No Man's Sky: A New Genre?

Judging from Steam reviews the future looks bleak for the most eagerly anticipated video game of 2016. Gaming sites have been more lenient than the endless stream of bad impressions left on Steam, but even gaming savants have given it a lukewarm reception at best. Everyone, it seems, is a little disappointed in No Man’s Sky.

Between squeezing the most out of his tiny team and managing the over inflated expectations of a gaming world saturated with clones, remakes and sequels, these past four years must’ve been pretty intense for Sean Murray and Hello Games. The game’s repeatedly-delayed launch - a likely sign, that the studio was buckling under pressure. And yet the hate seems like too much, even Hatred is more liked on Steam!

A common line among those critiquing the game is that for the price of a triple A game, the player should be getting the same amount of fun as they would from a Grand Theft Auto or a Witcher title. Technical issues, clunky UI and other things that can be fixed in a few early patches aside, the major complaint is that it’s just boring. That, I believe, is the inevitable result of people expecting the same rush of endorphins from a wildly new kind of game as they used to get from playing triple A titles in the past.

What people seem to forget about the NMS hype years is that most of what the designers were excited to talk about was pushing procedural generation to its limits. Prior to Hello Games this type of algorithms had most notably been used in creating the layouts of Diablo’s dungeons and deciding what block to put next to every other one when creating Minecraft worlds, but Sean wanted to see if he could do more with it.

The reason people are fascinated with the Mandelbrot set or other fractals is that a seemingly simple formula can give rise to mind-boggling, infinite complexity. The hard part in making NMS has been to tweak that simple formula to output a believable universe which would more or less conform to our intuitive expectations of physics and how planets should look like, instead of just abstract pixel art.

If you go into NMS expecting a walking simulator like Journey, you’ll soon be bored to death as you notice repetition everywhere, if you go in expecting a survival game you’ll be let down by the combat, hoping for a space adventure will make you wish you were playing ELITE instead. No Man’s Sky demands you to treat it as a portal into another universe, one shaped not by the hands of game designers, but by the cold laws of physics and time, codified by its procedural generation algorithms.

The thing with open-world games like the Elder Scrolls or the Assassin’s Creed series is that their worlds feel like they’re huge and open while at the same time being fun to dive into. This requires very precise tuning as you want to limit the time players feel bored (mostly by showering them with new and exciting experiences) and create the illusion of a world made without gameplay in mind because no one wants to be reminded that they’re only playing a game while controlling some Chosen One.

No Man’s Sky tries to limit the involvement of human developers as much as possible and present the player with a universe where they get to make those first steps on planets not even those who created them have seen! With most of the Earth already mapped centuries ago and outer space most likely to remain accessible only to people like Elon Musk or Richard Branson, this is as good an opportunity as most people will get to go into terra incognita.

This insistence on creating a real universe means that most of the planets will look nothing like the spectacular alien worlds of Halo, or have the same grandeur as Avatar’s Pandora. Most of them will have similarly boring terrain, flora and fauna, but if you look at photos of the surfaces of Mars, Venus or Titan, you’ll realize that it does get worse. The universe doesn’t really care that much about making you go wow at every single turn.

The addition of a story to the game and the instruction a player is given to head to the galaxy’s core seem like signs of a studio giving in to the pressuring expectations of the established gaming world. The story is unsatisfying and flat because it is tacked onto NMS sky like a lame mod, there to appease those who’ll point to a tweet by Sean two years ago and angrily foam on forums if it’s not there in the final version. It’s a hand-crafted feature that seems out of place in a game where everything is supposed to contain nothing of that type. But I don’t want to imagine what kind of manhunt Hello Games would be subjected to if NMS had no “story”.

With an uncharted universe that has only been fine-tuned as much as humanly possible, No Man’s Sky needs an approach that includes this understanding to be experienced as the deelopers intended it to be. The backlash against it reminded me of the release of Dear Esther, which was derided by many as not even worthy of being called a video game and which later went on to establish the now well-populated genre of walking simulators.

Certain gameplay issues people are having will, I’m sure, be addressed in upcoming updates and hopefully the studio doesn’t won’t get too discouraged by the bad press to continue its work on using procedural generation to expand our horizons.