The new week brings a new Blaugust theme in “Staying Motivated” which is normally applied to the writer and about how we are all coping with writing as much as our Blaugust goals drive us to.
However, I want to invert that slightly today and talk instead about staying motivated to play games.
This might seem like a weird concept, but as I’ve gotten older, I have found that my vigor for new games is pretty slim. Don’t get me wrong, I obviously still get psyched a lot for games – I no-lifed both Shadow- expansion launches over the last two years, I’ve done stuff like run almost 40 Mythic Plus dungeons in a week, and I still regularly pick up and try new games.
However, I’ve noticed the bar to impress me and keep me engaged has changed a lot.
Sometimes, I wonder what it is that I get out of gaming that is so unique to other forms of media, and I’m not always sure of the answer. Interactivity is quite high on the list, obviously – although watching TV with my wife is sometimes interactive with heckling and taunting or wondering aloud about decisions made! I think choice is a big part of it – being able to shape things in big and small ways. I think simplicity is also a key reason – for every game I play with 10 layers of overlapping systems choking a solid core to death (*cough* World of Warcraft *cough*) there’s stuff that really grabs me like Journey, Braid, or my brief fascination with Fall Guys.
But I think there’s something more than any of that which grabs me, and it is both simple and complicated – the sense of wonder.
One of my favorite World of Warcraft zones is TBC Nagrand. Not for the gameplay (oh boy, Nesingwary is back…) but because there’s something so cool about Nagrand and the way it communicates the theme of TBC, of Outland, and of WoW as a whole. Nagrand is a beautiful, natural zone – covered in green grass and earthy tones, with simple Orc and Draenei establishments dotting the landscape. Nagrand is a place with curious artifacts of eras gone by – the congregation of elementals along the north side of the zone, Oshu’gun at the south drawing your attention in. Nagrand communicates what happened in Outland without being desolate – all over the zone are these little floating bits of rock and terrain, even some with water cascading down.
Nagrand is perfect as a zone because it merges disparate themes together into a cohesive whole. It’s a verdant place where the races of Draenor live, it has significance to the Draenei from Oshu’gun and the Orcs from the elemental plateau, it shows the ailments that made Draenor into Outland so well, with shattered floating debris and a demon encampment, and the game gives you a sequence of gameplay through the zone that lets you organically discover all of it.
Similarly, in Final Fantasy XIV, one of my favorite zones is Il Mheg from Shadowbringers. It has this beautiful artstyle and whimsy about it, but it also prompts and then answers the questions you might have about it. It’s a faerie zone, but why is this classical fantasy architecture all over? Oh, because it was once an empire and the Flood has left it in ruins, taken over by the Faeries, giving us a large stone castle with wings added on. You can swim the lake and see the ruins of Voeburtenburg, and you can talk to the Amaro in what remains of that kingdom on land and come to understand the world better. It looks gorgeous as a zone, covered in colorful flowers, with rainbows so often piercing the sky.
For a single player game with fantastic sense of wonder, I think back to my teenage years playing Final Fantasy X. All of FFX’s world is well realized (if a smidge linear), and has so many elements that catch your eyes and make your mind race with possibility. Blitzball is such a unique sport and everything about it is interesting. The world of Spira has these huge, incomprehensible bits of Final Fantasy woven in, but it’s thematic and grounded – Bevelle is high up above most of Spira because it’s the capital of Yevon, a religion sneering down on the commonfolk while carrying out its own machinations. Zanarkand in all forms is a marker in time – the past Zanarkand setting you on this idea of what society in FFX would be, only for the game to then subvert those expectations and bring things back to this low-level, machina-fearing society. The ending, though, really gets me – the whole idea of Sin as this force of nature is compelling enough, but then you can enter Sin, and within this weird whale-creature exists a whole dimension with dungeons made of its innards, phantom cities, and this little parasitic thing called Yu Yevon at the heart of it all.
With those examples established, we should then discuss why it is that I find such value in that sense of wonder as a motivator.
I think the easiest thing to start with is this – a lot of modern games use gritty realistic settings to pull people in. This is fine enough, and I’m not saying it shouldn’t exist, but I find that I want games to be about exploring the impossible – showing me things that stretch my imagination and make me think about how such a world would be. In many ways, I play games to escape reality – and being shoved right back into it isn’t something I want, especially in modern times. No offense to the Call of Duty fans out there, but I feel like being reminded of America’s various forever wars isn’t something I want to play through and it doesn’t fill me with inspiration or excitement. That’s why when I do play shooters, it is more abstract fare – Unreal, Doom, Battlefield games with crazy themes like future war, and the like. A lot of those games present fascinating scenarios in their own right – going to Mars or other alien planets, Hell being brought to earth, or a future state Earth where we can fight with mech suits and flight around huge maps.
I find that wonderous worlds lend themselves to more interesting stories, at least most of the time. Taking even a fairly plain example like Dark Souls – sure, it uses fairly grounded medieval architecture and motifs, but there are these elements out of place – massive dragons, abyssal beasts, and the questions around things like Hallowing.
Taken as a whole work, all these elements can add so much to stories and settings and allow even basic stories to shine. A lot of what makes Nagrand shine is that the elements of the world are tied back into the story being told, as the Orcs and Draenei both deal with the sundered state of the world and their place in it in different ways and face unique challenges in doing so.
A sense of wonder, though, more than all of that, is great because it makes you say “wow, cool” or if you’re sometimes foul-mouthed as I am, say “holy shit that’s awesome” and it makes you want to explore. In a movie, a book, or a TV show, you’re shown a fixed perspective and you cannot explore further, but in games, you can. I can fly onto the floating rock debris of Nagrand. I can swim the depths of the lake holding remains of Voeburtenburg.
And it is that sense of wonder and intrigue, and the ability to explore it to my satisfaction, that keeps me motivated to play games.