An updated version of this article was published in Dutch on frnkfrt.net magazine.
If there is one thing astronomy has taught us, it is the realisation that a planet like Earth, with its abundance of life, is incredibly rare in the vastness of the universe. We do know that there are billions of galaxies each containing billions of stars, so it is probable that life is to be found somewhere else in space; yet we are lonely all the same. We could - in a manner of speaking - travel for an eternity in any direction without encountering any sign of life. That overwhelming sense of loneliness on a cosmic scale is what strikes me the most while playing Noctis.
This game is the brainchild of Italian programmer Alessandro ‘Alex’ Ghignola, who has been working on the project since 1996. The current version, Noctis IV, has been the most recent one for over ten years, and while Ghignola is allegedly still working on version V, it is not clear when this is due to be released. Until that time, we have to make do with IV.
The main perspective in Noctis is that of a space explorer in a Stardrifter, a ship made of quartz that is capable of bridging the vast distances between stars in an instant. In this way, the player can explore the more than 78 billion stars that make up the Noctis galaxy. These stars fall into eleven categories, each with its own characteristics, including an indication of how likely it is to harbour planets capable of sustaining life. For example, we can find brown dwarf stars, binary or ternary star systems, but also blue giants: huge bright stars that often sport an expansive system of planets and moons. Obviously, it’s quite impossible for any one player to see even a fraction of all the stars in the Noctis universe. For that reason there is the nice extra feature of naming and describing stars and planets. The personal star maps containing these notes can be sent to Ghignola, who periodically combines all these charts into a downloadable update.
Every celestial body in the game has its own character and charm, mainly expressed through colour, light, and shape. Some planets are flat, others are cratered or mountainous; some have no atmosphere and allow an unobstructed view into the blackness of space, like our own Moon, while some planets are hidden under a thick blanket of clouds, like Venus. Very rarely, after a thorough search, you can find a planet with lifeforms; often just a species of grass, or ‘trees’, but sometimes a ‘bird’ over an ocean, or a land creature. Manipulating worlds or violating the ‘prime directive’ [wikipedia] is impossible: the player can only be a traveller and an observer.
All this content is generated procedurally, which makes the size of the program quite manageable: the core files fit on a 1,4 MB floppy disk! The game runs on DOS in a resolution of 320×200 pixels and a 256 colour palette - in a certain respect Ghignola preempted the current retromania in the world of gaming. It is precisely this approach that allows Noctis to contain so many worlds. However, the consequence of this is that everything you see in the game remains grainy and abstract. What stands out are the colours, the way the starlight hits the surface, the broad shapes of the landscape. In short, this design and the technical limitations create a sober visual language. Through this visual and narrative abstraction Noctis leaves practically everything to our own imagination, and if you’re open to that, it is the great strength of the game. Precisely by not investing in a story or extensive world building, Noctis is able to be so immensely big, and the sense of exploration so boundless.
This contrasts with the - equally logical - approach in many other games, that sacrifice freedom of movement to detail. My thoughts were drawn to the first instalment of Mass Effect, for example, in which the exploration of a few dozen planets and moons was possible using the MAKO, a ground vehicle. These free-form exploration trips offered some incredibly beautiful vistas and different environments, but at the same time, it stood out all the more clearly that there wasn’t all that much to do on these planets - apart from collecting a few items or defeating a few enemies - precisely because Mass Effect is a game primarily driven by story and combat, and less by exploration. Only a few places in the game which can be visited optionally, outside of the main storyline, offer any story content or world design that is more than skin deep.
In this sense, Noctis is more like Proteus [official website], an upcoming game by Ed Key and David Kanaga. It, too, is a game reliant on pixelly art in which exploration is the only goal. The landscapes — and soundscapes — of the islands in Proteus are mostly just there, ready to be discovered at whatever pace suits you. The amount of interactivity with the environment is highly limited - at least in the current beta version, but I expect that the final version will be similar - but that is precisely the point. A world like that of Proteus is a colourful audiovisual work that can be viewed from many angles, but not manipulated.
The universe of Noctis, then, seems empty and without inherent meaning, but it does offer a space for meditation where you can explore in silence — or accompanied by your own choice of music — and allow yourself to be surprised by new constellations of colour and form. Ghignola admitted in a recent interview that he sees himself to a certain degree as an expressionistic programmer, and this seems to fit. Noctis is a piece of digital expressionist art: an endless variation of abstract landscapes, explored with a spaceship, expressed in a piece of code small enough to fit on a floppy disk.
Noctis can be downloaded from free from the official website: <http://anynowhere.com>. The modified version Noctis IV Plus is recommended. It runs without problems on Windows XP and earlier versions. To run the game on Windows Vista and later versions, you will need a DOS emulator, a special boot disk, or a similar solution.
- Chris Bateman. “Noctis”. Published 2012-oct-10 on International Hobo. <http://blog.ihobo.com/2012/10/noctis.html>.
- Jefequeso. “Interview with Alessandro Ghignola (aka ‘Alex’)”. Published 2012-may-09 on Videogame Potpourri. <http://videogamepotpourri.blogspot.gr/2012/05/interview-with-alessandro-ghignola-aka.html>.
Some video captures from the game by Youtube user Momotombos, with music by Xela: