Despite the fact that “art” is a culturally-defined label, nobody seems to have a good idea what it means. As proof, I cite not only the “are videogames art?” debate, but also the countless arguments over various pieces within already-established art forms. Nobody can agree on what “art” is. The problem is that defining art puts it in a box, and artistic pursuits are by nature very anti-box. Definitions are all about meeting expectations, and art is all about exceeding expectations. There’s no way to make up a list of requirements for the “art club” that will encompass every possible idea that someone could come up with. That is, unless you just say that every creative work is by definition “art”—which just turns “art” into another word for “creative work,” and eliminates any distinction between, say, Transformers 3 and Schindler’s List. So basically, it’s a mess. And the previously-mentioned “videogames as art” debate is an even BIGGER mess, since it’s full of left-brained individuals trying solve the problem like it’s a quadratic equation (stylish visuals plus pretentious subtext MUST equal art! CULTURE, Y U NO UNDERSTAND??).
So, now I’m sure you’re all saying “Jefe, you pretentious self-aggrandizing egotistic virginal cheese-loving jerkwad… why don’t you tell us how YOU define art, so that we can unceremoniously tear you apart in the comments below?” Well, you see, I can make these pithy little remarks without fear of looking like a hypocrite… because frankly I don’t have a good definition for art either. I take the point of view of…that judge guy…the guy who ruled on the definition of pornography? Or something like that? Anyone? Whatever. The point is, I can’t define art, but I like to think that I know it when I see it.
So on that note, let’s talk about Noctis IV.
If I had to pick one word to describe Noctis IV, it would be “ethereal.” If I had to pick more than one word, I’d probably preceded “ethereal” with a few expletives for emphasis, and throw in “artistic” to relate this paragraph with the last two. Because, you see, that’s what Noctis IV is… it is an ethereal experience. It is an artistic experience. It is art not because it looks like a painting, or pretends to have deep meaning, or does something weird and wacky… it is art in a mature, restrained, subtle, non-abrasive way.
As a game? Noctis IV is a space exploration simulator. Now, see, when you read those words, you probably saw “space exploration SIMULATOR.” A game about adjusting dials, monitoring pressure, and understanding 50 different measurement units and their accompanying graphs and tables. That isn’t Noctis. No, Noctis is more of a “space EXPLORATION simulator.” There are simulation elements, but not many. For the most part, you simply revel in the lonely exploration of a realistically-sized procedurally-generated universe, and the planets therein. The game doesn’t really enforce any consequences, apart from running out of gas, in which case you simply send out a distress beacon and are re-fueled by a fellow traveler (the only contact you ever have with another living soul, other than the wildlife you find on planet surfaces). So no…there is no challenge. There is no goal. There is only endless exploration, and a communal database to share your findings with others.
Graphically speaking, this is one of the lowest resolution 3d games I’ve ever played. So on planet surfaces, anything that’s more than a few yards ahead deteriorates into pixely mush. In your spacecraft, you can’t decipher letters on the the mainscreen unless you smoosh your face against it. Yes, this is rather unfortunate, and even the most hardcore of oldschool gamers might have trouble adjusting. The resolution aside, though, Noctis looks breathtaking. Even more than breathtaking, actually. This is quite possibly one of the most beautiful games ever made, in its own blurry, pixilated way. It’s all in the atmosphere …the feelings of bittersweet loneliness and emptiness—all without even a hint of pessimism. Remember what I said in the first paragraph? Noctis is an ethereal game. It evokes a certain feeling of vulnerable wonder. You feel it when you turn the lights off and see your ship illuminated by the light of a nearby star. You feel it when you’re on the surface of a grey and barren moon, looking up into an endless void of stars. You feel it when you’re orbiting a planet, admiring its geography and looking for a place to land. You feel it when you’re on the top of the highest plateau you can find, gazing out across the ocean. You feel it when you climb onto the roof of your ship as it travels at lightspeed, and watch as your destination grows from a tiny dot to an entire solar system. Many games have rendered space with flashier graphics and better effects. But few universes can claim the verisimilitude of feeling that Noctis has, and most of this has to do with its visuals.
Some of it has to do with the sound work, too. Because there is no sound. Noctis is an entirely silent game, and this just serves to heighten the atmosphere. Many Noctis players do listen to their own music while they play, though. Personally, I can’t imagine anything but Eric Whitacre, Morten Lauridsen, or Avro Part accompanying my excursions, but less pretentious individuals will probably have their own particular type of music that fits the game’s atmosphere for them. Hint: it should be something ethereal.
And there’s a surprisingly deep backstory, considering that the game doesn’t follow anything in the way of a plot. You play as part a race of cat-like creatures called the Felisians, whose entire history is narrated in the game’s manual. As a “Stardrifter,” your character was tasked with exploring and cataloging the galaxy...but at some point in the past, you and your fellow Stardrifters returned home to find nothing but ruins and emptiness. The rest of the Felisians had left their home world without a trace. Alone and with nowhere to go, you are simply continuing with your original mission. Somewhere out there are other Stardrifters, but you won’t ever run into them unless you send out a request for emergency fuel. It’s not all lonely, though… you have access to a huge database of discoveries and documentation from other Noctis players (which has to be updated every once in awhile). You can modify this database and make your own entries, as well. The process for submitting your starmap to be included in the official starmap is a little complex, but it’s worth it to feel like you’re contributing to the exploration of a galaxy.
But this isn’t a game for everyone. If you like predefined goals, this isn’t the game for you. If you like exciting, challenging gameplay with a clear risk/reward payoff, this isn’t the game for you. If you like a narrative, this isn’t the game for you. If you think 1280x1024 is a low resolution, this isn’t the game for you. And if you have no soul, this isn’t the game for you either. But if you have an open mind and want an ethereal, soothing, heavenly, magical experience, then this IS the game for you. Noctis IV really is a game like no other, and it’s about the closest most of us will get to experiencing the wonder of space exploration. Download it, love it… dream about the intangible and the wonderful.
Noctis IV is available for free at anynowhere.com