Saturday, 9 April 2016

Hold That Pose : Black Desert

It probably won't come as much of a surprise to anyone reading this to hear that in the first month of playing Black Desert I've taken almost seven hundred and fifty screenshots. The problem with BDO isn't finding something to snap - it's knowing when to stop.

Much has been said about the beauty and quality of the game's graphics but it's the strength of the world-making that cannot be overstated. Rarely, probably never, have I traveled the roads and footpaths of an imaginary world that so meticulously, painstakingly replicates an authentic managed environment.

I've mentioned before how every village, town and city uses street plans that are logical, workable and convincing. No compromise whatsoever appears to have been made for player convenience. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the designers used the layout of real-world towns as templates.

The road networks are similarly naturalistic all the way down to the dirt tracks leading to isolated farmsteads and mountain hermitages. The countryside looks and feels wild at the borders and tenanted where civilization encroaches.

There's much more than good geography to why Black Desert feels so immersive to explore, though. The level of detail throughout the built environment is exemplary. The set design and placement of props would do a BBC historical drama proud.

What takes the whole thing to another level is the extensive use of tableaux vivants. Everywhere you go small dramas play out around you. Not a roadside camp or farmstead goes without its own staged set piece and once you enter a city the feeling of being surrounded by stories is overwhelming.


It's a fascinating approach to world-making. I'm not convinced it has the edge over GW2's enormously complex, nested scripted NPC narratives, where entire storylines with thousands of lines of dialog, all voiced, unfurl across whole maps, but it has a deep charm all the same.

In Metrica Province, to take my favorite Tyrian example, it is entirely possible to spend a whole afternoon trailing NPCs and eavesdropping on their quotidian lives. Just by watching and listening that way you feel it might be possible to come to a rich, nuanced understanding of life among the Asura.

Wandering through the bustling streets of Altinova or Heidel the impression is more one of walking through a gallery. Screenshots taken at random look, almost literally, like paintings in the style of the great Renaissance masters. Where GW2 is a watercolor dreamscape, Black Desert is naturalism done in oils.

It's those tableaux that hold the eye, though. The eye and the mind and the imagination. Black Desert's designers have dared to be lavish, not just in the size of the cast or the scale of the production but in the detailing.

When dressing sets with NPCs, almost all MMOs re-use animations primarily intended for other purposes; emotes, combat, idling. I can't be certain but it seems to me that the Pearl Abyss team has gone to the trouble of creating specific animations for certain tableaux just to make them more convincing.

Take, for example, the soldier pictured above fixing something - a mirror? a shield? a sign? - to a wall in Altinova. That animation seems bespoke. Or his colleague, painting a symbol on a wall a few doors away. That action has to be handcrafted just for that scene, doesn't it?

That symbol, too. Found in many places in the
area, it has a significance I don't understand. Wherever it appears it looms, darkly. The sight of that soldier, marking the clay while a hulking guard and a lackey look on, is chilling.

Whatever it means it can't be anything good. The tableau of cowering refugees - or are they citizens? - surrounded and menaced by more armed and armored soldiers just a few doors up the hill make it plain this is a city in turmoil.

And yet, meanwhile, business must go on. Black Desert's is a world of trade and commerce as well as violence and magic. As you watch the heated bargaining between a gesticulating Shai and cold-eyed goblin dealer in art and artifacts you have to wonder about the provenance of the goods. Were those gilded frames looted by the militia or are they the family heirlooms of some wealthy Altinovan, liquidating his assets before he flees to Heidel or Calpheon?

It's entirely possible to stand for hours looking at this world and wondering. For all I've supposedly "played" Black Desert for a month now, what I've mostly done is watch. In some ways the "game" part just gets in the way.


The players certainly do, with their hundreds of wagons parked on top of each other, their lines of horses lined up like so many black cabs on the rank, their garish dyes and Las Vegas showgirl glitz. So, too, the odd clusters of milling wildlife placed down conveniently at the edge of town, just waiting to be killed. Without the need to provide a game there'd be none of that.

Black Desert makes a good case for the old-school vision of the Virtual World but, once again, a huge question mark hangs over the compatibility of virtual world-building with the making and playing of video games. Perhaps VR will finally drive a wedge between the two. If I could "walk" through Altinova in three dimensions and 360 degrees I'm not sure I'd need anything more by way of  "gameplay".

Come to think of it, I'm not entirely sure I do, even now.



14 comments:

  1. Not knowing what exists in the Korean current version, I am excited still for the future of BDO. Its more immersive then GW2. GW2 promised a world, but delivered only on the looks - immersiveness and interactiveness is sorely lacking. Although CJ leaving the company and broad dissatisfaction on not even close to delivering on the 'manifesto' may signal good things to come. Still miss WvW, but as to being part of a world, I dont think anything comes close to BDO currently.

    Really enjoying your posts!

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    1. Thanks! I'm not as convinced as all that about BDO or GW2 or indeed any MMO to date when it comes to virtual worlds. The paradox between a living environment and a static game in which content has to remain permanently available has yet to be cracked in my opinion. Black Desert certainly hasn't managed it. Increasingly I think that virtual worlds and games ought to stay well clear of each other.

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  2. If they had compromised on the detail front, the game would have been doomed; like so many big houses that only serve as props in so many games and stand empty when entered, a great shell without substance would've killed it for me. There is the rare empty hall or room in Calpheon I have found, but generally sites are cluttered just right - not in a Wildstar kind of OCD-way but one that feels functional.

    I have a hard time comparing GW2 and BDO; both are beautiful but as you said too, GW2 is colorful smudgestick magic where BDO keeps things crisp and real-sized. As someone who cares a great deal about realistic scale (as in how big are the streets and how tall the buildings), BDO is the frontrunner. I agree the scripts in GW2 were much more complex however and I really miss the nested quests and cascading events. If BDO were to adopt that, we'd have the perfect MMO world, methinks. As good as it gets, anyway. ;)

    What I do like in BDO is that certain quests can only be done at night (maybe also weather?). And some NPCs aren't around during daytime, either. I spent some time chasing invisible question marks until I got that.

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    1. One thing Black Desert is really making me do is think. It's made me look at what I want from an MMO, or video games in general, and consider whether my assumptions and expectations are grounded in any real sense of enjoyment or more in habit and learned response. I'm still working it through but at the moment I lean towards the feeling that it's *only* the world-building in BDO that's holding my interest. There's little about the gameplay that's working for me. I'm already beginning to feel my interest draining away. Going to need to think on this some more - there are several posts to be written but it's too soon yet.

      As for the NPCs who go home for a night's sleep, I'm in two minds about that. Like a lot of BDO's systems it's exciting and immersive the first time you run into it but it very quickly becomes tedious and annoying. It's also ridiculous in terms of immersion when 99% of all NPCs stand in the same spot 24/7. Either they should all have day/night positions or none of them should.

      Of course, again like most of BDOs systems, this is something that was commonplace in RPGs and early MMOs two decades ago. Most of these tropes were dropped because they become very wearing to deal with in a persistent world. It's curious to see them revived but i can't say I've missed them or want them back.

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    2. I see that. Personally I enjoy the crafting, the housing and the combat so there's much much more to do for me. I started using post-its so I can remember what I wanna do next, rofl...

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  3. This is at best only tangentially related to the post topic, but for lack of a better venue:

    I've heard people with Black Desert get some refer-a-friend codes they can give to people for free trials. Have you got any lying around, and if so, would you be willing to send one my way? I have little interest in the game, but I'd love to get my hands on that character creator.

    If you're willing to part with a code, send me a message on my blog's contact page, and we can go from there. If not, no hard feelings.

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    1. I'd happily send you a code but with the basic $29.99 deal you only get one and I gave it to Mrs Bhagpuss. She then decided to buy the game and as she didn't care what happened to the 7-day pass she got with that purchase I gave it to xyzzysqrl, who asked last week if I had one going spare. Long answer!

      There was a huge reddit thread where people were giving the passes away but it's locked now. Maybe someone reading this has one to spare.

      As for the over-rated character creator, I have two characters sitting awaiting deletion right now because when I tried to make them last night they both went straight into the game without ever offering me any customization options at all. I literally couldn't find the option to open the controls to change anything. I don't know if that's a bug or if something's been hanged intentionally - I didn't have the slightest problem with the first two characters I made so I don't see how it can be anything I'm doing wrong.

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    2. In terms of guest passes: There are huge threads on Reddit and on the official forums where people are asking for and receiving guest passes from, essentially, strangers.

      Not really on-topic, but still: I have to thank you for your BDO posts, Bhagpuss - based upon your early posts (especially those showing the amazing world-building), me and my wife (and the two daughters, but less so) have become mad-hardcore BDO players. Our PCs only get shut down for updates, otherwise it's 24/7 BDO at our place.

      So yeah: many thanks for covering this game, and for highlighting the world design. We've both been looking for a low-fantasy, coherent MMO world for some time - I'd much rather do my own thing in a persistent world than follow the path to the end of a MMO-game, and BDO fully allows that. I wouldn't have paid any attention to it without your posts (I'd assumed it was a Blade and Soul/ TERA clone), so thanks! My fishing, trading and production empire wouldn't have existed without you.

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    3. You're very welcome Seanas! It's great to hear someone's getting something out of my ramblings!

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  4. Agree with Seanas:".... been looking for a low-fantasy, coherent MMO world for some time - I'd much rather do my own thing in a persistent world than follow the path to the end of a MMO-game"
    Thanks to you, Syl, Mmorpg and Mersaults blogs and tweets im immersed in the game and im so thankful of that.
    I was convinced it was a ArcheAge clone and boy I was wrong o.o

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    1. Yes, hat-tip to Syl from me too. I did have Black Desert on my radar but it was her first few posts and, especially, the screenshots that got me interested enough to give it a try.

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  5. I tend to agree with you - much of it does feel rather staged. A scene created solely for a single look or screenshot but sometimes that's ok. It tells a little more of the story of the world in parts. I did like the storytelling elements of gw2's original events though, they make the world feel just that little bit more organic, adding to that sense of world building although with how scripted many of them were it often pulled you out of that pretty quickly.

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    1. I really don't think anyone's cracked the "how do we have a dynamic, changing world and yet still let all our players get to do what they want, when they want" paradox. That's one big reason so many people were pinning so much hope on EQN/Storybricks, I think. My feeling is that convincing virtual worlds and gaming are not natural bedfellows. There is always a huge compromise involved. BDO's version is not at all bad though. It may be static but it is at least rich, detailed and convincing as far as it goes.

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