Mapping the extremes in online worlds and olden times

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I was walking around in a local bookstore this weekend. The kind that has a cat, and you pet the cat, and then browse for books, and then you think that there isn’t anything interesting here but you can always go back and pet the cat again. Except on the way back to the cat part, I got sidetracked and took a trip I wasn’t expecting. That’s the best kind of bookstore.

After the jump, taking a trip from Greece to Greyhawk

The book that grabbed me is called “North to Thule”. It is subtitled “An imagined narrative of the famous ‘lost’ sea voyage of Pytheas of Massalia”. If you already know who that was and what that is, then hi Troy Goodfellow, thanks for reading, you can go back to your beer and buffalo wings now. For everyone else, apparently in the fourth century B.C., some Greek from Marseilles sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar (“The Pillars of Herakles”) and then maybe elsewhere, maybe exploring Ireland, and Britain, and even the Baltic and Iceland. Or Norway. Some people say Greenland.

Pytheas wrote down all his observations in a travelogue which was housed for a while in the Library of Alexandria. I don’t have any firsthand evidence for that but I’m willing to take some scholarly people at their word. As we all know, the Library of Alexandria was destroyed some time before the birth of George Washington, and so all we know about Pytheas’ travels we have to take at the word of those who read them before the library burned down. In a way, it’s kind of like reading things on the Wayback Machine.

One of the most memorable worlds I’ve encountered is a place that has lived at the back of my mind for over a decade since I first went there. It was pretty much unlike any place I had ever been, with dark forests, brooding hills, and surprising encounters. It was completely new to me in a way I can’t completely describe, which I know makes me a bad writer, but it’s hard to put into words the sense of having no idea what might be over the next hill, or down the road, or through the copse of trees, or what was going on over across the river, or that big plain, and how to get from here to there.

I decided to revisit that place a few months ago when, ten years after I first played it, I signed up for a free trial of Dark Age of Camelot. There’s no presto-reveal sentence coming to make a joke out of that, or explain that I actually traveled to Andorra and here are some amazing pictures. Instead, here are some pictures of a tired old MMO that has absolutely nothing to offer from a gameplay or graphics perspective. I mean, look at that guy.

But when it comes to world-building, I can personally attest to the fact that this game already did that for me better than any other MMO I’ve played since. Why? What am I, Raph Koster’s personal oracle? I have absolutely no idea. Maybe it’s because that’s the first MMO I ever played, but don’t get all attached to that concept. Maybe Jonah Lehrer has some neat neuroscience facts to explain how the first virtual world we ever visited potentiates our hippocampus, or some such. I’ll leave that to him or Oliver Sacks, once Ollie gets around to playing an online role-playing game.

Back in eighth grade, a friend and classmate had a map of the World of Greyhawk tacked to the wall in his room. It was upstairs in his parents’ house and the only room in use up there. We used to go up in the evenings and spend entire nights planning expeditions to various parts of that world. For some reason, we were always drawn to the farthest, most extreme regions depicted. We’d read the background descriptions Gary Gygax or whoever had written about them in the Greyhawk supplement, and think how amazing it would be if our characters could get there somehow, and discover what happens there. It would have been our version of going to the Moon.

Note that it never occurred to us to just make up a scenario set in that place, with characters already there, or maybe characters who lived there and could just go about their regular business, killing tsathogguas, or kzinti, or frozen owlbears, or whatever people in that land might do for a living. Unlike the expedition to the Barrier Peaks, you had to actually get to the Barrier Peaks first. That’s the exploration urge right there: it’s just as much about getting to the far shore as it is about the far shore in the first place.

One time, my character actually bought a ship, hired a crew, and started sailing around the Greyhawk globe. We figured out how long it would take in game time, calculated what that meant in real time, and spent our school days plotting how far I’d gotten, and our free evenings role-playing what happened on the way there. I don’t remember how it ended. We probably lost track of time, or the ship sank, or we got interested in girls. I’m not even going to suggest that this proves mankind has a primal thirst for exploration, because if you’re drawing conclusions about mankind from two dorky eighth-graders playing Dungeons & Dragons, you’re working from some very flawed assumptions.

But whatever eighth-grade impulse drove me to try to find the Land of Black Ice and the Hold of Stonefist at the top of a made-up fantasy map immediately drew me to some obscure book published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill in 1985. That’s funny, because the book dates from just a few years after my character’s unfinished voyage around the make-believe globe. But the desire to go somewhere extreme and exciting was exactly the same.

Even more compelling were the artist’s renditions of two-thousand-year-old conceptions of how the world looked. On page 184 of this less-than-200-page book is “the world according to Strabo,” a Greek geographer who lived a few hundred years after Pytheas’s alleged voyage. He was a big skeptic of Pytheas’ account, and much of our knowledge of that now-lost account comes through Strabo’s writings and criticisms, as well as those of Polybius, who lived a century after Pytheas and was likewise not impressed with the purported voyage. Apparently, Polybius was such a critic that the Massalians denied him entry to Marseilles, and thus denied the world an account of Marseilles during that time. Sort of the forerunner of forum banning.

As with the World of Greyhawk, my eyes immediately turned to the edges of Strabo’s map. Wouldn’t it be cool to explore Ierne, that island all alone in the northwest? What might be beyond that? Ice? Dragons? Ice dragons? A dimensional portal to the ice dragon planet?

Unfortunately, the story in “North to Thule” doesn’t live up to its promise. It’s probably because the authors are sailing enthusiasts and amateur historians, but not writers. That’s a shame because the idea has a lot of possibility, and unrealized possibility is always disappointing. But the void left by the story had a surprising upside, which is that it reminded me what I’ve been missing in games for a long time.

I felt that same void when I revisited Dark Age of Camelot. Here I was running around an empty countryside, remembering crazy old adventures in Campacorentin Forest, fighting these angry trees. Or on Salisbury Plain, fighting these angry giants. Or in the catacombs in Cornwall, fighting angry skeletons. Or in Snowdonia, fighting angry … I don’t actually remember what I fought in Snowdonia. Probably frozen Cthulhu monsters buried under the ice, unless that was another game. There are so many of those games that I get them confused.

But I still remember all those Dark Age locations, because for some reason, they all made a huge impression on me. Ashenvale Forest and The Barrens and some of the many other well-realized places in World of Warcraft made their own impressions, but they never had the same impact as those green-and-brown (and often grey) landscapes with the herky-jerky monsters. I haven’t had that experience in years. Until just recently.

I’ve been playing some Guild Wars 2 recently, and have pretty strong feelings about it. It does a hundred things so much better than previous MMOs that it seems like as big an advance over World of Warcraft as WoW felt over Dark Age of Camelot. Some of the improvements feel like tech advances, like the ability to damage enemies with area effect weapons just by pointing them in their general direction and watching the damage fly. Others are the sensible elimination of mundane tasks that are as annoying in-game as in real life, like having to go to the bank. But many of them just feel inspired, like a bunch of incredibly bright, talented engineers and designers — many of whom were probably eighth-grade dorks — took the things that drew them into a fantasy world and made it possible to reward those desires through a digital environment instead of a dungeonmaster.

Before you go reading “dungeonmaster” all ironically, and chuckling, let me just stop you right there. Even though I haven’t done it since eighth grade, I have tremendous respect for people who can tell stories in an interactive environment. Talented folks can make convincing worlds out of tone and diction, and I still secretly wish I could experience these. Translating this into an online medium requires the same impulses that drive junior high schoolers into upstairs getaways to plot elf-Magellan voyages. Which is exploration. Which is what all these games are about.

Guild Wars 2 does a great job with exploration, rewarding you for a variety of waypoint-tagging maneuvers, pushing you into the frontier with different types of self-initiated incentives. There are waypoints that teleport you around, and others that just mark your map like Fodor’s. But the game really hits with the idea of vistas. Examined cynically, these are just another category of waypoints: climb onto some overlook, and see the view. Check off all the boxes on your way to completing an area, and get a +1 sword. Great.

But the genius of vistas is that they trigger a cinematic that gives you a third-person perspective on what you just saw — I’m standing on top of this mountain, and all of a sudden the game shows me the valley, in real-time, so my group members are standing there too, and maybe that guy who always gets lost is still running around the bottom trying to figure out how to jump up. World of Warcraft gave you this perspective by letting you fly, but then took away the wonder because you could always go anywhere, risk-free. I used to love the zeppelin rides for that reason: the views.

But you can have all the views you want and still not feel a part of the world. When combined with the remarkable physics and animation (and good old level design) of Guild Wars 2, vistas reward you for finding a way up a hillside or along a ridge, finding the right combination of jumps and slides to reach the top of some mountain, or scaffolding, or building. Then the camera takes you inside the world, and shows you what your character looks like in it.

I could get all killjoy on this, like what happens when some guy is standing on the overlook and dancing while you’re struggling to figure out the jumping puzzle. But I’m not going to, because unless you’re going to solve the design problem where I want to be able to play with a bunch of other people on a random map where I’m the main character in everything, you have to accept those limitations. These games are still called role-playing games not because anyone actually plays a role or tries to type in Old English, but because the same impulses that drove us to describe weird invented worlds to our friends on graph paper are the ones we’re trying to satisfy with Norn Elementalists exploring Snowden Drifts. It’s the same thing the authors of that Thule book were trying to do. I wonder if they ever played Dungeons & Dragons. It’s too bad they never saw Guild Wars 2.