A couple of weeks ago I wrote about my questing experiences post-Shattering, particularly about how WoW’s excellent sense of place and world-building really enhances the experience for me. In this followup-post I’d like to explore the concept of sense of place within games a bit further, and take a look at why exactly it’s so meaningful for me. Consequently this post’ll deviate from our/my usual WoW-focus and go a bit broader. If that’s not your thing, I URGE you to stop reading right now, as you might hurt yourself somehow.
Despite my earlier musings about the narrative potential that emerges when player choice is introduced as a component in a game storyline, I don’t really believe games are particularly good at telling a traditional story. Coincidentally that’s one of the hot debates in game design right now: everyone seems to have a different opinion, and designers have experimented with a veritable truckload of wildly different solutions. I won’t go into that right now as it’s not the topic of this post and it might actually make a good one for a future blog-spression. I’ll limit myself to my own opinion which I already touched on: I think narrative in its traditional form (in other words: what we instantly think about when we hear the word “story”) is something that’s far better expressed through media such as films or books than games. I’d like to go into the reasons but once again my self-imposed restrictions forbid me to. Life is hard when one wants to avoid rambling and tangents.
That’s not to say games are inherently BAD at conveying any kind of story, but. NO. BUT NOTHING. MUST MOVE ON.
Yes. What games are, I think, far better at, is establishing a vaguely related concept. I’ve already discussed it briefly in the context of WoW: the sense of place. It’s curious how a lot of my favourite games seem to be very effective at establishing a sense of place. Planescape: Torment and Sigil. Legacy of Kain and Nosgoth. And indeed, World of Warcraft and Azeroth. Telling a linear story is one way to engage a player, but the most memorable gaming experiences I have almost all seem to have this one thing in common: they’re extremely effective at building a world.
This is in line with some of what I said in earlier posts about games having to exploit and embrace their unique strengths. Designers shouldn’t just be looking to other media for inspiration and turning games into a hodgepodge of those, they should instead be looking at what GAMES do well, and what their specific qualities are. Once you figure those out you’ve got the basic building blocks for a game that not only breaks new ground and boldly goes where no other medium has gone before (helping games as a medium forward as a result), you’re also making sure your own game has an identity, and isn’t just a collection of scraps. “It’s good, but… movies/books/whatever do it better.” That’s exactly the kind of language a designer should be trying to avoid when making a game.
Once again we look towards the core characteristic of games: their interactivity. You might say there are others (and there are), but that’s the vital quality you can’t really dismiss as everything else sort of depends on it. For reasons I already discussed in previous posts, a linear storyline kind of goes against that. A gameplay style that very much taps into it is exploration. You’re presented with a world, a location, and you’re free to go wherever you like and see what’s going on in this place. There’s no other medium which even approaches the possibilities games have to explore a space. Sure, books can DESCRIBE worlds and build them through stories, characters, and the like. And you might even feel like a visitor when reading about such a world. The same goes for movies: they award the viewer with a glimpse into their specific worlds. But games. Do. It. Better.
You can disagree (by all means), but you’re totally wrong and you know it. Seriously though, obviously there’s a case to be made for all those other media, but I don’t think there’s anyone out there who’d argue games are bad at world-building, at creating a sense of place. Quite the contrary, probably. Unlike with a linear storyline, interactivity is used to its fullest here: you, the player, are presented with a world, and it’s up to you to figure out how it works, which characters inhabit it, discover its history and important landmarks, visit all those places on the map directly and experience all of them through your own eyes. Taking in the views as much and as long as you like, from every direction. That’s a remarkable thing.
It also allows designers to tell stories in new ways. There’s been a lot of experimentation with that lately (think Bioshock, for those of you who’ve played it), but you don’t need to look further than WoW itself to be presented with examples. A big part of the story can be told visually if the level designers just have enough attention to detail and good ideas. A landmark becomes an important indicator for major events in the history of this world you as a player are walking around in. WoW does this really effectively, its history is expressed in no small part through its world. Think Blackrock Mountain. The Thandol Span. Stromgarde. The Plaguelands. All of them communicate certain stories and a part of WoW’s history to the players, simply thanks to their visual style and their presence. Encountering them when exploring evokes some feeling in the players by itself, without even starting a quest related to them.
The Shattering is immensely satisfying in exactly that respect. Old landmarks have been radically redrawn, new ones have been created. And all this after we inhabited this world for several years. It’s not just about being able to explore it all over again and find new things around every corner. That’s a great feeling in itself, but the main draw for me comes from seeing this established place completely changed. The fact that a lot of these areas are in fact SHATTERED only strengthens this. It has to do with what I mentioned in the previous post: the places we inhabit become part of ourselves. This goes for the real world as well: if you took the same road to work or school every day and suddenly found all the houses on the side destroyed I’m sure you wouldn’t just ignore that. The same thing goes for the Shattering, this all too familiar place suddenly becomes alien again, but because it’s a virtual place it’s not emotionally devastating, it’s exciting and awesome and wonderful and yeah, might break your heart a little. The world in WoW is a character just like the ones we as players create and become, and its fate is very much a concern of ours.