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Game Swap: UnReal World

Adam makes Alec play an unforgiving roguelike

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Game Swap is a new series in which one person recommends another a game they might like. This week, Adam suggests that Alec plays wilderness survival roguelike UnReal World [official site], still in active development after a quarter of a century.

Adam: Everyone enjoys roguelikes these days, or at least they refer to some of the things they enjoy as roguelikes. There was a time when I felt protective of the term, initially not acknowledging anything as a roguelike unless it had ascii graphics, then allowing graphical tilesets but drawing the line at interfaces that didn’t use every key on the board at least twice, and then, eventually, accepting that, hey, maybe Metroidvanias are roguelikes too.

I still go back to the first roguelikes I played though and they’re still among my favourite games. Unreal World particularly is closest to my heart.

The original Rogue was never one of my favourites, but Nethack, Ancient Domains of Mystery and Stone Soup never leave my hard drive. Then there’s my new favourites Cogmind and Golden Krone Hotel. And Alphaman still lingers for some reason, probably because it was one of my first. And you can kill mutant Elvis with a raygun.

More than any of the dungeon-crawlers and baddie-killers, I love the life sims that have sprung out of the roguelike soup. Dwarf Fortress is the most famous – a game that simulates creation and centuries of history before you even start to play – but RimWorld takes up more of my time these days, thanks in part to its friendlier interface.

I will always come back to Unreal World, though. You only control a single character, but there’s a whole generated world to discover. It’s far from a traditional roguelike, set in the open air rather than in dungeons, and based in north Europe during the Iron Age. It is, primarily, a survival game. That’s a genre in and of itself these days and Unreal World does share some DNA with The Long Dark, my latest love, but nothing compares to the complexity and detail of Sami Maaranen’s game, which has been receiving updates for nearly a quarter of a century.

I recommend it to people all the time, never sure if they’ll get lost in it or be lost by its complicated interface and harsh demands. I’d hoped that Alec would appreciate its enormity, even if he didn’t feel compelled to spend a lifetime out in the cold.

Alec:. My reaction when Unreal World came up wasn’t horror, but there was a sort of grim resignation. Oh, of course he’s going to give me something that’s incredibly hard work.

I knew roughly what it was already, and with it a sense that it would be almost aggressively obtuse. I don’t mind difficulty or having to figure mechanics out for myself, but I’m highly/over-sensitive to having my time wasted. There is a certain school of games which seems consciously opposed to user interface accessibility – that not kowtowing to the mouse’n’tooltip crowd (i.e. 99% of humanity) somehow makes them infinitely more noble. I think it’s holier-than-thou snobbery.

Of course, UnReal World has the excellent excuse that it’s been in development since 1992, a land before time when it comes to UI standardisation, but hell, if they can stick in new terrain generators and update it for modern operating systems and continually patch it for all that time, they could sure as hell update the interface and controls too. But that would be cowardice and selling out, right? Fie.

But, I know, all this reflects on me as much as it does UnReal World. I’m getting older and more time-starved, so the mere thought of having to slowly teach myself something that differs from the norm is probably more unappealing than it should be.

I am nonetheless keen to fix a blindspot, I’m increasingly taken with roleplaying games that broadly sidestep the fantastical, and I’m only filled with admiration for a game that’s been so single-minded in its focus for so long. I just hope its archaic, stubborn nature doesn’t keep me from getting to the good stuff.

Adam: Let’s talk interface first. I used to argue long and hard about the need for the big complicated interface in games like this. If (Q)uaff was the way I had to drink a healing potion but (q)uit would dump me back to DOS without saving, SO BE IT. That was never so much because I didn’t question the complexity, I think it was more to do with the way playing games on a PC was back then. If I had to edit my autoexec.bat and config.sys to jiggle memory allocations so that X-COM would run, then writing out the keybindings for a game that seemed infinitely more complicated than the other RPGs in my life seemed perfectly reasonable.

And I did used to do that, write out all the keybindings. What a time to be alive.

I’ve lost my patience with the millions of inputs approach to UI though. Having never designed a UI in my life, I’m confident in saying that there’s nothing in Unreal World that wouldn’t fit in nested menus rather than on lower case and upper case keys, spread all over the place. It’s not just a learning problem, it’s that if things are hidden in the interface, or buried, then they might as well not exist. If you don’t know how to skin a man and eat him, then perhaps you never will.

Have you done any cannibalism yet?

Alec: I didn’t do much 90s rogueing so, while I’m familiar with the control tropes from revisiting a few subsequently and obviously doing the mandatory Dwarf Fortress stint a few years ago, it simply isn’t second nature in the way I’m guessing it is for you. It feels as though someone’s swapped everything around for some twisted joke, rather than the straight-to-the-metal directness I imagine that veterans/die-hards feel it is.

UI whingeing

I don’t mind a hotkey in and of itself, and indeed there are standards I demand from any game in that regard, but it’s that a button does something completely different depending on whether you’ve got capslock on or not that really killed me to start with. Granted, this was over-complicated further by the fact that my screenshotting app is bound to capslock, but even so, it just feels arbitrary cruelty to, for instance, have Drink Water and Quit bound to the same bloody button.

I’ve got the rudiments under my belt now, and even though I’m still ritually hitting the wrong buttons or becoming confused about, say, the rather pointless splitting into completely different menus for building lumber-based products and turning felled trees into different sorts of lumber, I no longer feel as though someone switched my car’s steering wheel for a keytar.

There is very obviously a very smart and magnificently possibility-packed game here, and I do feel sadness that it’s effectively deterring a huge amount of people from playing it in favour of what, from the outside, feels like zealous adherence to an imagined purity.

No cannibalism yet, but winter has only just begun. Given that my character tends to exhaust himself or near-freeze to death trying to catch even a single fish, it does rather seem as though clubbing and eating the next wandering traveller I meet is all but a forgone conclusion.

Adam: A lot of the appeal, for me, is the setting – historical rather than fantastical. You touched on that earlier and it’s one of the things I hoped you’d enjoy. At the same time, I’ve been playing it for so long that I find it hard to say why I was drawn to it initially. Essentially, it’s a game about doing relatively mundane things. A camping simulator. I think part of what I enjoy about that is the small details that make me think about my character and his/her actions in a way that I don’t when I’m just bumping into monsters to make experience points fall out, but partly it’s just the change of pace.

Even though surviving is hard, there is a plateau that you reach and from there you can actually start living it up a little. Hunting and trading and even building your own cabin and creating a little farm, with livestock and pets. Do you reckon you’ll stick with it and see if you can make a home?

Alec: I’d certainly like to, but I suspect life will get in the way. Also I just bought a second hand copy of FFXV because I’m so exhausted by childcare that drooling at something from the couch is the only thing I can manage to do in the evenings at the moment. UnReal World is hard work – not in a punishing way, but it’s a lot of effort for minor achievements.

Definitely digging the setting – I like a bit of Norsery at the best of times, and the extremely buttoned-down approach here entirely speaks to my tastes. I spent the first hour or two having a bit of a wobble about whether there was something bigger I should be doing, if I should be voyaging further out or looking for trouble, before settling into a happier groove of, as you say, camping.

Night in the woods

I had my little shelter and a little fire, setup near a river which yielded fish reasonably reliably, and I began to make some inroads into setting up a more permanent home. The sheer work it was obviously going to take became a bit galling however, so I did end up travelling elsewhere, finding a couple of villages and helping a lost guy reach safety (he taught me some herbalism to say thanks). I was very taken with the quiet amiability of it, that in the main people just calmly co-exist, all getting on with their own subsistence. Though I suspect things may kick off more in the depths of Winter, when survival is a more significant factor.

In terms of the interface, I’ve come around a little to the idea that the hard work of it is thematically appropriate. Where something like The Forest, with which this has a certain amount in common, makes the act of chopping down a tree a simple matter of hammering the mouse button a few times, this really wants to make it clear that, as in life, tree-felling is long, involved, exhausting work. As such, navigating all these keyboard commands to chop down a tree, chop the fallen trunks into blocks and boards then haul it all ‘home’ makes every single act of lumberjackery feel like a significant achievement. I’m all for that kind of escapism, even if I wish the menus weren’t quite so horrid.

There’s real mood here too. Clearly the old-fashioned appearance presented an initial shock to the system, but once I was past that I really felt the loneliness and the cold, believed entirely that this was a vast and wild world. It has flavour and it has spirit, in spades.

Adam: There’s a karma system, which I think is still hidden (and some players dispute the existence of, or at least did back in the day), and it’s that rather than the onset of winter that can have the most dramatic impact on your wellbeing. At least in my experience. Actually, that’s not entirely true because winter is a terrible time, but the world becomes less friendly if you act like a dick. That goes for killing people, making sacrifices and doing other unpleasant things. Like the cannibalism.

There are occasional messages that pop up that seem to relate to that, either telling you that the world feels tranquil or that the forest seems hostile. Stuff like that. What I find really interesting is that I’ve never seen definite confirmation as to what that means – people reckon it might make fishing and hunting trickier, or that injuries fester for longer, or that you’re more likely to meet hostile humans. Others reckon it’s all confirmation bias.

A little bit of low fantasy

The game does have this spiritual element to it though. You can perform rituals and improve your chances of having a successful hunt, or of making a fire. I like that. It’s both a way of giving players something to do, to manipulate the odds directly, and a way to teach a little about this little pocket of semi-fictional history.

It’s the superstitions about karma that I enjoy the most though. It’s kind of amazing to me that a game can exist and be in a state of change for so long – twenty four years! – and have a little belief system spring up around its mechanics. I’m sure someone has pulled the code apart, dug through its entrails and found the numbers that prove or disprove it all, and analyse precisely how it works, but I don’t want to know. There’s a mystery behind the mundanity of wood-cutting and fishing.

I’m not going to use this as another reason to defend the interface, but I do think some of the mystery is found in between all of those key presses. It’s true that if doing something necessary or entertaining is hard work, that is Not Good, but it’s also kind of brilliant when the pieces fall into place and you find something you never knew was possible.

Alec: I don’t disagree in principle, I just feel that the particular way it is done here is more a pain in the dangly bits than it needs to achieve that effect. Stuff like the lower case/upper case split, how some stuff is in the skills menu and some stuff has its own key – a sort of flab. Then again, if the alternative is Minecraft style guess the recipe structures, I’d probably be sighing too. Impossible to please, me.

I mentioned The Forest earlier, and I am fascinated by how much of UnReal World is in modern survivo-craft games. Quite possibly entirely unconsciously. But, essentially, this feels like the roots of the 21st century tree-punching game, yet its relative complexity and slow-down ensures that its basic acts of logging, hauling and building feel truly essential to the experience rather than numbing grind within an otherwise high-speed game.

If my life was slightly different, I’d definitely be up for long nights in UnReal World’s woods, gnawing on hard-won fishbones. I’m very glad that I know it now, and I think more people should know it too. I hope the dev isn’t entirely closed to doing more things to make that happen.

Adam: I totally agree on the proto-survival game thing. And it makes me hope that Steam will one day be flooded with more accessible versions of Dwarf Fortress’ big daft splendid box of tricks as well.

There’s positivity here, tempered by very fair criticism of the interface and the demands Unreal World makes on your time. But let’s hear it: Hit or Miss (Pip went with Hit-ish for her instalment of Game Swap earlier in the week so I’ll allow such shenanigans)?

Hit

Alec: Oh, hit. No qualms there. It knows exactly what it wants to be and works so hard to share that essential fantasy with the player that even an issue as significant as Nightmare Interface Designed By DOS Snobs Who Believe That Right Mouse Buttons Are A Betrayal Of The One True Way Of PC Gaming cannot truly undermine that. My hope is that UnReal World is still in active development when the time comes for me to retire, and then I shall happily sink long months of my fading life into it.

Adam: Give it another twenty four years and it might have a decent interface as well.

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The all-seeing eye of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, the voice of many-as-one.

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