Friday, March 12, 2021

Another New World


Even after a full month of intense, even excessive play (inside the world of the game more than a year has passed) Valheim continues to surprise me. I came across those wrecked boat hulls in the picture above only a couple of days ago, as I explored the coastline of a new island. Never seen anything like that before.

The way the remnants and ruins of a fallen civilization lie scattered across the world is unsettling. Belghast said something in a post yesterday that I've long been meaning to mention; in some odd, not entirely way, Valheim reminds me strongly of Amazon's New World

There are clear similiarities in the gameplay. Both have you chopping trees and mining rocks to make armor and weapons. Combat isn't all that different. Both games draw from the same well in that regard.

They also look very alike. New World's wilderness and farmland come in much higher definition but the way they strike the eye is much the same. The way light falls, the way the trees move, the lens flare as the sun goes down...

The most striking resemblance is something much more intangible than any of those. It's the ambience, the atmosphere, the mystery. Something happened here. People lived, built, maybe prospered. And now they're gone.

What happened to them all? Where did they go? What drove them out? Why did they leave these mysterious markers, these glowing runes? Who did they leave them for?

Both games, of course, offer some context. New World begins with sea voyage where some of the history of previous, failed expeditions is explained. Hugin, Odin's raven, tells you a little about some metaphysical conflict at the deific level, a power struggle in which you, a fallen viking and worshipper of the pantheon at whose head Odin sits, are destined to play some small part. 

Honestly, in both games I'd barely made landfall before I'd forgotten almost all of it. Once you bed down in the world it scarcely matters any more. It's your world, now, especially in Valheim. 

New World is an mmorpg. There you're one among many. In Valheim there's just you and your immediate associates, if any. Hugin appears less and less frequently. Day to day concerns take over. Whether you play alone or with friends your focus moves to building bases that become homes. 

If it wasn't for the lure of clambering onto the next branch of the tech tree, how many vikings would even set out to explore the wider world beyond the first island? The seas are lashed with storms, the oceans filled with monsters. The swamps are dank, dark and deadly, the plains hot, hard and deadlier still. Mountains loom bleak and frozen, whipped by winds, blind with blizzards.

All the best spots to live are in easy reach. The meadows offer open skies, mild weather, tall trees. Gentle streams wind down to sandy shorelines, bees hum drowsily in the rafters, cheerful fires light the safe, secure corners of the longhouse you built with your own hands or with the willing help of your friends. 

Food is plentiful. Boars and deer give up their meat and hides, the good earth is ready to grow crops from the seeds that flourish in the woods. The black forest doesn't seem so black when you get to know its ways. 

Even the once-frightening greydwarves soon reveal themselves as nothing more than another resource to be managed. They supply wood and resin from their bodies the way the boars and deer offer their skin and flesh. It's the cycle of life.

I felt much the same in the first New World beta program. There was a loose structure to follow but the big appeal came from being in a most attractive world. It had its dangers, to be sure, but it felt like a place I might want to live. 

It's the mysteries that nudge you out of your complacent, comfortable idyll. The lure of seeing something new, something unexpected. What's over the next hill? On the next island? Always something fresh.

There's the miracle of Valheim's procedurally generated world. It doesn't feel like an algorithm created it. It feels as if nature did. Nature and man. Or maybe some supernatural force. New World feels like that, too. 

Or it did when I played. Sadly, I haven't been asked back. I don't know how it feels now. As I fear for Valheim's future, now its makers have to meet the expectations of five million paying customers, so I worry that New World will iterate itself into oblivion, searching for a formula that pleases everyone.

This is why I still believe some games are better in beta. Not all of them. Just the ones where the designers have a clear vision and the ability to realize it. Those games shine in the rough. Polish dulls their edge.

Or perhaps it's we, the players, whose perceptions become dull with familiarity. You only get one chance to make a first impression, they say, and while it's a dubious homily there's some truth in it. It's often offered as a warning against starting out on the wrong foot but it's a knife that cuts both ways. When a first date goes that well the pressure's on. Standards, once set, have to be maintained. Perhaps it's better to leave room for improvement than to have nowhere to go but down.

New World has been pushed back again. To late summer, this time. I was a little disappointed at first but then Valheim came and now I'm glad. It couldn't have done either game any favors to have launched one against the other and I suspect New World might have come off worse despite, maybe even because of, the corporate monolith that stands behind it.

Let's hope that the few extra months will allow us all to digest what we've discovered and develop an appetite for more. These both have the potential to become great games, great virtual worlds, places where we can spend more than just a few excitable weeks. 

There was a time when virtual worlds were what we thought we wanted. It's been a long wait but now they're most definitely here. But will we find the time for them? And even if we do, how many will we need?


  1. One of my early thoughts about Valheim was how much it reminded me of New World, or at least the state of the game back when I was in the beta what must be two years ago now. New World and H1Z1: Just Survive both came to mind, as you start with nothing and have to build up from there.

    And the procedural generation rules appear to be very sharp. I sometimes see the same rocky outcropping on a shore I pass, there being only so much variation in the world, and I am not always happy that it puts a tiny sliver of plains biome, complete with a deathsquito, on the edge of an otherwise meadows and black forest island, but it is generally very good and believable.

    1. I do wonder what New World will be like when it eventually arrives. Last summer in the short open beta it already felt a good deal more structured and they'll have had a year to iterate on that. I wouldn't be surprised to find it fully reshaped into a sandpark along the lines of Black Desert, which would be fine in itself, but if so I'll be glad I had the chance to see the unrefined version.


Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide