Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky is giving people a lot to talk about since its first public appearance in 2013. During a few years of development, the games’ scope has been discussed a lot: What can or can’t we do in No Man’s Sky is the big question. Some players fear that the game won’t be up to their expectations, and consequently those behind it are worried that this will affect the sales, so the latest trailers and promotional videos do their best to let people know absolutely everything the game brings. And although probably both PR managers and enthusiastic players are satisfied, to me this just stings.
Let’s go back two decades, in case we haven’t drank enough from the good old times’ cup, directly to the 90s. Back then, the internet was still wearing diapers, and we read magazines to find out not only what games were better or worse but which ones even existed. Being a teenager, and one of the few privileged in my class with a PC to play with, I remember leafing through some Quake’s review and watching some screenshots. I remember seeing its huge cardboard box in a store and asking my father for some cash to buy it – that he won’t give away before negotiating some future present, house chores, or a long term loan to be discounted from my allowance. Truth is I didn’t know much about what I would find in Quake (id Software, 1996) when I put the CD in the PC’s tray, and that was very exciting! The game didn’t have compasses, mini-maps, dot lines or breadcrumbs for the player to follow. We would reveal the secrets by trying to answer “What if…?”, by shooting any wall that seemed strange, by trying to jump to places where the player didn’t seem to be allowed. That way I discovered the Nightmare mode or the famous DopeFish, that I would encounter some years later in Max Payne (Remedy Entertainment, 2001) too, and recently found out it is one of the most recurrent Easter eggs in videogames.
It wasn’t casual and it isn’t a coincidence that I remember those moments. These games were designed having this in mind; it was known that the player wouldn’t have any map or guide. Some secrets were subtlety signposted so the player would know what to search for, and the latest levels were very hard to finish without taking advantage of the hidden rewards in them. The player was trained to squeeze the levels as he advanced; it was a fundamental part of the game. It’s these small discoveries, planned from design or not, the ones that remain in our memories: Finding a secret, learning a new strategy, bumping into some bug or cheat to gain some unpredicted advantage. Not searching four hundred something banners randomly placed through the giant Assassin’s Creed’s map, because there is nothing else to do.
Talking about Calendula (Blooming Buds Studios, 2016) a couple of months ago, Diego encouraged the press not to talk about the game to talk about the game, as the lack of awareness made the dialogue with the author easier. The surprise element is indeed essential and answering what the game holds back is mainly what conceives that dialogue. It is the developer who sets up the traps, the secrets, the rules. What does the player do if not exploring the possibilities from a partial or total ignorance? Where does the verb play remain if we eliminate the unknowns? As Calendula, those games in enormous boxes like Quake or Myst aren’t the only ones that have been nourished by that joy of exploration and discovery. Fez (Polytron, 2012) would stand just as a mediocre platformer if one doesn’t try to uncover its secrets by hand, and Jonathand Blow does the right thing by encouraging players to try The Witness (Thekla, 2016) without a guide: He knows very well his game would lose interest otherwise. Metroidvania genre is significantly based in the joy of getting lost as Mark Brown explains in his Game Maker´s Toolkit series and there are many who praise Dark Souls saga’s level design against other big productions for similar reasons. But this is not only about finding hidden object or shortcuts; game rules themselves can be concealed. One of the main differences between a video game and a tabletop one is that the developer can choose which ones of the rules are exposed to the player and which ones aren’t. And the goal can be among those hidden rules. Games like the classic Sim City (Maxis, 1989) or Dwarf Fortress (Tam Adams, 2006) lack a specific objective and they let the player freely explore their rules and limits. The player therefore establishes his link to these games by experimenting, little by little making his own goals as he understands the underlying mechanics.
I felt captivated when I saw the first No Man’s Sky trailer, where lots of questions were thrown. Questions I could answer by playing and experiencing the game, not by reading an article or watching an interview. Because I know there would be something more that the video doesn’t show: Secrets to find, mysteries to solve. I wouldn’t expect less, I wouldn’t have done it differently. It is true that the game will precise quite a big expenditure and it’s reasonable to want to know beforehand what the investment entitles. However, the same as knowing the final twist before entering the cinema to watch a movie, this won’t do anything but spoiling the experience, because it is really a pleasure to uncover a game little by little from the unknown, unravelling its mysteries, being surprised by the author. I want to be the one that finds out what Hello Games has prepared and what the almost infinite universe forged by the game hides without anyone telling me. I just hope it’s not too late and we have seen too much.