Monday, January 19, 2015

Information Kills Exploration

I was recording a Let's Play of a favorite game from my child hood the other day ( Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time), and I got myself off on a tangent at one point in my commentary.  Back in 1998 N64 emulation wasn't really a thing, and games were nowhere near as advanced as they are now ,despite having come a very long ways since their inception.  The internet was certainly around in 1998 but most of us had dial-up and limited access compared to the always on state we find ourselves in today (DRM pun not intended lol amirite).   The convenience and power of the information we have on the information super highway has killed some of the magic in gaming. Particularly when it comes to exploration of the unknown.

Lets go back in time to 1998 and Ocarina of Time's release.  During the course of the game Link does all kinds of things in the 3D world that we considered ground breaking. The game gave you a living world, with a day/night cycle, and tons of secrets and hidden items to find.. Think back for a second to that feeling of stepping into Hyrule field for the very first time and realizing that you could set off in any direction almost unhindered. To be fair , you had areas you couldn't access without the right items but that was the fun of the game was it not?  I can still think of two or three side quest you can do as soon as you leave the forest. The point is that you didn't know.

Link did it all in Ocarina of Time and it was groundbreaking , but players wanted something more. That something in particular was the Triforce . Anyone who's played through a Zelda game knows about the Triforce. These 3 simple triangles are a source of unlimited power, especially when they are all three united.  Link never obtains the triforce in Ocarina of time (at least not as a menu item anyway), but players didn't accept that. For years after the game's release people plodded through the game. Trying all sorts of wild theories and outlandish actions to try to open the secret trigger that would lead us to Link getting the Triforce.

Enter the internet. Gamers my age with internet access will remember getting online and reading Triforce rumors. They also will remember rumors about Luigi in Mario 64, finding secret pokemon, and other games of the era.  You didn't know what was possible because we didn't know games like we do now.

With the rise of the internet and internet speed has come a way for people with very specific sets of skills, (skills that can be a nightmare for people like you)  to connect to tons of other people in an instant. To call into place what I mean,  before Resident Evil 5 was released there was a demo. People with the right know how managed to get into the game data, and discover tons of secrets about the full game. They predicted a boss fight with Wesker, driving levels, and other level areas, and it turned out  they were all true. Ocarina of Time is no different (well actually maybe it is. Have you seen all the crazy beta stuff left in that game?) Triforce rumors are dead now. No one would believe you if you posted one today. Why is that? The same data mining. Now we can dump a rom or ISO of a game on the internet on release day and data mine it to Oblivion (or Skyrim). When the next Zelda is released there won't be rumors about things just guides on how to make stuff happen.  Any high profile game like Zelda is going to have the ISO dumped and data mined within hours of release, so that no secret can stay. Imagine if there were still no way for your average Joe to open up an N64 game in a hex editor.  There might be triforce rumors still around today. Now that's not to say anyone would think it was true (someone would have found the thing by now!) but there would always be the possibility that Nintendo put in some crazy outlandish thing that no one would ever think to do that would set off a chain of events leading to the Triforce.  

People still do find things that have been hidden in games for many years, but these discoveries are becoming fewer and fewer.

I miss the way Ed Boon and the Mortal Kombat team used to create buzz around Mortal Kombat in the days of yesteryear by purposefully putting red herrings into the game, and rumors into the community. His team even made of a few of them true !  If a game like Mortal Kombat 1 was released today as it was then it would be mocked and forgotten. The original MK was groundbreaking at the time and Ed could keep people playing because of his rumors. It worked because we had no way to know what was hidden in those rom chips. Now if we claimed things like that someone would just dump the roms peruse the code and announce the truth to the world.

Perhaps all that to say, the rise of the information super highway and technology has taken some of that magic out of gaming. The illusion of endless possibilities. 

Of course we can't blame it all on the internet. Growing up out of the magic time of childhood has something to do with it. When you grow up gamer you start to learn how programming and gaming works. You understand there are limitations. You understand that there as things the programmers wouldn't do, you understand how certain things have to work.

Perhaps all that rambling to say that people often talk about how gaming has lost sight of itself, or is a shadow of the thing it was in the 90s, but perhaps what it has really lost is that element of surprise and mystery it used to have. Good games are a suspension of belief. You forget about even the fact its a game as you begin to consider the limitless potential you have to do and try new things.  Think about say stepping into Hyrule field, or hunting for "Poke Gods" or trying to unlock Luigi. When was the last time you felt that amazement in the latest Assassin's Creed or Call of Duty?  There will always be new people, and people like myself always sticking to gaming, but I think the industry's future success or failure for my generation of gamers and gamers who came before me will depend on their ability to create a world that leaves something to the imagination rather than something to the day one patch. We aren't children anymore its going to take more than the latest DLC or the same tired old game engine from the year before.

So what is it exactly? I couldn't say. Unfortunately  I am not a game designer.  Someone has to try something different and shake the boat. I look forward to the day we can find the potential again .


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