Depending on how you look at it, No Man’s Sky will be the most exciting video game released this year, or it is not even a game. Developed by indie outfit Hello Games for PC and Playstation 4, the preview videos got audience juices flowing faster than Niagara Falls. Meanwhile, the procedural mechanics that create the NMS universe have boggled the imaginations of even the most cynical astrophysicists. But the more you learn about the game, the more you realize how a small group of coders in Guildford will change the way we think about the world beyond video games. If you are into science fiction, mathematics, or philosophy, here are five reasons to be excited about No Man’s Sky.
1. There will be 18 quintillion planets to explore.
To be precise, there will be 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 planets. In one game. And they will all be planet-sized. For anyone who ever spent half an hour aimlessly roaming around Grand Theft Auto, for no reason but to go for a virtual drive, NMS is going to be mind-blowing. Wandering the universe may prove dangerously addictive. The map for this game has to be closest that anybody has come to realizing Douglas Adams’ Total Perspective Vortex.
Whatever the launch price for NMS, divide it by 18 quintillion and consider what good value that represents.
2. Reality is a formula.
A tree falls in the forest, but nobody is there to hear it. Does it make a sound? Now take that idea, and multiply it by a big number (maybe 18 quintillion). NMS takes an old philosophical conundrum and puts a new spin on it, because most of its universe exists only as mathematical formulae, which are evaluated according to the player’s location. So there is no tree, not even in the form of data, unless a player is present. But every feature of every planet is permanent, in the sense you could find a tree, go somewhere else for a week, come back to your starting location and find an identical tree, because solutions to mathematical formulae do not change.
No Man’s Sky is a full-size illustration of how mathematics governs the universe. It determines everything from the turning of the heavens, to how animals behave, to the formation of caves. As such, Hello Games have invented a game engine that comes the closest to the ‘infinite fun space’ enjoyed by the metamathematical Minds of Iain M. Banks.
3. Choosing your own purpose, but confronting somebody else’s morality.
If No Man’s Sky has a flaw, it is the seeming lack of an objective. Instead of winning or losing, you just do it. In that respect, it is like life. You can travel, discover, fight, steal, protect, and trade. Those are all choices you could also make in real life (but on fewer planets). However, the NMS universe also has moral police. A race of self-replicating robots monitor for transgressions like killing wildlife (dentists from Minnesota should take note).
The NMS universe is so vast that you are unlikely to bump into a fellow human being, but possesses a moral authority that is pervasive. This may prompt some players, like me, to take their existential crisis to a whole new level. Kierkegaard would have loved this game.
4. Old school science fiction, without the politics.
Spaceships and space stations, ray guns and jetpacks, dinosaurs and sandworms… NMS allows us the life that Don Quixote would have chosen if he had read classic science fiction instead of romances about errant knights. But apart from the robotic police, there is no need to worry about creeping politics or boring message fiction. NMS is a throwback to the days when education in science fiction had something to do with science, and the purpose of science fiction was pleasure, not moral edification.
Each player starts with the basic tools to make progress. The rest is up to them. With no notion of race or gender, this game will appeal to the colorblind child in all of us.
5. Small is mighty.
Video games have grown to emulate movies, employing hundreds of people on long, expensive projects. Because of the scale of the investment, these projects then need to be derisked using business techniques like franchising and tiered pricing. As a result, they have also become increasingly tired and samey. Improved graphics is used to gloss over a lack of compelling new ideas. Hello Games has shown that a small team of independents can possess the science, passion and skill to create a radically different new game that is well beyond the capabilities of any of their much larger rivals. And they do not need a massive budget or shock tactics to generate a marketing buzz, because their game offers something that people want, and cannot get elsewhere. Their appeal to imagination trumps all.
All science fiction writers should take note. Wholesome old-fashioned gameplay is going to be married to innovative programming and mathematics to create an extraordinary universe that people want to explore. Good and popular ideas will continue to overcome institutional resistance and corporate dogma. Like an algorithm that generates a universe, something incomprehensibly great can come from a surprisingly small source. Never mind the guardians who tell you what the public wants. Be like the founders of Hello Games: make what you want to make, then share it. The universe starts with you, and what you put into it.
But now I have used too many words to describe a game whose scale defies description. This gameplay trailer better illustrates why I, and so many others, are eagerly anticipating the arrival of No Man’s Sky.