Published on April 1st, 2012 | by Fraser Brown0
Fraser Brown, Xenoarchaeologist in the 21st Century
Welcome back, fellow xenoarchaeologists! Last time, we were taking a look at the marvelous alien worlds of yesteryear, but this week we are rapidly approaching the present. A terrifying time, to be sure. The 21st century presented us with some fantastic tech, which allowed us to explore more believable worlds; worlds which acted much like our own. These spaces were not as limited as the ones that came before and invisible walls were far fewer. However, nonlinear, open worlds are not the only avenue for exploratory adventures. In the case of our first game, it certainly helped, though.
Back in 2002 I was given an extraordinary gift, a copy of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. I was aware of the series, but I’d never played Arena or Daggerfall. I was sick of generic fantasy races or locations and Vvardenfell offered something that felt entirely new. Keep your horses, I only want to ride a Silt Strider. Despite being a diverse place, it was consistently bleak and enigmatic.
The towering grey mountains — covered in ash — hid ferocious Cliff Racers, without a doubt the most unassuming and evil of all the province’s creatures and mysterious, haunted Dwemer ruins. Expansive wastelands and deserts could make a traveler lost and disorientated as sand and ash storms cloud their vision. The most verdant areas were marshes and swamps, where any number of bizarre beasties could attack at a moments notice. Morrowind could teach a lot of modern developers how to make an interesting, yet dour world without simply painting everything brown and calling it a day.
Traversing the vast, dangerous landscape of Vvardenfell was a lonely and tense experience. The world is inhospitable at best and its residents are far from the friendliest bunch, but I found myself pushed forward by the promise of treasure and mystery.
In the same year, Nintendo and Retro Studios let gamers experience the adventures of Samus Aran from a completely new perspective, in Metroid Prime. The Metroid series had always been about exploration and puzzle solving over combat and thankfully the change to a first person perspective did not alter that. While Metroid Prime kept most of what made the franchise so wonderful in the first place, seeing everything through Samus’ visor made it all the more immersive.
As the exploration was directly tied to the gameplay, searching for hidden passages or extra ammunition way off the beaten track was a necessity, rather than an enjoyable detour. I didn’t find Tallon IV a particularly interesting world, but the process of exploring it was incredibly fun and engaging. As the series continued it got better and better, making it one of my favourite experiences on the GameCube and Wii.
There are few games spaces I can say I enjoyed as much as Hillys, in Beyond Good and Evil. At a time when a lot of colour has been washed from games, it’s a treat to go back and explore such a vibrant world. Jumping in Jade’s hovercraft, going for a wee race or a hunt for pearls and creatures to photograph is a singular joy, thanks to the great setting and cracking music. The curious characters and their exaggerated sci-fi-meets-rustic environs are unique and intriguing and perfectly juxtaposed by the soulless mechanical factories and bases Jade often finds herself sneaking about in.
There isn’t much about Beyond Good and Evil that I don’t love, I mean, you even get a spaceship! It’s a world that deserves a second look and it’s a crime we’ve gone so long without one. Right now the sequel appears to be in a coma, so who knows when we’ll get it — if at all.
After the success of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion in 2006, there seemed to be a never ending stream of massive fantasy realms to explore. Most of them struck me as generic or mundane, even if they were still enjoyable games. If the success of Kingdoms of Amalur is anything to go by, it doesn’t look like it’s going to halt anytime soon. Unfortunately they seem so very set in their ways, we get it, Lord of the Rings was excellent, but let’s do something different. To be fair to Oblivion, we did get the Shivering Isles to investigate. That mad realm was truly fantastical and alien, and significantly more interesting than Cyrodiil.
Bethesda’s next RPG did offer something pretty different, at least. For all its flaws, Fallout 3 remains one of my favorite roleplaying jaunts. It might not be as clever as its predecessors, but it still offered a fairly unique experience. The combination of a derelict 1950s world of tomorrow and all those pesky mutants made my holiday in post apocalyptic 2277 incredibly memorable. I suppose I have a bit of a cheek mentioning Fallout in a piece about alien worlds, but I’m happy to make allowances for portrayals of Earth that are so utterly different from the real thing. Besides, in Fallout: New Vegas you can even dress up as a 50s sci-fi astronaut.
Playing Fallout was somewhat exhausting, though. The wasteland is a bloody miserable place and everything is falling apart, thankfully there are plenty of massive set pieces that are capable of inspiring a manly nod of approval, they kept me from getting too depressed from all the brown and grey ruins.
The last game that truly made me feel like Indiana Jones in a spacesuit wasMass Effect. The original got a lot of flak due to the lackluster approach to creating worlds ripe for investigation, the result was the drastic cut of real exploration altogether. It made sense in Mass Effect 3, where you should be a wee bit too busy to go on a tomb raiding vacation, but in the middle child it felt like a massive missed opportunity. The thing is, I actually really liked the exploration in first game, so much so that I’m going to defend it.
Sure, most of the planets were generally lifeless reskins of nearly identical locations, but if I was capable of using my imagination to bring the alien worlds Roger Wilco explored in Space Quest, then there’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to do it again. They still had the core facets that drive me to search for ruins or pirate bases or whatever I’m meant to be looking for.
Discovering a prothean ruin and climbing up to the top to steal some hot 50,000 year old intel one minute and then assaulting a base filled with drug baron pirates the next, what’s bad about that? Stealing artifacts and kicking ass, that’s my kind of exploration. There were even moments when I enjoyed using the Mako. Its impossible bounciness and absurd handling provided comedy, frustration and moments of joy when I’d launch of a mountain right into an army of angry geth.
I’m not going to pretend that Mass Effect’s exploration couldn’t have done with a massive overhaul and significantly more interesting locations, I think it’s more accurate to say that I liked what BioWare tried to do, rather than what they did. Sadly, it’s not like there are many alternatives. Perhaps, if the industry was saturated in creative, distinct game worlds that I could just keep hopping about, exploring, then I’d be quicker to write of Mass Effect’s attempt as a complete and utter failure. Before anyone calls me jaded, I’m still optimistic about having plenty of unique spaces to explore. I’ve still got Journeyto play, and apparently it’s pretty damn nifty. So all is not lost. If it is, I’ll just fuck off to the Moon.