I’ve tried to learn the lesson over my career, both professionally and as a gaming enthusiast, to not look forward to games before I or a writer I trust has had fingers on it. And especially not before the purpose of the game is entirely clear. For these reasons, I absolutely should not be looking forward to No Man’s Sky.
I am so looking forward to No Man’s Sky. I also have worries.
Obviously, like everyone else, I was very taken with the tech demo shown at E3 2014. Those folks that made the ridiculously difficult Trials-alike, Joe Danger, were on stage with the bigger boys and showing something completely unexpected. Completely beautiful. Lord knows what it actually was, but it looked intriguing enough to have most people wanting to know more. Me included.
I had concerns, of course. Games set in space seem to have a terrible inevitability of involving bloody sodding resources. In my entirely correct and unarguable opinion, the inclusion of resources changes a game from play into work. People seem to enjoy work instead of play, and while I don’t understand why, I begrudgingly allow the practise to continue. But every time I see something space-based I get all excited until I remember. I’ve done so since those first mind-blowing screenshots of Homeworld appeared. I probably did so in my youth when I saw pictures of Elite. My fingers, toes, arms and legs were crossed that NMS wouldn’t do it to me, but I expected it would.
As the drip-drip of vague information started to appear about the game, the word inevitably came up. I think I remember one interview where it was explained how resources were central to the game. My heart sunk. I moved on.
Because what I want from a space game is freedom, exploration, and isolation. I want a game that lets me travel from system to system, find planets, encounter surprises, avoid conflict, and enjoy the quietness and solitude of the journey. I’d like things to go wrong on my ship, be required to fix them perhaps, meet strangers, hear stories, just be. It’s my fantasy game, and I doubt it will ever exist. If anyone comes close to making it, they’ll also add in a need to mine for Space Zinc and then sell it at a space station for Space Dollars, used to buy Space Petrol and Space Crisps. But the price of Space Crisps is high in this sector, and I’ve got to get more Space Crystals to power the ship and then look at a graph and then worry about pages and pages of numbers and I MIGHT AS WELL BE DOING MY TAXES.
I don’t like doing my taxes. In fact, so broken-brained am I about the horror that I’ve literally passed out while on the phone to the Inland Revenue. (I’ve got an accountant now, although it still fills me with irrational terror and misery.) So when a game reminds me of doing my taxes, I know something’s gone horribly wrong, and I’m no longer playing. And No Man’s Sky sounded like it was going to involve tax.
What drew me back towards excitement was the relief of learning that “resources” in the game’s surely-not-fully-thought-through systems are in fact just big colourful crystals you shoot with a gun. It looks so dumb. I am so relieved. Running around shooting colourful things with a gun is brainless and I can do brainless. I join many others in hoping that by release they’ve thought of something a little more interesting than a simulacrum of an FPS, in which half the enemies just sit there being inorganic, but still – it’s not taxes.
Of what we’ve seen so far – and admittedly so much of what we’ve seen has had to be parsed through the tedium of watching men with beards stare at an unseen screen thanks to the incessant dreadfulness of big-business exclusivity bullshit – I find myself extremely taken by the apparent simplicity of purpose.
I’ve heard people worrying about this apparent simplicity. Yes, people say, it’s a remarkable achievement that they’ve created this literal galaxy, that it has countless millions of planets and creatures it will procedurally generate on the fly then permanently fix in space for others to see. But what do you do? Why would you want more, I reply?
It sounds amazing. Calmly flying to new regions, avoiding pirates, and discovering never-before-seen creatures before adding them to the shared database. Trotting about the planet surface, antagonising the local fauna, then nipping back into space to drift onward, backward, or inward. Not worrying about graphs, prices, crystalline economies. Just getting on with being a happily alone person in space.
It's tempting, given the vastness of space, to let your imagination run wild about what No Man's Sky could or should be, but were Hello Games to release the extremely pretty, technically astonishing shell we’ve seen so far, I would be very happy indeed. My greatest fear isn't that they'll fail to flesh out that technical achievement, but that in trying to flesh it out they'll embrace the tropes of Space Shopping with Space Resources, which will be recorded on Space Spreadsheets and reported on Space Bar Graphs.
Just let me drift, lonely, in space, without having to do my taxes. It’s all I want.