Over the past decade or so, gritty, apocalyptic worlds were the favored setting of popular video games, and machinelike cyber-dystopias were a reliable aesthetic before that. But No Man's Sky, a highly-anticipated upcoming world, is infinite and hopeful.
Raffi Khatchadourian has done a beautiful New Yorker profile of Guildford, UK-based Hello Games, the small studio that's lit lots of hearts on fire with just a few vivid, evocative peeks at No Man's Sky. Khatchadourian gets a close look at the upcoming game's harmony of mathematical algorithm and visual beauty, and its important promise: A return to the possibility space that once made science fiction so fresh and joyful.
The extensive and intimate look at the game and its team lead, the shy but risk-taking Sean Murray, is a wonderful read, but the focus on No Man's Sky's freshness and color is especially welcome, especially as it helps explain why the game struck so many imaginations with such an insubstantial reveal:
The game is an homage to the science fiction that Murray loved when he was growing up—Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein—and to the illustrations that often accompanied the stories. In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, sci-fi book covers often bore little relation to the stories within; sometimes they were commissioned independently, and in bulk, and for an imaginative teen-ager it was a special pleasure to imbue the imagery with its own history and drama.
Space was presented as a romantic frontier, sublime in its vastness, where ships and futuristic architecture scaled to monumental proportions could appear simultaneously awesome and diminutive. Danger was a by-product of exploration: rockets that crashed on barren asteroids; plots by haywire computers; ominous riddles left behind by lost civilizations.
"But inherently what is going on is optimistic," Murray said. "You would read it and go, Wow, I would love to be this person—this is so exciting. Whereas at the moment a lot of sci-fi is dystopian, and you go, I would hate to be this person. How would I deal with it?"
Another UK-based independent developer is also doing an end-of-the-world game that is lovely and gentle, evoking the timeless melancholy of the wartime countryside. The Chinese Room's in-development Everybody's Gone to the Rapture is incredibly different from No Man's Sky, of course, but both of them are sunlit, nostalgic apocalypses inspired by the creators' memories of fiction they loved as youths.
What an interesting trend for games: A broadening, more colorful emotional palette for classic settings and themes.