‘No Man’s Sky’ and ‘Starflight’: How 2016’s Endless Universe Compares to 1986’s

Sometimes limitations can be more compelling than the lack of them.

“Long-awaited” is as clichéd a compound adjective as you’ll find anywhere, but there’s no doubt that the video game No Man’s Sky — which was released this week for Playstation 4 and PC — is genuinely deserving of the description. The game’s been in development since 2012, and has been generating hype pretty much ever since. Of course, such anticipation is a recipe for disappointment — there’s no way any game could live up to four years’ worth of sky-high expectations, and sure enough, No Man’s Sky has been met with mixed reviews so far.

If you haven’t been following the hype cycle, No Man’s Sky is a game that promises something hugely alluring, even for those who aren’t habitual gamers: an immense, almost limitless universe to explore, with an astonishing quantity of unique stars and planets — some 18 quintillion of the latter. Many of these are populated by strange, wonderful and equally unique creatures. To create this universe, the game relies on a concept called procedural generation — essentially, rather than creating every star, world and creature manually, an endeavor that would probably take hundreds of years, No Man’s Sky does so algorithmically.

Some of the problems that have drawn complaints — bugginess, a propensity for crashing, wonky textures — are the sort of thing that plague many games on release these days, and are generally ironed out in subsequent patches and updates. There’s no reason to believe No Man’s Sky will be any different in this regard. More troubling, however, is the game’s apparent lack of depth. It’s essentially a giant sandbox game, wherein you can buzz around exploring to your heart’s content, but without encountering much in the way of an underlying story. The developers never promised that there would be any such story, of course, but the lack of one seems like a missed opportunity: what more dramatic setting could a storyteller ask for than an entire universe?

An entire universe, generated mathematically, seems like the sort of achievement that only today’s computers could even begin to approach. Remarkably, though, No Man’s Sky isn’t the first game to take place in a procedurally generated environment. Way back in 1986, the developers of a game called Starflight created something very similar. Even more remarkably, they managed to cram their universe, along with a marvelous story, onto two 360-kilobyte floppy discs.

Clearly, times have changed hugely in the 30 years between Starflight and its spiritual successor — Moore’s law means that computers are many orders of magnitude more powerful, and the amount of storage space available to programs is many orders of magnitude larger. And yet, comparing the two games is a fascinating exercise,  because it really drives home the way that restrictions can have the perverse effect of making art better and more compelling.

Compared to the big video gaming hits of ’86, Starflight was and remains largely overlooked — this was the year that gave us Bubble Bobble, The Legend of Zelda, the original Space Quest and a couple of big movie tie-ins with The Goonies and Batman. But it might just have been the most influential game of that year — and, arguably, the rest of the decade — because it was the first game to really explore the concept of open-world gaming. At the time, most games in any given genre were, in modern parlance, “on rails” — they provided a linear plot through which one progressed by meeting whatever challenges developers threw at you: solving puzzles, jumping from platform to platform, defeating enemies, choosing the right dialog options, and so on.

Starflight was different — it began, like No Man’s Sky, by placing you in a location about which you knew very little, and giving you very little guidance about what to do. In No Man’s Sky, you’re crashlanded on a random planet on the edge of the game’s universe; in Starflight, you’re a rookie captain in a space station, your only (apparent) goal being to earn cash by mining minerals on nearby planets. But in the latter case, your mining missions lead you slowly into a story with a much grander scale — it’s one that I won’t spoil here, in case you decide that you might want to discover it yourself (PSA: you can get the game and its sequel for $5.99 on GOG), but it involves a fascinating backstory that stretches thousands of years, a lot of exploring, and a thoroughly satisfying (and unexpected) twist ending.

Starflight‘s universe is, of course, much smaller than that of No Man’s Sky — there are about 800 planets, not 18 quintillion, but that’s still enough space that the game’s key waypoints and locations can be scattered around the universe with little chance of you just stumbling upon one. Or perhaps you might do just that — the story is crafted with the open-world(s) concept in mind and written deftly enough that it can be approached in multiple ways. Pieces of the narrative found without context are intriguing, not incoherent. The experience is akin to piecing back together scraps of a shredded manuscript, which is unexpectedly and deeply satisfying.

Clearly, there were a lot of terrible games made during the 1980s, just like there are a lot of terrible games made now. But there was something about the limits within which developers were forced to work that encouraged — nay, demanded — both ingenuity and innovation. Starflight is tightly written and beautifully crafted because it had to be — there’s not a single byte to waste on a 360kB floppy!

Today’s developers still have constraints, of course — computers aren’t infinitely powerful, even with the remarkable manner in which they’ve evolved over the past three decades. But comparing No Man’s Sky to Starflight provides a neat summation of how more powerful machines can create their own problems. Starflight‘s gameplay had to be compelling because no one was blown away by its graphics, even in 1986. No Man’s Sky is the exact opposite — the game looks wonderful enough. But in its current state, it doesn’t do a whole lot more beyond look wonderful.

Happily, the developers of No Man’s Sky have one more option that wasn’t available in 1986 — they can continue to develop the game after its release, updating it with patches and downloadable content. Here’s hoping that in time, its gameplay evolves into something as memorable as that of the humble little game that created this genre 30 years ago — because that really would be something worth playing, and playing, and playing.