“A finite game takes place in a world… A world provides an absolute reference without which the time, place, and participants make no sense.” – James Carse, pp. 89-90, Finite and Infinite Games
There is a lot that can be said about the importance of the world in a game. Today I will be talking about the importance of visual elements in making first impressions, and one of the first games where the world itself made a big impression on me, Commander Keen 4: Secret of the Oracle.
First, let me be clear about what I mean by “world.” This word is often used as a synonym for the planet Earth, but that’s not helpful for looking at the worlds that games take place in. The world, to any given group of humans, is how we collectively make sense of what we see around us. This is how you can have a “world economy” or a “world war” or a “western world” that do not encompass the entire planet Earth. Some of those come very close, while some exclude most of the planet. The point is, the world is everything a game’s audience could possibly interact with in the context of playing that game. In Pong, the world is comprised by two paddles, a ball, a centre line, a scoreboard, and the boundaries of the screen. It is not a terribly compelling world, but it does not detract from the game because it’s a simple amusement; people don’t play Pong to escape into another world. If a game is designed to be large and meaningful in some way, the world needs to be many times more complex and engaging than that.
It’s not just a matter of appealing graphics, nor the absence of apparent boundaries that make a world seem interesting right from the get-go. Visual elements (such as screen graphics, printed cards, boards, tokens, etc.) are usually the first thing that introduce a player to a world. That’s why they’re not just there for the wow factor or to make marketing easier, though they do help with those things too. The look of a game is the first tool the audience gets for making sense of the game’s world.
That brings me to one of the first video games I ever played a lot of, the Commander Keen series. For those of you who haven’t reached
age level 30 by now, this was an episodic series of games for the PC in the early 1990s, a time when PC gaming was a niche interest compared to the popular consoles like the SNES and Sega Genesis. I, however, was not among the kids my age who had those consoles in their homes. We had no consoles newer than the Intellivision until I was in grade seven and the age of the Nintendo 64 had arrived. I did not grow up playing Sonic, Super Mario Brothers, or Metroid. My PC gaming nostalgia is brought to you today by the letters D, O, and S. Commander Keen, Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Ultima Underworld — these are the games I remember from the 1990s. I played plenty of demos and shareware, but Keen was to me what Link or Mario was to most gamers close to my age. And it was playing Commander Keen that gave me the first experience of truly appreciating the world in a video game based on the visual elements of the levels.
Before the age of DLC, there was a way that game developers could release part of a game and then charge for the rest. It was called shareware. The additional content, whether branded as sequels or additional episodes, were not truly distinct games. You copied a game for free, then you (were expected to) pay for the remainder of the content beyond what the developer deemed to be enough of a teaser. Commander Keen is ostensibly a series of six episodes, but it’s really two games: the Invasion of the Vorticons trilogy and the Goodbye Galaxy trilogy. For the sake of simplicity, I am counting Aliens Ate My Babysitter in the second trilogy because it plays the same as episodes 4 and 5 even though there were differences in story arc and license/distribution that set it apart from episodes four and five. Six episodes, two distinct games. At one point I had both of the shareware episodes: “Marooned on Mars” (#1) and “Secret of the Oracle” (#4). I was offered a choice: my parents would pay to complete one trilogy and not the other. I had to choose between sticking to the chronological order and continuing Invasion of the Vorticons, or getting the rest of the newer games. I chose the latter. If you asked me at the time, I would have told you it was for aesthetic reasons. I wouldn’t have used those words, but that’s what I would have meant when I said “better graphics.” It’s actually quite remarkable how far things advanced between December 1990 and December 1991. But the appeal is not just in the fact that the Mars presented in “Marooned on Mars”looks kind of like a maze made of molded plastic, while the Shadowlands of “Secret of the Oracle” contain diverse biomes rendered in stunning 256-colour VGA graphics.
It’s apparent when you walk around the first few levels in Secret of the Oracle. The backgrounds imply a bigger world than the maze you are currently navigating. You can go in and out of doors. And most strikingly, there is a new feature: you can look up, look down, and see that are other areas in the level where life goes on without you needing to be there, right in the middle of the screen. The difference a year makes is not just in aesthetics, but also in the little mechanics that help me believe the world exists outside of the boundaries of my screen.
The visual elements of a game’s world doesn’t have to involve sprawling, highly detailed landscapes in order to make a good impression. The blocky worlds of Minecraft and Terraria do just fine without realism. If the game world gives me the tools I need to feel like my place in it is meaningful and relevant, then it becomes something I can get invested in. Sometimes that can involve beautifully rendered landscapes with the appearance of horizons. Sometimes that can involve something as simple as being able to look up and look down. And so, to conclude, I leave you with the recreation of the Bean-with-Bacon Megarocket I built in a Terraria world I named Gnosticus IV. The concept of a world in that game is really neat, but will have to wait for a future post.