When I was a kid there was a year or two when basically the only thing I cared about in the entire world was getting a Mew in Pokémon Red. Nowadays there are countless ways to do so, but back then the existence of the special Pokémon was only a rumor, the kind of urban myth that kept kids up at night. We gathered at recess and passed notes in class with theories about beating the Elite 4 999 times with all level 100 Pokémon, or returning to a dock to find Mew under a truck.
Hello Games founder Sean Murray remembers those days as well. Despite growing up in Ireland and Australia, literally across the world from my California childhood, his experiences matched my own.
“There were so many myths in the playground!” he said. “Things that you could find, and hidden Pokémon—” That’s what he wants No Man’s Sky to be like.
No Man’s Sky has been in development for several years. It’s a pretty-looking space exploration game with one very solid hook: the universe in the game is for all intents and purposes about as big as the actual, real life universe. The developers have thrown around the number “18 quintillion” to describe how many planets exist in No Man’s Sky, and every single one of them, orbiting some sun in some galaxy, can be traveled to, named and explored by players. When Playboy saw the game last year we said the future of gaming may hinge on No Man’s Sky—hyperbole, but that’s just how ambitious it feels.
I’ve been seeing demos of the game and chatting with Murray at press events for a couple of years now, but I finally played it for the first time this week. To be honest it felt like any other game, but that’s because that hook—that you could spend your entire life exploring its virtual universe and only ever see a tiny fraction of a percent of its planets and asteroids and creatures—can’t possibly be conveyed in a 30-minute demo.
Knowing that, I mostly focused on trying to fly my ship into this particular system’s sun, but no matter how many minutes I spent jamming on the warp drive buttons it never got any larger in my cockpit window. At least I got a good sense of scale from that.
When you arrive on a new planet you’ll name it, scan for resources and start gathering materials with which to upgrade your ship or your gun or suit or whatever. One thing you won’t do: Google it and find a video guide on YouTube, Murray explained as he hopped from planet to planet as journalists watched.
“I know this planet because we did rehearsal and I looked around a bit, so I know a small little area of it,” he said. “But if you were a normal player and you had just landed here, there is no Youtube video that you can look up. There is no FAQ or something like that for this planet. This is like a real place to you and one that you have to explore.”
I asked him about that later, because as a member of the generation that started forming memories just before the internet became ubiquitous, an internet-proof video game appeals to the kid in me—the one who bought strategy guides at a locally-owned game store before GameStop cannibalized all of those, and who swapped trading cards and myths on the playground before you could just Google anything on your phone and know the answer within five seconds.
“It’s not Youtube-proof because you can see that there’s already rules, and there are rulesets, and there are things that people can build and hopefully there will be videos of like, this is how you build this thing and this is what it looks like once you have it and this is what this weapon looks like,” Murray said. But over its years of development the game has been designed to facilitate a specific kind of obsession, one that festers and pulses on message boards and in YouTube videos, but for which the answers can’t easily be discovered—even on the internet.
“One of the best examples of this recently: GTA [Grand Theft Auto V]. Did you try and chase the bigfoot, and when there were UFOs? Did you follow this, the hieroglyphs?” he asked me. I did, vaguely; players hunted for clues and puzzled over mysterious images in the latest GTA game, convening on Reddit and everywhere else gamers gather. It was fun to watch.
“It still bothers me,” Murray admitted. “There’s something ingrained in—probably not every human, but definitely in me. It’s like, I fucking need to know whether that is out there. Somebody resolve this for me! And I loved that that played out across the community.”
“I was playing the game anyway, and the game was fun, but this gave it like, this greater purpose,” he continued. “On Reddit there’s this whole mythology and people making up crazy conspiracy theories and stuff like that, and that became part of the game for me. That was as enjoyable—I was at work reading that thinking about the game…And that is like, hitting the nail on the head of what I would like for No Man’s Sky. There’s no way to predict how much of that will happen, but we are definitely putting things in which will hopefully elicit that behavior.”
During the demo this week we saw an ancient-looking rock monolith, where we learned a new word in a strange tongue, then warily approached an alien merchant, using our limited knowledge to try to piece together his speech. It’s impossible to know right now how many more layers like that the game has, but we do know what the ultimate goal will be: to reach the center of No Man’s Sky’s impossibly vast universe.
“That’s what we’re all trying to get to. Everyone’s starting on the outside edge and making their journey to the center. And that might seem really daunting and it is, it’s huge and it’s vast, and it makes you feel really small and vulnerable and kind of melancholy,” Murray said during the presentation. “But I guess the cool thing about the game, or maybe the sad thing about the game, is that all of these stars, each with their own planets and [inhabitants] and buildings and stuff like that, languages to learn—99.9% of them will never be visited. So that’s cool. I think that scale is really important to our game and something that’s kind of new and unique.
"It is, however, a really hard game to demo in like, half an hour.”
No Man’s Sky is out June 21 on PlayStation 4 and Windows PCs for $59.99, with a really, really awesome “Explorer’s Edition” from iam8bit out the same day at $149.99.
Mike Rougeau is Playboy.com’s Gaming Editor, in charge of all things video games. He’s going to name every planet he finds in No Man’s Sky after a different type of cheese. Follow him on Twitter @RogueCheddar.
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