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Space, space… going to space!

Back when I wrote Diversions and Doorkeys I stated that I was not a video game reviewer at the beginning of the post. The comment on the post then praises my review of Undertale. I propose to resolve this apparent contradiction by talking about what I meant when I said I am not a reviewer.

My objective when I started this blog was to talk about the ideas behind games, not necessarily the games themselves. My intention is not to for this to be a rinky-dink self-published version of what Gamespot, IGN, Polygon, Kotaku, etc. do professionally. I don’t want to try and keep up with what’s new or the most popular. I want to write about games I find interesting even if they are several years old and/or somewhat obscure. A video game reviewer might have to be familiar with how new games compare to others in the genre or other games released in the same time frame, while I don’t intend to keep up with all of that. Sometimes I might want to skip over talking about some aspects of the technical gameplay to focus on why a person might play a game over how. A good reviewer would have to make some comment on several aspects of each game, which means that they would have to actually play the game in order to give it a fair review.

That brings me to a game that is fairly recent and that grabbed my interest fairly quickly with one of my favourite watch words: infinite. As soon as I heard a little bit about No Man’s Sky, I had to find out more. And I did: I found out why I’m not actually as excited to play the game as I was initially, before even trying it out myself. I’m not reviewing it because I haven’t played it, but I’ve watched and read some things about No Man’s Sky that has knocked it off the top of my list of video games I’m eagerly anticipating.

At first, I was as excited about the prospect of peaceful exploration of a vast and beautiful universe as you might expect the space core to be. “Procedural generation” is the buzzword that most of the hype I’ve heard about No Man’s Sky revolves around. It means that the game world that isn’t designed and drawn by a developer or development team. It comes together in a new way each time a new instance of the game is started. That’s not new; I still remember playing through Diablo II’s procedurally generated dungeons sixteen years ago. What’s new is the scale: No Man’s Sky promises us 18 quintillion planets, which is more than any human can possibly explore in a single lifetime.

The observable universe, containing an estimated 100 billion stars, or 1/1,800,000 of what is said to be possible in No Man’s Sky.

If you only spent one second on each planet, and did nothing but explore planets for 100 years, you’d fall short of 3.2 billion. Spending one second on each of 18 quintillion planets would be like taking the approximate age of the Earth, multiplying it by 1400, then by a million, then by a million again. My math is heavily simplified, but the point is that No Man’s Sky is almost incomprehensibly YUGE. I’ve heard it described as “infinite,” though I think that is a mistake.

No Man’s Sky seems every bit as finite as Andariel’s Cathedral: you may never see the precise same thing twice, but the limitations still exist. They’re conceivable even if we can’t reach out and touch them, and to be truly infinite is to be beyond the conceivable. In both Diablo II and No Man’s Sky the player can’t rely on specific knowledge of what monster or mineral deposit lies around which corner, but can know exactly what to expect conceptually. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; in fact I would be really worried about any game that was indisputably infinite. That’s getting into The Matrix or OASIS territory. That No Man’s Sky is a finite game is not the problem I have with it. It’s that I was hoping for something that would push more boundaries, spatial and otherwise, rather than simply having well-defined boundaries that just happen to be far outside my reach. From what I am led to understand from watching play-through videos, it’s an exploration game where the main antagonist is your inventory management system, sort of like a massive multi-planet 3D Terraria but with less emphasis on building construction.

The eternal struggle in Terraria: keeping your inventory clear of garbage such as blinkroot seeds, waterleaf plants, and 999-stacks of dirt blocks.

So, what would excite the space core in me? A spiritual successor to Hyperspeed, a game from 1991 that I picked up on Steam a few months back for a cheap nostalgia trip. It’s a game where the player is sent out in a Trailblazer class starship, which though huge and powerful, is capable of being piloted by a single person. The idea is that you have been sent out ahead of a colony ship in order to gather resources, find a suitable planet for a colony, and ensure the neighbourhood is safe for colonization through some combination of peace treaties and warfare. As the player, you manage exploration, resource gathering, diplomacy, ship-to-ship combat, and the ship’s engine configuration. The limits in this game can be quite harsh due to the design standards of its time (remember, this is a game that was available on 5.25″ floppy disks). I can certainly forgive it for being limited compared to what is available today. One example of these limitations is as follows: my impression is it is almost impossible to honestly roleplay your way through the first trip into the Cerberus cluster and win. I tried. I explored, I gathered as many resources as I could find, secured the right alliances, and defeated my mortal foes. Even after turning on my allies and going on a resource-hungry rampage through the cluster I came to a dead end in being able to find what I needed to start my colony. To win, I would need to metagame: know which unknown star was the Athdalde homeworld, beeline it for that system, then commit swift genocide before I could even see what they do to solar systems (the only thing they are good at is strip mining at the planetary level). Without taking this step it may very well be impossible to gather enough resources before the rapacious Athdalde turn too many systems into barren husks. And perhaps even then I might have to do more. Knowing that I had to have the foresight that can only come from a previous run at the same cluster made the whole thing a little less fun, though I still thoroughly enjoyed the nostalgia trip for what it was worth (less than $5).

The Trailblazer’s navigation display showing the Cerberus cluster.

This is what I imagine is possible: start with the same concept by giving me an awesome ship and tell me to go on a single-player expedition in an unexplored region of space. Except with the magic of procedural generation, unbind me from having to know what sequence of actions leads to success and create new star maps and alien races for each new instance of the game. But don’t stop there. Randomize the plot elements too. Does one of the generated races enslave a quadrant? How many previously unknown human colonies does the player come across? What possibilities are there for war and/or peace? Do I need to find a habitable but unclaimed planet to settle on, or can I impose (or peacefully negotiate the place of) my people on a populated world? What happens after my new colony is established? Am I even obligated to support the mission of resettling humans from Earth? In addition to the amount of space that can be covered, several other boundaries can be explored and played with. I know that’s asking a lot, and No Man’s Sky may well be a masterpiece in its own right and I still do want to play it, but I know it’s not the near-infinite space exploration game that I thought it could have been when I first heard of it.

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