Monday, July 14, 2014

Exploration as Taught by Floid and Dewitt

"So here you stand, beloved freak
You're not alone.
Sometimes we get so tired and weak
We lose the sky beneath our feet
You're not alone."

Garbage - Beloved Freak

About a decade ago, I found a cabin on the beach in Dun Morogh. WoW fans might retort "omg u n00b therez liek mntns al arnd it!!!" Ah, but see, little old druid me turned into a seal and swam southwards from that swamp port north of it, I forget its name. And after some fifteen minutes of rugged, unscalable cliffs, I ran across my reward: a patch of beach with a little wooden shack. I use the term "reward" metaphorically, of course, since the hut was emptier than the average gamer's skull.

So, then, why did the druid cross the road?
Some time after I pulled that little stunt, I took the famous Bartle Test, which like most such quizzes is famous mostly for telling you what you already know about yourself. In my case, it brilliantly declared me an explorer.

Here, unfortunately, we run into a semantic issue because despite all this I cannot recognize myself in the implicit definition of exploration used by MMOs. Exploration is not the routine of running to every town which is already marked on your map. Nor is it the obsessive-compulsive need to criss-cross a game map until you run across a random spot on bare ground (thanks for nothing City of Heroes, may you rot in pieces.) Exploration is not mere beach-combing. Explorers are precisely opposite those who merely hit every location on a predetermined checklist for achievement unlocks.

True explorers are, to a great degree, impulsive. We wander along and something catches our eye, some geometric hint, some trace of symbolism, and we just have to know what's over that hill or at the bottom of that cave or at the top of that peak. The job of game designers is to make sure there really is something there... sometimes. Ironically, in general, the smaller the better. This activity is not about "phat lewtz" but about token recognition. I spent a quarter-hour swimming instead of farming XP because that long stretch of mountains dropping into the sea seemed too large, to obvious, too... there... to be completely empty. And lo and behold, a game designer thought as I did. That's the delicate, subtle art of creating meaning out of what would otherwise be empty space, of rewarding pattern-seeking, not pattern-following or pattern-imposing behavior.

Single-player games tend to be linear and therefore lack such opportunities. Easter eggs in general don't count. Some few open-world adventures like Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl or the Elder Scrolls games have been quite clever in rewarding you with a hidden stash, an unobstructed scenic view, a little snippet of text, something, some little glint of recognition between you and the programmer who both thought there logically should be something here, right here where the land or architecture curves just this way.

MMOs, if you hold them to their core definition as persistent worlds, hold both the greatest possibilities and greatest need for exploration, and it's not about bragging rights. Here's where the extroverted majority misinterpreted the game exploration impulse of escapists. We might sometimes get excited enough about something we found to brag about it, but to us, it's not about floating titles above our heads or unique loot. The druid crossed the road to get to the other side. More than that, exploring is a symbolic escape within escapism, allowing our online avatars to get away from the crowds for a while, from all those despicable achievers, socializers and killers. To look down at the world from airy heights, to hide within the deepest cave, to take a few moments within a sheltered little valley, to sit by a pond in untrod woods - the symbolism here is not complicated. It is at least as much an expression of personality as the petty sadism and attention-whoring of the dick-measuring masses, and it deserves a great deal more recognition than it's getting.

It's always odd to run across the mark of some game designer who, among the endless dross churned out as an industrial process, manages to sneak in some hint of creativity, subtle or grandiose, concise or diffuse, to voice a wish for better things. Exploration as a concept and practice is not random, but nominal "exploration" in any modern game, by any name - lore, deeds, badges, achievements - is geared toward the mindless masses and therefore almost always either obvious or random, so as to prevent intellect from becoming an asset. So when LotRO first challenged me to "find Floid and Dewitt" in various places, I took it as just one more mindless random timesink and ignored it... until I started running into them.

See, the explorer and his mighty steed are of loftier mind than lesser men (and horses) so the spots they seek, though frustratingly remote, are often precisely the kind of natural landmarks which draw freaks like myself. If you're the type to take clumps of trees or subtle gradations in terrain as hints, if you get the impulse to see the view from the other side of the hill or from the edge of a precipice, if you're the sort who looks for beachfront property in a landlocked zone, then you may well find Floid and Dewitt waiting for you in a few of these spots, with a mug of cocoa and a friendly snort of recognition.

"So here you stand, beloved freak
The world is at your feet
You're not alone."

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