When originally unveiled at Spike’s 2013 Video Game Awards, Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky quickly became the talk of the show. Not only did the stunning images and seamless transition from planet to space showcase new and imaginative worlds, the very thought of a shared MMO universe with billions of planets was tantalizing. Was it the MMO to end all MMOs? The return of the space combat simulators that were so popular for 1990s PC gamers? A universe filled with exploration and conquering alongside your fleet of co-op players?
Weeks after the game launched for PS4 and PC, we now know the answer is none of the above. In fact, it’s difficult to categorize just what No Man’s Sky really is. The game’s junction of technical prowess and lack of traditional gaming aspects such as narrative and competition put it in uncharted (but not Uncharted) territory. By eschewing standard mechanics of propelling a player forward, No Man’s Sky has in fact created its own genre—and perhaps the most interesting part of the game is how it will spark the imagination of developers down the road.
No Man’s Sky is quiet. Solitary. In many ways, it’s a zen-like experience. Combat is in it, but not anywhere near the forefront. There’s a story, but you can choose to totally ignore it. There’s no leaderboard, though you can name stuff you discover for everyone to see.
It’s silently multiplayer, like Journey. It needs crafting to get further, like Minecraft. It involves piloting a spacecraft, like Wing Commander or Rogue Squadron. But when you strip apart all of those components, the heart of No Man’s Sky is something rarely seen in video games, and certainly not at this scope, technically or commercially. It’s really unlike anything you’ve ever played.
It’s an experience for the sake of experience, more so than anything else.
When you ask people what the best part of No Man’s Sky is, they’ll often mention things like the herd of goofy-looking animals they happened upon, the sense of realizing they were a speck of dust in a gigantic universe, the beautiful sights of exploring an alien planet, or simply the freedom in setting out and exploring. In a way, No Man’s Sky is a video game only in the loosest sense: the gaming component is optional, and instead, it’s about capturing little moments while enjoying bigger moments. Or, it’s like taking an intergalactic vacation, playing tourist through a virtual universe.
The controls for its flashes of combat are rudimentary at best, clunky at worst. It seems odd that the planets have homogenous ecosystems rather than true diversity or even seasons—heck, every space station or trading post seems to have been built by some intergalactic tract home manufacturer. Inventory management is cumbersome, which makes long-term planning of crafting somewhat difficult. And many players probably would have been happy to trade quintillions of planets down to, say, a billion in exchange for interactive civilizations or simply greater detail. But by failing expectations, No Man’s Sky became something even bigger than fans expected.
Despite those flaws, No Man’s Sky remains a groundbreaking title. The developers at Hello Games had a vision that synced up with the capabilities of current-gen technology, and with that, they’ve been able to create a virtual universe to explore. This kind of thing wouldn’t have been possible as little as five years ago, and yet, we’ve thrown open the doors where algorithms can essentially be a world-creating deity, with only the imagination of the creators setting the rules of the experience. With the advent of VR technology, that means that the digital realm can give us immersive experiences that were previously impossible—and a new genre of virtual tourism has been born.
What does this mean for similar titles down the road? Consider how certain genre-breakers have beget beloved titles in the industry.
Interactive drama: Telltale’s The Walking Dead caught everyone off guard. Less a traditional adventure title and more a high-stakes Choose Your Own Adventure, it took the concept birthed by Heavy Rain and made it its own. This genre propagated forward thanks to Telltale’s own catalog, and other developers have run with it. Without Telltale’s groundbreaking title, we wouldn’t have the brilliant Life is Strange or Until Dawn—both key works that showcase how a core concept is malleable to fit a unique vision.
First-person experiences: Similarly, Portal 2 created a shift in puzzle-based games, taking them from mini-games in larger titles (which, as a spin-off of Half Life, was kind of what the original Portal was) to larger titles with complex narratives and full environments. In the same way, Gone Home established the model for so-called walking simulators, where guided exploration allows a narrative to unfold. Without Gone Home, we wouldn’t have experiences such as Firewatch, or the crossover of first-person puzzle games and walking simulators such as The Talos Principle or The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.
From genre-defining experiences like Gone Home and The Walking Dead came new ideas, new paradigms, and new ways to evolve a genre’s particular tropes as technology and platform pushed forward. No Man’s Sky is the first of its kind, a remarkable title that is vast enough to sustain the beauty of exploration without the need for combat, story, or competition. What might other developers do with this idea? Consider the fact that Hello Games has less than 20 people—then compare that with the hundreds of people who work on something like an Assassin’s Creed title. With budget, size, and technology—particularly emerging VR and AR technology—immersive moments that create the impossible experience is something within reach of visionary developers.
That demonstrates what might be the lasting legacy of No Man’s Sky. Not the lightspeed exploration, not the procedurally generated beasts, not the crafting, but the zen of the here and now. Now that Hello Games has opened the door, it’s up to other developers to fully realize the possibilities—be they underwater, in outer space, other dimensions, and the rain forest, or anywhere else that might deliver the thrill of experience, bringing the impossible to our senses. To quote one omnipotent being from Star Trek: The Next Generation, “See you … out there.”