Open Worlds and Closed Space Stations: My Favorite Games of 2017

I’ve been lax about maintaining this blog in 2017. I’ve written a couple of perfunctory posts, just so that people will remember (or finally notice) that I’m here. I won’t go into the reasons for my absence, but one was that I was playing so many games.

My rationale for that, beyond simply my love of gaming, is that it made sense to learn as much as I could about what’s happening currently in the gaming industry. This, I reasoned, would give me a better, more informed perspective on what kind of games, indie and AAA, are currently on the market so that I could write more cogently about them.

Precisely the opposite has happened. The more games I played, the more I despaired at the prospect of summarizing the current state of the art a few thousand words at a time. In fact, the gaming industry is all over the place right now, from the emergence of wilderness survival games as an insanely popular category (largely, I think, due to the brilliantly designed sandbox mode in The Long Dark with some lingering influence from Minecraft) to the increased pandering to the retro market, with games that supposedly resemble, in their pixelated glory, the games of everybody’s youth. (They don’t, really, but that’s a subject for an entire post.)

Instead, I simply want to talk about the games I’ve most enjoyed playing this year, even the ones that I’m embarrassed to admit I love. (True confession: I’ve become obsessed with Ubisoft games. Go ahead and laugh. You’ll have more opportunity later.)

If last year was my year of gaming emotionally, this was my year of gaming bigly, embracing huge AAA titles with large open worlds, intense, often linear narratives and gorgeous graphics. While I’ll admit that I had an unexpected emotional response to one of those games, which I’ll name below, I was mostly gaming for the sheer widescreen fun of it. And here, in no particular order, are the games that have offered me the most fun. (Unlike last year, I’m going to stick with games published in the same year that I’m writing this post, i.e., 2017.)

Prey

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GLOO-gunning your way through the rafters of Talos-1.

As far as I know, the trapped-in-a-space-station (hereafter referred to as TiaSS) genre began in 1994, with Looking Glass Studio’s innovative adventure cum shooter cum zombie survival game System Shock, which I still think is one of the ten or so best computer games ever to grace my video display. Its setting and basic mechanics have been copied quite a few  times over the years, most notably by its sequel, System Shock 2, which I’ve never learned to love. (I usually end up cowering in a corner waiting to be killed by the lumbering zombies I’ve let myself become orbitally entombed with.)

Dead Space brilliantly crossbred the TiaSS genre with full-on survival horror in 2008, but it’s only in the last year or so that this type of game has genuinely flourished, maybe because it’s relatively easy to construct a space station interior out of Unity assets. TiaSS games from 2017 include the soporific but visually appealing early-access game P.A.M.E.L.A. and the awkward but promising early access game STARDROP. (Early access games also deserve a post of their own, but not until next year.) The Gone-Home-in-space game Tacoma, which also deserves an entire post, has a lot in common with TiaSS games, but doesn’t really fit into the genre.

None of those games, even Dead Space, can hold a half-melted Christmas candle to Prey, the “spiritual sequel” to System Shock from Bethesda and Arkane Studios. (Spiritual sequels, a category that’s only just beginning to take off as a way of capitalizing on nostalgia for specific games, may also deserve a post of their own, as soon as I figure out how many there are besides this and Torment: Tides of Numerera.)

Prey is a stunner of a space station game, opening with a trope freely lifted from Philip K. Dick. (I’ll stay mum about the twist for players who are waiting to pick the game up cheap during the holiday sales season.) The part of the premise I can talk about: The game takes place in an alternate future where John F. Kennedy wasn’t assassinated and a joint effort between America and Russia created a space effort very different from the one that peaked and went nowhere after Project Apollo. The player character is trapped on a space station, Talos-1,  in orbit around the moon and has to work out both the reason that he’s there (his memory’s been wiped) and what he has do to get out.

Like System Shock, Prey forces you to piece together its premise and its backstory from emails, audio logs and videos. (This much-used mechanic probably originated with System Shock, though now it’s found its way into a wide variety of games, even in medieval RPGs where defunct characters leave a remarkable number of handwritten notes in their wake.) The space station itself is lovingly and meticulously constructed around an art deco aesthetic reminiscent of the city of Rapture in the first two Bioshock games but without the heaps of economic and ethical philosophy piled on top of it. It’s magnificently explorable, with objects and passageways secreted away on top of the infrastructure and in hard-to-spot crannies. Talos-1 is a joy to visit, though no sane game character would want to live there.

The weaponry available to the player is a peculiar mix, starting out with a crowbar apparently borrowed from Gordon Freeman. The already-notorious GLOO gun isn’t especially powerful and the crossbow isn’t so much a nerfed weapon as it’s literally a nerf weapon, designed for recreation by bored office workers. Yet the seeming uselessness of these weapons forces the player to find creative ways to use them, which is one of the things that makes the game so fascinating. There’s a lot of emergent gameplay in Prey and I suspect no two people will play the game in exactly the same way unless they’re following a walkthrough. (Ah, there’s another idea for a post: the boom in visual game walkthroughs on YouTube and Twitch.)

I’ve discovered that playing on the easiest mode makes the exploration more fun, because those annoying creatures that wander through the hallways keep spoiling the view. But the easiest mode isn’t all that easy. I love Prey not so much because it challenges me in the traditional, rapid-twitch way that shooters have traditionally challenged players, but for its complex  environment (including the exterior of Talos-1 as well as its interior), which challenged me to find ways of exploring it that were completely different from anything I’d seen in a game before. Let’s just say that the GLOO gun is useful for more than just attacking your enemies.

Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus

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Wheelchair fighting at its finest in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

Seriously, this is the best, most satisfying first-person shooter since Half Life 2 back in the mid aughts. (I’m not counting Prey as an FPS because the weaponry is so pathetic.) What’s so astonishing about MachineGame’s latest entry in the Wolfenstein series is that B.J. Blazkowicz finally makes the full transition from that pixelated image at the bottom of the Wolf3D screen into a completely realized character, one who begins this game broken and with vital organs collapsing. In the opening sequences he goes from fighting in a wheelchair (in a marvelously executed series of navigational puzzles) to fighting in a powered exoskeleton, somehow managing to remain a strong FPS protagonist while struggling against a depression over the state of the world, his life and his loved ones that’s so deep it poses more of a threat than the Nazis. (Brian Bloom deserves plaudits for a masterful voice-acting job as B.J.) At one pivotal juncture he’s saved from both death and depression by what seems at first blush like an absurd deus ex machina, but on careful examination turns out to have been skillfully set up in the early portion of the story in a bit of sleight of hand so deft you never notice MachineGames sliding the card up their virtual sleeve.

The revelation, which I’m pretty sure hasn’t come up in previous Wolfenstein games, that Blazkowicz is half Jewish on his mother’s side lends much-needed weight to his never-ending fight against the Nazis. And the depiction of his father in flashbacks as physically and emotionally abusive not only deepens Blazkowicz as a character but has a powerful payoff in one of the most startling moments I’ve seen in a computer game. The New Colossus was my emotional high point for the year, one that I didn’t see coming when I sat down to play it. Some Steam users have complained that this isn’t a worthy follow-up to Wolfenstein: The New Order, but I think it’s a better, richer game than its predecessor and much deeper emotionally than I ever expected a first-person shooter to be.

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands

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The lovely mountains (and towering cathedrals) of the Bolivian Wildlands.

This is where you get to laugh. Go ahead. I can see you  trying not to snicker too loudly (or at least not so loudly that I can hear you all the way in Long Beach, California, from wherever it is you live). Wildlands is the game where Ubisoft unites the long-running Ghost Recon series with the company’s signature formula of a lone character (here actually four “lone” characters) taking down a pyramid of underbosses on the way to the big boss at the top. I’d never had any interest in playing a game with Tom Clancy’s name on it (except for the original Splinter Cell, which a friend recommended and which I found surprisingly engaging a decade ago) and wasn’t really expecting a lot from this one.

All I remembered about Ubisoft before I played this, other than the Tom Clancy connection, was that they produced the Assassin’s Creed series, which I’ve never cared for. Over the years I’ve picked up the first AC game every several months and tried to make sense of its unending series of tedious rooftop-jumping assignments. And every time I’ve failed. (It’s finally started to sink in on me that I may be taking the games in the wrong order; there are some well-regarded entries later in the series.) I bought Wildlands primarily so that I could have something graphically impressive I could use to show off my (relatively) new gaming computer. Instead, I found myself obsessed with it.

Steam says I’ve spent 214 hours playing Wildlands and while the game was probably sitting in the background during a large chunk of that time, waiting for me to stop surfing the Web or watching television with Amy, the majority of those hours represent actual play. I came to each of its story missions as a mini-world of its own, a tactical landscape that I had to puzzle out in order to accomplish whatever goal my CIA handler had stuck me with. As silly as the game’s depiction of a druglord-ruled Bolivia may be, those missions became an important part of my life for several weeks. And while I can’t say that I was blown away by every one of them, I found enough of them compelling that I had to force myself to stop playing when it was time to go to sleep. (Given that the game lets you go on playing after you’ve overthrown the uber-boss, I’m technically still playing it, though I haven’t touched it in several months. It loses a lot of momentum once you reach the top of the cocaine-cooking pyramid.) Shoot up a casino to embarrass a Sicario? Sure. Capture a lieutenant and choke him until he coughs up information on his buddies? Why not? Run a video revealing a priest’s sordid mob past in the middle of his sermon, then drag him out of a giant cathedral without the Sicarios killing him? I’m there!

The open world of the game is voluptuous, gorgeous to look at, with single-lane roads winding treacherously through tall, jagged mountains and a range of biomes from tropical to desert to sub-arctic. I don’t know if the real Bolivia is anything like this — honestly, it felt more like Skyrim at times than South America — but as a landscape for a game it’s perfect. The world frequently becomes repetitive, with conspicuous reuse of landscape and architectural assets, and the side missions that you discover on the map pretty much fall into a small set of scenarios — Sicarios parked by the road and ready to start shooting, Sicarios flaunting their presence in rural villas and ready to start shooting, Unidad (secret police) in the pay of the cartels ensconced in large, well-guarded compounds and ready to start shooting — but I felt a feverish need to complete the main missions. I systematically ticked them off the quest list and don’t regret a single minute I spent doing it.

Wildlands led to several months of Ubisoft obsession that included Watch Dogs (which had been sitting in my collection for a couple of years unplayed) and Far Cry 4. Now I’m playing Assassins Creed: Origins, the first AC game I’ve actually liked enough to play for more than 45 minutes at a sitting. I’m dubious about the historical accuracy of its Egyptian setting, but Origins has a more compelling story than any other AC game I’ve seen, with a main character who actually feels like he belongs in this milieu (Ubisoft ignores their Animus device in the early stages of the game) and a revenge motive not unlike the one in Watch Dogs. (Diving into the Nile to avoid arrows from guards is a lot like diving into the Chicago river to escape a police manhunt in WD. Maybe they should have called the game Watch Dogs Primal.) And it’s the first game in the series structured as an actual RPG, complete with a branching skill tree, so you feel as if you’re accomplishing something as you work through the main quests and side quests. If Assassin’s Creed games had been this good from the beginning, I would have been lined up to play each year’s new entry the moment Ubisoft rushed it to market.

It’s too early to say whether AC: Origins belongs on my 2017 list, but there’s no question in my mind that Wildlands does. Say what you will about Ubisoft — and a lot of people have said a lot of nasty things — but I’ve never seen games that work their butts off as hard as Ubisoft’s do to show the player a good time.

Sniper Elite 4

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A railroad bridge enjoying its final moments in Sniper Elite 4

When Ubisoft’s oeuvre began to wear thin, I picked up this stealth fighting game set in World War II Italy as a change of pace. I’m not sure what I expected from it but it slid neatly into the obsession slot that Wildlands and Watch Dogs had recently vacated. Having subsequently tried the earlier games in the series (plus the Zombie Army Trilogy that uses the same interface and engine, not to mention the same weapons and main character), I can confidently announce that this is the first Sniper Elite game that Rebellion has gotten right. The designers don’t push you from goal to goal, a device that’s antithetical to the idea of an open world and that Rebellion uses liberally in their other games. You can take the missions within each map in almost any order, though there’s usually a key goal that will finish off the level and is best left for last. That’s really the only major change from Sniper Elite 3 and the Zombie Army games, but it makes an (open) world of difference in the way that the game feels.

While the sniping aspect probably isn’t realistic, the shooting feels much more grounded in SE4 than the shooting in Wildlands did, and SE4‘s worlds are almost as open as Wildlands’. Each one is a portion of Italy large enough to hold multiple missions, some of them discoverable, marked with large circles on the game map. The game play captures a pleasant balance between relaxing stealth strategizing — slinking past or silently slitting the throats of the Nazis who seem to have systematically driven out or murdered the Italian populace — and high-speed FPS play when your stealth play doesn’t prove subtle enough.

The musical score, which sounds like something from the soundtrack of The Godfather, sets a low-energy mood, signalling that the player should take each scenario at an unhurried pace. That was fine with me. Scoping out the landscape is half the fun in an open-world stealth game on this mid-sized scale and I pored over the maps in each scenario with the glee of a long-time historical wargamer, something that I’m definitely not. I studied the differences between weapons, selecting them carefully for the situations I was in (sniper rifle for distance, machine gun or pistol for close range), and hid in deserted houses, trying to find the best windows for picking off passing enemies. Each landscape is smoothly  designed for stealth play, with a plethora of hiding places and strategically located scenic overlooks for long-distance sniping. Until the enemy discovers you, the game gives you lots of time to pick your shots. Who knew that a shooter could be this laid back?

My favorite scenario was about blowing up a railroad bridge, a process that involved finding the perfect spot to place a satchel charge and then the perfect spot, very far away, from which I could fire a bullet into it with my sniper rifle. Watching the massive bridge crumble into the river far below, carrying an entire train with it, was as satisfying a gaming moment as I’ve had all year.

Is it coincidence that two of my favorite games this year involved shooting Nazis? Probably. But Nazis never get old as the targets in computer gaming’s eternal shooting gallery. They’re easy to hate and satisfying to shoot, a lot more satisfying than the spectral monstrosities of Prey, which just kind of get in the way.

The Rest of the Crowd

I’ve lost count of how many games I’ve played this year and have no intention of opening Steam to total them up. There are quite a few games that I’ve bought and installed but have yet to play. However…

Here are some of the most interesting ones that I did play but never became obsessed with:

What Remains of Edith Finch

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The crooked house of Edith Finch and her defunct family

Edith Finch, which bears a superficial resemblance to Gone Home but was clearly produced on a higher budget, is about a young woman returning to her family homestead to learn how each member of her family died. As she explores the rooms in an old house that’s so convoluted it must be shaped like a tesseract, she finds an animated recreation of each death — every one in a different style of animation, with differing degrees of interactivity. The only reason I’m not putting this in the main list is that, while I admired it hugely, I never found myself deeply engaged in it or emotionally involved. Not that this was necessarily the designer’s intent.

My favorite death sequence is rendered in the style of an early 1950s EC comic book a la Tales from the Crypt. As a long-time EC fan, that one sequence alone made the game work for me, but the inventiveness of the other sequences is equally impressive, especially a first-person sequence where the young female protagonist turns into various animals, both realistic and fantastic, gnawing on larger and larger victims to satisfy a seemingly bottomless appetite. Essentially a children’s book for adults, Edith Finch is well worth playing on artistic merit alone. I do, however, plan to write a piece on why neither this nor Tacoma packs the same emotional punch that the simple, unassuming Gone Home does.

Echo

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Rose Leslie trying to sneak past spectral opponents. Good luck on that.

A visually appealing stealth shooter with an interesting gimmick: Your opponents “echo” your own behavior. I’m not far enough into the game to give it a fair assessment, but what I’ve played so far is intriguing. Rose Leslie (Game of Thrones, The Good Fight) gives a pleasantly raspy voice performance as your character, a space traveler on a mysterious mission to find her grandfather in a buried palace, and there’s enough exploration (through a fairly repetitive environment), sneaking and fighting to keep it reasonably engrossing. I wish I’d been able to set aside more time for it and plan to do so in 2018.

Elex

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Looking for allies and discovering enemies in Elex

A science-fiction RPG that asks the eternal question: Does Piranha Bytes have more than one game in them? Every RPG I’ve played by them, in the Gothic, Risen and now this series, feels identical, a story about an outsider wandering into a closed environment — a penal colony, a village of pirates, the survivors of a planet-wide apocalypse — that’s splintered into philosophically distinct factions, trying to find a way to fit in while enacting his or her own personal agenda. It’s an interesting formula that would be compelling if PB were capable of creating characters who did  more than gesticulate wildly and spout banal dialogue.

ELEX is their most interesting variation on this theme to date. The planet Magalan is reeling in the wake of a collision with a comet, which left behind a powerful energy source called ELEX (the reason for the all-caps name isn’t clear) that can be used pretty much any way the plot demands, including for magic. The most effective ELEX users, the Alb, have decided to conquer the disparate factions that have arisen in the disaster’s wake and you play as a disgraced Alb pilot struggling to escape the wrath of your former allies while not giving away your identity to the Alb’s enemies. Succeeding means that you have to decide how you want to use ELEX (which you pretty much have to, given that the game’s Pip-Boy-like mapping, crafting and skill-tree interface depends on it) and pick a side in the war. This is such a strong premise, and the world is so well imagined, that even Piranha Bytes can’t entirely screw it up and, despite its occasionally clumsy presentation (and poor-to-competent voice acting), the game more or less works. The choice of factions would seem, though I haven’t finished my first playthrough yet, to offer considerable replay value and perhaps multiple narrative threads.

Your character starts the game in almost a pathetically weak state, low on skills, armor and weapons. You’ll die a lot in minor fights with forest creatures before you can do any proper exploring or faction choosing. The most fun I had in the early stages was using my jetpack. It’s only good for short flights, but it can get you into spaces an RPG character normally couldn’t reach. Like most Piranha Bytes games this is a diverting enough way to pass time if you’re in the mood for open-world exploration, stealth fighting, crafting, etc., and are bored with any better alternatives at hand. Watch for this on Steam’s and GOG’s holiday sales. At this writing both have it at a 33% markdown.

Endless Space 2

“Let’s blow some stuff up! I mean, let’s do science!”

The cleverest and best-looking of the recent spate of space-based 4X games, with some of the best-conceived (and occasionally humorous) spacefaring societies any game developer has let loose on an unsuspecting galaxy. Between this and Endless Legend, Amplitude is shaping up as the most innovative developer of 4X games since Sid Meier’s original Civilization appeared from Firaxis predecessor Microprose more than a quarter of a century ago. They’ve been good about responding to player feedback on this and the game has improved substantially since its initial release. Admittedly I find myself getting bored with it after an hour or two — I’ve found this happening more and more with 4X games in general — but I always come back to it and don’t expect that to stop any time soon. Like Edith Finch, it’s a game that I admire more than love. Endless Space 2 is well worth picking up when Steam marks it down.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

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Melina Juergens having afternoon tea with the voices in her head in an Oscar-worthy mocap performance.

A visually stunning schizophrenia sim in the guise of an adventure game. I’m still stuck at one of the pattern-rotating puzzles early in the game– at least I assume it’s still early in the game — so I can’t really say much about it except that it features a superb motion-capture/voice performance by the game’s video editor Melina Juergens, who would almost certainly be nominated for an Oscar if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave awards for video game performances. Also: The sound design is as powerful and multi-layered as anything you’re likely to hear through your Bluetooth headphones in 2017 and probably 2018. I really have to get back to playing it, though I hate pattern-rotating puzzles.

Game of the Year

So, after all this, what was the best game I played? I’m marking it as a tie between Prey and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. The first is the most imaginative strategic shooter I’ve played in years, not to mention one of the best looking. The latter is the first FPS I’ve encountered with genuine emotional depth. (Sorry, Gordon Freeman, but I never really felt I knew ye.) Either one would have made this a great year for gaming. As it stands, I think this year has been a high water mark in the era of AAA games, the best since, oh, probably 2016.

I feel bad about omitting The Long Dark, but the sandbox mode has been available in early access for a couple of years now and the story mode, added a few months ago, is the weakest part of the finished game. Maybe next year I’ll settle back into playing emotionally/strategically satisfying indies. But Far Cry 5 is waiting just over the horizon and I suspect my Ubisoft obsession will reemerge to embarrass me all over again. I may just keep playing bigly until Campo Santo’s follow-up to Firewatch, In the Valley of the Gods, appears on Steam in 2019. But Campo Santo looks like it’s on its way to becoming yet another AAA developer. We’ll see.

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Lara Croft and Scrooge McDuck: Tomb Raiders of a Feather

I feel almost embarrassed that I’m enjoying Rise of the Tomb Raider so much. This is the kind of overproduced, overly linear, overly prompted AAA shooter that sophisticated game commentators tend to disdain, but my sophistication as a game commentator can be measured in nanometers. I enjoy well-produced AAA games, even when they’re part of a series that began in the 1990s as masturbatory fantasies for 14-year-old Playstation owners who enjoyed watching Lara Croft’s ample curves trotting down the hallway ahead of them with a pair of guns in her shapely arms. Guns and curves: If it weren’t for those low-res  Playstation graphics, the original Lara could have been a centerfold model for Gun Owners Monthly.

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Low-res Lara Croft, unlocked and unloading.

The newer Lara Croft is a lot higher resolution, though, and except for her uncanny ability to survive landslides on ice-covered landscapes (which usually requires a half dozen returns to the game’s last checkpoint for less agile tomb raiders like me), she could pass as a credible young woman just realizing that her life has a purpose beyond cramming for final exams and wondering when the hunkier archaeology nerds at Oxford were going to notice her subdued but undeniable attractiveness. This is a Lara Croft that young women can identify with and that young men might actually consider an intellectual equal rather than (purely) a sex object. (For some reason, though, she spends much of the game’s cut scenes hanging around with handsome older men, maybe because she has an almost Freudian obsession with her father, Tomb Raider, Sr., whose suicide over the rejection of his archaeological theories is something she blames herself for.)

The new, subtler Lara.
The new, subtler Lara.

In this post, though, I don’t want to talk about Lara so much as I want to talk about the tradition her character and her stories grew out of. And this tradition is not so much a gaming one as it is a literary and a cinematic one. It’s a tradition that in my case I learned to love at the age of five when my mother began reading me comic books about a feathered zillionaire named Scrooge McDuck. Yes, that Scrooge McDuck.

A Duck Tale

Most Americans not of my generation are probably familiar with Scrooge McDuck from the Disney Duck Tales animated TV series that began in the 1980s. But the avian mogul goes back a lot farther than that, to the comic books of the 1950s, and he was created by a man whose very name has an almost godlike resonance for me: Carl Barks.

For those who aren’t into older comic books (or who aren’t European; for some reason Barks has a much higher recognition factor in the hemisphere opposite the one where I’m sitting), Carl Barks was a Disney animator who produced Donald Duck cartoons in the 1930s, but his job as an animation artist never suited him. He wanted the creative freedom that self-employment would give him and in 1942 moved from creating Disney animation to creating Disney comic books.

It’s not surprising that he settled on the Disney ducks, Donald and his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie, as his subjects, but the Donald of the comic books was a very different duck from his animated counterpart. He was no longer given to incoherent explosions of anger, but became more adventurous, not strong on initiative but encouraged by his nephews, who were members of the Boy-Scout-like Junior Woodchucks, to engage in exploration. Under Barks’ tutelage he would uncover pirate treasure and discover Viking ships encased in ice. But it wasn’t until Barks introduced Donald’s uncle Scrooge that the duck family’s wandering ways began taking them into the realm of genuine legend.

Scrooge McDuck swimming in his Money Bin.
Scrooge McDuck wallows in his luxurious Money Bin.

Scrooge first appeared in 1947 as a miserly old curmudgeon as dislikeable as his Dickensian namesake, but when he was given his own comic book in 1952 Barks turned him into something else entirely. He was still greedy and given to uncontrolled outbursts of anger not unlike those Donald was prone to in the cartoons, but he was also wistful for the adventures of his bygone youth, when he had been poor but ambitious, chopping firewood in the forests of his native Scotland and prospecting for gold in the wilds of the Yukon.

In later life he would be drawn into explorations, along with his relatives, that promised monetary gain but that turned out to be mythic in scope. He wanted to find the golden fleece sought by Jason and his Argonauts, but to find it had to negotiate the Greek island of Colchis, with its dragons and its larkies (the Disney version of harpies). He wanted to find the Philosopher’s Stone, which would transmute ordinary materials into gold, but ended up almost turning into gold himself. He wanted to find the fabled treasures of the Seven Cities of Cibola, but instead found an underground metroplex wired to trigger an ancient, horrible, spectacular trap.

Barks was actually working from an even older tradition, one started by novelist H. Rider Haggard, whose much-filmed 1885 bestseller King Solomon’s Mines launched a craze for stories of lost cities and lost civilizations buried in the last unexplored corners of the earth. It was a tradition that was later followed by Edgar Rice Burroughs in his Tarzan novels, where the archaeological genius raised by gorillas was constantly stumbling on the populated remains of bygone empires. Barks simply took Haggard’s hero Allan Quatermain and Burrough’s Tarzan and refashioned them as ducks, but they were such ingeniously conceived ducks that they brought a kind of wry yet thrilling humor to the Haggard-Burroughs sensibility that appealed to me immensely when I was five years old and still appeals to me today.

Sharon Stone and Richard Chamberlain in King Solomon's Mines.
Sharon Stone goes all Lara Croft in the 1985 film version of King Solomon’s Mines, with Richard Chamberlain as Allan Quatermain.

George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg also grew up with the Uncle Scrooge adventures and Indiana Jones is basically Donald Duck in Harrison Ford drag. (In the third film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Sean Connery essentially becomes his Uncle Scrooge.) And given that Lara Croft was quite consciously modeled on Indiana Jones she’s a linear descendant of Scrooge, Donald and the Haggard and Burroughs heroes who had preceded them. Lara, like Scrooge and Indy, is always in search of an artifact of ancient power. And like her predecessors she discovers lost cities and lost civilizations on her way to locating them. Rise of the Tomb Raider reminds me more of the Uncle Scrooge story “The Land of Tra-La-La” (the Barks version of James Hilton’s Shangri-La) than it does of any Indiana Jones stories. Both Scrooge and Lara stumble on peaceful societies of good shepherds living in nearly inaccessible mountain valleys, endangered by the encroaching forces of civilization and the greed that those forces represent.

The peaceful society of Shangri-La.
The peaceful society of Shangri-La in Frank Capra’s film version of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon.

I like the new Lara for many other reasons too, not just for her more realistic personality but for the meticulous graphics of her lost cities, which remind me of Barks’ work at its best. Compare these two images of Scrooge and Lara:

Uncle Scrooge and the Seven Cities of Cibola
Scrooge and his relatives get their first view of the Seven Cities of Cibola.
Lara Croft in Rise of the Tomb Raider
Lara Croft gets her first view of a barely ruined civilization in Rise of the Tomb Raider.

Lara’s stories are still basically linear, though there are large, explorable areas and multiple ways to get past some of the game’s obstacles. She still climbs walls of rock and falls off them a lot. But the Scrooge stories are, by their nature, even more linear and the thrill of discovery, heightened by the sense of learning that a piece of the ancient past is still alive, is always present in stories about both characters. In Rise of the Tomb Raider even more than in the previous reboot (or the earlier games) Lara finds herself treading the path that Allan Quatermain, Tarzan and Scrooge McDuck have trod before her. And I love both Lara and Scrooge for that magical voyage into living history as much, or more, than for anything else about them.

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.