Into the Worlds: The Universe in a Computer

It was my great good fortune in 1993 to live around the corner from the offices of Bethesda Softworks. I worked at the time as one of the moderators on the Compuserve Game Publishers forums and we all got invitations from Bethesda founder Chris Weaver to drop by and watch their games in progress. (By coincidence, we all lived in the Washington, DC, area.) Bethesda was working on a Terminator game, Terminator: Rampage, which I was less than impressed by when it was released, but I got an early look at a game called Arena that would be the first game in the Elder Scrolls series. I was blown away by it.

This was when I was working on my book Gardens of Imagination, which is about programming what we called “maze games,” though the genre later morphed into first-person shooters and RPGs. I was mostly discussing the raycasting techniques used in Id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D, but what Bethesda was doing with Arena was miles beyond anything I had written about in the early chapters and I tried hard in the later chapters to invent programming tricks that could duplicate effects like a glowing fireball shooting down a hallway, lighting the surrounding walls as it moved. We take that kind of effect for granted now, but to the naive eyes of a 1993 gamer on a DOS-based machine without 3D acceleration, it was beyond astonishing. It was a programming miracle.

A Dungeon in the Elder Scrolls: Arenga
A dungeon in Elder Scrolls: Arena

When Arena came out, it was every bit as impressive as I’d expected, perhaps even more so. You can still buy it on sites like Gog.com, but trying to play it will make you wonder what the fuss was about. It’s dated badly and, even at the time, had a boringly repetitive quest structure that was exciting at first but became monotonous by the fifth of the 16 dungeons you had to complete to finish the quest. No matter. I was still awestruck by the sheer size of the game world and the variety of the cities, provinces and dungeons you could visit. I would sometimes leave a city and just go for a walk, wondering what I’d stumble across. Never mind that most of what I found was procedurally generated (using fixed random number seeds, so the dungeons and cities didn’t change from one visit to another the way dungeons in Rogue-like games do). I had spent the first 13 years of my gaming life looking for a genuine world inside my computer and Arena delivered that world on a scale that was at the time unprecedented.

After the second and somewhat improved game Daggerfall came out two years later, the production of entries in the Elder Scrolls series slowed to a regular trickle of one new game every five years (though it doesn’t look like they’ll make the 2016 deadline for the sixth game, unless you count the MMORPG The Elder Scrolls OnLine. I don’t.) It was with the third game, Morrowind, in 2001 that the series hit its stride. Though the graphics have dated (though nowhere near as badly as those of the earlier games), some people still regard Morrowind as Bethesda’s best game. It had a fully imagined world, one in which fungi and insects were the major flora and fauna. Giant mushrooms towered over the landscape. Monstrous insects carried you, for a small fee, from city to city. Though not as large as the previous game worlds, the province of Morrowind was still immense and fully explorable, even (and usually) by foot. It was exotic. It was exciting. The scenery looked, and still looks, like a watercolor painting or charcoal drawing. It was, I think, a masterpiece. It was a world of infinite surprises and infinite possibilities.

A monstrous insect in Morrowind.
Hitching a ride on a monstrous insect in Morrowind.

There have been two more Elder Scrolls games since. The 2006 Oblivion took a leap into another graphics generation, one that hasn’t dated as much as you’d think. The world of Cyrodill was less exotic than Morrowind and the frequent visits you took to the Elder Scrolls version of hell were almost as repetitive as the dungeons in Arena, maybe more repetitive because they were all identical and you had to go there a lot to rescue cities and lost citizens. But there was a strong overall plot, with voice acting by Sean Bean, later the tragic paterfamilias on Game of Thrones, that lent a depth to his character that was helped more than a little by good if not exceptional dialogue. While regarded as one of the weaker entries in the series, it’s still well worth playing, assuming that somehow you missed it. I played it all the way through on the XBox version, which is more than I can say for the PC version of Morrowind, which I have yet to finish. (I plan to, though, because the large portion that I played is nicely replayable. It’s a world worth going back to.)

And then, of course, there was Skyrim, which remains the definitive Elder Scrolls game, with a large and varied Scandinavian-like universe. I’ve completed the main quest, but there seem to be more. It’s a game that never ends. I’m not sure I haven’t gotten my fill of it, though I’ll probably go again. There are too many quests I haven’t finished yet.

skyrim-2
Skyrim: Welcome to town, Dragonborn.

Which brings me to the topic of open worlds and exploration, especially exploration for exploration’s sake.

Into the Black

One of my favorite gaming blogs is Joel Goodwin’s Electron Dance. I discovered it through a link to Goodwin’s video Into the Black, which is as impressive a statement on why Goodwin (and, to a large extent, I) got into gaming as I expect to see anytime soon. It’s essential viewing if the idea of exploration for exploration’s sake interests you as a reason for gaming. I’m not sure I share Goodwin’s distaste for games that reward exploration with a series of goals — I could hardly love the Elder Scrolls games if I did — but his introduction of the “Overjustification Effect” made me think. It was something I’d experienced in my own life. Things I’d done primarily for fun, like computer programming, had often become my greatest passions while things I do for work, like my paid writing, are much less enjoyable than writing this blog, which nobody pays me to do and at the moment only a few people even read (though I hope to change that).

The real chill for me, though, came when Goodwin described his experiences with the original 1984 version of Flight Simulator 2, a game Goodwin played on an Atari and I played on a Commodore 64. Otherwise our experiences were the same. You flew that Piper Cherokee Archer not because you had a destination in mind but because you wanted to see what was there. You wanted to find the tiny pixelated objects that represented buildings and roads, hoping to discover something that you might miss if you didn’t look carefully, hoping that you might see something that no other player had seen. The Elder Scrolls games are a wonderful experience, but for several weeks Flight Simulator 2 was my obsession. I flew endlessly across its seemingly bleak landscapes letting my imagination fill in the details, so thrilled that I was discovering a genuine world in my computer that I didn’t want to stop, never mind that my frame rate occasionally dropped to less than one frame per second.

A landscape view from Flight Simulator 2
Flight Simulator 2 – Maybe you have to fly it to get what was so good about it.

Goodwin writes about this and a number of other topics, both related and unrelated, throughout his blog. He’s introduced me to games I otherwise might have missed, like Proteus. I’m not sure I share Goodwin’s passion for Proteus, but I understand it. The game generates islands procedurally, with vividly colored scenery and a childlike sense of wonder at wandering through them. It’s never going to make my most-played games list, but I’m glad I visited there.

Exploration for Exploration’s Sake

In 1981, the day before I received my first microcomputer, I picked up a game called Morloc’s Tower, which I later learned was a spin-off to Temple of Apshai, possibly the first graphic RPG ever written for a microcomputer. (Richard Garriott’s Akalabeth may also hold that title.) The back cover of the Morloc’s Tower box showed a pixelated silhouette of a knight fighting the pixelated silhouette of a monster. It was nothing to get excited about, yet I got excited. I was disappointed when I realized that the box art was for the Apple II version and my computer was a low-resolution TRS-80, which worked fine for the word processing I had bought it for. My character was simply a block of large pixels fighting other large pixels, but I played it anyway.

I found my head flooded with images of computer games 20 years hence that would allow you to walk across vividly rendered 3D landscapes meeting vividly rendered people. I wasn’t terribly wrong on the time frame for that, though the computer screens I’d imagined were huge and surrounded you like the 3-way mirrors in the clothing section of a department store, which hasn’t quite been the case. I didn’t imagine goggles that would give you a three-dimensional view without the need for a conventional screen, but now we have that with virtual reality devices like the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. I hope to get one of those — as soon as my bank account allows it and I see some must-have games that run on them, maybe a full VR version of Skyrim. I expect to see those games soon.

Knight versus monster in Moloc's Tower.
Morloc’s Tower. Crude, but in 1981 a genuine source of amazement.

My benchmark for this kind of virtual reality was when computer graphics were good enough to show individual blades of grass blowing in the wind. I finally saw this in Oblivion. Having programmed crude 3D games myself I knew how this was being done. The programmers had created a smooth-shaded, transparent polygon, then mapped the image of a clump of grass across it. By deforming the polygon in a blowing motion, the tuft of grass seemed to be blowing too. It wasn’t really individual blades of grass blowing in the wind, but it gave the illusion of it, which was close enough. My ideal virtual world had arrived.

This is a common effect now and programmers seem to be moving on to more spectacular ways of making their worlds look real, aided by yet another generation of graphics hardware. The new frontier seems to be realistic lighting effects, some of which almost look like ray tracing. Watch the scenery in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and notice how the color of objects in the outdoor scenes changes as the day progresses. Long shadows stretch across the landscape at sunrise and sunset and the grass takes on an orange glow that fades away closer to midday. It’s beautiful, sometimes so distractingly that I lose track of whatever quest I was trying to accomplish.

The Witcher 3‘s world is so beautiful that I find myself exploring it just to see what it looks like, watch the way light filters down from above as my character swims underwater, the way the sun blinds me as I look at it through the trees. I go plunging wildly through the forests, half hoping that I’ll find some monsters to fight so that I can level up, half hoping that I’ll find something so beautifully rendered that I want to stop and stare at it while the monsters kill me, leaving me to restore to my last save and go running off in a different direction.

The Witcher 3 aglow with sunset
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – A world aglow with sunset…or maybe sunrise.

This is exploration for exploration’s sake, the urge to examine another world just for the sake of discovering its textures, seeing its visual secrets, discovering its beauty. When I get my fill of that, I go back to playing the game.

And yet, as I suspect Joel Goodwin would agree, all of that was already in place with Flight Simulator 2. There was a world. You could explore it almost without limit. You just needed a hefty dose of imagination and maybe that was a good thing.

The World as Words and Electrons

I taught myself to program simply because I had a computer sitting on my desk and it came with a built-in BASIC interpreter. But once I caught on how to use data structures like arrays to program simple adventure games, something I learned from a small-press book filled with late 1970s TRS-80 text adventures written in BASIC (which were originally sold commercially at small software stores), I realized that there was already a world inside my computer. It was made up of memory circuits arranged along a linear pattern of numeric addresses, but a programmer can do a lot with that. In many ways, the world inside my computer was as real as the world outside of it. The “real” world is made up of particles that have properties determined by integral values that govern their interaction with other particles, like the particles that make up your optic system, your auditory system and your brain. The world inside the computer is made up of voltage levels contained inside circuits that interact with the CPU while a program is executed and communicate to the real world via output devices like the video display and the audio connections.

As a programmer, I could give that world a form and a function using words typed into the BASIC interpreter (or, later, mnemonic codes typed into an assembly language file) and maintain a kind of godlike control over it. To this day I think the time in my life I spent programming was the greatest open-world game I ever played and one with possibilities limited only by my imagination and my computer’s memory, much the same limitations faced by Flight Simulator 2 and the latest Elder Scrolls games, though memory is less of a concern now. In the early 80s you measured memory by the kilobyte and spent each unit of it like a precious coin, squeezing your world into it through efficiency and ingenuity. Now we measure computer memory by gigabytes (or, in the case of magnetic drives, terabytes) and creating a world inside a computer is so overwhelming a job that it mostly has to be done by teams or with tools like AGS (Adventure Game Studio), which Dave Gilbert used to create the Blackwell games. At some point I lost interest in creating those worlds. It was too much like work. I’d have to do it professionally, in which case the overjustification effect would kill any fun left in the process. At least I’d need some artistic and music composition skills, both of which I lack, or some friends who’d be willing to work with me for eventual profits. I miss the day when one person could create a game for the TRS-80 Model III or the Apple II or the Atari 800.

But I digress.

So Computers Contain Worlds

Yeah, they do. They contain them for players of games like the Elder Scrolls series and they contain them for programmers too. Game publishers have become quite aware that players enjoy this, to the point where Open World Game has become a category of its own and one that computer game publishers like to advertise. Not all games that appear to contain open worlds really do. Dragon Age Origins, which looks like an open world game, is only a selected set of regions the player can visit with problems they can overcome, much like an adventure game but with better graphics. It’s a game that I want to like much more than I do. The Mass Effect games don’t even pretend to offer open worlds. Well, at least the first one didn’t. I’ve never gotten past the first one, so I’m not quite sure where they went from there. Pillars of Eternity, the spiritual successor to the Baldur’s Gate games, doesn’t really offer an open world, just story. As I said in my last post, story can be its own justification for gaming, but I’m not convinced yet that the story of Pillars of Eternity, which is in many ways rather bland, is worth the effort of completing it.

Pillars of Eternity landscape.
Pillars of Eternity — Closed world, bland story.

I think at some point I became jaded about open world games and yet I’ll probably rescind that statement the next time I find a good one. Maybe Elder Scrolls VI: Hammerfell. Maybe something that’s on the market, or even in my Steam library, that I just haven’t tried yet. The Witcher 3 reignited my interest for a while but I also haven’t played it in several weeks. I have to get back to it and see what it offers.

I just need world(s) enough and time.

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