AstronomyDigital Media & VideogamesTravel & ExplorationVisual Art

Noctis: The Loneliness of Night

An up­dated ver­sion of this ar­ticle was pub­lished in Dutch on frnk​frt​.net maga­zine.

A rainy, plant-inhab­ited world at night.

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.

A red star up close.

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.

This hop­ping land creature resembled a cross between an ele­phant and a kangaroo more than any­thing.

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.

A dark world.

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.

A view from the planet Klensal in ‘Mass Effect’. Source: http://​massef​fect​.wikia​.com/​w​i​k​i​/​F​i​l​e​:​K​l​e​n​s​a​l​S​c​r​e​e​n​s​h​o​t​.​jpg

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://​any​nowhere​.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.

Fur­ther Read­ing:

A few more vis­tas:
A clouded world.
Beau­ti­ful con­strast of sky and soil.
More beauty in dark­ness [bright­ness enhanced].
A very bright star up close.





Some video cap­tures from the game by You­tube user Momo­tombos, with music by Xela: