Procedural Thoughts

Procedural Thoughts

The first VGX (or 10th VGAs, if you want to look at it that way) happened over the weekend. If you missed it or any of the news that came out of it, you can catch up with our recap. But the big one you should pay attention to is the premiere trailer for Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky.

It is, without a doubt, a stellar debut. Totally unexpected and absolutely mind-blowing. On the order of the first half, Hello Games is a tiny indie studio in the UK that is primarily known for the fantastic but equally small Joe Danger games. The series gives a macro look at a physics-defying interpretation of motorcycle stunt riding.

All three Joe Danger games are fun but fleeting. Until I saw the name Hello Games, I totally forgot they even existed. But way out from left field, managing director Sean Murray for the studio comes onto the VGX and shows off a trailer for No Man’s Sky.

“Every atom procedural.” Every leaf, tree, bird, fish, rock, and anything else in the game is thrown together by randomizing bits of code. This includes, by logical conclusion (and explicit statement in the trailer), that if the game were to go so far, whole planets and galaxies would also be ginned up on the fly, unique and special just for you.

Of course, the trailer does go there, but not before maintain a healthy veneer of humdrum. You see an ocean with some wildlife and bobbing bits of underwater foliage, but it’s nothing special. The autumn-colored trees and laser-versus-aircraft scenes that follow are rather mellow as well. But then you get in a spaceship and start to fly.

Towards a little rocky island you go, gentling accelerating towards an imminent (and probably procedurally generated) crash. But then you slowly veer skyward, flashes of space intercut with the gravitational escape. A ship appears in the hazy atmospheric distance. No, several ships, and several planets. This game has the potential to be huge. No, bigger. Hubigger.

No Man's Sky

But who cares? The initial prospect is, obviously, immense. Every single atom is unique to your game. But that doesn’t mean anything. Swap out an atom in some tree I know nothing about and I guarantee I won’t be able to tell the difference. It is marketing in the superlative.

No Man’s Sky is, instead, trying to make you forget that it is climbing atop the corpses of those that came and fell before it. Do you remember the promises laid at our feet for Spore? Do you remember how it felt as you kicked them around in the preceding months as the game became nothing more than a multimillion dollar penis generator?

There are obvious successes in the same realm, though. Borderlands has built a sizable following on the idea of the nigh incalculable number of guns it offers and Minecraft has built an empire on sticking cube-based lifeforms in randomly generated worlds. Spelunky and FTL: Faster Than Light, two of the best games in the past few years, succeed precisely because of their procedural nature.

No Man's Sky

But they are also all built around the concept, not on top of. It’s an important distinction to make. Rolling dice on its own is novel for about five seconds, but playing craps can encompass your whole night. Or Dungeons & Dragons. Or Monopoly. These are all games that rely on the act of rolling dice, but they do so in the service of other aspects like real estate and fighting goblins and winning money.

Games like Spore, however, are built around the generation, the act of creating and spawning. It is the least interesting facet of wielding godlike powers. Even Dom and Mal got bored of it in Inception. It’s much more fascinating to engage in protecting that progeny or creation in spite of some external will, hence the god game genre and it success.

Of course, we still don’t know what kind of game No Man’s Sky is going to be. The ability to peruse a world, no matter how special and grand, is still going to feel like a museum unless the interaction and design can expand on it. This trailer shows a world small enough for fish and big enough for asteroids. But can Hello Games make that world interesting? We’ll see.

But who am I kidding. I’m still excited.

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