you'll build a house on them. They are the equivalent of Minecraft's network of underground caves: exciting to find, unique to you, and full of materials which give them significance and value despite not being handcrafted.
Any planet you discover on your journey is marked on your galactic map, along with its name, its atmosphere and what resources you found there. If you choose to, you can then share that information with every other player, uploading it so that it's shared across everyone's galactic map.
You'll get credit for discovering it. You'll also, if the materials there are valuable, attract players to come visit. No Man's Sky isn't a multiplayer game, in as much as you'll never see another player. But the galaxy is the same between everyone and actions of "significance" will be shared. If you kill a single bird, that won't be shared. If you make an entire species of bird extinct, then those creatures will blink out of existence for everyone.
That means you might want to keep quiet about a planet of valuable resources, so others don't come and deplete it. I also instantly start thinking of ways to be devious. Can I upload false information to the galactic map? Can I lure people to a system full of pirates and then, when their ships crash and burn, steal materials from their ghostly hulls?
When I ask these questions, Murray is light on specifics, but hopes players will work cooperatively. "There are some things that you could do for the wrong reasons. You could broadcast certain information for the wrong reasons. But generally people are playing together cooperatively to the benefit of everyone. You can be a dick in the game if you want, but it has less point and less value."
These are the ways in which the game is like Spore, or to a lesser extent Dark Souls. It's a singleplayer experience, but one enriched by a community playing with shared purpose.
This maybe makes the final point of reference a little strange. DayZ is dependent on other players to fuel its survivalist anecdotes. Yet it's the game Murray mentions most.
"We are designing a set of rules, not designing a game, and I think when I talk about DayZ that's how those feel to me. Your experience in DayZ is your experience, and there's a set of rules in that 200km square that you then go out and experience and make stories in. And that is what we want."
Those systems-driven experiences begin with the way the galaxy is constructed - "Every Atom Procedural" - but extend to every part of the game design. "If there's a crashed ship, it's there because a ship has crashed. If there is a trading outpost, those things are there for real reasons, and the way the creatures behave around those, and the type of creatures you see are there for real reasons."
It's about moving the design away from strictly authored experiences, in which your actions are tightly scripted and controlled, in favour of something more expressive.
"You will at all times feel very vulnerable in this universe and not necessarily empowered," explains Murray. "You have an enormous amount of freedom, but maybe not masses of power at your disposal."
The emphasis on exploration and discovery, and that reference to Journey, doesn't mean the experience of playing as passive. More than any of the claims about the size of the universe, this is the stuff that I find exciting.
"It has a set of core mechanics that you can choose how to deal with situations, and how to interact with people, and how to upgrade yourself and how to upgrade your ship," says Sean. "We want you to make choices at all times as you go through. Like in your ship, how much cargo, how much fuel to take, and we want you to live with those choices."
"You can be that guy who just wants to walk around, find one planet and just explore that," says Murray "But you can also play this game and not care about exploration at all and be all about building yourself up. You can also work to help other people, you can be that person. There are like a lot of different roles you can fill."
They don't want to closely define the experience. That's the opposite of my goals in describing the game, but I appreciate the overall philosophy. "You are not going to boot up the game and find a 15 minute tutorial. You are not going to find a classic RPG structure.
"We want things that happen to you to have real meaning because of those choices, in a similar way to I feel like DayZ does, and for you to want to survive in that game."
Note the word "survive". Failure is a big part of No Man's Sky, although it sounds as if the exact mechanics aren't set in stone.
"How it is at the moment, is that you can't die, but you can lose everything," explains Murray. "There is no saved game. Your game will be saved, your progress is saved all the time as you go along, but if your ship is destroyed then you go back to a lifepod and you've lost that ship, and that is your everything."
If you decide to fill your ship with fuel and go on a risky trip to a distant, dangerous solar system, you could find yourself in trouble. "If you warp in and it is to a solar system that is full of pirates and you get shot down, then you have lost all of that. You can then rebuild from there, and you will be where you are in that universe."
It's your ship which defines how quickly you can progress between solar systems, so losing it would be a big blow. But if you're lucky, you might crash land on a planet full of useful resources. "You perhaps find things that you can't even make use of at the time and earmark that for yourself or your friends to cooperate with you to build yourself back up."
"I think probably if you were going to think of anything, you would think of games like roguelikes. If you want to put it in a box, which I would rather you didn't, then that for me is the most similar experience."
I love my roguelike box and I am happy to put No Man's Sky inside.
I'm being an ass again. I understand Murray's reticence in drawing comparisons. They don't want to be hammered for not including features from games they never had any intention of mimicking in the first place.
Even other space games don't necessarily sit well with Murray as direct comparisons. EVE Online is the only one mentioned during the interview, although he's still as keen to stress the differences as much as the similarities.
"Don't take this the wrong way, but our background is as console developers, and I think everything about the game bears hallmarks of that," says Murray. "In terms of your controls, in terms of the fluidity of the game, this is not a quirky, hard-to-decipher experience."
Roguelikes, upgradeable ships, and Dark Souls, yes. But not necessarily tech trees and context-sensitive right-click menus. Hello Games are still the company that made the peppy, stunt racing Joe Danger.
Their commitment to capturing that same good "feel" is reflected in No Man's Sky's four-person development team. Of the three programmers, Murray does the "really big" procedural systems, and Hazel McKendrick is mainly focused on creatures and the look of planets. That leaves Dave Ream to focus solely on "gameplay".
As if to underline its importance to the team, it's Grant Duncan, the game's sole artist, that first brings up the subject. "Going from Joe Danger to this is obviously a bit of a leap, but we've always been really obsessed with that feel of games. When you start playing a game, the way you're interacting with it, the way the jump feels, the movement, feeling smooth. In Joe Danger we were completely obsessed with that, and we still are obsessed with that."
"It's weird because my work isn't in the trailer," says Ream. "You can't feel the game by looking at it." The little bit of camera shake as you blast into space, though? That was him.
This sounds like minor detail, but these details matter. You're mad if you think they don't. More than that, they ground No Man's Sky's ambitious claims more so than the Earth-like fish in the water. "It's not some tech demo that we're putting together," says Murray.
I'm relieved. After separating out the bold claims of its procedural generation to focus instead on mechanics, I can start to imagine myself playing the game. I can see that loop of activity: the minutes and hours of planetary exploration leading to the minutes and hours of upgrading, of travel, of discovery, and of combat. Maybe this is the space game I've always wanted.
It's still far too early to tell, but you're allowed to be excited to find out.
Check back tomorrow for a second article focused on the procedural generation and art design of No Man's Sky.