January 22nd, 2008

I’m a sucker for water. I’m a sucker for exploration. And, of course, I’m a sucker for video games. So it’s not surprising that I think Nintendo’s new Wii title Endless Ocean looks frickin’ awesome.

Let the petty, fish-hating fools gripe about how it lacks traditional game elements or structure. So what if all you do is wander around and explore the world under the sea? That’s the point! This is a totally different way of looking at video games–not as competitions, not as narratives, not even as social environments, but as physical spaces. I think that’s so cool, I’m gonna say it again: video games as physical spaces.

We’ve talked before about games as caves–and I’ll admit the release of Endless Ocean has me itching to find someone who’ll make a similar game for underground exploration. In both cases, the draw is the same: you’ve got a fascinating physical location that cries out to be explored, but is quite dangerous in real life. In a book or a movie, we’d have to explore it “in order,” following the structure set forth by the creator. But in a game, we have free range to check out new areas and new discoveries in our own order and with our own sense of wonder.

I could also talk about the gender element of Endless Ocean–how exploration is considered a “feminine” mode of play, whereas linear games are more “masculine.” Honestly though, I think what we’ve got on our hands is more a case of ludus and paidia: structured games vs. free form play. Shameful as it is for a gamer, I’ve always been more a fan of the second. Splashing around in water, checking out fishies, exploring awesome spaces that only exist inside the game–I must be really psyched about Endless Ocean, because I’m too giddy to even talk about gender. I didn’t know that was possible!

Tags: exploration, new games

12 Responses to “An Endless Ocean of Exploration”

  1. Lisa Says:

    I always disappointed me so when an area became off-limits in a game…
    Such as in Majora’s Mask, where you could only swim so far into the ocean before being turned around again, despite being able to see vague forms in the distance. Or the early stages of Ocarina of Time, when–try as you might–the interior of the castle is inaccessible to you.
    The idea of a game with a fully developed, complex landscape made for nothing but exploration! I share your excitement.

  2. Bonnie Ruberg Says:

    I totally know what you mean, Lisa! My favorite parts of games like that was when you discovered you *could* explore areas that seemed they should be off limits–like finding secret areas in Mario 64. Let’s hope Endless Ocean lives up to our excited expectations :)!

  3. Cadallin Says:

    Although I admit I’m falling prey to being to “boyish” I think the scenario from the movie, “The Cave” minus the monster movie elements (although admittedly, Grues are fun) would be fantastic! You’re exploring a cave, and the entrance through which you entered has collapsed: Find a way to escape, and survive. In order to achieve this simple goal, you must ration supplies (possibly finding equipment discarded by previous explorers) explore an immense, miles long labyrinthine cave system, complete with mini-games (Rappelling! Cave Diving! Fishing! Climbing! Etc).

    Real Life technologies could be represented in game to make it more realistic, like hand powered reverse osmosis desalination Filters (Which exist, and do make highly questionable water safe to drink) and Crank/Shake LED flash lights (Both of which could utilize Wii motion controls for extra goodness).

  4. Bonnie Ruberg Says:

    Awesome idea! I was actually thinking about whether the experience would be made more meaningful with at least a little structure–i.e. only being able to travel so far without having to come back to a home base for supplies, water, food, etc. Mini games also sound fun, but I wonder if they would take you too far out of the experience…?

  5. Cadallin Says:

    You are right about mini-games breaking the seamlessness of the experience. I’m simply unsure about how else to implement actions by the player character that are radically different from simple movement.

    I would argue that diving is the ideal setting for a game that is purely about exploration. Once you ignore issues like pressure safety and oxygen carrying capacity in such a game, freedom becomes pretty absolute. Movement can be made freely in all directions limited only by the features of the space to be explored.

    So how do you deal with an environment in which absolute freedom of movement doesn’t make sense? In the Cave example, suppose the character requires something within, or wishes to explore a very deep pit? You can take control out of the players hands and have the character automatically rappel down the hole (I don’t like this solution at all), you can avoid such a scenario entirely, you can attempt to implement some kind of simulation of the action, or you can implement a mini-game. The simulation or mini-game are the ones I like best.

    I think the depth of the mini game makes a big difference in player immersion. While the fishing in the original Ocarina of Time was harder to do and learn, I enjoyed it much more than the simpler fishing in Twilight Princess. Although that implementation arguably pushed into the areas of a full fishing simulation (making it all the more remarkable in the context of the technology and storage limitations of the Nintendo 64).

    As an additional point, other cave activities (whether realistic or not) occur to me, discovering and cataloging the system’s flora and fauna. Discovering fossils (ala Animal Crossing), and perhaps (although I’m geeking out in a Zork and Alan Garner “Weirdstone of Brisingamen” way, the discovery of goblins/ancient subterranean kingdom/magic (maybe for the sequel)

  6. SSJPabs Says:

    Look at SotC, there was a game where you could spend hours exploring the Cursed Land and wished there were more of it. A LOT more.

    Honestly, I don’t the Wii has the graphical power to pull this off. If you’re just going to be exploring and looking at things (and you can’t even build stuff like shelters or whatever for yourself) then those things better be beautiful and damn near real-looking to get the best out of it–and good graphics is not what the Wii is built to deliver.

  7. Bonnie Ruberg Says:

    Good points about the physical easy/simplicity of movement in diving vs. cave exploration, Cadallin, and about the things you could discover. Though the mechanics of it sounds like a challenge, the possibility to uncover things like that makes me want to play around with the idea even more. Maybe exploring deep pits is as simple (in terms of what the player needs to do) as moving down a ladder in a Zelda game…?

    SSJPabs, I admit I have yet to stick my shiny new copy of Endless Ocean in my Wii (we have a date for this afternoon :), but I’m thinking that graphics are actually less important than we might expect–that there’s something about exploring the *physical space* that’s more compelling than the images.

  8. Cadallin Says:

    SSJPabs,

    I disagree. I assume by SotC you mean Shadow of the Colossus. The Playstation 2 had less graphical horsepower than the original Gamecube, much less than the Wii.

    And, I’m going to say have to say that Design trumps graphical horsepower every time. Throwing more horsepower at the problem won’t help an incompetent art team, but an inspired art team can overcome the limitations of any platform, every time. I would argue that this is the technique deployed by many of the most consistently successful game companies, like Blizzard and Nintendo.

    Bonnie,
    It could easily be that simple, I imagine the character could carry a rope around and simply secure it and descend into pits.

    I’m just partial to elements of danger in gameplay. Caves are great for horror, like being in space, being trapped in a cave solves the old Haunted House problem of “Why don’t they just leave?”

    Arguably adding some direction to gameplay (even mildly) could broaden appeal. Some people have a tendency to flounder in truly open ended games. Even Animal Crossing provides a basic task to direct the player, in paying off the loan from Tom Nook. For the explorers, the game could keep track of a wide variety of statistics about how the player approached problems and what they explored, ala Nethack.

  9. Bonnie Ruberg Says:

    And, I’m going to say have to say that Design trumps graphical horsepower every time.
    Amen to that!

    being trapped in a cave solves the old Haunted House problem of “Why don’t they just leave?”
    True. It really creates a cut off, separate world/space/environment. I’m just thinking more about objectives and such. Do you imagine there being much background content (storyline, etc.)?

  10. Cadallin Says:

    Either way with background story can be perfectly viable. I think it could work very well with no background at all, or with a very clear backstory and direct objectives.

    Arguably there is an entire genre’s worth of possibilities there. Ranging from “Ultima Underworld” style RPG complete with quests, combat, etc; to ICO minimal story exploration and puzzle solving (Ico would be fabulous underground I think); to something like Endless Ocean.

    One interpretation, that I think could prove rather compelling is a sort of childhood based game where the protagonist explores the environment, and comes and goes, but we, as the player only see them there. The outside life could be shielded from us, but slowly revealed in the context of the discovery and interaction with of some kind of magical subterranean kingdom. Ye gods! I want branching plot lines and multiple endings so badly!

  11. Bonnie Ruberg Says:

    Wow, ok, so much to think about. I need to sit down and brainstorm on this one. So fun!

  12. i like pie Says:

    Heres some good ideas for the cave thing:there should be a story line but there should be a free roiming option so you can just explore the cave,and just a normal cave might not be that interesting so make it like your a explorer in the future with a device you can ride in underground you know like a drill you can ride in then you get hit by something or for any other reason cant move and your stuck in a underground cave like really far underground and you come across lava sometimes weird animals that try to kill you sometimes they wouldnt attack often just like rare events and you could build shelter out of stuff you find including old things that sunk through earth over millions of years like dinasour bones and you could smith stuff to get food fish in underground rivers or holes and kill the weird animals and plenty more to the game also a forest exploring game would be nice

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