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Bill Murphy: The Lost Sense of Journey

Column By William Murphy on December 26, 2011

Have we lost the sense of journey and discovery in our games?  Are the days where players could get lost in an MMO’s world forever gone due to the trend of quest markers, smaller worlds, and hand-holding quests that guide you from point A to point B?  Even one of the genre’s most recent successes, Star Wars: The Old Republic has given players every opportunity they can to not get lost in the game world.  Quest markers (while optional) dot every task and it’s really quite easy to get around with landspeeders and teleportation being a part of the game from level one.  At level 15 you get a sprint ability which makes it even easier to traverse the landscape, and a whole “planet” is easily navigated in minutes.  But is this new ease of transportation an important feature or a limitation of what used to be a genre steeped in exploration?  I personally think there are two cases to be made here: one for the downright sorrow of losing that sense of massive scope, and another for the newfound sense of densely populated worlds and layered exploration that can come from a more focused world design.

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What We’ve Lost

Now, it’s not the old guard of games, but when I think of exploration I think of the early days of Lord of the Rings Online from Turbine.  I remember getting lost in that game, and loving it.  Getting turned around in forests, and spending plenty of time actually hunting down quest objectives.  The world wasn’t massive, but it didn’t need to be because it was dense and filled with things to see and do.  But I can hear you now: that’s not what a journey is, Bill!  And you’re right, we’ve lost that original sense of travel that MMOs had.  Gone, unless you go back to those games, are the days when riding the boat in FFXI was actually “a feature” of the game and not just a way to go from one place to another.

When forum poster Metentso lamented the loss of journey in our MMOs, he was referring to the long and arduous travels we used to have to partake in… a world was actually a world and travel took time and was dangerous.  Now, much like the evolution of mankind itself, our games have “discovered” easier and swifter means of transportation and much of that sense of journey has been stripped from all current and likely future titles.  It’s lamentable, for sure, but it’s not all bad.  I feel there is an opportunity now for more layered and extensive true exploration to be injected into our games.

What We May Gain

There’s an upside to that lost sense of traversing worlds.  Sure we may never see a game where it’s intentionally a part of the experience to force players to walk for 45 minutes across frozen tundra to give a box to an elf again (for some odd reason it was decided this wasn’t fun!).  But where the arduous travel of MMOs may be a lost artifact of a different time, instead I believe we’re entering a different and much better era of world exploration in these games.  What we must strive for now, developers and players alike, is for the design teams to build deep and layers expanses for us to explore.

I want to see mountainous regions with caves and pockets of untouched wilderness.  I want to see fissures in the earth that open up to reveal something hidden and wondrous within.  I want to see forests that don’t have a clear path through to the other side, and hidden puzzles scattered about the landscape.  If the world’s going to have highways and transportation to make it easier for me to get to and from places on the beaten path… give me plenty of places to find on my own off the beaten path. This is more exploratory than any long and arduous journey anyway.  The real fun isn’t about running for hours on end to get to my next location, it’s about finding something shiny and alluring that keeps me from getting there in the first place.

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