It has awful graphics, absolutely no sound, rules that are utterly incomprehensible and a terrible interface design certain to frustrate anyone used to traditional 3D game control schemes. So why can’t I stop playing Noctis IV?
I first learned about Noctis from Proteus’ Ed Key who mentioned it in a discussion that broke out on Twitter in the wake of the recent explorable xkcd cartoon, “Click and Drag”. Brendan Keogh expressed his delight that his entire Twitter feed was exploring the vast image, comparing it to “a great big MMO.” This prompted exchanges with Ed and myself about explorer MMOs, and why Minecraft can't quite fit the bill in this regard. Ed casually mentioned Noctis as something close, which caught my attention, although it was a while before I understood why Noctis could be compared to the chatter on Twitter surrounding the cartoon.
I downloaded and installed Noctis IV (the latest version) later that day, and started messing around. It places you aboard a small ship known as a Stardrifer that is able to travel within a vast galaxy, within which there are no other ships, no other sentient life forms, and very little to do other than explore. The game could be compared to the classic Elite but with the play thinned down to almost nothing. No fighting, no trading, no mining, no docking, no way to win, and the only challenge being comprehending the inscrutable design of the interface systems. The introduction on the website claims: “From the moment you first play Noctis, you'll be hooked.” It would be fairer to state: “From the moment you first start Noctis, you’ll be confused.”
Rather than a space simulator, Noctis is a galaxy simulator – myriad stars with a multitude of planets, all procedurally generated. You search. First, for stars with habitable planets. Then, when you work out the arcane sequence required to send a capsule to the surface, you explore the planet itself essentially as a hiking simulation. There are a few things to find on a few of the worlds – plants and animals, even ruins on some planets. But there is no sense of progress, and certainly nothing that could be considered a goal. Mostly, you poke around for your own curiosity and aesthetic enjoyment of the strange new worlds it offers.
What Ed Key alluded to in the original discussion was the entirely optional galactic guidebook that is accessed from one of the mysterious side screens in the ship. Players can record comments – and name previously unexplored stars and planets – then send their notes to the game’s creator for incorporation into the guide. It’s unobtrusive, yet oddly intriguing when you examine the places that other players considered noteworthy; a home-brew Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy that reassures you that despite the apparent unplayability of the game, it does indeed have an audience.
Noctis IV is the crummiest game I’ve ever loved. It could be so much better than it is in almost ever conceivable way, yet this is a galactic sim with more charm than anything the AAA system has produced in years. It is not a game for everyone – it doesn’t even seem like a game for anyone! But if you have a taste for oddities and the patience to read a manual describing the most absurd collection of esoteric game actions imaginable, you may find the galaxy in Noctis well worth a visit.