With a near-infinite universe to explore, upcoming PS4 sci-fi epic No Man’s Sky is promising adventure without compare. However, think of any great space saga, and it’s at least partially defined by its cast of characters. With an intergalactic sandbox made up of 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 unique planets, how on Earth is developer Hello Games planning to fill all those worlds with consistent story, dialogue, lore, and language?
Well, as has generally proven the case when it comes to all things No Man’s Sky, it turns out the answer is pretty remarkable. Last week, I stopped by Hello’s compact Guildford HQ to find out more.
“We’ve always talked about having factions in the game. It’s something we’ve always wanted. We had ideas on how we wanted that to fit in No Man’s Sky, but it’s taken us a while to get to the point where we’re happy enough to show it,” creator Sean Murray tells me, before launching into a demo.
In short, here’s how it works. As you travel around the universe you’ll encounter individuals from several distinct races. As with everything else in the game, how they look and what they say is procedurally generated based on a set of variables defined by the Hello Games team.
You’ll be able to trade with them, gain upgrades, learn more about the game’s lore, forge alliances and so forth.
Sound straightforward? Well, not so fast.
“The razor we use to cut features — to decide whether to implement them or not — is ‘does this thing encourage players to go out and explore the universe more?’,” explains Sean.
“With NPCs in No Man’s Sky, you actually have to learn their language; they speak to you in their native tongue. The more you travel around the universe, the more you learn their language, and the more you can communicate with them.”
Yes, you read that correctly. Hello Games has devised a number of distinct alien languages which, at the game’s outset, you will not be able to understand. However, as you explore the universe, discover relics, and talk to new NPCs, you’ll slowly start picking up their dialects.
Sean goes on to explain that there is real value in developing relationships with these characters. If you make the effort to learn the language of a particular race and interact with them regularly, your standing with them will increase. If you’re tight with a particular race, they’ll duly give you preferential treatment — cheaper prices perhaps, or better equipment.
Indeed, if you want to buy a better ship that might allow you to travel to more distant star systems, you’ll need to cozy up with these factions.
Conversely, just as it would in real life, blundering into conversations without knowing the language can have negative consequences. Saying the wrong thing in a dialogue tree will likely result in your standing decreasing, or in the trader ripping you off, or in you losing a useful item simply out of confusion. Worse still, it might even end up in your new-found acquaintance attacking you.
As has been hinted at in previous trailers, there are a number of ways to play No Man’s Sky. You can focus on exploration, on fighting, on survival, or on trading, and the NPC system feeds directly into this overarching framework.
“The nice thing about it is that the NPCs are divided up into different races. So one race is perhaps more focused on exploration and science, and knowing that helps you decide how to best interact with them,” says Sean.
“If you’re playing the game for exploration’s sake, you might want to focus on that race. But if you’re playing the game and all you want to do is kill things, there are more military-based races, so you might want to try and become friends with them.”
As mentioned, there are a number of races in the game, and each speaks its own unique language. So, how long is it going to take the average player to wrap their tongues around a foreign dialect to the point of fluency?
“It depends how much you’re seeking it out. Even if it’s all you do, you’re definitely talking hours and hours of play to learn a language. But I think most players will never become fluent, unless it’s specifically something they’re seeking out.
“And there’s an element of fun to that! I like some of the silliness that ensues.
“Say you were to go into a farming building, and there are some instructions on the wall written in an alien language telling you how to run the machinery. You could make sure you have the necessary language skills to make sense of it, or you could just run up to the console and randomly press buttons. Take the latter approach and the sign could read, ‘DEFINITELY DO NOT PRESS THE RED BUTTON,’ and you wouldn’t know it. That’s fun to me!”
It’s probably important to stress that the interactions you have with these NPCs are reasonably light. No Man’s Sky is not a narrative-driven RPG with a script to follow — it’s procedural, and enormous on a scale that is impossible to properly comprehend. Don’t expect contained quest lines à la, say, Mass Effect.
“You’re not sat there talking about philosophy, or discussing the weather for hours on end,” stresses Sean. “You are doing things like trading, or asking for technology, or sharing crafting recipes.
“We’re not trying to fill the entire universe with dialogue trees and long-running dramas. That’s not what it’s about.
“Having said that, being No Man’s Sky, there is a procedural element to your interactions. The AI you talk to will know the name of the planet you’re on and will reference it. They’ll reference wanting certain things based on the environment they’re in. They’ll know if it’s cold, or hot, or whatever. You’ll see a reasonable amount of variety — it’s not just pre-baked dialogue.”
Before all of you who failed French class at school start getting a little nervous, No Man’s Sky is not expecting you to learn complex grammar, syntax, verb forms, pronunciation, and so forth. To take a simplistic view of it, the languages are more like codes to decipher — generally speaking, you’re simply replacing a word for a word. That was a deliberate decision, made in order to foster a sense of collaboration and coordination amongst the game’s community of players. If you figure out what a particular word means, you can paste it up online and share the knowledge.
“Some of the languages — well, one in particular — is much harder to learn than the others,” Sean adds. “I think it will probably only be possible for people to decipher some of the dialogue by working together online.
“We’re not trying to build something that people will go out and try to speak in the real world, like how I learned Klingon when I was a kid because I thought it would be a great ice-breaker. Turned out not to be the case!
“I don’t expect to find people meeting at conventions and speaking one of our languages. That would be awful; please don’t do that!
“It’s more about creating a really interesting reason for people to explore the game and get some really emergent results.”
So, there you have it. Brush up on your social skills and learn some manners — they’ll likely be just as important as a quick trigger finger come June.