"What does sci-fi mean to you?"
I was asking Sean Murray, the managing director and founder of Hello Games, this question. He's one of a small team of developers working on the game that had everyone buzzing at E3 this year.
"That's a really good question," Murray said to me during an interview in a hotel a few blocks from the convention centre. "Everyone just thinks sci-fi is future. Sci-fi is just alternate to me. It's just our version of the universe, an interesting universe, and I think one that's hopefully quite surprising and interesting to explore rather than our universe, which would be reasonably boring."
As he walked around the brightly coloured planet they had showed off in a trailer at Sony's press conference, he touched a button that highlighted a transparent geometric pattern over areas of the ground that could be mined for resources. Resources can be used to improve your suit, he later explained to me.
That's the only sense of "levelling" you'll find in No Man's Sky. You can improve your character through your suit, your weapon, and by buying new ships. You can't customise your ship. You buy newer, better ones. "It's not levelling up and there's not a tree it's just that when you go to a space station there will be some ships docked there sometimes," Murray explained. "If there are, you can try to buy those ships. You're not trying to customise those ships. It's just there's this hopefully real, working universe and you'd travel as you'd expect."
Murray: "There is a lore to the universe and we adhere to that but we're not going to tell you."
If you asked the people paying attention what No Man's Sky is you might hear a few common phrases: space battles, exploration, colour, great music (that one might be from me specifically). The biggest talking point, though, is obvious: procedural generation. In a gigantic, explorable universe, there are lots of possibilities. Many variations of creatures and trees and spaceships and caves and everything else that you can see.
In No Man's Sky you play as...someone. We don't know who that person is or what their motivations are or what their backstory says. And we won't find out. At least not until we get our hands on the game, and even then it's up to the player to discover what they can. "There is a lore to the universe and we adhere to that but we're not going to tell you," Murray said. "We're not going to describe it to you. You can read into that whatever you want. We're not going to tell you who you are or why you're there. We have our story."
When you start the game off as this...somebody, you start off with a ship. It can go as far as space but not deep into interstellar travel. To do that, you'll have to invest in bigger and better ships.
I asked Murray how you would go about "levelling up" to get better suits and weapons. "I could do it just by exploring," he said. "I could do it by taking guys out like this [Murray lifts his controller a bit to emphasise that he is flying in space and shooting other ships]. So if I go up to that fleet that was being attacked I could've joined in and attacked one of the freighters and get a little reward for that."
But do you have any friends in this world? Anyone who won't attack you and could even help you?
"We're not telling you, 'Oh this race is good, this race is bad,' or anything like that," Murray said. "You will find that, say, little things like the insignias on their ships, things like that, they're actually consistent. And you can read into that what you will and you will see consistencies in who seems to fight."
So far Hello Games has only shown space combat in their trailers. But there's a lot more to the game, and even to the combat, than just that. I asked Murray about this, and about what kind of genre mash-up he thinks best explains his game.
"People ask 'What is the gameplay like?' Well, we showed space battle and that's all that Star Citizen has. We've got a lot more than that, but that in itself is a lot of gameplay. We're showing a whole genre of game there," Murray said. "You could go around exploring and that could be a genre of game and you could play the game that way. We haven't shown other things like our resources or combat on the ground. But there will be that. We also showed fighting over the terrain, and that is like another genre like Star Fox. Just for us, though, it's just a whole bunch of systems that are working together."
In the big, expansive universe that Hello Games promises is full of infinite variety, you can choose to explore. To scare off animals, or to kill them. You'll have weapons that you can use to shoot people and animals on the planets. There are space fleets and interstellar travel. But what about other players?
Murray: "We're not trying to make an MMO and we're not trying to make a traditional multiplayer because it just doesn't suit that."
"There are opportunities to interact with other players, but we're not trying to make an MMO and we're not trying to make a traditional multiplayer because it just doesn't suit that," Murray said. "You and I, when we play, we will be light years apart and we have no control over that, where we start off. We can try to fly to the same place and if we do we'll see the same things and we can make certain drops and do interactions between each other. But we're not all flying to one planet and then having a run around together. What I would be after is something Journey-esque. You know that you were playing with other people, but you're not saying, "Hey! Join me in Journey for a quick game!"
We still don't know too much about No Man's Sky, but I think that's partially the point. There's a story and a protagonist and there's even a gun, but that's not what Sean Murray or Hello Games wants you to think about when you see or hear about No Man's Sky. And when the buzz out of E3 is all about how No Man's Sky seems so full of possibilities, so full of colours and freedom to play and explore, it seems like that method is working.