Mrs. HM and I are explorers. In our pre-parent years, we'd embark on walks without any goal, just to see what we might find, and often blasted straight through lunch hour into the threat of imminent death from starvation at 4pm.
In 2005, we spent a few days on the island of Madeira. Madeira is riddled with irrigation channels called levadas which are also used by locals as footpaths. We spotted the start of one near our hotel and, on our final day, chose to follow it. It gently led us around the coast, snaking through villages and plantations and eventually headed inland along the edge of a rocky gorge. But we never completed the journey as, after half a day of hiking, we had to turn back to catch our plane home.
Exploring is our vice and it's an activity we look forward to resuming once the children get a bit older. But our joint obsession also thrives in virtual spaces.
Both of us spent countless hours wandering the neglected alleyways and meandering train routes of GTA III’s urban centres. I've scoured the junglescape of Far Cry 2 apparently hunting diamonds when in fact I had hijacked them as an excuse to explore. STALKER was another of my virtual world romances, whose anomaly-pocked hostility was fascinating to grapple with. And Mrs. HM basked in every shadow of Thief’s Haunted Cathedral, the imperative to search for loot under every abandoned desk and chair somehow more potent than the need to get the fuck out of there.
My first virtual world was the first action-adventure game Adventure (Atari, 1979) on the Atari 2600. It was Warren Robinett’s attempt to bring Crowther & Wood's Colossal Cave to a machine with a staggering 128 bytes of RAM. Adventure was my favourite game amongst all of the Atari titles we owned and, to this day, remains a staunch favourite of many 2600philes. When I originally got my hands on the Stella emulator years back, it was Adventure I loaded up first.
The player, who starts in the Golden Castle, has to locate and retrieve the Enchanted Chalice. On the first difficulty level, the Chalice is found inside the Black Castle. The sensation of discovering the castle for the first time – its blocky silhouette leering down at the nondescript square hero – and imagining what could be inside was profound. For the committed explorer, there are few video game highs that can compete.
But there were no other Adventures to play. Being the first, this was all there was and I continued to rattle through the game, running away from dragons and a crazy bat, until our Atari console and cartridges were sold to fund the coming Atari home computer.
Adventure games continued to follow this “discrete” 2D model of rooms for a long time although later games enlarged these spaces so that they no longer fitted onto a single screen. But eventually we arrived at the present day when the “open world” became commonplace. In these three-dimensional, expansive and more realistic environments, usually the only seam in evidence is the infamous loading zone. Yet I can’t help but think that something has been lost in all this grandeur.
The focus is now on quantity and spectacle rather than the quality of discovery that the explorer craves, the possibility of finding things that others would miss. These worlds are increasingly portrayed as merely a canvas upon which the game plays out and not part of the game proper.
The first time I realised this was during GTA: San Andreas where the game's sprawling map was too unwieldly and its streets seem to blend into one another. I spent most of my time lost in its brown, urban blur. Newcomers were not welcome here.
FUEL also offered an enormous land mass to explore, but it is largely repetitive and does not reward thorough exploration, being more about the infinity of the asphalt. These new worlds are too vast to know completely and cheat the explorer of personal enlightment.
This isn’t a recent phenomenon. Mercenary: Escape from Targ (Novagen, 1984) modelled an entire planet - except that most of it is barren. Further, the planet's only city is composed of structures of little function, separated by vast distances that take minutes to traverse without the aid of transport.
Modern joined-up worlds have acquired dead space to puff up their size and construct an illusion of real-world scale. But between this my-world-is-bigger-than-yours penis envy and the increasing scarcity of environmental narrative in such worlds, the mask is starting to slip. Perhaps a 3D world broken into smaller, discrete spaces like Adventure would be better at delivering the drug of discovery.
And so, Kairo.
Kairo is Richard Perrin’s game for the discerning explorer, currently in alpha. Instead of offering a vast, contiguous 3D environment, it presents a lumpy geography, an assortment of chambers that do not fit together either spatially or stylistically.
Each room boasts a specific colour signature and unique architecture. The locations distinguish themselves from one another with ease which means every new chamber is a prize for the explorer. From memory, I can quickly recall the hazy green maze room, the cylindrical pink chamber with struts that stretch into vertical infinity and the purple hub chamber with a column of rings at its heart.
There are also little secrets to be found in Kairo, odd shapes and graphical flourishes that have no real purpose in terms of play yet imply narrative relevance.
Although the game appears to lack story (it could be categorised as an “abstract puzzle game”), there is clearly something going on here. This lost place has a personality but, given the short length of the alpha, it doesn't get much of an opportunity to speak to the player. It reminds me of Gregory Weir’s Looming but where Looming was a disquieting experience, Kairo is calming and reassuring. Only good things happen here.
Kairo is still in alpha, of course, which means everything can change. The first version prevented the player from falling off platforms, but this has been amended in the latest version. Personally, I preferred the game in its original form, when it was about discovery rather than watching your feet.
It’s also a little difficult to construct a mental map because the player effectively teleports between rooms and the usual spatial and style cues are absent; however, this design frees up Perrin to give each chamber a unique feel.
But I am hungry for more Kairo, having played the alpha from start to finish twice already. It is a game that takes me back to an eight-year-old's joy of a game called Adventure.
It’s a game for the explorers amongst us.
To play the Kairo alpha, you will need to pre-order the game from the Kairo site. The alpha currently contains one structure, the smallest, of the three that Perrin has planned. Whilst the Kairo site says the full game will be released in 2011, I wouldn't be surprised if it slipped.