Whatever Happened to Mysteries in MMOs?

Many early computer adventure games intermingled plot and mystery, action and puzzle – Myst, Silent Hill, Indiana Jones  and the Fate of Atlantis, Zork, Ultima, The Longest Journey.  Playing these games growing up, friends and I spent long hours taking notes, making maps, figuring out plot connections – all this alongside the combat that could crop up at any time.  Figuring out how to open the mysterious locked chest or opening the secret door, or discovering that the king is possessed was half the battle, and when you did figure it out, it was often as exciting as the most challenging combat in the game.

Even better were the games where nothing was truly spelled out for you – you found clues as you explored, and serendipitously the story or mystery emerged as you put the pieces together.  Myst was the best at this; you were simply dropped into the situation and left to stumble across strange notes, books, sounds and images, and left to put 2 and 2 together.  It was amazing.

So why is the investigation mission completely missing from the modern MMO?

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“The Serendipitous World ‘Isn’t Fun’”

At a recent meeting with a group of game developers we were discussing the merits of quest chains vs. open, serendipitous questing.

The original Ultima single-player games used an open system – as you traveled through the world you might talk with a person in a village who, if you asked him about a particular subject (using a method similar to the old Zork games – trial and error typing in your own subject line), he perhaps could tell you a story with a lead you could follow up on – he might tell you of a person in another city who knew more, or possibly of an area in Brittania where an object might be found if you investigated.  There was no guide telling the player the exact location, just the name of the city or locale, and taking of notes and using your map was certainly necessary to keep track of the thread.   At any one time you might have 4-5 threads you were following, and a decent-sized notebook.  If you had somehow stolen from the character or attacked him previously, you might not get the clue or thread in the story.  Ultima kept track of your behavior in the world.

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The Joys of Zork

I recently joined the IGDA (International Game Developers Association) in our area to find out more about what is happening in the computer gaming world these days, and I was pleasantly surprised to hear folks talking nostalgically about old-school computer games such as Ultima, Wizardry, Zelda, and yes, Zork.

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