A 10 minute, hands-off demonstration is not enough time to take in No Man's Sky. I know that because 10 minutes is about all I've seen, and I still don't quite know what to think. At the very least, I can confirm everything we saw during Sony's E3 2014 media briefing. Played from a first-person perspective, No Man's Sky can take you from the surface of an alien planet teeming with life into outer space, where you can engage in zero-G dogfights, and then down to the surface of another planet, all without a single loading screen. Take a moment to comprehend the scope of that: Terrestrial exploration, interplanetary travel, space combat – all of it seamless and procedurally generated.
It's impressive to watch, and gorgeous to boot, but I still can't nail down what drives players to do it all. Like ten minutes of out-of-context Minecraft, my demonstration was fascinating but a little inscrutable. Please understand, that's not intended as a criticism, it's just that what Hello Games is promising is so big that I'll have to see a lot more of it before I can form any concrete impressions. For now, let's talk about that promise.
Gallery: No Man's Sky (E3 2014 Screens) | 4 Photos
My hands-off demonstration is played by Hello Games founder and managing director, Sean Murray. He walks me through the same section of No Man's Sky that was shown off during Sony's briefing. Rather than reiterate it here, I suggest you watch it yourself:
Murray is quick to point out that the demo isn't scripted. In other words, Hello Games didn't hand-craft the planet, animals, plants and spaceships just for E3. Just as in the full game, everything in the demo is procedurally generated. Skeptics will point out how well choreographed the E3 demo seemed during Sony's briefing, with magnificent animal life and space battles happening right on cue. How could Hello possibly make sure that everything happened when it was supposed to?
"The way we worked it is that it's not actually scripted," he says, "but I know that certain things are in certain places. Because we basically set the [in-game] clock, so I know that that deer is there, eating some grass or whatever." The creatures in No Man's Sky don't have specific routines, per se, but they are driven by basic needs like hunger and sleep. Given the in-game time of day in the demo, it makes sense for this planet's animals to congregate around their local watering hole.
Meanwhile, a fleet of space freighters, says Murray, just happens to be passing by the planet on a trade route. Sure enough, after hopping into a ship and blasting off into space, the fleet has arrived and is already under attack by a squadron of ships. Players are free to join in the attack, he says, or they could choose to help the fleet and fend off the aggressors (or, presumably, ignore the event entirely). You'll get a different reward for attacking or defending, says Murray, and either decision will "slightly change [the player's] status in the universe, and if [players] keep doing that, that's going to have consequences."
After witnessing the battle, I ask if there are specific groups and factions in No Man's Sky. There are, he says, but they aren't spelled out by the game. "We don't really talk about narrative or who you are, or anything like that, but within Hello Games we kind of write all that down and have our idea of what that is." The studio is creating insignia and buildings that "make sense" for each race, but it's up to players to decide whether or not to pay attention to those details. You might learn, for example, that one particular race seems to be the most powerful."[Players] might be completely oblivious to it, and just kind of bumble through the universe. Or some people might be really knowledgeable about the universe."
Just as No Man's Sky doesn't define its narrative, it also doesn't give you explicit goals. No one is giving you quests to complete. "We start you off ... at the outside edge of the galaxy, because that is a less difficult place to survive. And we will always start you on a hospitable planet." Survival, at least in the beginning, seems to be a driving force in No Man's Sky. "You can just wander that planet, but it's actually a dangerous place, generally." The whole universe is dangerous, because that creates gameplay, says Murray. "We want space to have lots of pirates and things like that, and military police, and to be really active. And we want that to increase the closer and closer you get to the center of the galaxy, because that's the journey we feel most people will go on. And we will put more and more valuable things [in the player's path] the closer and closer you get to the center of the galaxy."
Even though there will be other human players exploring the same universe, you won't bump into them very often. "You can meet and get an idea of other players, but the universe is very vast, basically, so the chances of you actually coming across someone are pretty slim," says Murray. "We're not trying to make an MMO, or if we are, we're making a really terrible MMO, because everyone is spread so far apart." It's not a game that you pick up to play with your friends, he says. The closest approximation he can come up with is Journey, where players could cross paths with other players, but don't deliberately play "with" them.
So, without explicit goals or narrative, and without connecting with friends, what do you actually do in this universe? One possible avenue, says Murray, is to become a botanist or a zoologist of sorts, cataloging and naming flora and fauna. Upon discovering a new planet, animal or plant, it's uploaded to the servers. The next person to come across said planet, animal or plant will see that you discovered it. If you encounter a dinosaur and decide to name it "Awesomesaurus," every subsequent explorer will know that you discovered and named it first. Incidentally, each animal and plant gets a "Latin name," which is displayed much more prominently than the player-designated name, "because we know that you're going to call it 'Penis Monster' or whatever," says Murray. "We just don't want the whole universe to become filled with penis monsters."
As you make these discoveries, you'll earn money, which you can use to purchase things like new ships, which are capable of traveling further into the depths of the galaxy. There, you can find new planets and discover more species, or engage in more dogfights, which will get you more money to buy better spaceships, and so on. And that brings me to my initial question: What motivates all of this exploration, interstellar travel and discovery? Is it just the Star Trek allure of boldly going? If that is the answer, and if the unknown universe of No Man's Sky really is as vast as Hello Games is promising, is the sandbox prospect of more, more, more enough to keep players hooked?
Honestly, I don't know. For what it's worth, I probably would have said the same thing about Minecraft.
Hello Games hasn't pinned down a release date for No Man's Sky, but it will launch first on PS4.