With Star Wars: The Old Republic’s subscription numbers down by roughly 400,000 and the response to Zenimax’s Elder Scrolls Online announcement tepid at best, it seems that MMOs have lost the power to grab and hold our attention. Even Blizzard’s Mists of Panderia expansion seems unlikely to draw back the millions of ex-World of Warcraft players finally liberated from their addiction. Yes, Bioware, Blizzard, and numerous other MMO publishers still turn a profit, but the allure of MMOs has faded dramatically since WoW peaked at over 12 million subscribers. Nevertheless, plenty of studios continue to wade into the genre, realizing that even minor innovations in the tired MMO formula can spark success.
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One of my favorite aspects of video games is their ability to simulate worlds that reconcile the conflict between huge spaces and quick trips. Virtual spaces can be big enough to feel large and mysterious but small enough to mentally map as a contiguous whole, even after you get the ability to fast travel via the equivalent of a virtual jet. I’ve been replaying The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past recently and have found that I can still remember how to walk from the foot of the mountains to the middle of the desert by memory. Because of this, the game still retains its sense of place when I take a shortcut by instantly warping around the map. I may be skipping a lot of obstacles, but I know that they exist, and I know how they connect the world.
This feeling of connectivity is part of what makes the game (as well as many Zelda games) special; the world feels like an ecosystem, one in which fast travel and load screens are concessions to convenience and technical limitations, as opposed to a segmented approach to design. It’s also a feeling that was impossible for me to have in the latest Zelda title, Skyward Sword, a game whose very structure feels like a series of disjointed plane trips over a disconnected world.
Mark Sample of Play the Past recently asked an interesting and thought provoking question to his readers: “What are the limits of playing the powerless?” Even more specifically, he asked, “What are the limitations of playing the powerless in videogames about the powerless?” (“The Limits of Playing the Powerless and the Doomed in Video Games”, Play the Past, 10 April 2012). Sparked by Ian Bogost’s How to Do Things with Videogames, Sample goes on to raise and allude to a variety of questions about viewership and participation, player detachment, historical obligations, and developer responsibility. All games can—and more should—address sensitive issues with tact, including emotional topics and historically significant time periods or events marked by troubling power relations. The only limits to playing the “powerless” are the limits we set when we carry our game design assumptions into the development process.
The concept of fun inevitably arises when discussing serious games and powerlessness in particular. Time and again others have exhaustively argued for “engagement” as a more descriptive ideal than “fun,” which fails to capture why we engage with melancholy media at all. So let’s leave that concept behind entirely.
This post contains spoilers for Neuromancer, Halo: Reach, Braid, and Red Dead Redemption.
Recently, I’ve been slacking on some projects I’m working on, but I have a good excuse. Well, at least my editor might think it’s a good excuse: I got caught up reading William Gibson’s novel, Neuromancer. It’s a foundational work in modern science fiction, one I’m proud to now check off of my long list of shamefully neglected cultural blind spots. There’s a lot to like about Neuromancer, but one of my favorite aspects is the ending—specifically, how depressing it is. This isn’t to say that it’s bad or flawed, just that it’s not a particularly sunny resolution. It’s the kind of ending that also appears in some of my favorite video games.
In a deep salt basin in New Mexico about 26 miles east of Carlsbad, the US Department of Energy has been burying the world’s most dangerous material. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) houses an enormous load of transuranic radioactive waste, the destructive remnants of nuclear weapons research and production. In this massive hole in the desert, our deadly refuse must sit for 10,000 years—a timespan difficult to imagine let alone predict. In the far off future, when an advanced human culture or the destitute remains of a crumbling civilization finds our pock upon the earth, regardless of their culture or linguistic ability, they must understand a clear and resounding message: “What is here is dangerous.”
You can imagine then the difficulty faced by WIPP’s scientists in designing a universal missive for future generations. Their solution was to tap into the study of human psychology and the visceral reactions that we have to aesthetics and architecture, a field game designers explore constantly.