When five months ago indie developer Hello Games had the audacity to announce that it would be demanding $60 for its hugely anticipated No Man’s Sky, the internet burst into flames. The price, perfectly reasonable as it was, sent many an incredulous fan’s head spinning and prompted the end of the contemporary world as we know it. The seventh trumpet was blown, the skies clouded over, seas turned to blood, and after a day or two, people moved on with their lives. If you were one of those firestarters, someone who took a match to the bedrock of their deeply misguided sense of entitlement (or maybe you just threw on some kindling?), get this: some guy (Dailymotion user Daymeeuhn) bought a pre-general-release copy of the game for an actually absurd $1250! Now don’t you feel silly?
The subsequently “leaked” game footage prompted Hello Games’ Sean Murray to tweet,
In defense of his purchase, which was auctioned on eBay after a retailer broke the street date for the game’s release, Daymeeuhn posted on Reddit that,
“For me, the idea of secrets and puzzles that lack google-able answers is super thrilling. I love it. My best gaming experiences have been when I’ve received games before street date, knowing I was truly on my own in the universe of that game, and no matter how tempted I might be to ask a friend for help or check a website for a tip or cheat, I CAN’T because it doesn’t exist. It’s all you, you’re representing everything there is in that moment of the game. If NMS is crack for everyone here in this reddit, the idea of an early experience with zero information surrounding it is the equivalent of the purest, uncut and unfiltered crack money can buy for me.”
What Daymeeuhn is alluding to, I think, is escapism, and while that is largely the draw of gaming, to begin with, some games definitely do it better than others. Take Fallout 4, for example, a massive open world in which waypoints guide your every step. You never feel like you’ve truly made a discovery of your own accord because everything is systematically labeled and catalogued. Need to go somewhere? Here’s its exact location pinpointed on your map. Find something odd? Here’s an audio log to explain it. Nothing is left to the imagination. Everything is either a one or a zero, handed to you on a silver plate. There’s no thrill of discovery, no sense of being alone, or of even being particularly immersed.
There are games out there, however, increasingly rare as they may be, that are nonlinear and don’t openly hold your hand. There are games that can engender a feeling of absolute immersion; of being allowed to explore and to quest of your own competence and volition, and by no means does the average gamer have to go to the same lengths as Daymeeuhn to experience them. Games that, regardless of how old they are, can inspire such a genuine suspension of belief as to lull you into believing in their virtual worlds as more than just a collection of pixels on a screen. Games like Thekla, Inc.’s The Witness.
In The Witness, there are no tutorials to get you started, no hints to help you when you’re stuck. The developer treats you like an adult, trusting that you won’t give up the second goings get tough (which is sooner rather than later). And, if not every player who buys the game sticks around long enough to sees the credits roll – or even makes it out of the starting area, for that matter – who cares? Thekla, Inc. has crafted this beautiful, rapturous world, populated it with ingenious puzzles, and left it for your curiosity; for its secrets to be uncovered at your leisure, not at the pace of some arbitrary quest log. Where you go, what puzzles you solve and how involved you want to be is entirely up to you and your brain to decipher. In The Witness, you learn by doing and the experience is all the more rewarding for it.
While outwardly a very different type of game to The Witness, Dark Souls treats the player with a similar detachment, that same willingness to trust that when you fall, your own determination will be enough to catch you. But you don’t necessarily feel alone in quite the same way. At least not if you play with a wifi signal, allowing for the translucent shadows of other players to occasionally pop into your world. These ghosts may make you more consciously aware that you aren’t the soul Columbus charting this world, but they certainly aren’t company. When they dissipate – as they do every bit as quickly as they appear – they leave you to suffer the quiet they leave behind. And that deafening, all encompassing silence is terrifying - thrilling - because what led you to that moment was your adventures, your successes. Everything you found, everything you learned was your achievement. You can stand in Dark Souls’ world and pitch a flag: this is your land.
Firewatch meanwhile, offers an altogether different, but no less convincing, kind of adventure. Making you feel like more than just a pair of hands on the end of a controller, for the few hours it takes to complete, Firewatch charms you into believing that you are another person entirely. And what could be more of an adventure than that? As you, as Henry, go about getting to know your little square of the Wyoming wilderness, so too do you explore the character of your boss Delilah via handheld radio. The dialogue (which is often optional) you have with Delilah and the resulting relationships you can forge are uncharted landscapes in their own right, ones that you explore, or don’t, if/when you pick up the radio. With so many things to be said, or not said, so many conversational trails to take a wander down, even though Firewatch’s story always concludes the same way, the journey there feels unique to every player.
It’s an undeniably human thrill to seek, the allure of the unknown, and if you seek it vicariously through video games, it quite simply doesn’t matter whether that game has been released or not. Daymeeuhn says that not being able to look up a wiki has made playing No Man’s Sky all the more enticing, but when you’re trying to create a feeling of being the first man on the moon, wouldn’t that be self-defeating, anyway? Ultimately, it’s up to you how alone you want to feel in a game’s world. Only you can ask a friend for the solution to a puzzle or search the web for information you have no business reading. If upon it being released into the wild you want to feel like the first punter to play No Man’s Sky, you can. That feeling of adventure is exactly what Hello Games has gone to painstaking lengths to inspire, and why Sean Murray asks that you experience the game for yourself come general release.