Limitless discovery: that’s the dream that sold the video game “No Man’s Sky”, released earlier this month. In the infinite black of space hangs an unknown planet with an unpronounceable name – Zelovorcin Arcorr, Troyggdramniabl. You steer a virtual craft towards the surface, dodging asteroid belts and fellow spacefarers. You power into the atmosphere, the edges of the cockpit glowing pink and red with heat. Beneath you the planet spreads out in washes of colour like something from the cover of a science-fiction paperback, and a landscape shimmers into being: a waterworld studded with tiny islands, a mountain landscape of snowbound forests or a barren purple wasteland with rocks twisted into wormlike tubes. You land with a whine of thrusters and a hiss of hydraulics. A musical score begins its distant throb. You step out of the spaceship, into a new world.
During the three years of its development, the 15-person team behind “No Man’s Sky” (who work out of an office in Guildford) promised that they would use a technique called procedural generation to create a galaxy of 18 billion billion planets, each with its own lifeforms and ecosystems. Procedural generation uses algorithms to create automatically new parts of a game as you play it, as opposed to the entire game being defined in advance. This makes them potentially endless. In “No Man’s Sky” landscapes and weather conditions, caves and buildings, the size and behaviour of native livestock would be made for each planet you landed on. From the moment that its first trailer was shown at a trade show in 2013, the breadth of the game’s ambition prompted delirious excitement. There were profiles in Time magazine and the New Yorker for Sean Murray, its creator. Elon Musk, Stephen Colbert and Steven Spielberg phoned him up to chat. One of the executives at Sony, which struck a distribution deal for “No Man’s Sky”, described the game as “potentially one of the biggest in the history of our industry”.
Since the release of “No Man’s Sky”, however, players have finally been able to measure the game against the hype. The results, perhaps inevitably, have not been wholly positive. Within days of the game’s appearance, a vast thread on the Reddit messageboard was cataloguing, with merciless prolixity, all the features that had appeared in promotional material but hadn’t made it to the finished game. Planets didn’t rotate. Creatures barely interacted. Players couldn’t meet. The flight model seemed to have been altered. Equally notable was a certain downbeat air to the developers’ pronouncements in the weeks before release, which looked like attempts to limit expectations. As though foreseeing a backlash, Murray took to his company’s website. “It’s a weird game,” he suggested, “it’s a niche game, and it’s a very very chill game.”
The more I played “No Man’s Sky”, the more these weird and niche qualities became apparent. The first of them was a peculiar sublimity, as I wandered alien landscapes in a haze of psychedelic colours and swooshy, trance-like music. The second, after 20 or 30 planets, was a creeping feeling of boredom with the vistas and creatures: another goat-shaped being, another grey chain of islands. I became frustrated that there were so few ways I could engage with the glorious worlds. I reflected on the comment that Ricky Gervais attributed to his mother: “Why do you want to go to Paris? There are bits of Reading you’ve never seen.” You could say the same of Zelovorcin Arcorr.
The intermittently wondrous but ultimately shallow world of “No Man’s Sky” offers two lessons. The first has to do with the tortuous nature of video-games marketing, which has evolved ways to separate customers from their money that are unmatched in other areas of popular culture. Pre-ordering, which allows players to reserve copies of software by paying ahead of time, is encouraged with the offer of exclusive treats and in-game items. Products are trailed years ahead of their actual release, with miniature demonstrations, supervised previews and tight-lipped interviews parcelled out to eager journalists and YouTubers. It’s entirely possible for a game to sell vast numbers of copies ahead of release on a few airy promises alone, so it’s hardly surprising that consumers reward poor faith with extraordinary levels of hostility. Like any creative project, games will always change between conception and release, but until a more honest and equitable way is found to signal these changes to the market, the kind of blowback that “Now Man’s Sky” now faces is inevitable.
The second of problem with “No Man’s Sky” has to do with its central technology, which has proved both exciting and difficult to manage since the earliest days of gaming. In the 1980s, when David Braben and Ian Bell were developing their space-exploration game “Elite”, they discovered a method that would let them make 282 billion planets from a few interacting algorithms. But their publishers, Acornsoft, encouraged them to trim the number for the finished game. As Francis Spufford wrote in his book “Backroom Boys”, such a vast figure would make it clear to purchasers “that some sort of mathematical concoction was involved. And it exposed the underlying sameness of all the star systems, generated as they were from only a handful of varying qualities.” The creators of “Elite” only paid temporary heed. The first game in their series included 2,048 star systems. A successor, “Elite Dangerous”, released in 2014, contained some 400 billion.
This prospect of limitlessness is an attractive one in both a narrative and a financial sense. But unless players have something to do, a game can feel like a pilgrimage through sterile mathematics. “Minecraft”, the most successful contemporary example of a procedurally generated game, is a good example: the game uses algorithms to give players one world after another, but it then hands over responsibility for building and crafting them to the players. Without the interactive, Lego-like possibilities that its developers weaved into it, “Minecraft” would, like “No Man’s Sky”, be an endless passive wander through an infinite virtual garden.
“Shadow of Mordor”, released two years ago, is in many ways an unexceptional fighting game set in the “Lord of the Rings” universe. But it had one unique feature: a player’s enemies had distinct vendettas and ambitions created ex nihilo for each game. If the player wounded them, they’d come back with a new stratagem for ascendancy. This provided, in video-game parlance, “emergent gameplay”, where the player’s stories would emerge as much from the interactions between systems as from progress through a pre-designed plot.
The sense that procedural games should create permutations not just of places but also of stories runs through several of the more interesting independent projects in contemporary gaming. “Dwarf Fortress”, begun in 2002 by Tarn and Zach Adams and still in development today, uses procedural generation to simulate many epochs in the life of a fantasy planet. The Adams brothers have created a world whose characters marry, write poems, train animals, steal from each other and succumb to fits of euphoria or depression; they also develop ambitions, go to war, get PTSD or retire rich. Then there’s the fascinatingly incomplete “Ultima Ratio Regum”, which features a world with millions of inhabitants and cultures, each distinguished by its own speech patterns, politics, religions and artworks, through which players travel in pursuit of a global secret.
None of these games has quite the same aspirations as “No Man’s Sky”, and, importantly, none of them has been subject to the crushing weight of three years’ frenzied anticipation and grandiose marketing. But each has its own contribution to make to a debate about whether players and developers are better served by a human deus or a machina whose possibilities are growing all the time. For every disappointed player who jets through the endless cosmos of “No Man’s Sky”, cursing themselves for swallowing another deft piece of corporate spin, there will be many who saunter through its mathematical panoramas, glimpse the depth of its thwarted ambitions – and dream of a better future.