Monday, March 1, 2021

It Makes You Think

As I play Valheim, which seems to be about all I do at the moment, ideas for posts keep popping into my head. It's a game that doesn't just generate stories but one that makes me think. At the risk of repeating myself, a risk I'm always willing to take, while playing Valheim reminds me of quite a lot of things, it reminds me of nothing so much as playing early EverQuest.

There were plenty of reasons I found myself sucked into the vortex by EQ. There was the astounding sensation of playing a game in real time with people on the other side of the planet ; there was the unearthly beauty of the three-dimensional images; there was the astonishingly convincing replication of the imagined experience of living in an alien world.

Above all, though, the hook that EverQuest sank deepest was the way it made me think. Nothing was explained but everything made sense. Or it would make sense if I could just figure it out. I rarely had the feeling I was playing a game, more like I was living a life. The rules I struggled to discover and understand had the heft of laws of physics, not regulations in a rulebook.

Over the years, as I pressed deeper into the undergrowth of online gaming, pushing through the increasingly cluttered thickets of mmorpgs, my sense of wonder diminished and receded. The more I games I played, the more they seemed like games I'd played before. 

That, of course, was what I wanted. When I nervously tried out Guild Wars 2 on the first open beta weekend almost exactly nine years ago I was cock-a-hoop that all the overblown promises (threats!) of broken moulds and new paradigms turned out to be so much overblown hype:

"Is it a paradigm shift? Is it a game changer? A step change? A new generation? No it flippin' well is not. ...what I've seen is an excellent implementation of traditional, standard and familiar MMO tropes. Guild Wars 2 looks to be a really first-class AAA theme-park MMO. If that's what you want then you're going to be very happy".

 And I was. I'm still playing it, after all. 

Looking back, I do think the blogger protests too much. (Me. I protest too much. I'm the blogger). GW2 was the big hope back then and I wanted very much to like it but ArenaNet and some of the game's more vocal supporters were making such iconoclastic claims for its supposedly innovative and original mechanics I was genuinely apprehensive I might not be able to play it at all.

That's about how I felt about EverQuest before I tried it back in 1999. I spent a lot of hours prepping before I even bought the thing. I browsed a lot of websites and read a load of online articles about mmorpgs in general (all three or four of them) and EQ in particular.

In the end I had to jump one way or the other. I jumped into Norrath and boy was that the deep end. It was weeks before I had even a vague idea what I was doing, months before I could say I was comfortable, years before I'd admit to being competent. It was a prolonged, intense, frequently uncomfortable initiation.

But it made me think. All the time. It still does, actually, when I go back and play. EverQuest engages the mind in multiple channels simultaneously. If the logic of some of the systems seemed abstruse then, after two decades of iteration they approach the ineffability of the arcane lore they attempt to emulate. 

To decipher the game's systemic tropes and canons you need to engage in analytical thought but out in the field you don't have time for that. You have to think in very different ways. Your senses need to be engaged at all times in case something wicked comes your way. Movement, sound, any subtle changes in the environment demand immediate attention, appropriate action if you want to survive, let alone prosper.

To play EverQuest is to be always slightly on edge. Never to be certain of your ground. Overconfidence can be fatal. Even confidence might be too much.

It's a while since I've played an mmorpg that demands that much or gives as much back in return. When I think about the ones I've played since... well, let's say since GW2, getting on for a decade ago... they've all been jolly romps to one degree or another. 

Alright, "jolly romp" scarcely applies to The Secret World, although technically I did play that before Guild Wars 2, but that's more to do with the subject matter than the gameplay. FFXIV, Blade and Soul, Bless, Revelation Online, Twin Saga, Dragomon Hunter, AdventureQuest 3D, ArcheAge, Black Desert, Landmark, Star Wars: the Old Republic... all of them engaged the intellect to some degree and most engaged the emotions but none really achieved the elusive, holistic mental gestalt of the genre at it's best.

And I'm not saying Valheim does, either. For one thing, it's not even an mmo, let alone an mmorpg. For another, in early access its scope is necessarily limited. No, I'm not making any great claims for what is without doubt more of an effective amalgam of game designs, drawn from elsewhere, than a purely original creation. Valheim is the sketch of what a great game could be rather than a great game in itself.

But it does make me think

So much planning. The journeys and the trips with their fiendish logistics. The preparation and the maintenance. The construction and the exploration and the goal-setting. 

There's the observation, the analysis, the wonder. How does the world look so hand-made when we know it's generated? Why do surtlings live in a swamp if water makes them explode? What are skeletons doing hunting deer when they neither eat meat nor wear hides?

And there's the in-the-moment, ad hoc, seat of your pants, skin of your teeth, getting through the next thirty seconds, somehow. The painful, arduous, frustrating recovery. The loss and the sliding down and the climbing back. The thoughts of regret, bitterness, resignation. The post-match analysis and the lessons to be learned.

I'm fairly sure it's what people who've played Minecraft have been experiencing for years. It's most likely nothing much at all compared to what people who've played Ark or Rust have endured or enjoyed. I keep seeing those comparisons but I'll have to take them on trust from people who've played those games because I never have.

But I have played EverQuest. And it was like this.The way it made me think was like this. 

That's what I've been missing. That's what mmorpgs have been missing.

I wonder if they'll ever find it?


  1. Great post. At the end of the day, I think Valheim, for me at least, has reminded me that the journey is the destination.

    All the planning, logistics, heartache, terror, excitement, progress (forward and backwards) are the experience. So many of the other games you mention have turned the dial towards curated achievement experiences, removing all the rough patches and obstacles along the way. Those can still be a very fun ride, but I never think that the roller coaster ride is going to catch fire, collapse or catapult me into oblivion.

    I felt many of the same things during my initial forays into Minecraft, but while there was a genuine sense of wonderment (and terror of loss of hard won gains), it didn't have the cohesive, immersiveness that Valheim does.

    1. I think one of the key reasons behind Valheim's success is the way the developers have managed to balance that awareness of imminent disaster with an assurance that no matter how badly things go you *will* be able to pull yourself out of the hole, somehow. There were all too many occasions in EverQuest where an unrecoverable corpse was truly unrecoverable and replacing what you'd lost would take more than just gritting your teeth and repeating the grind.

      In Valheim the risk is sharp enough to wound but so far I've never felt it was likely to be fatal. In clasic EQ, everyone at some point experienced a "That's it. I quit!" moment and that's something I don't have the slightest hint of nostalgia for.

  2. I'd say Valheim sounds more like the Terrafirmacraft modpack version of Minecraft to me. Bit more on the brutally hard, slower paced progression, 'realistic' survival scale of things.

    The fun of Minecraft is in the modding though. One can pretty much change up the experience into an entirely different game. The version I'm playing now in Peace of Mind is totally chill and unbrutal (zero hostile mobs), I'm zooming around with an item that essentially lets me fly around with the equivalent of creative mode flight and so on.

    Given time, I'm sure Valheim will also get more polished in its creative / debug mode experience, but it seems more purpose built for a specific kind of survival. Mods may only push it so far - just as say, Don't Starve's mods don't entirely change up the structure of its game.

    1. Although everyone does it, comparing Valheim with Minecraft, especially, seems more than a little unfair. Minecraft is one of the most successful and popular video games of all time and its been in continual development for well over a decade. Pretty much no-one knew Valheim existed a month ago.

      My worry, to the limited degree I'm capable of becoming worried about the future of a video game, is that Valheim's immense overnight success will lead to its developers losing focus, trying to turn it into something that satisifies all four million of those unexpected new fans. A full-bore, standalone creative mode would, in my opinion, be one of the least-damaging of those potential variations.

      A post Syl put up yesterday linked to the Valheim roadmap, which I hadn't seen. That looks eminently sensible. I just hope they stick to it.

    2. I feel exactly the same way, right now the company is at a perilous crossroads. Do they get sucked into the maelstrom of player demands for tweaks and ports and this'n that, or do they stay the course and preserve their vision? The current balance and harmony of things is delicate, too much rebalancing and even polish, beyond the necessary, will disturb it. I am keeping my fingers and toes crossed they can handle it....they gave an IGN interview where they explain how overwhelming just the server side of things has become for the five (!) of them.

  3. I think you are on to something here. Asheron's Call was my Everquest and I thought about it all the time. Trying to figure out spells, how to get to the next town, what is that building up on the mountain and why is it there. I have enjoyed many games since but very few made me think like this. Alas, I have no time for Valheim right now but I love reading all the stories from people!

    1. I'm beginning to feel a little wary of banging out Valheim story after Valheim story here, which is why I'm always looking for ways to relate what I'm doing there to the wider hobby. I know people playing the game enjoy reading what amount to other players' diary entries but it's always re-assuring to hear that someone who isn't playing is getting something out of all this obsessive coverage too.

  4. Valheim has the magic. For me, the greatest MMO moments have always been those when the game fades into the background and the world takes over. When the simulation transcends the hard code and I am so immersed that every moment feels unique, uniquely crafted just for me, happening only to me right now in this great wide world.


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