No Man’s Sky is wildly ambitious, utterly vast and a huge challenge to the video game industry’s status quo
There is a man, and that man wants to sell you the universe.
Not some figurative firmament, but a fully explorable universe-sized universe that can squeeze onto a PlayStation 4 or PC hard drive. Gaze out at his cosmos and every star you see is a place you can visit, every unseen planet a potential waypoint. In this boundless empyrean province, anyone can be the explorer they’ve dreamed, part dauntless astronaut, part archaeologist of the unknown.
The man’s name is Sean Murray. He and a handful of fellow programmers at a tiny Guildford, U.K. studio named Hello Games are on the verge of releasing an absurdly ambitious sci-fi experiment dubbed No Man’s Sky. When the game finally arrives on August 9, after a three-year wait during which it’s inspired legions of fans, it’ll either fulfill a longstanding fantasy or dash the hopes of millions.
No Man’s Sky promises to be an interstellar sandbox you can explore without strings. Players are set loose in a kind of cosmic petri dish populated by randomly generated lifeforms they can study, exploit or destroy. Resources can be mined to upgrade gear or speed travel, while trade ships crawl through solar systems and tease precious cargo ripe for pirating. Even learning alien languages plays a role in trading effectively, or at least avoiding insults that could end in firefights.
It’s a tall order. Gamers are famously curious, hard to please and quick to judge a developer deemed to have over-promised or, worse, over-hyped. And No Man’s Sky has generated its share of hype, from its quintillions of explorable planets and factions vying for control of the galaxy, to the multitudes of lifeforms you can catalog in a universal online library. Gamers can take those kinds of claims as a dare. From No Man’s Sky, they expect a universe that pushes back when prodded, that feels designed and not haphazard. They want the grail-like feedback loop: an experience that endlessly surprises and potentially lasts forever.
Expectations like these can be kryptonite for developers. The bigger you build, the thinner you’re spread, and the less there tends to be worth noticing. Even triple-A games use misdirection to mask their veneers. A sprawling funhouse like Grand Theft Auto V commands budgets and platoons of developers that eclipse the resources afforded a tiny indie studio like Hello Games. Which begs the question: If a developer as massive as Rockstar turns out huge open worlds that still feel soulless when closely probed—try engaging Grand Theft Auto’s inhabitants, for instance, and you’re limited to shoving, punching, shooting at or running them over—how can Murray possibly deliver on what No Man’s Sky promises?
More than that, No Man’s Sky is a challenge to a games industry that’s grown rich and complacent, aping the film industry’s preference for blockbusters and franchise-building sequels. For all the tech industry’s leaps in computing oomph, today’s triple-A games too often feel like overwrought musicals—dazzling pageants that mask shopworn ideas. While No Man’s Sky inspires rhetoric about its limitless scope, its real gambit may be its old school approach to ginning up all that grandeur. If No Man’s Sky delivers the sort of revelatory experience players have been after for as long as games have been a thing, the implications for the industry could be as ramifying as the game itself.
Music From The Game
Murray is a tall, lanky, thirty-something who favors rumpled plaid button-ups and a beard thick as a briar patch. He sees the problem of devising endlessly interesting gameplay in terms of classical libertarian ideals. “I don’t know if this sounds pretentious, but I’m really enamored with the idea of players being able to express themselves in games,” he says in a voice that’s gentle and boyishly earnest. “It’s probably too strong a word, but when you play a game like Minecraft, I think you’re expressing some part of your personality, which I don’t think you do in a lot of linear, triple-A games. Even though I might have loved the triple-A game, there’s no point in me recording a YouTube video of it. Or if we met and started talking about the game, there’d be no point in me telling you my story, because we’d have experienced the exact same thing, at the same times, in the same way.”
No Man’s Sky’s response is to craft an experience that’s as interesting and spontaneous as it is astronomically capacious. The approach stems from Murray’s frustration with an industry suffering from sequel-itis. After finishing work on a pair of acclaimed racing games about a goofball stuntman’s Rube Goldberg antics in 2012, he wanted to reboot. Murray turned to some of the games he’d grown up playing, where employing basic math equations—Murray uses the British “maths”—to generate pots of content was mandatory. Before processors were powerful enough to generate luxurious graphics, designers relied on bits of code to produce rooms in a dungeon, loot in treasure chests or the monsters that might roam the hallways. The tradeoff was randomness that culminated in monotonous repetition.
That led Murray and his colleagues to the idea of a sci-fi game built upon real-world equations for describing natural objects. Instead of handcrafting every planet, moon and star in No Man’s Sky, Hello Games inserts formulae that tell an algorithm what planets, moons and stars should look like or how they ought to behave. In mathematics that’s called “procedural generation,” and it’s essentially a way to get massive output (a universe) from relatively bargain basement input (some numbers). Imagine DNA-like super-equations capable of sparking the fabric of space-time itself.
“No one’s tried to do procedural games since we’ve been able to do more realistic rendering and stuff like that,” says Murray. “But there was a timeline where these kinds of games could have existed, where after a game like Elite [one of the earliest procedural sci-fi games, released in 1984], we might have continued down that path.” Instead, says Murray, a handful of linear games stole the spotlight, “and everyone just focused on that approach, and then that was reinforced by video games becoming this huge industry really quickly. Now it’s like we’re trying to prove ourselves by how much money we make every year compared to the movie industry and the music industry or whatever.”
It’s true, but it’s also because procedurally generated games are notoriously messy and recalcitrant. Tweak one thing and you might louse up a dozen others, turning lakes into ponds and mountains into actual molehills. It’s not unlike chaos theory, where small shifts in complex systems can have massive and unpredictable ramifications. Figuring out what influences what in a procedurally generated system, or why fixing one thing breaks another, becomes an endless game of trial and error. Murray compares it to teasing bits of signal from an ocean of noise.
“It’s like creating something that’s just a sound versus something that’s musical and pleasant to listen to, and there is a huge difference,” he says. “Early on, you effectively have the ability to create a sound, but it doesn’t necessarily play well, or certainly not all the time.” Murray explains that this led to situations where the programmer’s created mountains players couldn’t climb, or caves they couldn’t get into, or oceans that were too shallow or too deep. One team member’s novel idea become another’s headache.
Murray’s day to day consists of chipping away at the code, like an obsessive editor tweaking sentence phrasing or punctuation. He’ll hammer away at terrain or mountains or hills, for instance, observing the effects of his alterations until he’s happy with the results, then check his changes into the main game. “And instantly the rest of the team will start sending me screenshots with messages like ‘Sean, I’m stuck in this hole,’ or ‘I’m trapped here,’” he jokes.
Even Minecraft, studio Mojang’s hugely popular sandbox that also relies on procedural generation, struggles with the noise problem. On occasion its generational algorithms will hang aberrant blocks of turf in the sky like periods in search of a sentence. Travel too far from your inception point in Minecraft and, in earlier versions of the game, you’d run into the so-called “Far Lands,” where the generational “noise” gets so wonky it can turn the world inside out. Not so No Man’s Sky, which resembles a Hugo Gernsback pulp mag cover sprung to life. It’s perhaps testament to the prowess of Hello Games’ programmers that their universe looks so exquisitely non-random.
The result is otherworldly and intimidating. In a pre-production demo of the game, I strode across an unearthly planet beneath persimmon skies, blue-green fronds of grass-like vegetation underscoring herds of creatures that resembled gazelles. I crawled into a nearby space vehicle that looked suspiciously like an X-Wing and lifted off, pulling up through the atmosphere and out into space. There’s no loading screen and no transitional pause. Then I was staring out at moons, distant stars and some lumbering trade ships with shepherding fighters, their contrails arrowing through the void like staves on a music sheet. This is every player’s starting point: as infinitesimally tiny specks amidst endless worlds wheeling through incalculably vast vacuum.
It’s also, weirdly, a kind of optimism simulator. “A friend of mine, who is massively into science fiction, feels like there’s nothing out there that might inspire a love of science fiction in his kid,” says Murray, referring to a problem sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson’s touched on in recent years. Stephenson worries a turn toward fetishizing dystopian versions of the future has real-world implications that might discourage people from daring to invent grander or bolder things. “I think it’s reasonably true. Like over the last 20 years, it’s hard to think of a film that’s sci-fi that doesn’t have a big focus on zombies or robots who get out of control,” Murray says. “If you see a scientist at the start of a film, then they’re evil or they’re inept and they’re about to accidentally cause the destruction of humanity.”
No Man’s Sky’s countercultural retro-majestic visuals even caught Watchmen co-creator Dave Gibbons’ eye. And that led to his becoming involved in helping craft a comic that’ll come bundled with a limited edition version of the game. “He was like, ‘This is the kind of stuff I’d like to draw, but it’s been gone for years,’” recalls Murray. “It was like he was saying, ‘I love this stuff but there is no market for it right now, or people aren’t interested in it.'”
Some of it may be down to what studios like Hello Games are seeing that the rest of the industry can’t (or refuses to). A game like Minecraft came from nowhere, plying old ideas in such profoundly novel ways that it prompted radically new ways of thinking about game design. Its influence on the industry has become its own procedurally generated archetype. “The Minecraft thing is really interesting, because I’ve talked to a lot of journalists who’ve never really played it, or they’ve bounced off it, or they see it as a kid’s thing,” says Murray. “They’ve watched it on videos and feel they understand it, but I think it’s a really important thing to experience, this sandbox idea that you’re letting systems interact with each other and the gameplay stems from that. I actually think it’s important for all of games. Like it’s this wave that’s going to crush across triple-A, and then people will ask for more freedom.”
“My theory is that with people like [Braid and The Witness creator] Jonathan Blow, they’re creating these little time machines,” continues Murray. “It’s like Blow went back to the aesthetic of the late ‘80s and created a rift in time, like an alternate universe where we’d have gone in a different direction. Because Braid could have existed on the Amiga, and at the time it would have blown people’s minds. It would have completely changed how games developed, and it could have functionally existed back then. It’s like Blow created an alternate path. And The Witness is another. And there are tons of these. Minecraft is another timeline.”
Murray’s own forte lies in designing the look and feel of the game’s innumerable planets (18 quintillion in all), a skill that involves interpolating three-dimensional figures from math. “You can be reading a paper and even see something in 2D as a graph and then just start visualizing that in three dimensions, and it’s quite a natural thing to be able to do,” he says. “But I’ve seen things now that I’ve built terrains out of certain formulae where I can understand those formulae much better. When you can walk around inside it, it gives you an innate special awareness of it.”
But he’s quick to downplay any sense that his team’s cobbled together some sort of genius-level equation actuator. When asked about his mathematics background, he demurs. “Most of what we’re doing is reasonably simple, actually, and then we just layer simple things on top of each other and it creates something that’s reasonably complex from the outside,” he says. “I think most other developers are going to look at the game and think, ‘Oh, I kind of know how they’re doing that.’” He laughs, then pauses, thinking. “I feel a bit weird if somebody’s saying ‘These are really clever guys’ or whatever.” No Man’s Sky players will have a chance to weigh in soon enough.