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The RPG Scrollbars: Sacred Worlds

Homes away from home

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Most RPGs ask you to save the world, but not all of them offer a world worth saving. Honestly, there’s been quite a few where given the choice I’d have joined the evil overlord just to beat up all the potion vendors who wouldn’t even give me a discount before the final battle, and for the mere chance of stabbing the guard in Act 1 who wouldn’t let me into The Town Where The Actual Bloody Game Starts.

This week though, I’m interested in the other side of that – the worlds that become more than just a place to grind for loot and XP. The places that feel real. Beloved worlds, which don’t necessarily correlate with beloved games. I really enjoyed Skyrim for instance, but Skyrim as a world largely leaves me cold for reasons that have nothing to do with the Frostfall mod. That’s not the same as saying it’s bad, or any real quality judgement at all, simply that for me it never became a second home, more than a playground. Fallout New Vegas meanwhile, despite its problems, ticked all of the boxes. It was a world I could believe in, get immersed by, and not want to leave, which given the current political climate around the world is quite probably for the best.

Here are some of the most special worlds for me. How about you? Note, we’re talking entire worlds, as in the settings for whole games, not specific places like, say, Gold Saucer in Final Fantasy VII or FFXIV. Those are cool too, but… another week!

Britannia (Ultima)

Pretty much inevitable, I suppose. Ultima is one of the rare games that not only offered return trips to the same places and same characters rather than merely the same world, but let us be part of literally centuries of its history. Returning to it wasn’t simply playing a new game, but returning to a second home – catching up with old friends, seeing the rise and fall of cities and dreams, and being welcomed back with open arms every time, give or take the occasional near-sacrifice incident.

But there’s more to Britannia than that. It’s one of the few CRPG settings built entirely on human principles. No gods, just man. Its focus on virtue isn’t simply skin-deep, despite how some Avatars might choose to play, but something that defines the entire setting. Every town, every quest, is tied to this bigger philosophical picture that simultaneously believes in the fundamental goodness of people while accepting that the path to virtue isn’t always an easy one. Even creator Richard Garriott’s author-avatar Lord British is regularly shown to be in the wrong, with the Avatar him or herself intended as a symbol of what people can be rather than simply the strongman that they can’t. As much as it’s easy to mock the ye olde talke, which make no mistake, only Ultima is permitted to do at this point, and as many continuity errors and bad sequels as it accumulated, the philosophical coherence of the place made returning more than just casual business. Other worlds called for heroes. Britannia needed its Avatar.

Azeroth (World of Warcraft)

I love Azeroth. Sorry. I know it’s not cool to admit that these days, but it’s true. It wasn’t my first MMO (for more on that, see my upcoming autobiography ‘I Played Meridian 59, Bitch!’) but it was the first that truly felt like a world. One of my fondest memories of it is of heading out from Stormwind and catching a boat to another continent – another is taking the underwater train between it and Ironforge and just marvelling at the scale of it all. Yes, I know it’s just a tiny internal map, but ssh. Blizzard did a better job than anyone had ever done before at twisting the primitive MMO technology into something fascinating. As much as we all grew to hate the taxis after a while, there’s no crushing the memory of that first flight across an entire continent – the places you will go, the wonders you will see, the monsters you will kill after swapping your rags for armour.

I don’t play on a regular basis any more, mostly because I have no interest in raids and dungeons full of annoying squawking people, but those early memories made it a place that I still look forward to returning to each expansion pack. Undercity in particular is one of my favourite locations in games, partly for its style, but also because it’s the first city my Undead Mage ever saw – the history above, the chaos below, climbing from the grave to descend once again into their destiny as one of the Forsaken’s champions.

Sigil (Planescape)

I’ve never played Dungeons and Dragons in any form, so my only experience of Sigil comes from Planescape: Torment. Still, that’s enough. One of my favourite things in RPGs is wandering into a place that exists beyond the main character’s needs and wants – that it was there before you, that it’s ticking along quite nicely while you’re there, and it’ll be there once the credits roll. Sigil goes a step further by making it quite clear that your quest for identity is your own business. What makes Torment even cleverer though is that really, anyone who says that is wrong. Your past lives have shaped or relate to just about everything, they just don’t know it.

What draws me to it as a place though is similar to what drew me to the Fallen London universe (as ever, having written for that, I’m not going to talk too much about that here). On the surface, it’s a cruel, malicious, even vindictive place seeped in horror… but what’s scariest is that it does not give a damn about you. It’s a cold neutrality where you can accomplish great things or writhe at the bottom of the heap, where great comedy sits side-by-side with agonising tragedies. Exploring its streets is to realise that every person has a story and every one of those stories is meaningful.

In a very real sense, Sigil is ‘always leave them wanting more’ turned into a city. You’ll never find those portals to other worlds, because they’re not programmed in. But it doesn’t matter. The sheer potential of the place makes it bigger than any game would ever be able to make it, and the lingering unknown is more captivating than finding the truth would ever be. Every time, it feels like there’s more to discover; at least a chance of stumbling through a portal that nobody else has ever found before. You won’t, of course, but that doesn’t matter. Unless you’ve literally played it through about ten times, you’re going to find at least something you’ve not seen before.

Neocron

Okay, so here’s a slightly unusual pick. Neocron was a pretty conclusive failure as a game. When I played it after the beta, it had double-digit populations most of the time. The expansion pack, Beyond Dome Of York, was so unpopular, it ended up being switched off. Its combat system was an attempt to do real-time combat long before internet speeds were good enough for that. The box was hilariously shit, and its expansion pack not much better thanks to having a covergirl who wasn’t even looking at what she was shooting at. (They later fixed that). Neocron was Not Great.

But how I loved its city. It was an attempt to actually create one, complete with restaurants to hang out in, red light districts that were mostly closed at launch but never mind, complex factions, flying cars, holographic combat arenas, in-game forums to chat with other players without breaking out of the fiction, and constant tannoy announcements with the latest news, that news usually being to tell everyone to attend meetings about their rights and responsibilities that needless to say never happened, and making sure that if you went into something like the town hall, that would have all of the offices and other bits you needed. Nobody had made such a convincing MMO city before, one that let you stride in like it was Blade Runner and begin earning your keep and your stripes in a hostile but manageable scale future.

It was of course mostly a ghost town, outside of people ganking new players in the sewers. Nobody ate in the restaurants. Nobody was ever around for holographic shooting fun. The bounties posted on the walls were never real players. I was disappointed by all of that, and how after launch it sat stagnant instead of living up to its potential. At the same time though, I adored that at least it tried. At the time it felt like where MMOs would inevitably end up going – more realistic settings, more interaction options, more of a sense of virtual life. In the end of course, no, it didn’t happen. But Neocron tried, and I love it for trying. It’s still around, now fan-supported, though I doubt its blocky graphics and clumsy systems would have the same effect now. Still, if you want to take a look, just head here and sign up.

Los Angeles (Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines)

Much of this works for me in the same way that Sigil does, albeit without the comfort of neutrality. Most games aim to make you feel like you’re scratching the surface of a bigger world, but I can’t think of many that have managed to do it better. Bloodlines’ careful microcosm of vampire society leaves you in no doubt of how much more is going on the shadows that people aren’t telling you about, without falling into the trap of being so coy that you never get to enjoy being part of it. (This was something that bugged me about the first Vampire game, Redemption).

As simple and janky as much of it is, the characters, the setting, the music and the little details all come together to create something far more absorbing than it probably should be. Certainly, when I visited Santa Monica the other year on business, I couldn’t resist slipping in my earphones and wandering around the pier to the sound of Deb of Night. Didn’t go into any dodgy clubs or drain any prostitutes of their blood or anything, though I did have a very underwhelming McDonalds before ambling back to the hotel for a quiet evening of regretting that we never got a sequel to this awkward gem.

Anachronox

And speaking of awkward gems… I really wish more sci-fi would take a page from Tom Hall’s crazy pop-up-book of a universe. The titular world is such a clever place, with its moving districts and grinding poverty. What follows though is a glimpse of a place that deserved to be far better explored – the only game where you can get a whole planet shrinking itself down to be a party member, or casually end up on a comic book supervillain’s ship as if that’s just the kind of thing that happens in deep space. As much as the game was essentially a war between Hall and co’s imagination and the limitations of the Quake engine, you’ve got to love a sci-fi epic so crazy in scale that the plot involves another universe weaponising the Big Crunch.

As much as I love Mass Effect, in particular its characters (the Citadel DLC is easily one of my favourite RPG experiences of the last few years), and many other great SF games, everything since Anachronox has felt somewhat dry in comparison. I still like to think that we’ll get to return to it at some point, even if it is about as likely as one day seeing an Oscar winning Farscape/Firefly crossover. Sigh.

Those are just a few of my favourite RPG worlds – I didn’t want to steal all of the good ones. Which are yours? Which do you like to return to for another trip around old stomping grounds, and which ones do you long for a chance to revisit and catch up on? Remember, we’re talking about the worlds themselves rather than necessarily the games, so an awesome world in a bad game can count. Likewise, it doesn’t have to be objectively the greatest place you’ve ever played, just something that became more than the sum of its maps to you personally. That could be something as sprawling as Mass Effect, or as simple as Legends of Valour arriving at just the right time.

Over to you…

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Richard Cobbett

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