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No Man’s Sky: The Impossible Dream Realised

So, here we are. It has been a long road, but finally, we have a release date and the concrete knowledge that No Man’s Sky is coming to PS4 and PC on 24 June (UK). This game has attained something of a mythic status; you need only take the fact that it has over 50 awards and nominations prior to its release to realise just what the expectation level is for this game. But why has this game been built up so much? Why is the internet losing its mind over No Man’s Sky? And why has it been such a long journey to the final, solid release date of the game (and in fact, as we shall see, even the prospect of any release at all)? I hope to provide some kind of answer to these questions, as well as expanding on what we can expect, what has been confirmed in the game, and why you most definitely should give it a second look if previously you investigated this and thought: “Not for me”.

Firstly, let’s look at why the game is so “hyped”. It began, initially, as a game Sean Murray, the Managing Director of Hello Games and all round creative genius, developed in secret whilst putting the finishing touches on Joe Danger 2. He did not even let his team know he was developing it. Sean described the process of working on Joe Danger 2 as a kind of “mid-life crisis” in which he was worried Hello Games would fall into the trap of so many modern game developers and, indeed, film studios, of producing endless sequels, reboots and rehashed material. Eventually, he told the team, and as development continued on what was swiftly becoming an electrifying new concept, more of the team were brought on board. The team ended up consisting of 13 members (a video-game parallel of Christ and his Apostles, perhaps?), which in comparison with the teams of other Guildford based games companies such as Supermassive Games and Lionhead, who employ over 200 staff, was still an incredibly lean unit.

“Despite their concerns over how the concept of such a big game could be brought across in such a short space of time, the teaser grabbed huge attention from the gaming press”

No Man’s Sky was first announced at the 2013 VGX – where they played a short teaser before the awards show which set the room (and internet) on fire. Despite their concerns over how the concept of such a big game could be brought across in such a short space of time, the teaser grabbed huge attention from the gaming press. The thing which blew everyone’s minds most was a moment in the trailer in which the explorer sees a charging jurassic creature. Panicked, the explorer jumps into their ship, flies off and begins to break atmosphere. Within a few minutes, they enter space, where a series of pirates are attacking a freight ship. The explorer intercepts the attacking ships, engages in a dogfight with the pirates, and pushes them back to another neighbouring planet. The pirates try to flee and lose their pursuer, flying close to the planet’s surface. The explorer ends up tracking them in a Star Wars-esque trench-run through a canyon-ridden desert plane. Finally shooting the last one down, the explorer pulls up back into the sky.

This trailer captured every sci-fi nerd’s dreams: exploration, diversity of landscape and creatures, dogfighting, piracy and a sense of the edge of space being a “wild west” danger zone full of raiders and enigmas; all of this without a loading screen in sight. Furthermore, the events  in the trailer did not seem pre-staged, but rather organic in how they unfolded, as though whoever was playing the explorer was coming to the game fresh. This sense of being surprised by their own game is something the Hello Games team frequently discuss in interviews, but more on that later. After so many deceitful CGI trailers, the raw nature of this gameplay trailer: the  intense the action, the vibrant and beautiful worlds, was mesmerising.  The Star Wars allusions did not detract from the game as its own entity, and proved only the beginning of the numerous sci-fi influences No Man’s Sky would showcase. Though Sean Murray has never made this statement, I cannot help but think he is making the game for the fans (perhaps for himself – a game he has always wanted to play) and he knows the vast body of material from which we draw up our benchmarks.

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Unfortunately, at this point in the game’s evolution, disaster struck. A flood wiped out most of Hello Game’s Guildford office and equipment on Christmas Eve of 2013. I live and work in Guildford, in fact just a few miles from the Hello Games office, and the entire rainy English town almost went under to that flood. The Hello Games office is small – reflective of the team size – so you can imagine how colossal the damage was.

Luckily, a friendly games company allowed Hello Games to move in temporarily while the office was repaired, and work resumed, though much of the core programming, planet algorithms and engine had been lost. Work continued for a good long while. No Man’s Sky eventually came back into the spotlight at E3. Sean Murray was interviewed on various high-profile American TV programs. He allowed eight minutes of gameplay to be revealed and, crucially, began to explain how procedural generation was creating the universe of No Man’s Sky. Procedural generation had been used before, but never on this scale, and Hello Games were hailed as innovative geniuses for electing to create their universe in this way. The true power of this method, is that the game will always generate its universe the same way (maths is logical – if you give the same input you receive the same output) meaning that the entire universe, and some 18 quintillion planets, could be generated with relatively no memory. In the early stages, Sean even joked the entirety of NMS could be stored on a floppy disc.

“[The trailer] captured every sci-fi nerd’s dreams: exploration, diversity of landscape and creatures, dogfighting, piracy and a sense of the edge of space being a ‘wild west” danger zone full of raiders and enigmas”

Contrary to the accolades, Sean described the procedural generation as a simple necessity given how small their team was, though now there is even a possibility it will further scientific research into how our own universe was “generated”. At this point, No Man’s Sky had become more than just a game. It had become an idea, a symbol of infinite freedom as well as a stand against the ever-decreasing innovation in modern videogames. Hello Games is a small indie company, and yet they had managed to create a world so colossally huge and ambitious it shamed studios worldwide.

As if the generation of an entire universe populated with procedurally generated lifeforms wasn’t enough, even the music of No Man’s Sky is generated via Pulse technology, which reacts to the player’s current danger levels, location and activity. There is also procedurally generated music by 65daysofstatic, Sean Murray’s favourite band. The Pulse system was created by Paul Weir, who is also working with Hello Games on developing a procedural generation system for the animal calls. Needless to say, players’ mind were boggled by this information; even someone’s auditory experience in No Man’s Sky will be unique and virtually impossible to recreate again. 

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But the excitement (all aboard the hype-train) wouldn’t hold forever. After a June 2016 release was announced for the game, people’s interest waned, despite the surge of fandom love for Rutger Haur’s voiceover in the June announcement trailer. The references to Blade Runner (“I’ve seen things”) further cemented the idea that No Man’s Sky would become a kind of gateway into a realm where all of science fiction literature and film coalesced. But faith was waning.  It seemed such a long time to wait and many believed the delay (the second in its development) proved that the game would never be completed. A few rogue voices even stated it was too ambitious, or that the game developers had realised the game was boring because there would be essentially nothing to do in this massive procedurally generated universe except wander around. Some simply claimed it could never live up to the hype. 

But, as V once said, “ideas are bulletproof”. No Man’s Sky still promised so much, and unlike Star Citizen, with its insane production costs, No Man’s Sky had never asked us for money or season passes. Sean and the team were still posting progress updates, still talking to the fans frankly and honestly, and we were still seeing more of the game. There were tantalising hints of alien lifeforms to be discovered, of a secret at the heart of the universe (and secrets always niggle at the brain). Though we had seen the trading, dogfighting and discovery elements of the game, it seemed Sean and the team were holding something back. Most games no longer hold any surprises, but it seemed, spectacularly given the media attention on them, Hello Games had kept the lid on their Pandora’s box.

“The references to Blade Runner (‘I’ve seen things’) further cemented the idea that No Man’s Sky would become a kind of gateway into a realm where all of science fiction literature and film coalesced. But faith was waning” 

And so, like the messianic prodigal son, No Man’s Sky smashed back into gamers’ psychic sphere. We arrived at a concrete date (21 June for US and 24 June for UK) and confirmation of further elements to be included in the game (though I still think they are holding back even now). Sean described these new elements: “they [the press invited to play NMS early] got to see new features like how to survive on hazardous planets and how to learn alien languages, and for the first time we showed off some alien races you will be able to communicate with.” – the confirmation of other sentient beings in the universe allayed player’s fears that there would not be enough interaction in the game. However big a universe is, if there isn’t a single NPC in the whole thing, it will seem barren. People make a space. Now we know there are NPCs and more besides. We also know that each planet will hold different challenges for us. It’s not simply a case of landing, claiming, naming, and moving on. Some planets will be polluted or irradiated or simply uninhabitable; all of this and more promises a rich gaming experience.

So, we now know No Man’s Sky is coming. We also know it is coming for PC simultaneous to the console release: there is hope for those without a PS4! It has been a long road for the Hello Games team and for those eagerly awaiting the game but that, I think, will make it all the more sweet. At one stage, No Man’s Sky was an impossible dream, something we hoped (against hope) could be pulled off. Now we know it has, and even if the game ultimately doesn’t prove the perfect play experience people imagine, its journey and innovation is a lesson to all game developers (and indeed players) to dream bigger.

Joseph Sale is a novelist, creator of dark twines and a gamer. He loves RPGs, open worlds and survival horrors (the latter of which he used to play in an old shed in his back garden - because apparently Resident Evil wasn't atmospheric enough). He looks out for games with a strong narrative; he's a great believer the very best games long outlive their console, and those are the classics he holds on to.