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July 30, 2010

There are several sequences in the remake of Clash of the Titans where Sam Worthington looks out across a majestic landscape in awe. They are very quick (it is, after all, a summer action flick), but they are there, in between chases, swordfights, and general havoc. What strikes me is how these are almost mandatory scenes; without them, the rest of the film would fall apart.

Not from a plot standpoint. Or even character development. But if they weren’t there, stories like this wouldn’t be adventures.

Adventures have to take you someplace. They can’t exist in everyday routine. Paying your bills isn’t an adventure. Eating breakfast, writing a report, tying your shoelaces; nothing routine is an adventure. Adventure transports you to a place that isn’t mundane, where you can’t predict what happens next, that irrevocably alters your view of the world.

I don’t think it’s an accident that some of the best fantasy and science-fiction are, at their most essential, travelogues. Lord of the Rings, The Last Unicorn, Zelazny’s Amber series, Asimov’s Foundation novels, Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle…the list is endless. All of them feature travel as their most fundamental plot device. The heroes travel. A lot.

This may be the two genres most basic appeal. The ability to go where no one has…ok, we won’t go there. My point is that the need to see new things is very deeply ingrained within us. Humans are nomadic by nature.

But sci-fi and fantasy are also very metaphoric. The places aren’t real, and although they are often based on real places (Tolkien’s Shire is essentially rural Britain), they are meant to be interpreted in mythic terms. Mordor is filled with darkness and fire because those are the things that scare and hurt you. But they also challenge and transform you. Frodo and Sam were very different people after the fires of Mount Doom.

And their journeys ended differently. Frodo accomplished his task, and was granted eternal rest for it. Sam, on the other hand, had to live the rest of his life in the Shire with his family. His adventure continued through his children and community.

The end of the newly-minted Clash of the Titans, seemed to me, to be truer to the adventure than the original. It was a bit of a cheat, though…Io’s sacrifice in the middle of the film became meaningless when she was arbitrarily brought back to life. Perseus accepting this from Zeus invalidated his accomplishments as a man, not a god. Of course, this is Hollywood, so you can’t complain too loudly.

What is interesting, to me, is what it reminded me of.

World of Warcraft.

Ok, I may need to explain that a little.

It’s been a few years since I played any MORG’s. I’ve only really played two: Asheron’s Call and WoW. I spent a lot of monthly subscription fees on both games, but both ultimately left me cold. I did enjoy my game time, but many features of both games eventually led me to give them up.

The ladder system is a prime example (I’m going to be talking generically about both games from here on out). The increasing amount of points to get to the next level, and the increasing amount of time between levels, leads to an insane amount of time and energy ‘grinding’ (repetitively doing the same thing over and over again to gain points).

A big part of both games was a kind of forced social interaction, where you simply couldn’t do certain things if you didn’t join player guilds or the like. This is not necessarily a bad thing…just as in life, there should be things you can only do in a group. The real problem was that there was nothing provided for solo play…if you didn’t want to join a guild, there were no activities that you could do on your own that were as meaningful in game terms.

I met quite a few assholes, too, especially on my brief forays into PvP servers (servers where players could fight each other as well as the monsters in the game…on most game servers, this is forbidden).

I met good folk, too. Some really helped me out.

But the thing I remember the most? That really lit me up?

Exploring the world. Feeling that I was the first person to find that nook or cranny of the game. Standing under huge suspension bridges, or running along the beach and finding an abandoned campfire. Asheron’s Call was especially cool because it had both a random weather generator and an artificial night and day. You could stand out in the wilderness under a starry sky. You could take shelter from the rain in an inn.

That was cool, not fighting an endless array of monsters.

That was adventure.

It may be the same allure that Foursquare has for people who aren’t into sci-fi or fantasy. Being the person who first finds a place, becoming the Mayor of that cubbyhole no one yet finds cool, turning the place you live into an adventure.

It seems to me that the one under-exploited theme in MORG’s is the landscape, and what you can do inside that landscape. Foursquare capitalizes on this because the real world changes constantly, with locations being destroyed, created, and recreated daily. But in AC and WoW, the landscape was static. Once you had explored the world, all you could do was kill more monsters. In fact, that was the main reason to go anywhere.

Of course, at the other end of the spectrum, worlds where everything is up to the players, like Second Life, have not gained much traction. Their active subscriptions are not even in the same ballpark as WoW. Part of the problem may be that worlds where everything is created randomly are just too random. WoW was very much a ‘curated’ world…the landscape was purposefully ‘walled off’…you couldn’t access a higher level of play until you had thoroughly explored the section you were in. And Blizzard did this in a very elegant and expert way…you didn’t feel boxed in, but part of a story that evolved as you did. But that doesn’t change the fact that once you had explored an area, there was no reason to stay, or even come back.

I doubt Foursquare’s system could be completely implemented inside a MORG, as first adopters would have an unfair advantage over those who came later. Especially if the world never changed. But a system where exploring the world as opposed to slaughtering an endless army of monsters generated game benefits would change the dynamics of MORG’s in a positive way. I think it would also enhance many of the crafting systems these games provide.

I’d like to see the next crop of MORG’s to be more generative, to make the landscape something that rewards you for being there, not just for killing monsters. Of course, a world can’t be generated randomly. The landscape must have landmarks.

But it would turn exploring into an adventure. It would make gazing out from a mountaintop, peddling your wares at a crossroads, seeing a moonlit beach a goal.

And that would be cool.

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