Since it was announced, I've had a similar relationship with Rare's Sea of Thieves as many of us did with No Man's Sky. “It looks great fun”, I often pondered, “But what actually is it?”
Of course, the top-level idea is a great one. A cartoon pirate sim made by the studio that brought us Banjo-Kazooie, with massively multiplayer open-world co-op and crews made up of real, live people? Yes. A thousand times yes. Sign me up now. But what would you actually do in such a thing?
But I get it now. Having seen the game demoed behind closed doors at Gamescom 2016 - connected to the live hands-on units on the show floor for added ‘anything can happen’ authenticity, it all makes sense. Sea of Thieves is about drinking grog, playing hurdy gurdies, messing about, and just seeing what happens. There's plenty more going on than that, but at its heart, that's what Sea of Thieves is concerned with.
It doesn't want to evoke real-live historical pirating, or present a strategic crew simulation. It wants give you the pirate’s life you imagined in the playground. The slapstick, slightly romanticised, Technicolor version where nothing horrible ever really happened, everyone was blind drunk the whole time, and another random adventure was only ever a conveniently found treasure map away.
That philosophy permeates the entire presentation, so believe me when I say that it fills me with nothing but confidence that Rare doesn't seem entirely sure what the final shape of the game is going to be yet. It's getting the soul right first, and then building a body to match.
This first becomes clear when I'm told that although you're free to drink grog and play music at will, they have absolutely zero ‘real’ function in the game. But they're in there because they're important, and they're important because they make people feel like pirates. When a whole crew is getting pretend-drunk together, they'll start playing like they're drunk, and they'll start laughing and doing silly things. And in Sea of Thieves’ reactive world, that's when fun stuff really starts happening.
The whole form of the game seems crafted in order to draw the best out of each player and group of players, so if Rare isn't entirely sure of the whole picture yet, that's only because the studio is waiting to see more of that behaviour in order to let it lead the way. The systems in the game are already fun, but Rare wants to see exactly what kind of fun players start having with them once they’re unleashed on the (currently undated) closed beta. Then it will start building new features and structures to support and amplify exactly that.
Not that the existing ideas aren't already great. You might end up exploring a deserted island, find a map to a secret treasure, and then set sail to secure it - while dealing with whatever randomly spawning krakens and skeletons the game world throws up along the way. You might be given a quest to discover something special at a particular location in the world using a clue in the shape of an abstract object - the example given was the Goonies skull stone, because obviously it was. But the random element of other players will always be waiting to blow each of these adventures up to the state of dynamic, emergent epics.
What if that first island isn't quite deserted, but just happens to have been discovered by another crew at the same time, both sides dropping anchor on different coasts, unbeknownst to each other? What if that map is actually only half a map, and a different bunch of pirates have the other half? Do you hunt them down and kill them? Do you form an uneasy allegiance and hope they don't murder you for the treasure - a problem smartly removed from crew-only plunder by way of shared rewards - at the end?
And what if you haven't been playing the game long enough to recognise the part of the world that that object depicts? Do you go searching at random, no doubt getting into all kinds of new, entirely unexpected adventures along the way? Do you ask a more experienced pirate for help? And if you do, will that lead to your joining a new crew and making new friends, or just a huge outburst of hilarious, goofball slaughter?
Heck, what if you get that first treasure map, then go back to you ship to start your journey, only to see it sailing off across the horizon, because you really should have left someone guarding it rather than taking the whole crew ashore and oh-look-now-someone's-stolen-it? What do you do then, smart guys? Better come up with a new plan quick. And so the pirating life spins off in yet another unexpected direction.
Right now, Sea of Thieves feels part Monkey Island, part Day Z, only calibrated to nudge players toward light-hearted scrapes, camaraderie, and miscellaneous nonsense rather than spawn-camping and general assholery. There will be some manner of formal quest system. There may be a story. There may be a campaign. But whatever shape Sea of Thieves eventually takes, it will be the right one to serve the right kind of fun. Rare seems pretty adamant of that. And fortunately, going off those show-floor hand-on sessions, it already seems to be generating that in abundance.