Last December, I went to Las Vegas for Sony’s PlayStation Experience, the mini-E3 they threw for themselves to show off their wares to the faithful. One evening they had a concert built around a title that’s still, conservatively speaking, at least a year from release: No Man’s Sky. And it was packed. As the band doing the game’s soundtrack, 65daysofstatic, thrashed into their set, and footage of the game’s lush, candy-colored planetary vistas splayed over massive video screens, I turned to the guy standing next to me and said, “This is amazing, considering no one knows what this game is…other than pretty.”
Even after a closer look at more of Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky at this year’s E3, which just wrapped in Downtown LA, we don’t know a hell of a lot more. But one thing is clear: No Man’s Sky is terribly important.
Walking through E3 every year, it’s easy to be distracted by the sheer scale and scope of what the big publishers and developers have in store for the coming years. And much of it looks really impressive. Halo 5’s Warzone multiplayer mode is a ton of fun, as is Call of Duty: Black Ops III’s, and Mad Max was a hoot. But when it’s gathered together under one roof, you’re confronted with the totality of what the video game industry’s biggest companies are putting their faith behind: sequels, reboots, remakes, brand extensions, adaptations.
It’s the same sort of thing that Hollywood does, really, but with one crucial difference: Hollywood has an awards season, where they release movies that are not destined to make a billion dollars — movies that are simply supposed to “be good,” at least as Hollywood considers good to be. Sony, Warner Bros. Paramount, Universal – all of them will release films designed to win Oscars. And there’s no such thing in video games. Everything is a summer movie and everything is about minimizing risk.
Yes, I’m aware that games like The Last Guardian and Horizon: Zero Dawn are original concepts and that there’s a thriving indie game scene; but those are unicorns in a field of genetically engineered thoroughbreds.
Which is why No Man’s Sky is so interesting, and interestingly precarious. Sony is betting big on this game’s success, in a way the big boys rarely bet on an unknown quantity from a tiny developer like Hello Games. If it’s great, everyone wins: the consumers, who get a unique gaming experience; the press, who will have a New Thing to write about; and Sony/Hello Games stand to make a lot of money and get patted on the back for Thinking Bigger.
But what if it’s bad? Or even just okay?
If a big swing like this doesn’t connect, will anyone ever swing this big again? With a shiny cautionary tale just sitting there — waiting to be pointed to by every executive fielding a pitch for something new, something different — who’s going to be the first person to step back up to the plate?
It’s not just that, though. No Man’s Sky is packed with dream features, the kinds of back-of-the-box bullet points ten- and 50-year-old gamers alike fantasize about while they’re shooting the same ten enemies over and over again in whatever the latest cookie cutter blockbuster is. Its shared online multiplayer world contains literally billions of randomly generated planets to explore in a persistent universe filled with players. It’s an empty expanse waiting for you to plant your flag wherever you happen to step, driven onward by the secrets that might lie on the next planetfall (or never be found at all, given the game’s scope).
No Man’s Sky is freedom. It’s both a technical and an artistic achievement — and a really, really good sign for the future of interactive art and entertainment — that No Man’s Sky exists at all. That’s why it’s going to really suck if the game isn’t great: it’s not just another indie unicorn, but potentially a huge step toward video games reaching their true potential, unshackled from the limitations of a medium whose biggest blockbusters are simply aping tricks from cinema. No Man’s Sky’s success sets games on a path toward that potential, and its failure sends us down a darker timeline.
Look, I want nothing more than for No Man’s Sky to fulfill its promise. I would much rather have 20 more games that reach for something lofty than another sports title that should really be a downloadable roster with some minor tech upgrades instead of another $60 investment.
But if it isn’t, I’m worried that it’ll be years of being mired in the familiar before anyone has the courage to try and fly again.
Marc Bernardin is the Deputy Editor of Playboy.com. He is, of all things, an optimistic curmudgeon.