Sean Murray doesn't like talking to the press. Given what the creative director and the rest of Hello Games has gone through in the last three years I can't exactly say that I blame him. But here we are all over again, with Murray hesitantly promoting the latest update to No Man's Sky and us doing our best not to lose our cool. That, I'm afraid to say, is far easier said than done; No Man's Sky is absolutely phenomenal when experienced in virtual reality. I'm sorry, Sean – this is where I cordially invite everybody to join me aboard the hype train, and there is no turning back this time.
"You're lovely," Murray begins with a chuckle, as affable as ever, "but talking to the press is not something that I have ever been super good at. It isn't what I got into games to do. You know, presenting on stage at E3 and being on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, or whatever it may be... for some people it's their dream. For me, it's my worst fucking nightmare. I never enjoyed doing it."
Speaking to the press is, sadly for Murray, a part of the job. While Hello Games has done its best to escape it throughout the development, promotion, and release of its free post-release updates to No Man's Sky – Foundation, Path Finder, Atlas Rises, and NEXT – Murray knew that things would have to be different in the run-up to 2019's Beyond expansion. The reason? When it comes to virtual reality, seeing really is believing.
And I'm not going to lie to you, strapping on a headset and diving into the world of No Man's Sky was a breathtaking experience. Like, it literally took my breath away; as I was pulled out of the headset after 20 minutes of pottering around on a planet, excavating ruins, exploring caves, and blasting out into the cosmos (against the advice of Murray, I must add) I found myself desperately pulling air back into my lungs in an effort to process it all. If you're a fan of the aspirational science-fiction written in the seventies – of the worlds born out on creased book covers that you stumble across in dusty corners of old book shops, the kind that has forced generations to dream of a life off in the stars – then it's hard not to be left in awe of the experience. For me, this is the promise of virtual reality made real, and I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that many of you will feel the same way.
Ambling around procedurally-generated planets feels incredible in VR, the sheer vibrancy of the art style taking on a whole new dimension when you can poke your head closer to each of its wondrous spaces. Movement feels natural, as does doing everything from collecting resources and firing your laser pistol to manipulating the terrain. Accessing in-game elements such as the map or your inventory is as simple as looking at your hands or grasping at your backpack, No Man's Sky VR is designed to be as intuitive as possible and what the team has been able to achieve here is impressive. That's especially true when you clamber aboard your spaceship and place one hand on the thruster and another on the joystick, gently teasing the pair of them as you begin to venture out of the atmosphere...
It's still No Man's Sky
To be frank, if you don't like No Man's Sky now you probably aren't going to have your mind changed by its virtual reality presentation. It's still an experience wholeheartedly invested in drawing you into cycles of quiet exploration and contemplation – there's a reason why a popular subreddit span out of the game's release entitled No Man's High, you feel me?
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What I'm trying to say then, is that No Man's Sky VR is the "entire game brought to life in virtual reality". It's an extension of the core-release that lets you pick up your progress and continue on your adventure through the stars with your mind immersed entirely in an endless arrangement of beautifully strange, supremely chill, and occasionally unruly planets. Hello Games promises nothing more, and No Man's Sky delivers nothing less.
No Man's Sky has come a long way since its release in August 2016, in terms of its content, polish, and the refinement to its core mechanics and systems. A lot of this, Murray tells me, has actually arrived because of the team's work in virtual reality – something it has been quietly experimenting with for years now, unsure of whether it would ever see release. "It's been loads of work, but it has actually informed the evolution of the game a little bit. It made us want to streamline the game," Murray tells me, who is quick to note that Hello Games would only put this experiment out if it imbued what the studio believes is the core appeal of the game. "No Man's Sky has always supposed to be about exploration, and that is really important to us."
"But sometimes, some of the mechanics in the game fought against that a little bit. We've had to make trade-offs... there's a whole long conversation that I could have with you about things that we argue about internally, but it's virtual reality that made us really question some things that we felt so sure about at launch. It's like, can we streamline this element of the game or can we get rid of this bit of the grind here? I'm questioning those things now," he says, making an effort to note that while these changes don't "fundamentally change the game" this process has ensured that the core of the experience is tighter and more intuitive than it has ever been before.
One thing Murray is keen to express is that this is a passion project for Hello Games. "I hope people will realise that... you can tell that it's not a commercially driven idea, right? We're doing this because we are excited about it. Sure, there are more and more headsets out there now, but really we're doing it because it seems like a cool thing to do."
"You know, before, maybe we were doing things because we were trying to meet people's expectations or trying to hit some kind of marketing beat or something like that. But it's nice now, because we can dream something up and go, 'Oh, I think this will go down well with a bunch of people, so, let's just do that'," Murray continues, telling me that Hello Games' approach to development is back to how it was during the Joe Danger days. "If it sounds like fun and we like the sound of developing it... then why not just do it?"
The weight of expectation
"You know, when NEXT came out it didn't feel like there was an expectation for us to do more after it. But I'm happy that we are because I think it's going to make people happy. It's nice to work on something and be like, 'Oh, people will be happy when they see this," Murray says, laughing. "Life is way simpler these days."
Life is 'simpler these days', Murray tells me, because the weight of expectation has finally been lifted off of the studio's shoulders. That's something he is endlessly thankful for because it means the staff at Hello Games can get back to doing what it does best – making games. "That's what fuels us and what we've done on No Man's Sky since launch. It's just nice and simple; we get to surprise people again, and we're not charging for any of it."
We don't need to rehash the No Man's Sky story here or the fallout that followed it – lord knows it's well told by now. What is worth reflecting on, however, is that there are people behind the pixels, and Murray came dangerously close to leaving the industry behind entirely following the fallout. It's because of the studio's ability to be agile with its development again that has allowed the team to stick together, to keep its head down and continue working – that has ensured that we are able to receive something as expansive and impressive as the upcoming Beyond expansion.
"I had to kind of decide why I was even still making games. Before, I had been doing it because we [Hello Games] were just trying to survive and get through. Then, at the launch of No Man's Sky, I really had to ask myself, 'Well, why don't I stop? Do I still enjoy it?," Murray tells me, laughing that his response was something along the lines of, "Well, I think I do."
Ultimately, it was Hello Games' desire to continue making changes to the game for the large community that did quietly form up around the game – not to mention the studio's excitement towards the project at a fundamental level – that gave them the confidence and desire to continue onwards. "It was a really weird and stressful few years leading up to the launch of No Man's Sky. And now, for the vast majority of the time, I'm just coding, and I'm making games again – and I'm surrounded by people who still enjoy working on, and playing that game. You know, there are other people who went through those two years with me. We could all see the community going insane in terms of their expectations around the game."
"It was an incredibly stressful and high-pressure situation for us, and we sort of knew, you know, that we didn't have control over that narrative," Murray says, noting that while the team doubled from six to 12 throughout the development of No Man's Sky, the core of that group still remains at the studio to this day. "We all got into games to make games, but we've been through something a bit insane together," he says, laughing once again. "It was very bonding."
What's next for Hello Games?
That, all told, is something of a blessing. Nobody would have blamed Hello Games for taking a break after the release of No Man's Sky before turning its attention elsewhere. In fact, it's certainly something that the industry-at-large advised. "That was generally the advice that we received... no, genuinely," Murray continues. "That was the advice that we received from other people in the industry. They were like, 'Nobody is coming back from something like this'.
"And I was saying to them, 'But I want to update the game!' and the general reaction to that was, like, 'no!' But we could see that people were playing the game and enjoying it, and that was really motivating. No Man's Sky is a bit of a weird game, right; it's big and open, and it feels like there are loads of things that you could apply to it. NEXT was really successful for us, and I'm not saying we are just doing Beyond because of that, but it would seem almost wrong to not support those players."
That new found confidence is what is inspiring Hello Games to move forward. Once Beyond – which encompasses a huge online component, virtual reality, and a mysterious third pillar to be revealed in the coming weeks – is out of the door this summer, the studio still has plenty to keep it occupied.
"Look, we're still excited about No Man's Sky and about working on it, but we are doing other stuff as well. We're doing The Last Campfire, which is a smaller side-project," says Murray of the Pixar-like adventure game that is being developed by LostWinds creators (and Hello Games employees) Chris Symonds and Steven Burgess.
That, I'm told, isn't all the studio has set its sights on. Not that Murray is all that keen to give too much away at this stage, he's certainly learned his lesson and is fast becoming an expert in expectation management.
"We're also starting on something new – which is big, ambitious, and silly. But we're still a very small team," he says, laughing again, perhaps hinting that we won't see this mysterious new creative endeavour for a while. "We do quite a lot between us, but I think that's because we are all so into it. And we, now, sort of do things because we are excited about them. We tend to be quite productive when we are excited about something. That's genuinely where we're at now."
That's where Hello Games is at now, but it isn't where I'm at. My head is still with that first experience of No Man's Sky in VR. Of teasing a ship off of a beautifully misshapen planet with my hand gripped tightly around the throttle. As I apply pressure to it, using the virtual joystick in my right hand to pull the ship up into the atmosphere, I begin to see the stars align around me. It's beautiful. As I edge out into deeper space, Murray informs me that a click of the button will let me move a little faster, but I hit the wrong one and rip into hyperspace – an explosion of colour that thrusts me back into my seat as a smile creeps across my face.
"No! you weren't supposed to click that," Murray laughs, "We're still optimising space travel!" I rip the throttle back and immediately lurch forward with the ship into uncharted territory, tearing at the joystick to help pull the ship around an incoming asteroid. For a second I take it all in, the endless sea of planets in front of me – an infinite arrangement of opportunities, all unknown – and in an instant I know: No Man's Sky is the VR game I have waited my entire life to play.
No Man's Sky VR will be coming to the game, with support for PlayStation VR and Steam VR-headsets, as part of the huge Beyond expansion that will be available for free when it launches this summer.