There are a lot of sub-genres to gaming which defy traditional styles. An RPG doesn’t necessarily have to have roleplaying. A shooter can be linear hallways or open-world. A sports game can be anything from hard-edged reality to Yoshi doing dropkicks into a goal made of rainbows. And these are just the tip of the gaming iceberg: drill down further and there’s games that created genres all their own.
Let me give you a few examples.
The Walking Simulator
Notable entries: Gone Home, The Stanley Parable, Firewatch
Lacking in gameplay, the walking simulator relies heavily on atmosphere. Story is often through organic exploration of the world rather than characters and cutscenes. Too ‘arty’ to be a traditional RPG. Too short and lacking in gameplay to be an action game.
Weird Thing Simulator
Notable entries: Goat Simulator, Surgeon Simulator, I Am Bread
Separate from the walking simulator, the weird thing simulator takes the concept of the original simulators – perfectly realistic depictions of flying planes or driving trucks – and flips it nonsense-wards. Nothing can escape the simulator’s grasp. Regularly designed with intentionally bad controls and a total disregard for physics.
(The best one is still Shower With Your Dad Simulator 2015 and I don’t care what anyone else says.)
Really Strange Party Games
Notable Entries: Push Me Pull You, Sportsfriends, Mount Your Friends
What’s with these games and naked dudes? Weird that I’ve mentioned, like, three of them. Anyway. Really Strange Party Games can only be grouped under two very specific umbrellas: an absurd concept and the turning of that concept into a ton of couch co-op fun. They’re the games you would never play yourself, but get pulled out at every party, if only to see the horrified stares of unaware friends turn into intense delight. They also retain an even playing field that many competitive games tend to lose. Nobody wants to be the person who’s really, really good at Mount Your Friends.
But there’s one other genre I think is appropriate: the Podcast Game. Simply put, it’s the kind of game where, often due to an open world with lots to collect, there’s a lot of downtime where nothing important is happening. Something like Assassin’s Creed is a perfect podcast game: you pop in your headphones, load up Youtube, and tick off those checklists for hours without ever hearing a single stab of your hidden blade.
No Man’s Sky has quickly proved itself to be a strong contender for the Podcast Game genre. For the most part, your explorations are silent. There are the cries of alien animals, the whir of machinery, the crashing of a sudden storm. But no dialogue, no story. Any plot is conveyed purely through text. And don’t get me wrong: the music and sound design are understated and beautiful. But the player would lose nothing by never taking the space exploration game off mute.
I myself, when given the choice, prefer the non-violent option. I still delight in being able to finish Fallout: New Vegas by talking the Legion into retreat. So as soon as I stumbled across my first Knowledge Stone and saw that beautiful message – that I had just learned the Korvax word for ‘traveler’ – my heart jumped. I knew what I would be in this world: a roving scholar, determined to understand these lifeforms so utterly foreign to me. It might be a long, long road, but becoming a friend to these species was the reward in itself.
That was the story I made for myself in lieu of any presented narrative, but No Man’s Sky is not just its lack of story. It’s an open-world exploration game, laced with lore and survival mechanics. In this aspect, it excels. The only thing similar to it, both in scale and in design, is Minecraft. But No Man’s Sky looks up where Minecraft looks down. Where Minecraft has you dig deep underground to find the minerals you crave, No Man’s Sky has you walk the earth, then take to the skies. Minecraft occasionally requires you to shove a steak in a furnace, then into your face. No Man’s Sky makes you regularly top up the very air you breathe.
(One nice detail: the language of the text is very careful to never label you as human or alien, male or female. You’re just a Traveller. That’s all that’s important.)
It feels arrogant to want more. There is, quite literally, an entire universe to explore! We’re just conditioned as gamers to have activities prepared for us, ordered and doled out in bite-size chunks, like a bunch of rowdy preschoolers in need of stimulation. When there aren’t a thousand flags to collect or bases to take over, even a world as expansive as No Man’s Sky can feel empty. Instead, the objective is the world itself: looking around, cataloguing the animals, interacting with the aliens. The story is the one you create on your own. You make your own fun and are trusted to do so – a choice so rarely given in gaming that it feels weird and foreign. Even Minecraft had achievements.
Once you accept this truly open world, No Man’s Sky truly opens up. The choice is yours! You could take to space as a roving pirate, looting and pillaging as you please. You can become a hunter for truth, searching out monoliths and knowledge stones in every corner of every barren moon. You could even walk away from your ship entirely and stay on your very own home planet – one that nobody has ever discovered except for you – exploring and surviving for as long as your life support allows. The game stays quiet on this matter. The only important objective is the one you make for yourself.
All this makes it a perfect entry in the Podcast Game genre. That frees up your mind to drift and listen to something else in a way that many games do not. It doesn’t have to be a podcast, obviously. You can immerse yourself in great music, Youtube, or even double-fist your media and conduct a Netflix binge at the same time. Maybe even, shock of shocks, have a conversation with a fellow human.
Is it a good game? That’s harder to say. No Man’s Sky is very hard to quantify. Outside the oblique goal of ‘reach the centre’, there’s precious little progression. There’s no party members, no real battle system, and certainly no experience points. There’s just more planets than anyone could explore in a lifetime and the full ability to do so. That makes it a good podcast game. Really, shouldn’t that be more than enough?
(Can you think of any other good podcast games? Let us know in the comments!)