TIME Opinion

Here’s Hoping No Man’s Sky Isn’t the Next Elder Scrolls: Arena

How deep can a sci-fi game about "exploration and survival in an infinite procedurally generated universe" really be?

I want to think well of No Many’s Sky, a game — at least I think it’s a game — about ripping off into an infinitely big, infinitely procedural, infinitely beautiful universe and doing, well, we’re not sure exactly what yet.

Exploring? Check. Cataloging other species? Maybe. Dogfighting in a spaceship? Perhaps. Wondering a lot what the point of No Man’s Sky is? Sounds like it.

If you want to know a little more, GameSpot’s just done a superlative series of videos on the game — each about 10 minutes long — and gleaned a few more details from Guildford-based developer Hello Games. You can find those videos clustered here.

The promise of No Man’s Sky isn’t so much that it looks amazing, like a reified Roger Dean painting, but the moment in that initial surprise reveal trailer back in 2013 where, down on an otherworldly planet, someone swims out of a sparkling azure ocean, strides across a beach bounded by crimson and gold grass and climbs into an X-Wing-like spaceship (without the wings). The canopy pops down, the music kicks up, and the ship rockets into the sky…then flies out of that sky and into starlit orbital space, bustling with asteroids and plasma-trailed fighters and Brobdingnagian capital ships, all of that rendered as one balletic, seamless sequence — a beautifully choreographed wish-fulfillment tease.

That go-anywhere, do-anything premise may be one of the oldest and most anticipated and most often broken promises on the books. Games have been making it for decades, this notion that a video game (or whatever you want to call these things now, as they pull against that term’s shackles) can be a portal to another world — a place as real as reality, and as lovely, dark and deep.

But we know it’s still a false promise in 2014, how easy it is to shatter the illusion when you brush against the simulated world’s facades. And so playing massively-single-player games that purport to simulate towns or cities or worlds or universes requires a psychological ingredient without which the games wouldn’t work: projection. Humans are masters of interpolation, and to play a game that’s partly a world-building exercise on its own terms, you have to suspend entire mountain ranges of disbelief.

We’ve come parsecs over the decades, graphics-wise, but made very little headway in world-building games when it comes to genuinely simulating said worlds. The occupants of The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim are only slightly smarter (if prettier) signposts and semaphores than the ones we pinballed between in The Elder Scrolls: Arena 20 years ago. The guards in Assassin’s Creed IV are mostly brain-dead obstacles you have to puzzle past — weaponized dots on a map not so different from the ones we slunk past in Castle Wolfenstein or the original Metal Gear. The juking, jiving citizens wandering the streets of Los Santos in Grand Theft Auto V are props you’re meant to experience in passing, if at all: jostle or walk on by, pull out a gun and threaten or simply ignore.

It’s the cost of doing business given today’s technological limitations: build the stage, staff it with actors roughly as versatile as brainless animatronics, then let you wander around a sandbox filled with sand you’re only allowed to sculpt into a handful of things. Today’s go-anywhere, do-anything games are far nearer souped-up Choose-Your-Own-Adventures than the sort of idealized virtual reality experiences involving at least Turing test-passable encounters we’ve been dreaming about (in books and movies and games) for decades. They’re the sum of their mechanics (racing, shooting, flying, this or that mini-game, etc.) and little else.

To be fair, No Man’s Sky isn’t promising the moon (or at least not that sort of moon). Hello Games hasn’t created some exotic form of in-game artificial life, or devised a way to let you literally do whatever you like in the game (say become an interplanetary rock star, or a solitary backwater spinner of clay pots), or — and I say this presumptively but assuredly — found a way to eliminate the telling facades. No Man’s Sky will have limits, and I’d wager they’ll be as profound in the end at the micro level as the game claims to scale at the macro one.

But will it be any fun to play? That’s the question, once you’ve throttled any pretense of it being a game about letting you do whatever you like. What do you do in No Man’s Sky, and what makes it worth doing? Will that list of to-dos, once they’ve been enumerated, wind up looking like so many others? A lot of the novelty of Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls: Arena vanished, for instance, once you smacked into its procedural seams and wound up surrendering to its rail-like “go to this dungeon, get this widget” story rhythms.

Will No Man’s Sky end up in the same shortfall trap? Will I care once I’ve cataloged my 134th kind-of-sort-of-dinosaur-thingy? Splashed around in my 532nd alien ocean? Destroyed my 43rd capital ship? Collected my umpteenth bounty?

Hello Games doesn’t want to say what the point of the game is. I admire their reluctance to, but I’m also worried about their reluctance to. I’d like to think there’s a rabbit in the hat (or maybe a whole bunch of rabbits waiting to pop out), but I’m a skeptic. I’ve been here too many times before. I want to believe No Man’s Sky‘s going to be more than just a pretty bauble of a game, but history and hindsight haven’t been kind to dreamers when it comes to open-ended games.

I suppose that’s what No Many’s Sky has going for it most at this point, having fired our imaginations. We’re still in the dreaming stage, and between now and the game’s unspecified future release, there’s still hope.

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