Games are always in a state of transformation, year to year. As a life-long gamer, the evolution of the medium and culture has always inspired and filled me with a sense of awe and excitement. I wanted to share one recent game experience that I have just been absolutely enamored with, but to set the scene…
…Let’s time travel briefly to a younger version of me, let’s say 1988-1994.
I was lucky to have parents that were supportive of my video game obsession. This was during an age well before the more stringent screen time limits of today. As long as I did my homework first, my only limit was my stamina. So I went hard. I would get a game like The Legend of Zelda and read the entire manual before even popping in the cartridge. There was no Youtube to help you if you got stuck. Maybe Nintendo Power would reveal a particular dungeon inside an issue. But in Zelda, I was exploring coastlines, burning shrubs, and bombing every rock I could think of to unlock her secrets.
Back then our biggest ally was, now wait for it, taking notes with… PAPER and PENCIL! I was able to successfully pitch the purchase of an Apple IIgs as a “must-have piece of educational equipment.” And from that machine, I would get lost in the worlds of click-adventure puzzle games such as the King’s Quest series, the 7th Guest and its sequel the 11th Hour, and the most infamous Myst series. And the only way to solve these games was through time, your wits (copious notebooks filled with puzzle attempts and maps), and your perseverance.
The death of the game manual. (although some are now immortalized)
Time travel back to today and it is quite a different story. Games don’t have manuals. Nobody has time for that. Tutorials on how to play are built right into the game’s expository levels. And games are certainly deeper experiences and their worlds much larger in scale. Quests often come with a tracker of sorts. Beacons, tags, pings, and paths are all charted on a map to guide you toward your ultimate goal. Because in today’s games, the experience of the journey is pleasant enough, without the frustration of figuring out where you need to go and how to get there. Time is precious.
There are so many games to be played, so many words to explore, and unique experiences to taste that you may say to yourself, I have to get in and get out as quick as I can. Time to move on to the next adventure, right?
This brings us to the joy of slowing things down in Sea of Thieves.
I had long watched from the sidelines this game’s rise in popularity. Definitely a year or two after its release it was a very popular title on the Twitch scene and I enjoyed watching people both dress and talk as pirates as they played this game. But until I entered the game myself, I was surprised to discover a few things about this world that harkened back to the games of my youth.
Sometimes it’s nice to just relax on the deck of a ship with a buddy.
When I play with my main online gaming compadre Balboa, we usually hit the high octane experiences in the evening hours. The thrill of the Battle Royal is a siren song that is sometimes hard to ignore. But we were looking for something different. Time to mix things up.
In Sea of thieves, there is no fast travel or portals. The only way you can get from point A to point B is to sail… in real-time. Traversing the open seas often takes many minutes on end but almost constant collaboration between deck mates. If I am at the helm, I can’t also pull up a map. So we have to rely on communication between us for our current position and heading. And you know what, sometimes the wind isn’t going our way. So we have to take an alternate route that favors fuller sails. And sometimes, while standing on the deck quietly with the wind in our hair and the waves crashing against the hull of our ship, I would hear the surprising sound of an accordion or hurdy-gurdy. And there was Balboa, just off to my side playing a sea shanty to pass the time. It always takes me by surprise and makes me chuckle to hear a sudden musical interlude come out of nowhere, as we pass the time from island to island.
X always marks the spot. But DANG it can be a doozy to locate!
So Balboa and I have coordinated our passage from an outpost to an island of interest. We have caught up on the week, had casual chats about life, and enjoyed the slower pace of travel. But now we are ready to find our treasure. And this is the mechanic that I love and brings me back to the problem-solving days of my youth. The treasure, puzzle, or quest is actually quite hard to find. It is not a glowing beacon for you to easily find (although at night sometimes treasure DOES glow.) The common practice is for us to anchor our ship. We then take a hard look at its location in relation to the island, study the map with all its contours and topography and TRY to get to the treasure’s location in a swift manner. But it doesn’t always work out as planned. It often relies on memory, because you can’t just tab the map up and have it on screen. You have to physically hold it up to see it.
And there are other puzzles, scribbled on notes found in bottles or picked up from fallen Skeleton foes that guide you to a place with a cryptic riddle. And the next part of the riddle is only revealed once you physically discover the first part. I loved how the text would glow and write itself out in a ghostly hand, confirming you indeed are on the right path. And while so far, the slower pace of travel and the problem-solving skills to find the treasure have slowed our heart rate down, the high seas are of course not without their pulse-increasing moments. If you are not careful, you can lose it all.
The horrific but reasonable tragedy of a night’s spoils sinking to the bottom of the sea.
It’s not all rainbows and lollipops in Sea of Thieves. It couldn’t be if it were to be accurate to a pirate’s adventures. There must be risk if you are to have reward. There must be danger at every turn. And while you can definitely play one evening and encounter no hardship, you never know what might happen. While I don’t enjoy the experience as much, you can in fact play solo. But be afraid, very afraid. I had been traversing the seas, island hopping, and amassing great wealth all by my lonesome. When from the depths of Davy Jone’s locker rises a ghost ship on my port side. I legit exclaimed out loud some foul word and immediately started to run, I have no first mate to help fire canons so there really wasn’t any other option. The ghost ship, to make matters worse, was armed with special cannon balls that upon impact made me dance. And when you are dancing, you can neither steer the ship, patch holes in your hull nor bail out water to save your ship from a soggy demise. And so that very night, I experienced great loss. Several hours of work gone like it never even happened. But hey, this is the price one pays to try to amass great wealth and become a renowned scallywag. And it was one helluva battle in the end and gives me a tale to tell.
For me, games are about the experience, the feeling, and when combined with other fellow humans, about creating shared experiences and real memories that last as long as our memories hold their course. I for one look forward to sharing more of my adventures and hearing about yours. Hit me in the comments with your favorite game memory or adventure!
Chief Creative Officer @Playcrafting
This article first appeared on The Evolution of the Game Tutorial and the Joy of Slowing Things Down.