Coming Apart At The Seams: Sandbox Games

Anyone who plays sandbox games knows about their “seams.” Well, maybe not. I just made up that term. But you know what I’m talking about: the places where you run into the edges of the sandbox and are pretty much forced into the realization that you are just playing a game, and it doesn’t have to make sense.

And yes, I realize that in some ways, this is inevitable. In others, it seems unimaginative, and in yet others it seems downright sloppy. I’m going to take some examples of each of these from the two games I’ve been playing the most over the past few years: Skyrim and Elite: Dangerous.

As far as the inevitable “seams,” the best example is that of borders. Eventually, you have to run out of playing field. An example of a really well-done “seam” is found in ED: the edges of the galaxy. It works because it feels natural. They even show extragalactic features such as the LMC and the GMC and M31. Why can’t you go there? Because human technology just isn’t that good. Makes perfect sense in the game universe: this is about as close as you can get to a seamless border. Skyrim is a bit less competent, but that’s the nature of the beast. Eventually, you just get to a place where your character runs into an invisible wall. You can’t leave Skyrim. I have to admit I don’t know how you’d solve that.

On the border of “inevitable” and “unimaginative” are the times in Skyrim where you run into someone who you really want to kill and discover that they are simply unkillable, or at least, unkillable yet. This has been the bane of D&D-like RPGs since they were computerized: your hero character who is supposed to be able to take down a Dragon God, and yet, cannot kill a shopkeeper and take his stuff. I’m not sure exactly how you do solve that. In the case of shopkeepers or very important plot-specific characters, especially in a magic-heavy environment, I wonder why it hasn’t occurred to the writers not to, for example, create 1) a giant alarm-spell that calls guards instantly to a scene of unjustifiable attack, coupled with 2) shopkeepers or nobles who always carry an emergency invisibility potion and sensibly use it an run the hell away when they’re attacked, leaving your character to 3) get dogpiled on by the guards, and 4) discover that they cam back as soon as you left out of boredom or being driven off by guards. Of course, once your character is up somewhere above 50th level, it still requires the game to explain why your character can’t essentially conquer the world single-handed since he is, after all, the person who is supposed to stop the Dragon God who wants to conquer the world single-handed. So there’s still a seam there (more on this later).

In the downright unimaginative corner comes a certain feature of ED that really annoyed me. Some systems in ED are permit-locked. The game won’t allow you to plot a hyperspace jump to them until you’ve accomplished something. A bit more on this in the next section.
Now, if you like thinking your way around problems like I do, you notice something: a shop in ED  really has two FTL drives. The hyperspace jump is the “fast” drive. It will take you anywhere from 8-40 light years in about ten seconds. But you get around each system using a “slow” FTL drive or “frameshift drive.” And when I say slow, it’s still really fast. Given time, it can build to speeds in excess of Star Trek‘s Warp 10. So you can’t JUMP to a permit-locked system, but given the time and patience, you could certainly just GO there…
Except you can’t. If you try, you discover that the star you have been heading for, which is a gigantic ball of hydrogen fusion and attendant planets when you jump there, is a mere point of light when you finish your hours-long flight. Sigh.
It occurred to me that a way around this would be to take a page from Zork: interstellar space is a dark place, and if you try to fly directly between stars, the odds are almost certain that You Will Be Eaten By A Space Grue. (For a really great classic SF story that uses this concept, read Cordwainer Smith’s “The Game Of Rat And Dragon.” It’s wonderful.)

And then you get to the truly sloppy stuff: Remember the permit-locks I mentioned earlier? Well, that makes perfect sense when it’s, say, the Empire saying that you can’t visit their capital system without a permit. It makes somewhat LESS sense, when its hundreds of stars out in the middle of nowhere and no one knows who has issued the permit or why. And yet there are several such regions in the galaxy. It’s pretty obvious this is the game designers saying DON’T GO THERE. SIGNED, GOD, but it looks pretty bad. Honestly, it would be better to do something like marking them all “No pilot has ever jumped to these stars and returned.” and making it an instakill if you do, with legends of the disappeared pilots in game.

So, those are my thoughts. I’d be interested to hear yours.

The Mystery Of The Turd In The Truffle

So, I’m playing Elite: Dangerous, which, I want to make clear up front, is one of my favorite sandbox games of all time. Seriously, this is the game I have dreamed of playing since I was a little kid: you can outfit your own ships, trade between the stars, fight Evil Space Pirates, BE an Evil Space Pirates, mine asteroids, the works. One of the ways you can earn money is to take on a Famous Explorer mission.

The Famous Explorer missions are a commitment, in game time. Because while there are lots of games that claim to allow you to travel around “the galaxy,” Elite: Dangerous features a playing field the size of the ACTUAL galaxy. You can take missions to the Galactic Core. (All of Human-populated space is a “Bubble” about 500 light-years in diameter in the game-year 3304.) And given that it’s 23,000 or so light-years away and your ship can do “jumps” of a maximum of about 40 light-years, that takes a LONG time.

So I took one of these Famous Explorer missions. Not sure I’d like it, I picked one that was ONLY 5,000 light-years away. It was the first time I had left the Bubble. And it was amazing how well this game was set up. First thing I noticed, suddenly, there were no other ships around. I jumped into a system, and it was deserted. Of course it was: I’d left the Human spacelanes, and the odds against seeing fellow explorer were incredible. I also noticed that signals — very common in Humans space, and indicating things like wrecks, distress signals, and convoys — those disappeared too, becoming very rare. There were no longer any Navigation Beacons around stars.

The I realized, as I continued toward the center of the galaxy, that all the things I was seeing in the big, glowing strip of the Milky Way were actual objects. I mean, they weren’t just images painted on a skybox, they were getting closer (minutely closer) with every jump, little smudges becoming enormous nebulae. I was having fun. I jumped into a system and found a strange object on my scanner and went to investigate. It was a neutron star, and do you know how I figured out it was a neutron star? Before my ship scanner told me so?  Because I could actually see the stars behind it being smeared around by the gravitational lensing! Yes, this game is that well-written!

So, by the time I reached my destination, a black hole, I was thinking of it as the climax of the trip, and rightly so. I had not seen one before, and as I got within 70 light years, I began to see it. Because the game designers had remembered that black holes form out of supernovae, so of COURSE there was a small, brightly-glowing nebula around this one, which got bigger and more ominous-looking as I approached, like the ghost of the dead star. I jumped into the system itself, and was surrounded by the bluish glow of the highly-energetic nebula. Carefully, I looked around and found the black hole. There was no brightly-glowing accretion disc around it, but you know, you can’t expect everything.

I scanned the thing, noticing that space was of course highly distorted around it, and expected that my mission would be over. Not so.

Interestingly enough, right beside the black hole itself on my navigational chart was an icon reading “Black Treasure” which was, after all, the name given to this particular black hole by the Famous Explorer currently sitting in my passenger cabin.

Very well, perhaps it was this mysterious object I needed to scan, which was, somewhat frighteningly, sitting right on top of the black hole. Okay. I locked onto it and dropped out of supralight drive.

It was a human-built tourist beacon. And there were other ships there. Several. Looking at the black hole. Just like any other tourist spot in the Bubble.

And the Hammer of Anticlimax smacked down on the whole adventure. It was like climbing K2, pulling myself up the summit after an agony of climbing, and discovering a sherpa grinning and ready to sell me an “I Summited K2 And All I Got Was This Lousy T-shirt.” T-shirt.

Which brings me to my title: The Turd In The Truffle. That’s how I felt. I felt as if I had been enjoying an incredible meal at a five-star restaurant, only to discover that there, right on top of the elegant;y arranged dish, was a dog turd. This is not the first time in my life I have felt this way as a reader/player. And my question is why — and how — writers can do this to their audiences. I mean, obviously the writers of this game were and are intelligent and thoughtful. Why, then, such a moment of careless anticlimax?

I remember feeling a similar way when I watched the film adaptation of Watchmen. A beautiful film, well-made. But then there’s the scene in which Rorschach is being pried out of his cell by a criminal Boss who wants to kill him. Rorschach manages to handcuff one of the henchmen to his cell door, blocking the Boss.

Now in the comic, the Boss has another henchman kill the guy to get him out of the way, and continues to come at Rorschach. But in the film, he has his free henchman cut the trapped man’s arms off with a power saw while he is still alive to get him out of the way. It’s an unnecessarily brutal and horrifying scene, which I could in no way believe. Underground bosses who occasionally kill their own men when necessary? Sure. Underground bosses who torture their men to death for fun, just to emphasize their own evilness? No. That’s crazy, and no henchman wants to hench for a guy like that. Again, a Turd In The Truffle: a moment of thoughtlessness in brilliance.

I really don’t have an answer for why this happens. I leave it as an open question for the reader. Why do we find Turds in Truffles. I await comments with interest.

The Population Paradox: When Is Less More?

One of the hardest things about being a writer is differentiating between what your writing is like for you, and what it’s like for your readers. This is the source of the oft-repeated wisdom, “kill your darlings.” If you’ve put that much effort into making something exciting, it is likely to come across as overwrought and tedious.

Nothing reinforced this truth for me recently more than my own experience with two similar video games: No Man’s Sky and Elite: Dangerous. Both games are about 2-3 years old. Both are sandbox open-world games with no clear plotline. You’re supposed to make your own up as you travel through a galaxy that is literally too big to be explored fully, improving your ship and your capabilities. You mine asteroids, explore planets, and fight enemy ships.

The visual contrast could not be more striking, however. In No Man’s Sky, a solar system is full of huge planets, like something out of a science-fiction film. In Elite: Dangerous, it is full of, at best, tiny points of light. In No Man’s Sky, planets teem with life more often than not, with huge mineral outcroppings waiting to be harvested everywhere. Elite: Dangerous confines itself to barren worlds of rock and ice, with tiny mineral deposits that must be hunted down with radar.

And yet, somehow, those big worlds that fill No Man’s Sky seem smaller and less impressive the closer you get to them. All the mountains are low and flat. The lakes are shallow. There are almost no seas or oceans. The lifeforms quickly start to resemble a mix-n-match set of notable Earth-life features: “Hey, look: it’s that same bear-like creature as on the last planet, only now it has a wasp’s head instead of a rabbit’s.”

By contrast, Elite: Dangerous‘s worlds are tiny, and seem extremely similar, and yet as one approaches, they are full of canyons and craters that are, seen close to, huge. On one unremarkable moon, I flew down a canyon visible form space and landed at the edge of a tiny crater. And yet, when I drove my lunar rover over the lip of the same crater, it was big enough to take my breath away in a sensation I can only relate to the best horror games. It was like reading what Lovecraft kept trying to describe: a monstrous coldness, alien to humanity, that was terrifying in its sheer size and closeness.

I am far from an expert on understanding why this effect works, and yet I am struck by the fact that so many of the classic works of F/SF (and literature itself) are not the mega-series that are churned out in multi-volume sets, but are small, (and often single) works: The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe. A Wrinkle In Time. The Metamorphosis. 2001: A Space Odyssey. While most of these did spawn sequels, none are as well known as the originals, and all would have been classics without those sequels. There is perhaps a lesson here to bear in mind, but as simple as it is, it may take a lifetime for me to explore all its nuances.