No Man’s Sky and Zelda tease freedom

The first trailer of No Man’s Sky was already tempting. A lush planetary environment and a quick traversal from surface to outer space in your personal spaceship made for one hell of a promise. A promise that seemed to good to be true.

No Man's Sky
No Man’s Sky

People were intrigued by the promise, but weren’t quite ready to believe it. The second trailer presented at E3 2014 thus became the second coming: holy crap, it’s real! You can exit the atmosphere! You can dive back in! Cue people running around in circles flapping their arms about.

Freedom to be free

Why is this so powerful? Why is the notion of leaving a planet and returning to it so downright crazy that it makes people ecstatic? Why do people crave this kind of freedom?

The reason is quite simple: empowerment. Games have always been about enabling the impossible. Whether that is something as simple as tennis or as complex as interstellar war, you could do it.

Now multiple generations have been raised on the notion that to tell a story, you need to follow a path. Sure, there were valiant attempts to break that notion. We’ve had Elite, several MMO’s, some RPGs and freeform games like Sim City and Civilization, but they always stuck to a certain scale.

No Man's Sky
No Man’s Sky

“No Man’s Sky seems to directly tap into that feeling of freedom.”

Details or other complexities remained hidden away in menus. And it’s only in the early ’00s that this started to crumble in the form of sandbox games. Grand Theft Auto threw away the shackles of an overview form for a more immersive experience. It had its fair share of problems, but it managed to portray a coherent immersive world. It became a vacation in a game. An experience. Singular actions of a player, influencing an entire game world that became your playground.

No Man’s Sky seems to directly tap into that feeling of freedom. Here are some dinosaurs, but hey, forget about that. Jump into your space fighter and join a squadron dogfighting others ships.

No Man's Sky
No Man’s Sky

The only other moment that seemed as ‘liberating’ as watching this trailer, is leaving the first dungeon jail in Oblivion. Suddenly you’re out in the open after being trapped by corridors. There’s an entire world waiting for you, what do you do? Only No Man’s Sky adds a new option: don’t like what you see? Why not leave the goddamned planet and find a new one to play around in?

That’s the part I’m now not really caring about: how it plays and what you can actually do in No Man’s Sky. So far it just seems to want to fulfil a promise: that of player freedom. I don’t care if it crashes or soars, I just want to be on the spacecraft as its fate is decided.

Zelda opens up

Interestingly, this kind of player freedom is what I missed in Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda series for a long time now. The top-down games were mostly grid based, had an open world and allowed for heavy exploration. Especially the very first Zelda is a completely different beast to some of the 3D-instalments. Instead, it has more in common with The Elder Scrolls in terms of choice and openness.

As a result, the 3D-instalments have failed to capture my imagination in quite the same way as those early versions and I thought of the series as a being at a bit of a dead end. Imagine my surprise then, when a new The Legend of Zelda for Wii U was announced and its director Aonuma specifically pointed out this diversion of the series. Not only that, he mentioned how they were working to recapture that sense of openness.

The Legend of Zelda – WiiU
The Legend of Zelda – WiiU

I’m really, really happy about that. Mostly because this means the adventure element of Zelda might be returning. To travel into parts unknown without the story (or faerie) constantly guiding you to the next goal. It’s this tired connect-the-dots method of questing and travelling that has even crept into labyrinthian games like Metroid or open world MMOs and is corrupting them into task lists.

If The Legend of Zelda and No Man’s Sky have anything to say about that, we might soon all be plotting our own course instead.