Nostalgia and the Concept of Exploration

endless online

Up all night. Sweating hard. Heartbeats accelerating. Hands holding firm, stroking up and down, left and right. Then, it finally comes. The climax. The Alien Brain blows right up, and you’ve finally beaten this final game in the Contra franchise.

Contra 3
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Don’t we all remember those golden days where we stay up all night on the first day of release, and mash the crap out of our little controllers to beat that one good single player game? That feeling of excitement, joy, heart-pumping fulfillment, where has it gone now? Those games had such simple graphics, cliché storylines and uninspiring gameplay. Yet, why were they so appealing? The world of online games is gigantic, and the evolvement and improvements in the industry has been drastic. Yet, why do they feel so mundane and underwhelming? The answer is straightforward –the crucial feeling of adventure is long gone.

Console games
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We propose that what is largely missing from modern MMOs is adventure and exploration. Surely, instructions need to be provided to players, or otherwise they will be disorientated. Yet, games these days offer too much guidance. It almost becomes a process of spoon-feeding.

The player jumps into the game, and is instantly bombarded with bubbles and bubbles of yellow exclamation marks and panels and panels of explicit, clear instructions. This repeats from quest to quest. This repeats from level to level, until the player eventually maxes out and decides to quit. Still too lazy? Sure, here’s the Wiki to the game, rigorously containing every little detail. Some specific titles further go into the extent of offering away from keyboard (or ‘AFK’) bots directly built into the game. Player involvement cannot be further minimalized from here. They do not even have to play the game. Ingenious.

Instead, let’s take a look at Endless Online, an indie MMO which specifically lacks official guidance, and yet is filled with player excitement and love. Although giving players intuitive controls, it offers almost no instructions. Players are thrown into a strange new world, without any items or abilities, and are left to work out everything by themselves. Equipping items? Nope. Chat commands? Nope. Fighting NPCs? Nope. Learning skills? Nope. Joining guilds and PVP? Nope. Most alarmingly, there is no suggestion of even the purpose of the game.

Endless Online 2

However, this is exactly what makes Endless Online so damn nostalgic and appealing. Players are given nothing but a puzzle. And yes, they are not given any keys or directions to how this puzzle can be solved. However, most importantly, players themselves design and customize their own puzzle, and can solve their own puzzles however they like. And purely because of the fact that discovering every single step in the game requires active player input and involvement, every smallest step offers a feeling of achievement. It is exactly this repeated sequence of query, exploration, resolution, and progression which makes every daily experience of the player unique. As aforementioned, Endless Online also makes no suggestions of what is the ‘usual’ path to take in the game. This is what offers players maximum freedom. The game is no longer a fixed, predefined world, but rather, an open, limitless platform. In the universe of Endless Online, players are offered the opportunity to take any path they like.

Endless Online 1

Of course, what made Endless Online successful had also precipitated its eventual collapse.  The lack of instructions indeed upset many new players, who immediately switched to games with easier conception. True, too many puzzles left to the player may be too much a burden. No, we are not taking upon a nihilist perspective, to suggest that less is inevitably more. Instead, we are saying that less may be more, if properly and intelligently controlled for.  This feeling of exploration and adventure may be of paramount benefit to an MMO, if correctly quantified and implemented. The learning curve must not be steep and challenging, however, it needs to be gradual and stepped.

Largely, what makes old single player console titles so nostalgic is the element of exploration involved, bundled with subsequent achievement. Sadly, the majority of MMOs nowadays have abandoned this to focus more upon player convenience. This represents a large opportunity for new entrants into the genre. If they are able to strike the optimal balance, then their titles may find great, unprecedented, success.

by Wilson Zhang

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  • RoPhoenix

    Great article Wilson. It’s a funny thing because I was just recently having this conversation but not in such detail. I was trying to figure out what has changed the excitement lvl in mmos and you have shed light on the issue. Thanks for the read :)

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    • freemmostation

      Completely agree. It was a great read and made me remember how some older games from the 48K and Amiga were as obscure as they were fascinating.

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    • Wilson

      Thanks for the positive feedback and encouragement RePheonix and Vitor! Yes, definitely. That change of excitement has changed much due to the fact that simply, online games have became too easy and gives us too much guidance. They have very much became a grind, yet forgetting the crucial fact that sometimes, the process/journey itself can be much more fulfilling that the outcome.

      48k and Amiga…Mentioning that…dem feeeeeeels hahaha!

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