Electron Dance
12Jan/1633

Into The Black: The Movie

How do videogames undermine those players who enjoy exploring virtual worlds? Here is the fourth Electron Dance film, a hybrid of Into the Black and Chekhov's Collectible.

Watch this video below or direct on YouTube.

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Comments (33) Trackbacks (1)
  1. Nice video, I agree with your sentiment.

    As an addition: The overjustification effect only seems to manifest itself when the extrinsic motivation is perceived as controlling. In this context: it occurs when the purpose becomes to find collectibles, as opposed to finding collectibles as a happy accident. Also see: http://gamification-research.org/2014/08/gamification-absolved-2/

    It is debatable whether or not finding collectables is an extrinsic motivation. It may very well depend on the situation and the person. But even if it is not an extrinsic motivation, I also think that there can be a precedence of the “collectible motivation” over the “exploration motivation”, although I’m not sure in which situations this would occur exactly. As far as I know, there is little research done on these precedence relations unfortunately.

  2. I’ve not watched it yet because I’m at work but: Bernband! I loved that game!

  3. Marries,

    The original Into the Black essay was written before I’d heard of the Overjustification Effect. I felt like once collectibles appeared, I was no longer interested in wandering around and it became a Search For Stuff. After I posted the essay, I then did a bit of Google searching and the overjustification effect seemed to be the explanation for what was going on.

    But while I was doing the video, I would occasionally have a panic attack after recalling a game where I liked finding stuff and couldn’t quite reconcile my two perspectives. In the comments on Chekhov’s Collectible, Beyond Good and Evil turned up and this was a game where I loved hunting down the photo collectibles. Gregory Avery-Weir’s Looming has these horrible pixel collectibles which are vital to finishing the game; I liked them at the time but I think I wouldn’t now as I clearly suffer from collectible fatigue. (His later work Ossuary also inherits them.)

    So what you’ve added here is really interesting. I’m not sure if it really explains the personal difference between, say, BG&E and GTA, but it’s nice to hear there are exceptions to the rule.

    I can’t wait to get some time to read the page you linked, although it seems it might take some time to get through it!

    Gregg,

    If I get a Side by Side video out, I imagine you’ll watch that with more speed :)

  4. Yes, I think I understand what you mean, it works differently in different situations. From the perspective of the overjustification effect, the search for collectibles can become controlling when there is a significant reward for finding all collectibles. (I’m just hypothesizing now:) But the observed effect may also occur when finding all collectibles becomes a personal goal in a sort of wrong neurotic way, driving away the fun. A reaction to this may be collectible fatigue?

    In general I also observe the tendency that exploration for its own sake is a vulnerable motivation in a sense, and that it’s easily lost when other motivations come around. This might be a cultural issue as “performing” and “achieving” seems to be culturally more emphasized than exploration? So many questions and hypotheses, so little answers…

    (If you ever have questions regarding motivations in games, feel free to contact me.)

  5. I watched this last night, great video! And you’re too generous to your daughter ;-)

    I didn’t get round to weighing in on Chekhov’s Collectible so I’ll post some of my rambling thoughts here.

    So yeah, I loved Bernband because it was just pure exploration and, damn, it was so exciting poking around that weird place. I found it far more engrossing than a great many other games I’ve played with considerably higher production values. There’s a lot to be said about how evocative Bernband and Proteus are.

    I ought to start with Guild Wars 2 here because, it being an MMORPG and all, had a map that looked like someone had sneezed all over it with objective markers. I enjoyed some of that but most of my time was spent just exploring and drinking up the atmosphere, sights and sounds of Tyria. I found it very relaxing, much like Proteus! I played alone a lot though because with others it was like being dragged around by a tour operator busily checking things off a list.

    The Beyond Good & Evil photo collectibles were brilliant and I too loved tracking those down. I think the reason for this is that they were unique and encouraged you to slow down and look a bit closer at the world. I remember one critter hiding behind a box in a corridor or small room, and it only popped out when you were some distance away so you had to keep your eyes peeled and snap it just at the right moment. Very satisfying! The Metroid Prime games featured a scanner which you could use to log the flora and fauna of each environment you visited. This allowed you to look at their 3D models and read about their made up ecology. To my knowledge there was no reward or benefit to collecting them but I always enjoyed having a good look at the designs of the creatures and plantlife.

    You mentioned the trinkets in VVVVVV in Chekhov’s Collectible and I think they’re another fine example of collectibles done right, notably because they’re not really about the collectible, they’re about the actual getting to them. They’re there to goad you into rising to a challenge.

    Generally though, if I see that a game has some arbitrary and ultimately meaningless collectible that’s been carpet bombed across the game world, I’ll just ignore them. The problem is when collecting them gives you some in-game leg-up. In recent memory Enslaved was the worst for this. Absolutely the fucking worst. There were these little orbs obnoxiously stuffed into every nook and cranny throughout the world and as far as I know the fiction didn’t acknowledge their existence in any way. They were just there, everywhere, to pick up and use to upgrade your character. Worse still, these things were even tucked away in corners when the plot was urging you to RUN! RUN FOR YOUR LIFE! Bleurgh.

    Something interesting I’ve not mentioned anywhere yet: Sir, You Are Being Hunted allows you to create your own procedurally generated islands using a number of different variables. This can be really fascinating for Brits given the engine’s ability to recreate the British countryside, post industrial sites, quaint village streets, red telephone boxes and all. Last year for a spell I enjoyed what I tipped ‘Sir, You Aren’t Being Hunted’ where I disabled all the killer robots just so I could explore and see what the level generator had thrown out.

    And wow, was Into The Black really three freaking years ago?!

  6. Okay, got a little bit of time…

    Marries,

    “In general I also observe the tendency that exploration for its own sake is a vulnerable motivation in a sense, and that it’s easily lost when other motivations come around.”

    Yes, I do feel this. Sometimes it’s really difficult to resist the call of the Recognizable Achievement for something more abstract, more self-constructed. As I admitted in Chekhov’s Collectible, no one is forcing me to chase collectibles, I can just enjoy the detailed virtual environment but GAHHHH there’s a conditioned reflex TO SEEK OUT NEW MISSIONS AND NEW CIVILISATIONS. TO BOLDLY GO WHERE EVERY PLAYER HAS ALWAYS GONE BEFORE.

    There was an interesting Twitter comment made about the video, someone mentioned that they actually felt disappointed when a game did *not* recognise their achievement in some way, as if they needed someone to tell them what they did was cool (i.e. finding something).

    It was purely a fluke that I ended up exploring Obsolete. I just wanted to know if it were possible – and suddenly found myself drifting further and further out to infinity.

    Thank you for the offer, I may well call upon your magic powers :) I am writing a book as you know…

    Gregg,

    So nice to see you again. Yes Into the Black was a long time ago. We are all so old, so very old. (Well, I am at least.)

    I remember you telling me about GW2 before and it made me want to hop in there and poke around. But how many people are in there, Gregg? I don’t know if can explore a crowded world full of actual people :) See I have no actual proper experience of an MMORPG. (Now you’ve added Sir You Are Being Hunted to my list of games I should try. Oh, Gregg.)

    There’s a time for collectibles and a time for no collectibles. I just find it odd that exploration games rely on them so much which makes me feel the developers have conceded, you know what, exploration isn’t actually that fun!

    But what you say about Sir is interesting because it’s definitely an Into the Black moment – disabling the gamey-wamey part so you can embrace the world.

  7. First off, I really liked the video. It’s a great stab at the heart of meaningless collectibles. And they sure do deserve a good stabbing. They feel like a holdover from the early days of open world games, when designers and players were still figuring out what open worlds meant. And now they’re a relic; worse, a manifestation of a depressingly utilitarian tendency, where worlds are reduced to pre-defined verbs and packaged experiences vomited across a map. And now they are everywhere.

    But.

    On exploration, on travelling into the black: I enjoy the stories players like yourself tell. The meaning that you wring from them, the storytelling that goes into your tales. But myself? I can’t deny that, generally, I find exploration-for-exploration’s-sake boring. I’ve tried a swathe of indie games that purport to be about exploration. They usually leave me quite cold.

    I think one reason for this is that exploration in games is often about spectacle and novelty. And how often does a game include environments that are truly surprising or unusual? How often can a skybox take your breath away?

    As for these environments and vistas: are they meant to be reflective of human experience, or are they speculative or fantastic? With the former, I find myself left wondering why anyone would explore a digital representation of a place they might themselves visit (I concede that not everyone can, of course). Dear Esther’s environments, for example, mostly bored me because I have walked through places like them, above and below ground, and my memories carry more power. In Dear Esther I can touch nothing, smell nothing. I can talk to no one.

    I think that there is a trend in the design of digital environments to focus on, well, how they look. And this makes for empty, hollow places. Real cities, real human spaces, accrete meaning over years. History touches them or passes them by; cultural trends destroy and raise edifices and habitats; the repetition of human lives erodes and imprints on them. When you explore such places, if you do not understand this context then you can still see its evidence and wonder; if you understand some of that context then your explorations will be all the more rich and rewarding. How many digital artists are so dedicated to their craft’s broader context as to produce such deep and rewarding places? On the available evidence, most appear concerned with spectacle – which is perhaps not unfair given that most players are unlikely to hang about for very long once they’ve ‘seen what there is to see’.

    All this is probably a horses for courses thing. I’m not a terribly patient person. I’m frantic, and don’t tend to hang around if I’m not interested in something. Not for me slow contemplation. So I’m not so much arguing with you, as saying “interesting perspective – but it is world’s apart from my own”. But I’ll join you in tearing down collectibles, and hurling them into the furnace that powers our genuine explorations, whatever form they take, and wherever they take place.

    (I’m glad BG&E has been brought up as that’s a good example of a game with collectibles that feel both meaningful and desirable. I’d argue that the reason for that is twofold. Firstly, finding them is tied to player progression, both in terms of being able to afford to buy necessary items, and in that the opening up of areas where these collectibles can be found is tied to same line of progression through the game. They are not bolted on to the side: they are an integral component of pacing, setting and gameplay. Because of this, and the fact that there are not an excessive quantity of them, they complement the exploration that a game of its genre inherently involves. Secondly, the collectibles are not mere arbitrary objects arbitrarily dotted about. They are a part of stories: the story of Jade, an amateur photographer, and the player is complicit in this as they try to line up a perfect shot (you don’t have to, but if you’re in the moment…). But also the story of the world. BG&E’s setting is a cartoon, of course, but its alien ecology is still fun to explore. These collectibles are a part of that world. There is, arguably, a third point to make, which is that you don’t in fact collect them at all: you take a photograph, leave only your footprints. It’s leveraging a different metaphor than that of consumption and acquisition, if you want to be cold about it.)

  8. I deeply relate to the message of this video but how is Miasmata not on this list? Surely the original writer must have played it?? If not, someone please give it to them right away!! It’s one of the ultimate examples in the history of gaming of creating the kind of experience the author clearly desires.

  9. Shaun,

    Well, Shaun, you’re just plain wrong so get off this site now.

    No – you’re not wrong. First, Into the Black is really about what games mean to explorer-players. It’s kinda awkward to caveat that at the start, but your actvity-drawn player may not into Dear Esther for example. (Then again, Dear Esther is not my cup of English Breakfast tea either.)

    While I was making the film, I felt like I needed to simplify my point. Chekhov’s Collectible gets into some of the nuances but there plenty of counterexamples lying around such as BG&E and Miasmata (as I discuss below). Also, some people have more resistance to collectibles than others: their presence doesn’t cause them to skip natural exploration. But I feel like netween the “empty collectible” and the “pure exploration” there’s still seems to be a lot of grey where a future post could be written.

    I admit your point about spectacle is something that bothers me. It drives me mad that “screenshot saturday” is a thing because it speaks of how cool something looks and if you’re shit at art, well, you don’t get a ride on this particular journey. It’s the kind of thing indie was supposed to stick two fingers up at – and now it’s sort of a given that a lot of indie needs to be pretty. And so the risk is there that our explorations are only about spectacle.

    There are some counterexamples which show that it’s not just about how it looks. Proteus makes it’s own cool moments and it’s doesn’t get old quickly. Miasmata is huge but it doesn’t have an endless number of environments, yet, slowly filling the map is intensely gratifying.

    Speed is also a risk. A fast speed makes it about racing from Exciting Spot A to Exciting Spot B. A slow speed makes threatens to be an droll artistic statement that life needs to be about contemplation. Wide open environments are dangerous because it encourages developers to throw in collectibles to attract players over the hurdle of boring slow movement. As I pointed out in Actias, you have these hubs scattered about the world and big swathes of nothing between them: it doesn’t quite work.

    We’ve made lots of interesting progress in the last few years for explorers – Euro Truck Simulator 2 is ALSO the best. But I worry the current crop of “walking simulators” may be walking into simulated disaster.

    Morgan,

    I certainly have played the majestic Miasmata and written two posts about it (The Beast and The Island)! The reason it didn’t make it into the video is because it is actually a counterexample.

    Miasmata asks the player to seek out collectibles – various flora – in the hope of finding a cure to a plague (aka “the end of the game”). I believe the reason it works is because the very act of exploration is complex and dangerous, which means the collectibles act as trophies for overcoming adversity as opposed to “grinding through space” for rewards. But that was the reason I didn’t include it, because while it’s undoubtedly one of the best explorer games out there, it actually uses collectibles.

    Miasmata is one of my most treasured game acquisitions in recent years. It’s an incredible thing.

  10. Joel,
    I’m glad to hear you’ve played it…I supposed we have different definitions of the term “collectibles.” I would define them as any object in a game whose obtainment serves no purpose other than checking off a line on a list. In Miasmata, however, the plants are crucial to the story and the entire conceit of the game, and even more than that, they would be crucial to the player’s character were the game a real life situation. That is about the furthest thing possible, in my mind, from the hundreds of meaningless trophies and statues and baubles that modern open world video games try to fill themselves with to unsuccessfully reduce the feeling of emptiness their theme-park worlds create. So it sounds strange to me to hear the Miasmata plants called collectibles when they’re the opposite of what I usually expect that word to mean. I never felt like I was collecting collectibles to check off a list, and I never do that in other games anyway. I suppose from a strictly literal sense that is exactly what you’re doing in Miasmata, since there’s an actual paper list to check off, but the feeling behind it is completely different and more along the lines of what you seem to be getting at in the video. But in any event….Miasmata is great. Everyone should play it.

  11. Joel,

    I’m wrong a lot of the time. Probably not all of the time, but I might be wrong about that.

    You’re right about frontloading arguments or statements with this and that context. It’s clumsy, especially when you’ve made something as elegant as this video. To be honest it would in any case probably not stop me diving into a tangent feet first.

    My last comment is really two separate strands of thought that I’ve been working through, both of which tangentially overlap with your subject and thus were propelled to the front of my mind. So THANKS for that, buddy.

    You’re right that there’s an awful lot of grey (you & others have already explored a little of it in these very comments). I should probably just get off this site now and explore the arguments I want to make elsewhere. Perhaps some other kind of videogames writing site? I don’t know.

    There’s more food for thought in your comment, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

    (Glad you’re still making the odd video, by the way. I know they’re a lot of work for variable reward [though I see you got a bump in view numbers thanks to RPS!] but you are ruddy good at them. Your voice is pleasant as well. If there were a channel regularly putting out thoughtful, well-produced content of this calibre, I’d watch it regularly. That’s not a suggestion, mind, because I don’t want you to die. Now go and finish your bloody book!)

  12. Morgan —

    It’s probably my fault for stretching meanings a bit too much here. Collectibles are indeed vapid, empty trinkets but there are many games in which they are upgraded into little dollops of narrative or cash. In this case, we might argue that they are no longer collectibles, as the film itself suggests. However, the impact is the same. Collectibles are the worst-case scenario but the problem is that any tangible reward for exploration may wind up wiping out an explorer-player’s own desire to explore. As Marries indicates above, there is some ambiguity here and so Miasmata doesn’t suffer so much. However, once I’d got all the ingredients I needed, I stopped playing almost immediately. I stopped exploring once I finished the Miasmata “tickbox list”. However, I could actually see myself starting the game afresh again…

    But, see, this is why I didn’t cover Miasmata, because it’s a much more complex example. :)

    I cover this what-is-a-collectible with more nuance in the last year’s essay Chekhov’s Collectible.

    Thanks for the comments!

    Shaun —

    If you ever stop writing for AR, there’s always a home for your occasional thoughts here, you know. I’d also be more than happy to run a cross-post for a counter-piece.

    [The new Electron Dance film series is working very well. Each film has done exceptionally well, more so than many of my articles. I seem to be gaining lots of YouTube subscribers even though that was never my intention. So I’m encouraged to keep doing a new film every few months. It’s Side by Side that tends to be the hard sell. Now I wonder if I should’ve made a separate channel considering all the new YT subscribers…]

    [And still working on the book, at least once a week. Not enough, but better than nowt a week.]

  13. Okay yes, now I see exactly your point. Thanks!

  14. I did the exact same thing in Venezia. I ended up not seeing a single thing off the recommended list apart from the Duke’s palace, since it’s right next to the pier. Had a wonderful time.

    I guess you could call all those historic locations collectibles? Add 10 points if you visit Santa Maria della Salute and such. I was there with a group, so I was encouraged to visit all the monuments. And once you’re back home, everyone is going to ask if you saw all the Important Stuff. So yeah, while life may not hit you one the head and point you towards the collectibles, society sure will.

  15. Ketchua, that was on my mind when I was making reference to the typical tourist destinations. That I averted the collectibles. The trouble is going into the point more explicitly raises lots of questions: as Shaun was pointing out, a lot of game exploration is precisely about finding cool places, so aren’t the tourist sites more like our videogame exploration finds? And if sites are collectibles and I can ignore them, then why can’t I do that for virtual places?

    But you know, the main focus of the film was the overjustification effect. Sometimes hitting that checklist of places to visit can make you miserable for what you didn’t achieve. You focus on velocity, on motion through the list. It’s a half-empty way of seeing things. One of the best days I ever had on holiday was a walk following a levada around the coast of Madiera. We didn’t know how far we would get before the time ran out. It was amazing.

    (Don’t worry, I’ll get that Cradle piece out sooner or later.)

  16. Damn it. Either I keep forgetting to toggle the subscribe to comments box or something isn’t working because I missed all these comments!

    In the opening areas and towns Guild Wars 2 could get pretty busy but once you started going further afield it thinned out a lot. Sometimes I’d be in one corner of the map trying to work something out and not see another soul for some time, but whenever someone did turn up it was always a nice surprise.

    We might greet each other, or help with fighting, or even cheer the other on if one of us had managed to successfully navigate some jumping puzzle. While I got most of my enjoyment from seeing new sights, there were plenty of unmarked non-visual things to encounter too, like mysterious quest-lines (with no real reward), unusual things to interact with, NPCs up to stuff, jump puzzles and tough enemies. Even if these unmarked things were out in the open, they sometimes felt like secrets because most people were so busy running around ticking things off their checklist that they just didn’t notice them. I kind of loved that.

    I’ve tried returning to Tyria to hopefully rekindle some of that virgin MMO-MMMagic but I think I can safely say it’s gone. The beats of the game are a bit too familiar to me now so it’s not quite as exciting as it once was.

    Sir, You Are Being Hunted is fairly short and I think worth a look. I really enjoyed it but I know it wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

    Here’s a couple of thoughts though:

    Proteus on Playstation has trophies, not sure whether you know.

    Life is Strange features a photography ‘collectible’ hunt that, in contrast to BG&E, is shit because a) it’s context sensitive, so you never actually look through the lens to take a picture, b) you have a photo album which hints at all the photos to collect in the form of these rough doodles so that c) you can sometimes be looking at the photo you’re meant to be taking but you haven’t found the exact spot to allow you to hit the X button to take the snap. When you get the photo an achievement comes up for every single one. Yeah, no. It’s just distracting and utterly meaningless.

    I’ve got more to say on Life is Strange for Stop Crying About Choice… I think.

  17. Those are some interesting questions, worth delving into. But I agree, they do seem to detract from the point.

    I fear the checklist approach will keep winning, at least where money is involved – giving people things to do at the expense of giving them spaces to exist in. The over-gamification of games, if that makes any sense. People who feel the thing falling apart around them for being to gamey are fewer in numbers and less vocal than the ones that feel lost without the incessant blinking, map markers and collectible counters.

    (I thought of mentioning it jokingly, but decided it would be rude. Nae pressure.)

  18. Gregg

    I wonder if I should open the floodgates for a game with a comments thread e.g. “Life Is Strange – Open Thread!” except I haven’t actually played Life is Strange. Yet.

    I didn’t know about Proteus’ trophies although they don’t seem to be of the same vein. It’s difficult to say; I’m averse to hunting the official achievements because they always feel a little grafted on. For example, all those Steam achievements are barely registered formally within most games, as opposed to say, GTA’s hidden packages which are highlighted in the game stats and you’re notified by the game that you achieved it. (Things may have changed in later GTAs on Steam, I don’t know.) Plus, they are not your bog-standard meaningless collectibles.

    But as a result of this thread I discovered one of the achievements is called “The Hidden Door” with the description “We have to find the door, daddy.” That’s… that’s a direct reference to my Proteus video! All this time and I had no idea until today.

    Not sure why you didn’t have a subscription to the thread, but I’ve added manually for now.

    Ketchua

    I think I tend to more worried re: over-gamification of games these days when it comes to F2P. I didn’t like the arrival of achievements at all, it seemed to belittle the growing trend for cohesive plot-based games with all these binary “win” conditions plastered everywhere. But I think there’s more at risk in the transition of F2P where structure is being adapted or sacrificed to fit the new business model.

  19. Wow, I didn’t realise that either! Aww, and that was my favourite bit of the video too. Glad you’ve spotted the reference now though.

    Yeah I agree, they’re certainly not in the same vein, but I thought it was worth bringing up. I’m reminded of The Swapper’s enigmatic and elusive achievements…

  20. I’m glad you bought up TheRaptureIsHereAndYouWillBeForciblyRemovedFromYourHome as I had an interesting experience with that myself: I started playing not knowing exactly what it was so I found the spoken excepts fascinating, little surreal snippets of narrative with no beginning or end that added really well to the game’s atmosphere and gave this really well suited feeling of everything being suddenly interrupted. Then I realised I recognised one of the stories, and that they could all be collected one bit at a time by following the right colours, and all that atmosphere just evaporated.

    Anyway, great video essay, and in my case useful video essay too as this subject is pretty much exactly what I’m exploring for my MA at the moment, so I’ll probably be re-watching this quite a few times over the next two years. Thanks.

  21. Hi AcG – and welcome.

    Yes, my own experience pretty much played out the same way. Wow, what’s going on here? Spooky atmosphere! And then: oh no, I have to follow the same colour of pillar to listen to each whole story? And I leave the game, a checkpoint race instead of an eerie walk at the end of the world.

    Thanks for dropping by. Please come back to me in two years, I’ll surely be interested in what you’ll have dug up!

  22. In the grand scheme of things, this comment is coming pretty late, but it was this video that turned my head around about game commentary in general and inspired me to start a gaming blog of my own. (Sublime Confusion. You can find it on WordPress if you can navigate your way through that maze.) Exploration for the sake of exploration was why I got into computer gaming myself, having bought a computer back in 1981 under the illusion that I was just going to use it for word processing. (I actually did use it for word processing and it quadrupled my output, and my income, as a writer) It also led me to programming, which I consider the greatest open world computer game I’ve ever played, but that’s another story.

    My latest post is called Into the Worlds, in homage to your title Into the Black and not incidentally to Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods. I hope you get some new hits here because I linked to this post, because I immediately wanted to share it with every gamer I know when I first read it. Unfortunately, I’m old enough that I don’t know that many gamers personally, so I’m blogging to them instead. I don’t know that you’ll agree with everything I’ve said about exploration for exploration’s sake, but your discussion of Flight Simulator 2 describes an experience with that game that’s so much like my own that I’ve put your blog on speed dial (or at least Electron Dance is the first URL that comes up when I type “e” into the address bar).

    A belated “good work” and I agree with at least three-fourths of what you have to say, a reasonably high percentage, I think.

  23. Chris

    It should be possible to enjoy games and write something interesting about them months after their hype window has closed. The same thing applies to comments, so don’t worry, it’s not too late to add something to the discussion. (Unless the comments had been closed then, yes, it would be too late.) I think droqen started adding comments to the *ancient* Starseed Pilgrim articles again just recently.

    Thanks for saying Into the Black got you to write about games! It’s just paying it forward: I’ve always said Second Person Shooter (a site now long dead), written by Laura Michet & Kent Sutherland, was my role model. Really, we’ve all had moments where a piece of writing/video changes how we understand games or at least point out something we knew deep down but never brought it to the surface. I’ve gone through a lot of revolution since I started in 2010. Then, I thought 2D shooters were long dead. Then, I thought art games were pretentious and empty. Then, I thought games had to be played according to rules. Then, I thought designers must never abuse their players. I’ve walked away from all of these positions.

    But change keeps on trucking, of course. I’m a lot more jaded about pure exploration experiences now, having seen too many of them follow the simplistic scout-and-trigger model as I mentioned in the film (TIMEframe, Dear Esther) as opposed to laying out something to explore. I played one recently that was *so* conventionally structured, I just spent the whole time sighing, unable to enjoy any of its prettiness.

    I don’t expect everyone to agree that pure exploration is king and Into the Black is meant to be more provocative than a statement of fact. Two games that are absolutely fantastic at exploration are Miasmata and Mercenary, yet neither fits the Into the Black “model” because they ask you to go out there to find things. Yet Miasmata remains one of the best exploration games I have ever played and was my personal GOTY a few years back. It’s possible it might have been overtaken by a recent title I haven’t seen, but too many open world games are busy places, filled with stuff. Minecraft, is also saturated with interactivity, yet serves up an excellent exploration game.

    Ah, it’s tragic to discover the technical requirements for the projects in your head have gone up in your “absence”! It’s the kind of thing that puts me off making games now, apart from the fact I don’t have the time.

    Nice post on your (new) site and I’m happy to hear from another person who was flying through FS2 on a mission of discovery and adventure. You will not be surprised to hear I loved 3D maze games and was writing one of my own just before I finished my long stint on Atari computers. It’s why I loved the truncated Alternate Reality series, which afforded a 3D world to explore before these things became commonplace.

    I’ve added you to my RSS feeds, I look forward to your future writings!

  24. Thanks! Miasmata looks like something I’d enjoy (I’m a sucker for any game where you climb rocky paths and look out over beautifully rendered water), but I can’t find Mercenary. Actually, I had to check my Steam and Gog collections first to make sure I didn’t already own them. I buy games at a much faster rate than I can play them. If $15 looks reasonable after I pay off October’s expenses, Miasmata goes into the Steam collection.

    I plan to write about plenty of games that are long past their hype window, including ones that predate the memory of anyone under 40. The goal for my blog is to write about recent games from the perspective of their predecessors. I figure getting old has to be good for something. (I used to say “getting older,’ but who am I kidding?) I figure if anyone plays a first-person perspective shooter/RPG without the experience of playing the original Doom, I at least need to tell them what a startling experience it was when the concept was brand new.

    My taste in games shifts unpredictably. I just noticed that the Skyrim Special Edition is in my Steam library and I started playing it again, never mind that I can’t really see anything new about it. (The lighting effects, maybe.) I had to finish that first big dungeon again. (This would be about the fourth time.) But I’ve also got several retro adventure games tucked away that I’ll probably be distracted by before the evening ends, assuming I have the energy left after helping my girlfriend remodel our kitchen. (Not THAT’S a game I hope to never play again!)

    As I said, I genuinely enjoy your blog, especially when I disagree with your opinions or, better still, had never thought about the issue before. Collectibles? Hmm, they’re fun sometimes, but does the new Lara Croft really need to give me a full historical background on everything she picks up? I suppose that’s better than collectibles that have no more intrinsic meaning than the gold bars in Lode Runner did, though I enjoyed picking them up in 1985. But I think I got my fill about the time Lode Runner was rebooted a decade later.

    Computer mazes have always fascinated me, but right now I’m burned out by killing too many Draugrs in that Skyrim dungeon to think clearly about the environment. Busy place, indeed! I always wanted to play the Alternate Reality series, but the early model Commodore 64 I owned at the time wasn’t capable of displaying half the screen. By the time I got a newer model, I’d gotten newer games. Still, I wonder if they’re on Gog…?

    Look forward to your own future columns too. And thanks for putting me on the feed!

  25. Hi Chris,

    Ah, Mercenary is a very old game I dubbed The First Open World while is sort of genus of open world which sputtered out too early. Basically takes the Flight Simulator II model and imposes an adventure on it.

    The last game I genuinely enjoyed for the collectibles was probably Beyond Good & Evil but you could argue that Miasmata also has them, although they are the focus of the game as opposed to a subgame fleshed out with achievements.

    I don’t think Alternate Reality exists outside of emulators. The City was released on MS-DOS but The Dungeon was not… and The City is what you might call a brutal walking simulator, which lacks any sort of tangible goal and burns through characters rapidly.

    I’m not writing posts at the moment as I am trying to get the first couple of my chapters of my book out this month as well as an additional “thing”. Stay tuned…

  26. This! This! You are so awesome with this video essay, you are speaking literally from my heart. Into the black.
    This is exactly what I am about to do since my first encounter with a videogame, back to beginning of 1990ies, as visual games were still at their start. Instead of following the rules I went back, looking behind horizon, for boundaries, for glitches which could allow me to enter the Otherness, non-intended, non-programmed.

    The most recent one was with “TrackMania² Valley” demo, a usual racing game with realistic landscapes. You can (or: you have to) follow the circuits, you can drive round for round for round like the grey office cubicle everday. Or you can use the diverse bumpiness of the road to jump around the hedge. And you can drive along, firstly through well designed nature landscapes (which you are able to see while of the usual driving routines looking for finish – how existentialist!). But then the vivid forests and rivers with photorealistic water are left behind you, and you drive ahead, drive the empty grounds, kitschy blue sky with fluffy clouds above you, the sharp horizon line up front. I was driven for 30 minutes in real time. I did it. Just holding the “up”-arrow taste. Then suddenly the sky globe disappeared, and I’ve seen white flared clouds in the black sky. And I kept driving. Gradually the clouds moved to the grounds. They were spreaden, they laid around like huge marbles on a playground. Then also the clouds were behind me. Just me, just the ground (still textured, probably infinite), just black sky.
    Here somebody did it with screenshot some moments before sky sphere disappears: http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=806956649

    Many, many games I travelled off track to find the end, to experience the limit: Daggerfall, JSF, various FPS with “ghost” cheat, NaissanceE as well (whith the same cheat). This loneliness, this creepy beauty of the void always fascinated me. And I am so happy, I am not alone with this loneliness. :-)

  27. merzmensch: I think because, in the 1990s, I was so focused on learning and writing about the algorithms behind three-dimensional computer animation I found it hard to become interested in exploiting the glitches on the level of play or exploration. When I would fall through one of the unintended cracks in the Daggerfall dungeons and find myself in the twilight zone between walls and floors I was too aware that I had become trapped in a region where the programmers had no motivation (nor should they have) in creating rules for hidden surface removal and collision detection to enjoy it as a world on its own. I was irritated that the carefully crafted illusion was being destroyed by revealing the mechanics (which I more or less understood already) and even more irritated that as often as not I had to restore to my last saved game to get out. I had a similar experience when I started writing fiction in my 20s and could no longer enjoy the pulpish science fiction novels that I’d binged on in college, because I was too aware of what the writer was doing and could almost hear the keys being tapped on the Selectric (yeah, I’m that old) when I should have been willingly suspending my disbelief and accepting the story as something that emotionally registered as an actual experience. I got over that later, with books at least, but I think that was more because I upgraded the level of my reading to books where the author was better at hiding the sleight of hand behind world creation. Though even then I found that if I read too many books by the same author I would start seeing the mechanics again, because most authors have only a finite number of tricks in their creative bag. As Stephen Sondheim writes in his musical Into the Woods, “Isn’t it nice to know a lot? And a little bit not.”

    Joel: I could probably play Alternate Reality again on a Commodore 64 or Atari 800 emulator; the MSDOS versions of games in those days looked like crap, being largely written for the appalling CGA color palette. So, yeah, it’s probably better that GOG not go there. There was a time when I was obsessed with emulators and even wrote Commodore 64 and TRS-80 emulators on my Atari ST, though I never got the C64 emulation to the point where I could emulate anything that went beyond redesigning the character set. I still enjoy downloading emulators for game consoles that I never owned, like the Super Nintendo and the Gameboy Advance (which is how I got myself into a Pokemon obsession that shall not be further discussed), but I found myself, um, downloading a bunch of D64 files the other day and may have to reinstall a C64 emulator…

  28. @Chris:
    Oh yes, Daggerfall glitches! This phenomen has something very pesonal for me. Firstly, because of the greatness of Daggerfall itself (my favorite open world). Secondly, because of metaphoric “in-between” of IRL: social and work situations. Such glitches are existent in real life – when you are e.g. stuck in your work life without any perspectives, developments, chances. The bonus of this falling is: you are at the one hand a victim of a glitch crack. But at the same time you see clearly the whole situation from the meta perspective. You even see the locked and inaccessible rooms. You see the whole map in moment of falling. You forget the own downfall and defeatism being confronted with this beautiful view.

    To Alternate Reality: Archive.org provides a working emulation of this game
    https://archive.org/details/a8b_Alternate_Reality_The_City_1985_Datasoft_US_Character_Disk

  29. merzmensch: Thanks for the link to the Alternate Reality emulator, though it seems to freeze up after the Karaoke-style opening title song. (Was that in the original?) God, I hope it isn’t waiting for me to plug in a joystick! I’m sure there must be instructions somewhere.

    Yes, Daggerfall was a huge world, more varied than Arena and larger than anything Bethesda has done since. The last time I played (not terribly long ago, actually) I got so lost in one of its 3D dungeons that I couldn’t find my way back out again. Probably would have been grateful to fall in a wormhole if it had led back outside or even just clarified the games confusing “official” mapping system.

  30. Merzmensch,

    Sorry for not responding to these threads more quickly. Things have gone a little crazy in the run-up to Christmas and I’ve also given myself a lot comment response work with “Countdown 2016”!

    I find I don’t tend to push the boundaries of games too much. With Obsolete, it was just too enticing, it was just *there* and there were no costly repercussions.

    Sometimes glitching out of the map just allows you to see the scaffolding and I don’t find scaffolding all that interesting – some people do, it’s just not for me. But these explorations beyond the boundaries can make you feel like a mountain climber. I can remember working hard in GTA to get onto rooftops and into areas that seemed closed off. There is, in fact, an area in GTA III on which is written: “You werent supposed to be able to get here you know”.

    But my GTA III explorations are not as innocent as they seemed. I was actually off looking for the hidden packages (collectibles) a quest that really appealed to me. Since then, of course, the collectible “game design pattern” has been repeated to death helping to wipe out natural exploration and reflection on open game worlds.

    Chris, your story is precisely why I’m not too upset about the boundaries in polished games being so restrictive sometimes, because if you’re trying to “play the game” and “inhabit a role” instead of being an explorer, glitches and breaks in reality are unwelcome and destructive.

    That “finite number of tricks” problem I think is the reason why people end up drifting out of games. It can feel like there’s nothing genuinely new or fresh at times. Maybe you don’t know the reason why, but your subconscious does :)

    The clips of Alternate Reality used in the Eulogy video were produced on using the Atari800win emulator although these days I tend to use Altirra. I haven’t tried Altirra with my AR disk images so I cannot comment if it works yet.

    The song lyrics have always been there and were a hallmark of Philip Price & Gary Gilbertson. Price created something called “Advanced Music Processor” and Gilbertson used it create this rich 8-bit music with lyrics.

  31. Joel, your explanation of why you enjoy finding areas in a game where you’re not “supposed” to go is one of the reasons I love open world (or even semi-open world) games. There are alleys, cliffs and rooftops that have nothing, as far as you can tell, to do with your quest, but like Sir Edmund Hillary you want to visit them because they’re there. I remember doing that as far back as Ultima III, where it was often more interesting to slip behind buildings than to walk in and talk to the inhabitants, especially because you’d often find somebody loitering back there who’d tell you something that none of the major characters would.

    It’s a bit like your visit to Venice. (It was Venice, right?) You’d go off track instead of to the tourist destinations, but you were still in places that were part of the world, that had been designed into it, if only haphazardly. Sometimes even just the knowledge that these off-track destinations are there makes a game world seem more real to me. If a game only offers the quest destinations, it feels less real, like a theme park where you’re being herded to the next dark ride. (My proximity to Disneyland makes me think of this, though there are a (very) few off-track locations there. Not the ones for “Cast Members,” which are analogous to game glitches where you fall out of the world entirely, though you can use them as convenient shortcuts to the parking lot if you ignore the warning signs, but the real parts of the park that are only tangentially related to the theme and very few other people seem to visit — except the ubiquitous non-cast-member ducks.)

  32. There’s a fine line, here, of course. This kind of legwork explorers like ourselves put in was such joy, hidden discoveries that you’d imagine others would not find. It was the beginning of the slippery slope, though, to full-blown breadcrumbed exploration. Developers got better at planting story and upgrades out there and these days it is a given that the modern open world is a minefield of rewards – either functional (upgrades, health packs) or vapid (typically known as collectibles). Developers learnt that people liked finding things in the unknown and, attempting to meet that demand, turned their worlds into manufactured places that feel so… production line.

    Yes, it was Venice!

    Interesting exceptions: Miasmata, exploration is hard work and the world does have items that need to be collected which pushes you to explore. But this is an awesome exploration game. Thief, the game is filled with treasure and lore, but I don’t begrudge this at all: the “score” is effectively a measure of how great an explorer you are, plus you can skip most of those notes – although they make the game richer. Furthermore, these are small game maps relative to what is standard for an open world. Stalker, simply because it is hard work and often frightening to explore anywhere.

    Separately, I am unashamedly a fan of Disneyland in terms of its design (I have been to Disneyland/Disney Sea in Tokyo countless times). The attention to detail is awesome and it is fascinating to observe how they cleanly segue from zone to zone. Theme parks without the budget and experience of the Disney team often have hard or indistinct boundaries e.g. Legoland here in the UK.

  33. Since John Lasseter, cofounder of Pixar, took over as creative head of the Disney parks the design is getting even better. The Cars Land at Disneyland SoCal is a small wonder. I’ve actually started to like the film. And though some of my friends are dubious about the Star Wars Land they’re building, nothing short of a massive shift in the San Andreas fault is going to stop me from exploring it. Tour a full-sized replica of the Millennium Falcon? Yes, please. The cast members dressed as Wookiees may get annoying, though.

    I’ve been gradually starting and restarting Miasmata. I haven’t gotten very far and will probably keep getting lost until I figure out how to use the rather cryptic mapping tools, but I refuse to die in the jungle, friendless and alone. (Why do I keep flashing on this game as a kind of prequel to Dear Esther, without the barren Hebridean landscape?)


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