Even before struggling to create fire, the stars have been mankind’s biggest dream. Oh, to one day reach and explore them, finally find out what is behind that blanket of darkness and light that keeps us sleeping and, sometimes, awake, for hours every day. It is that same belief and dream about the stars that brought many developers to create a universe that could be freely and fully explored. That same belief animated Alessandro Ghignola, an Italian developer who, in 1996, began working on the first version of the space exploration simulator, Noctis. But, in reality, the work began much earlier.
Set in the Feltyrion galaxy – which is around 90 thousand light-years in radius – Noctis presents players with 78 billion stars to chart and explore, along with their accompanying planets, moons and other objects of interest. Each procedurally-generated world offers up its own climate, life forms and – most chillingly of all – ruined civilisations. The aim in Noctis isn't to 'win' as such; instead, players are expected to catalogue their findings as they explore the boundaries of the galaxy.
Speaking with Time Extension today, Ghignola reveals that he started toying on the Amiga with programs that would generate artificial landscapes. “Mercenary 2 was the big title which changed my perspective since that title had a huge solar system, I thought, I’ll go bigger and build a whole galaxy," he remembers.
Work on the first version of Noctis started on MS-DOS, with Ghignola building a galaxy bigger than the milky way, while keeping the experience a little over 2 MB. "There were many limitations and difficulties, especially since each segment of code could not go beyond 640k of memory," the programmer recalls. For each version, he tried to experiment with features to see if it would maintain a stable framerate, like the reflection of the pilot in the spaceship window.
Only three years later, in 2000, Ghignola finally released Noctis to the public. "No one noticed the game though; I had very few visits to my Geocities homepage." This was the case until Noctis was discovered by the classic "abandonware" website Home of the Underdogs. "That’s when I started having feedback from fans and speaking to them regularly; Noctis really came to life and started being its own thing." The community loved the sense of being alone in space, the desolation which came while staring into darkness and unknown worlds, but still being able to connect through early 2000s forums and chats.
This is also how one of the most unique features of Noctis, in its fourth version, came to be: the guide. "This is a little bit like an encyclopedia where players can note down the things they find exploring around on the planets: flora, fauna, sea, lakes," Ghignola says. "Despite being a community effort, it was not an online thing; instead, players emailed me their findings, and I would update the guide in each subsequent game’s version."
The guide would stop being updated only years later, in 2014, but by then, Ghignola had long stopped looking after Noctis. The game was instead being kept up to speed by its loving community, which had also released a version with bugfixes called Noctis IV CE (or NICE). A fifth version of Noctis had been in the works for many years, designed for 32-bit systems and with weather effects and new features.
For Noctis V, Alessandro had also developed his very own programming language, called L.in.oleum. "It was a low-level programming language, perfectly fine for me, but honestly not that great anyway. In the end, after four versions, I stopped updating it since there were so many better alternatives out there, such as Python. I thought, why bother? I could release the source code if anyone is interested, but lacking instructions, I believe no one would think the struggle was worth it."
But that’s not the only interactive experience he worked on, there are many that have yet to see the light. Among these, he mentions Crystal Pixels. "It was all about telling my dreams to a computer; you had a little spaceship called The Fly that you could use to land on little pixel planets. you would find objects on those planets, such as lamps or boards to write on. You could even record your own soundtrack on CD in-game, and then play it back during exploration." He also developed Avatar, an update of the original Rogue, but mostly featuring animals waving guns around. "Utter chaos," is how he describes it.
Reaching Ghignola was no easy feat, nor was phoning him up to talk. Still, he was pretty happy to talk about Noctis, despite describing himself as totally isolated. "I’m one step away from being a 'hikikomori', I barely interact with human beings these days," The programmer mentions that he lost interest and still does not have the willpower to go back to Noctis V. "I was hit by a huge depression in the '90s – in some way, I’m still recovering. These days I just draw comics; I only do things when I’m drawn by passion and, unfortunately, I feel nothing towards going back to programming."
Regarding his depression, things were so bad that in 2001 he refused a possible job at Insomniac. "This happened after I started doing bug reports for Spyro 2 and got in contact with Craig Stitt at Insomniac. I showed him an engine I was working on, and he invited me, mentioning the company could have a $6k job for me. I refused. I was having panic attacks even going to the next city; how could I ever transfer to California?" We contacted Craig Stitt, and he does remember something to that effect, even though he’s not sure about the job offer. "One thing is for sure: Spyro 2 definitely had a whole slew of bugs, so Alessandro had his hands full," comments Stitt.
While he doesn’t have regrets over the job, there is one thing Ghignola does regret: letting fans down. "I do remember promising several times that I would finish Noctis V and, still after all these years, I’ve never gone back. I’m sorry; I wish I had the strength to go back and finish what I started more than ten years ago."
Ghignola developed Noctis as a reflection of his dreams and exploring a desolate space, while being alone in the universe. Ironically, while now in the middle of his own (very real) isolation, Ghignola wonders how Noctis ended up bringing together people. "The community in Noctis found a way to connect even through isolation. In some way, out of my hands, Noctis became all about connecting with people, rather than escaping them, like I’ve been doing all my life."