Before 'No Man's Sky' There Was 'Noctis'
'Noctis' came out 16 years ago, but offers the same spirit of exploration that 'No Man's Sky' promises to deliver.
After traveling several miles over the plains, I scramble forward and head through the forest. The leaves are a magnificent shade of violet, the ground is covered with a blanket of familiar green grass, and small birds fly overhead. There are bizarre creatures, with silhouettes that evoke earth creatures such as frogs and birds, but which are decidedly alien in origin. As I exit the thicket, there is a nearby mountain over a few more hills, and since I've already come so far, I scale it.
I take a few panoramic photos from the summit, catching the trees, hills, and animals I'd passed on the way to the peak. I look at my computer's clock. I've spent about seven hours playing Noctis, and it's now about 4:30 AM. I consider the merits of sleeping, but it's a day off, so even though the sun is rising I decide that a few more hours wouldn't hurt.
Noctis (which was released for PC all the way back in 2000) lets you explore a vast, procedurally generated galaxy in your ship, the Stardrifter. As you travel from planet to planet, you catalog the many sights and wonders and upload your findings to a multiplayer starlog file for others to see. If that sounds strikingly similar to No Man's Sky, you're not alone. With NMS still a week away, I turned to Noctis to scratch my intergalactic travel itch, but in the end, I respected the game on its own terms.
All I "discovered" were some big holes in this barren rock, but I feel awesome.
I've always had a fascination with exploring game worlds. When I was a kid, I wondered what was beyond the invisible walls of the games I was playing. Of course in most games, what you see is what you get, and out of bounds there is nothing but a skybox and a void. But because Noctis uses procedural generation to create a near-endless galaxy of planets, there are no invisible walls here.
When I start Noctis for the first time, I really have no clue what I am doing, blindly wandering the ship and still trying to get used to the strange controls. I spend about five minutes reading a user guide compiled by the community that teaches me the basics of what to do. While I normally don't really care about reading guides or manuals, I would recommend it for Noctis, as the ship has a lot going on. After I feel I'm comfortable with knowing how to refuel, how to land, and all the rest of the operations, I dive in.
The first thing that I learn is that all of the Stardrifter's functions are handled by what amounts to an in-game touchscreen on the primary window of the ship. The second thing I learn is that space is silent. Unlike NMS (which has a procedural score made by 65daysofstatic) Noctis is completely absent of sound. Flying around this large galaxy with no music is definitely something that needs to be fixed, unless you really want to exemplify how lonely and empty it is in space.
The only music I found appropriate was something that matched the retro look, and so I quickly compiled an exploration playlist of music that evoked a sense of relaxation, futurism, nostalgia, and just a little bit of dread to keep things interesting. My playlist was ultimately made up of vaporwave and synthwave artists, both genres that compliment the 90s operating system feeling of Noctis. In a way, I feel that the game also complimented the music by adding new meaning to it, either due to convenient timing or just new associations that I developed while listening.
Noctis has quite a few planet types, ranging from crater covered rocks and lush forest worlds teeming with simple life, to ocean covered planets and gas giants that are magnificent to behold but obviously not explorable—but the first planet I land on is fairly insignificant. It's a mostly brownish gray surface, with no clouds to obfuscate my sight back into space. "Lost in Time" is playing and completely sets the mood for this empty planet. As soon as my lander opens, I charge northward, jumping as I go since the planet has rather low gravity. I load into a new area and realise I am standing on the edge of a giant crater. I take some panoramic photos—one of my favorite features of the game, since the low resolution makes standard photos incredibly small. I move to the northern end of the map, and the next screen is littered with smaller craters, some overlapping and some independent, but each unique.
All I "discovered" were some big holes in this barren rock, but I feel awesome. I take about ten more photos and then call my lander. I leave the planet filled with excitement and determination to keep pushing on to see what other wonders are in store for me.
My next destination is a bright pink gas giant. The surface is smooth, and while I can't land on it, I don't regret the trip at all. I rotate around it a few times, stepping out onto the roof of my Stardrifter, trying to line up the perfect photo. That's Noctis.
Part of what makes me feel so happy about these discoveries is that feeling of having discovered something, of having been the first to see it, and that's the major appeal of Noctis for me. These unique geological formations, from the volcanos, to the forests, to the craters—no other person has ever seen these. This feeling of being able to see something unique, even in a video game, is the reason I love this game so much.
After a few real-life days of drifting once more, having particularly bad luck finding anything explorable, I begin to orbit a cracked white ice ball. Ice planets are supposed to be boring and dull, the flattest planets in terms of their generation rules—but I want to find the exception to the rule. Besides, even the flat ice sheets on their own are quite beautiful! When I land, Market World is playing, and even though this isn't a giant mall planet, it works. The tone of songs like "Endless Staircase" and "Shoppingtimes" just feel right alongside the flat, featureless plains of ice. Over ten minutes pass, and I'm starting to think maybe ice planets really are the least interesting worlds. A few more steps, though, and something large draws into the game world, off in the distance, sticking sharp out of the ground: A craggy mountain!
I take multiple snapshots, but as I do so:
"Noctis has stopped working."
Sadly, this is not an unfamiliar message, as Noctis was not made for modern systems. While one of the best community releases does have a version that can run on a 64-bit system, it still sometimes crashes. The game does autosave, though, and I've learned that as soon as I see something neat, to screenshot the hell out of it.
I got what I came for, though, and satisfied, I head for the next adventure. These are only a fraction of the experiences I got to have in Noctis. I've sat on hilltops looking at red lakes, climbed over mountains just to end up in a deep chasm that formed on the opposite side of it, jetpacked over a windy ocean world with bright green water forming waves.
Just in time for No Man's Sky, Noctis has revitalised my feelings for procedural generation and exploration titles. I don't know if future exploration games will hit me quite as much as Noctis has, but from all the sights, feelings, and fun that it has brought me, I don't expect to stop playing it anytime soon.