I feel like I’ve been dodging the big issues. You know the sort of thing: defending gaming against the ignorance of its detractors, showing how our medium can be a force for good in the world. Why have I been wasting my time! Get me a soapbox and a megaphone, stat! It’s time to talk about the biggest issue of them all.
Swimming! In games!
I’m half-tempted to try and carry on writing this post in this moral-crusade kind of way, but that might obscure the point. That, and I want my posts to make sense as opposed to being garbled attempts at wit. So if I do go for jokes, you’ll have to make do with dodgy water-based puns. Just go with the flow.
So: over on the forums for Star Wars: The Old Republic, a place where Everests are frequently made out of molehills, a thread about swimming has breached the 1,200 post mark, on top of all the posts made before the topic was consolidated into the one thread. Interest has peaked because of the confirmation that swimming will not be in the game, which comes as a blow for those wanting the most open-world experience possible. Wandering into any body of water more than waist-deep will eventually result in drowning, with deep water forming a ‘soft planet boundary’ not even slightly explorable.
There are already some notes of exasperation from certain forumites as to why this issue has become so prominent. I for one couldn’t give a monkeys. Firstly, there’s the realism issue: diving into water wearing A) heavy armour, B) billowing Jedi robes or C) both (in the case of the game’s Jedi Knight class) seems a little ridiculous, not to mention firing blasters and swinging lightsabers. Although you can swim in other open-world games like Oblivion, Assassin’s Creed 2 and World of Warcraft, it always feels a bit weird to me. The only recent action-orientated game I can think of that makes concessions to realism regarding swimming is Tomb Raider: Underworld, the underwater segments of which were amongst the most visually arresting levels that the series has ever produced.
Secondly and more importantly is the issue of game design. I don’t care about swimming not being in The Old Republic since there’ll be plenty of adventuring to do on land without having to duel a Sith Lord at the bottom of the ocean. Not having the ability to traverse deep water isn’t a compromise, something struck off the list of essential features because of development constraints: it’s a sensible, rational design choice. It doesn’t fit with the Star Wars mythos and it doesn’t fit with Bioware’s approach to the MMO (that of a content-driven ‘themepark’ rather than a less structured ‘sandbox’), so why have it? Georg Zoeller, the most regular poster of the development team on the forums, commented that if swimming were to be implemented, ‘it’d be accompanied with proper content and mechanics themed around it’. Quite right too: would players focused on exploration really be satisfied if they could swim anywhere but never find any content down in the depths?
It can sometimes seem like a complete non-issue to me, but the reason behind the frustration is that exploration has become a cornerstone of the MMO genre. When Bioware announced the on-rails space combat minigame in SWTOR, many players complained about the lack of free-roaming space exploration, even if it meant flying a ship into the depths of nowhere. The same desires sit behind the wish to delve to the bottom of the ocean or to swim straight across a deep lake whilst packing an artillery regiment’s-worth of heavy weapons and wearing enormous shoulder pads. It’s interesting that this wish disregards any aspect of realism – but we should remember that gamers have always tried to push the boundaries and break the rules, whether through exploits, speed runs or by playing games in a way the developers couldn’t anticipate.
This is all well and good: I love a great open-world game as much as anyone (I’m a rabid Morrowind advocate – say no more). However, I think that the demands of many MMO players regarding exploration have begun to reach a breaking point, a level of such immense idealism that any decisions of design which seem to limit exploration are viewed as restrictions and failures rather than necessary choices on the part of the developers.
This isn’t just about swimming any more, but rather about the bigger question of gaming hype in general. So many titles, when freshly announced, come to be conceived of as revolutionary, or at least ‘the best one yet’; inevitably, then, the development process comes to be seen as a downward slope, as features are changed and the impossible dreams of fans are shorn of any veneer of realism. Due to their scale, MMOs suffer from this more than most. I can only hope that the naysayers on the Old Republic forums come to see that good game design doesn’t involve incorporating as many features as possible, but instead features distillation, focus and immense amounts of polish.