What a Game Like No Man’s Sky Means
The gaming industry moves at a breakneck pace. Companies are always making incremental improvements in the eternal journey to push their products to the next level and stay competitive. The results are sometimes frustrating and sometimes fascinating. I’ve always felt like no genre in the universe of gaming expresses this quite like space flight simulators do. These games invoke our imaginations in amazing ways because they task a developer with creating not just new worlds, but also new species, new planetary effects (both visual and physics-based), and new ways to travel between realms and deal with the threats that inhabit those systems. They push the boundaries on what a platform or interface can do because they are literally tasked with exposing the gamer to a universe of pure speculation and imagination. I’m old enough to remember some of the earliest days of the space flight sims, so when I saw the first advertisements for No Man’s Sky, I watched it with all the awe of a child watching ads for 'Star Trek' or 'Star Wars' for the very first time.
There’s an unreasonable amount of hype for No Man’s Sky, and I must confess I’ve fallen into the trap. I want this game to be awesome because for me, it’s a perfect medium with which to stress the extent to which technology has come. Space flight simulators have been around for a long time and while they’ve never been on the same tier as first-person shooters or role-playing games, they still express so much in terms of using the technological opportunities available to fill an enormous amount of space. It might be silly to compare No Man’s Sky to older products, but when you step back and look at the products that have attempted what No Man’s Sky is doing with less resources, it’s hard not to see both the advancement that has taken place over the years and appreciate the shades of influence that make a game like No Man’s Sky possible.
Back in 1993, Lucas Arts put out X-Wing and in 1994, it released a follow-up, TIE Fighter. Based on the iconic space fighter vessels of ‘Star Wars’, these space flight combat sims were something absolutely incredible at the time. First off, both gave us the opportunity to actively control and pilot some of our favorite Rebel Alliance and Empire vessels from the cockpit for the first time. Second, the two games allowed us to actually take on a 3D polygonal arena of space. We were blowing up Corelian Cruisers and Star Destroyers and engaging in epic dogfights with TIE Fighters, Interceptors, A-Wings, X-Wings, etc. alongside a narrative that really made us feel like we were becoming ace pilots for the Rebel Alliance or the Empire.
The graphics are what you would expect from one of the first games to use 3D polygonal rendering, but that’s just the thing--this was new territory for all players, and it was territory set against the backdrop of a fantastic and rich universe with characters and scenarios we recognized. To say it was amazing to experience at the time would be a gross understatement. For me, it really felt like TIE fighter and X-Wing were opening the gates to limitless possibilities. Hell, it was the sole reason I ended up getting a joystick for my computer at the time, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
In 1995, back when 3D Realms was doing pretty good for itself (only one year before Duke Nukem 3D came out), it published a lesser known game (from developer Terminal Reality) called Terminal Velocity. A sci-fi flight combat simulator, it didn’t explore the reaches of space like TIE Fighter or X-Wing did. Instead, your missions took you to exotic planets and landscapes where you engaged in free-flying 3D combat with enemies. The combat wasn’t particularly deep (it usually consisted of attacking and destroying one structure or another), but the planets and their effects were what made this game pop.
Terminal Velocity featured a mechanism for moving from arena to arena on particular missions. The player would find and enter large openings built into the ground and traverse the twisting tunnels to reach different places where there might be objectives. Another neat technique used was the cloud texture. If one flew high enough on certain planets, one would break through the cover and engage pursuing hostiles above the clouds. Each planet had a different niche and style to it that made it unique to fight and fly around. It still amazes me to see how the developers got around their own boundaries to make these experiences possible in a time where textures were still mostly flat, and the only way to render actual 3D objects was through the careful combination of multiple polygonal models.
Flash forward to 2000. NovaLogic had become a heavy hitter in the PC world and had already been pumping out computer games on a regular basis like the Delta Force and Commanche series, but in that year, NovaLogic published its sole foray into the reaches of space. The result was Tachyon: The Fringe, and boy howdy did it deliver. No Man’s Sky might break the boundaries and bring players an unforgettable experience when it comes out. It might have so many planets that you could never explore them all in your own life time. I’ll tell you what it probably won’t have though: Bruce Campbell voicing the main character.
While I could go on and on about how good Campbell was in that game and how any fan of his should try Tachyon out, the content also delivered. This game never went planetside, but it filled the space it inhabited with so much life you never missed the ground. Enormous space stations acted as your hubs to missions, as well as outposts of enemies who might destroy you on sight. Systems were connected by jump gates which you could travel between freely, and each system hosted any number of galactic effects such as the way in which the stars and planets set the backdrop, or a constant cloud of cosmic radiation for which you’d need a special shield on your ship to travel through safely.
And speaking of your ship, Tachyon gave you a wealth of options to play around with. You had ships that could zip through space at the cost of a having a smaller availability of weapons and equipment, and ships that were hugely built to deliver enormous payloads of firepower, both energy based and ballistic, onto poor, unsuspecting freighters. There were also upgrades to navigation, targeting, heat reduction, shield amplification, and more. All the options available made taking a ship out and testing a given configuration a unique and awesome experience.
Fifteen years later, No Man’s Sky enters our collective radar. Far and away from Tachyon, No Man’s Sky is an absolutely breathtaking spectacle of the improvement that has taken place on the surface. However, at PS Experience, it went even further and took four and half minutes to show off mechanics that appeared to be better versions of all these things I’ve mentioned above. It showed off it’s own personal flourish with visual and aural stylings that have evolved tremendously over the fifteen years since Tachyon came out. No Man’s Sky has an enormous amount of love and interest behind it and clearly it is being run by a team that cares about creating a beautifully personalized sci-fi, first-person experience. I hope it lives up to the hype, because after fifteen years I’m more than ready to jump into the cockpit and set a course for the unknown again.