Bhagpuss nailed it. He just went ahead and nailed it.
Ever since I started playing multiplayer games and then switched to their “massively” department, my interest in single player games took a nose dive. For a long time, the explanation was clear and apparent: it’s just more fun to play with others, to experience the community, the teamwork, the competition. The social component, you see. Case closed, right?
Well, after quitting WoW in 2011, I was really rather fed up with all things social. My desire to play with someone else or against someone else hit absolute rock bottom, and yet…
Building up Steam
Skyrim was the perfect game at the perfect time for me. I had figured out my work-life-schedule, wanted to play something in my free time and couldn’t be bothered with other people. And everyone around was (still is, it seems) gushing about how that freshly released game was the best thing since sliced bread.
So, I went out and bought it. And had to set up a Steam account to play it. Yes, I know, I know. But, look, I had not played a single player game in years (the last one being Neverwinter Nights), so what use would a Steam account have been to me? For me, Steam was basically “that anti-cheat software Counter-Strike introduced a decade ago”. Never having played Counter-Strike either (except once at a private LAN-party, when my friends convinced me to try it and an hour later I begged them to stop threatening to fall asleep otherwise), I never had any use for it. To this day, my Steam library consists of just two games: Skyrim and Civilization V. I think I forgot my account password. Again.
Anyway. Skyrim. Me. Ready to go.
On horses and brigands
I lasted 16 hours. That’s what Steam tells me how long I played. In total. For a game that cost 60 Euro, that’s not a great value return. What went wrong?
I’ll spare you the rant about the silly console-oriented UI, won’t go into what I liked and what not. We’re talking a game that’s four years old now. Everything that had to be said about the good, the bad and the ugly has been said, written down, printed out, archived and subsequently shredded for data privacy protection purposes. No need to go there again. None of it was the problem anyway. Let me tell you what was, but first, let me tell you in advance, that this is entirely subjective. I mean, the elements I’ve been observing were objectively there, but my personal interpretation of those is subjective and doesn’t aspire to the status of some absolute truth in any way.
I remember getting a horse. Acquiring a mount is a good old MMO-staple, so that felt familiar. So, how do I call the horse? Oh, I don’t, it’s just there, I simply … mount it. Cool. How do I dismiss it? Oh, I don’t either! I simply climb down and then it stands there. So this wasn’t so much “my horse” as “a horse”, which I acquired the “legal” right to use. That was great, just like in the real world! So authentic!
So authentic … when it’s so authentic, you can’t help but wonder: what does it eat? What does it drink? When I leave it standing outside and it rains or snows, will it get a cold? Why is it not getting tired when I use it to ride for hours on end? Why, for that matter, am I not getting tired? Why does that stupid thing just stand there motionless, staring at me, waiting for me to act? No real horse would ever act like that!
I remember killing brigands near a cave. Then placing them in funny poses. Come on, you did that as well. Everyone did. Because we could. I remember returning to that cave some time later and finding them there, just as I left them. Again, realistic. But then again, since it was realistic, it compelled my mind to think further. And I remember thinking that this effectively means that this world I’m traveling has a fixed, finite number of brigands. Which, in turn, meant that I could rid this entire world of brigands by killing all of them. The pretend-world, after all, was, although large, not large enough to prevent me from doing it by making it take so long that a natural restocking of ranks would occur, which was undoubtedly not simulated anyway. Nor was it designed to make them bond together, flee, hide, fortify or try to stop me in any other way. I was their God, not just a hero or a Dragonborn, but an honest-to-god … God, as they lived and died by my mercy, just like everything else in the world that would only exist when I deigned to gaze at it, when the holy SaveGame would be loaded. And it freaked me out.
The Uncanny Valley describes the phenomenon that human perception of a simulation improves as the quality of the simulation increases and then takes a sharp plunge (the namesake valley) when the simulation becomes “almost but not quite” real. There is a fantastic video on youtube showing Emily, a computer-animated person. She looks totally authentic, to the point where it needs to be explicitly restated at the end that yes, you really were watching an animation until then. And then there are a few short, fleeting moments when something about her eyes or her mouth moves in a way that instantly sends shivers down your spine, triggering some dark, primal, instinctive fear.
This is a part of what happened to me in Skyrim. “Come closer,” said the game, “take a look at my authentic and realistic brilliance!” But that’s the thing: when you get closer, you notice cracks you didn’t care about before, but which now seem deeper and darker than anything experienced prior. Or to quote Bhagpuss: It’s the way non-persistent worlds get so close to seeming “real” and then stop dead that causes the disconnect, I think. It’s jarring in a way the ongoing “we know this doesn’t make sense but we’ll all pretend it does” endless MMO Valhalla isn’t.
I honestly think that’s really it, for me. The way this fake-persistency makes everything seem so artificial, the attempt to make the world come to life making it appear dead to me. It’s the lack of a necessity to move on, to evolve, to preserve, to regrow that makes the game world appear to be all about me. And a world that is all about me can neither be realistic nor interesting.
Not too long after my Skyrim experiment ended, Star Wars: The Old Republic was released. I hesitated at first, but ended up getting it after a colleague recommended it. I played (almost) all the way to level cap without ever grouping or interacting with anyone. And yet it felt “right”. I was part of an online world inhabited by other people with their own goals, interests, schedules and preferences. It was my preference not to interact with them. But nevertheless, they were there, and their presence made the world seem real. And the fact that we shared that world made every little action much more persistent than a brigand corpse that never goes away or a horse that doesn’t either could ever do. At least, for me.
And, let me tell you, I played SWTOR, even during just that first time, for much longer than 16 hours. Making it a much better value for money proposition as well.
I remember – and will probably always remember – my first vivid impression of LotRO. I was running around the starter zone (obviously) and coming across a busy square time and time again. I played for quite a while and the hour was turning late. During the evening hours the square I had to repeatedly cross was buzzing with people. And when the time wore on and the PM turned AM the buzz slowly died down. Just a few adventurers would still be going about their business. Night fell and the people playing the characters went to bed. So did the characters. Night fell. The NPCs stood there, of course, unchanged, unmoved, always at the ready. But the world had calmed down regardless. Night fell. The way night falls in the real world, with real people going to sleep. Real people who would see you run across a square – or not see you when they were asleep, or when you would not be there yourself. Night fell.
Once you’ve been there, you cannot go back.