Storytelling in a Hypothetical Parallel Universe

Anyone who was hooked by the promise of the E3 demo two years ago will know the story by now: an indie title (No Man’s Sky) somehow gets picked up by Sony, and the leader (Sean Murray) of the studio (Hello Games) winds up on a mainstream US chat show (Colbert), and numerous blogging sites and internet shows. That’s pretty unprecedented for an indie developer, so the result was hype and a shopping list of features that inevitably ended up wide of the mark. I’ve no doubt that if something like Proteus or Dear Esther had been marketed as the new golden-age harbinger of infinity they too would have been less well received.

I admit up front, I’ve not played the game. That’s why this story is filed under “Baseless speculation”, which I think is fair. Yes, my views are therefore irrelevant, but they would be even if I had played it, and as I have only an XBox 360 and a five year old laptop at my disposal that wasn’t going to happen anyway. It’s a little easier, however, to comment on what the game isn’t, rather than on what it is, so I’ll do that.

I think we can all agree that what it isn’t is a story. It’s also not a shooter. Not a space combat game. Not a survival horror. Not a flight simulator. Not a world builder. Not a 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate). That fact that it’s not any of these latter things seems largely irrelevant to me (and it might be best describable as a walking sim anyway, and I don’t mean that pejoratively), so it’s the story (lack thereof) I’d like to focus on. Being something of an author I think that’s an aspect I can dream about, and one that I’ve not seen at all so far in the reams of more-or-less invective-laced rhetoric aimed at the game.

To start with, let me ask a question. What is the main narrative device suggested by the premise of a game set in an essentially infinite universe? To me, it speaks of the journey. The quest. The arc that follows you from knowing nothing, to finding out something that drives you on, to concluding with some realisation (and not a meta one like, “This was all pointless”).

A journey must follow that arc in order to be satisfying. No Man’s Sky (NMS) follows it to a certain extent because the aim is to reach the centre of the galaxy in which you start. This was known well before the game’s release, but due to the vague way in which it was presented, many people assumed that there would be more to it that just that. It was assumed that a story arc would accompany a journey to centre of the galaxy. Now, that turned out not to be true. You reach the centre, you go back to the start, all your kit’s broken and that’s pretty much it.Understandably, the reality made a few people quite disappointed, but let’s focus here on the potential instead.

One of the key appeals of the game, and one in which it’s undoubtedly an impressive technological achievement, is in its creation of an entire procedurally-generated universe. This is also one of its weaknesses. The concept of “procedural oatmeal” is one that’s come up before. It was coined by a developer called Kate Compton and refers to the fact that while the 18 quintillion planets in NMS are technically unique, their uniqueness can end up no more fundamental or meaningful to the player that the differences between oats in a bowl. Now, I’m no expert in the challenges of creating procedural algorithms (it’s safe to assume they’re considerable), but I image that to split planets into classes and arrange those classes such that they correspond to one’s proximity to a galaxy centre would not be so difficult.

Let me put it another way. Imagine a galaxy that is not homogeneous, but rather is banded. Picture three bands: an outer, a median, and an inner. This simple arrangement could be made to underpin virtually everything that the player might expect to find on a planet. To link that to in-game examples, imagine that the three NPC alien species that one finds are not arranged evenly throughout the galaxy (undermining the premise of the sky being no man’s) but instead none were to be found in the outer band, two were to be found in the median, and the third (perhaps more challenging) was to be found in the inner, surrounding the galaxy core. Would that not immediately set up the potential for one’s journey towards the centre to feature stages demanding different approaches, varied gameplay?

Another thought concerning homogeneity: spacestations. They’re dotted throughout space and are essentially identical inside (rather like the buildings inhabited by the alien species). They function as a place to buy a new ship (rather oddly at a price independent of the value of one’s own ship, but anyway…), or to use a terminal that allows you to buy or sell items you’ve accumulated. The fact that they’re basically the same as one another, and their existence is unexplained, seems to me like a shortcoming. How about, instead of dotting the sky with indentikit spacestations, there was only one, but it moves? Make it larger, more spatially complex, provide it as a home base from which the player ventures forth to conduct more structured business as part of some grand story plan. A particular item is needed. Determine what sort of planet this would occur on. Locate a suitable target. Prepare the equipment you’ll need to deal with it. Make the journey. Cope with unexpected events. These are space missions, after all, and little about the introduction of strategy would require much in the way of new assets, beyond the provision of the mechanisms able to filter the game’s in-built categories of planets.

The thing that annoys me a little about this is really nothing to do with what was suggested but left out, and more to do with the fact that existing scientific principles provide everything you need to boost the game’s narrative quality.

Alright, let me summarise my wishlist before this becomes an essay!

  • Make the game about a character. You see that image at the top? The one used to advertise the game for years? Who’s that in the middle, with the rucksack, staring upwards into the universe? I want to know about them.
  • Remove the homogeneity of the planets by arranging them so that planets of certain types form a journey from edge to centre. If the algorithms can be altered to add more topographical variation, so much the better.
  • Remove the scattering of similar spacestations and replace them with one larger spacestation. This is the player’s home, their place within the universe. It has its own job to do, and the characters on it are part of an organisation to which the player belongs. You are part of that, which means you will have to go out on long, dangerous trips that require planning (according to the planet category management system that needs implementing).
  • I’ve heard stories that the game’s at its best when you are fighting against the elements, the unfamiliar conditions of a strange planet. You get a little too far from your ship. Will you make it back before your suit runs out of energy? That’s interesting gameplay, so make that the purpose of the narrative. So the spacestation is an old, rusty thing that belongs to a small organisation whose job is to document the galaxy, create the categories by which planets can be sorted, discover and note down the rules by which certain resources, creatures, artefacts etc. can be discovered.
  • Give the universe a life of its own by giving the spacestation a life of its own. It has a schedule to keep and missions of its own to perform that the player is not initially privy to. That means you might have to go to a planet knowing that the station won’t be around to take care of you. Imagine being on a planet, looking up and seeing the station there in orbit. Imagine getting used to to that and then it being taken away, knowing it’s in another star system, knowing that if anything goes wrong, you’ll have to find high ground, set up a portable antenna, broadcast a distress signal and then wait for them. Imagine if that distress signal could be picked up by others who might get to you first?
  • Work with what the game’s already got. If getting too far from your ship and then getting caught in a storm creates tension, go with that, but how about, rather than storms springing up with almost no warning, you knew the dangers in advance. Well you would, wouldn’t you, being a competent astronaut? You’d take care by setting checkpoints on a planetary map first, packing a series of detectors from the spacestation into your ship, and then deploying them on the planet so you’d have early warning of impending storms. Or asteroid showers. Or radiation plumes. Or hostile ships. Wouldn’t that be way more exciting?
  • Maybe even put a particular character on the spacestation who would function as your controller. Think of Link from The Matrix, micced up and reading for signs of danger. If the programming were really clever, this role could be assumed by another player, who would take a top-down view of each planet, managing dangers and guiding you. Maybe they would be involved in the parallel, closely-related storyline of the spacestation.
  • The devs are talking about releasing new base-building content, but in a game where you’re constantly moving between planets that seems somewhat self-defeating. Wouldn’t a better idea be to make the ship itself a mobile base? You’d land the ship, get out and expand varied parts of the hull into a mobile field laboratory. It would take a few minutes to unpack and put away, meaning you’d have to reccy as soon as you landed to make sure it was safe. Anything happens and you’ll have to race against time time put it all away again and blast off. It would be a great way of making the ships individual and useful in different ways. Image choosing an in-hold or an out-of-hold design – one where the lab is entirely inside the ship (quicker, safer, but smaller) and one where you unpack into into the surroundings. Choices! Strategy! Uniqueness!

Anyway, wishful thinking…

Have you played No Man’s Sky? What do you think of my thoughts on it? Have I made any terrible mistakes and misunderstood what’s actually going on. If so, please correct me, or offer views below!