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Worlds Adrift made me believe in MMOs again

Leave a mark on the world

On one screen, a developer is demonstrating Worlds Adrift [official site], and explaining that players have hand-crafted everything I can see. The game world is made up of floating islands and the one he's scrambling around right now, using a grappling hook to traverse rapidly, has a ruined building at its centre. It's not very large, the island. You could hop, skip, grapple and jump across it in a matter of seconds, and it's hanging in empty space. Well, almost.

As the developer plays, an airship putters into view. He decides to board the ship, even though it's a good distance away from the island, and then there's a strange moment when I notice the next screen along in the row of demo pods. A passerby has picked up the controller there and is steering a large airship past an island. Our island. I watch, one eye on each screen, as the two worlds come close to colliding.

I wish I could say they did collide, but the ship was to far out. All the skillful grappling at our dev's disposal weren't enough to propel him across the gap between island and ship. Still, watching the other play steer hard to starboard, oblivious to the person attempting to board, was exciting in itself. Sometimes, the most important thing a game can do is to remind us that we're a part of something bigger than us rather than the hero of every tale.

There's a device I call the Truman Show Effect. It's in GTA, when the game spawns traffic behind your back where none existed a second before, ensuring the streets in your vicinity are populated. It's in triggered interactions, those conversations and brawls that don't begin until the player drops by to listen or observe. So many game worlds are made up of performers, treating the player as a participating audience member. They're not simulating credible places, they're simulating a kind of living haunted house experience, where all of the ghouls are staff who have been instructed to entertain the paying guests.

Don't get me wrong, I like being treated as an important guest and the centre of everybody's attention, but sometimes I'd like to see how it feels to exist in a world that is indifferent to me (just in the game). Many massively multiplayer games are particularly hampered by the Truman Show Effect, because they have hundreds of Trumans running around, all being treated like the star of the show. I've never quite managed to get past the conceit of being one of many heroes, all locked into the same quest chains. It's as if the Knights of the Round Table all got their own Grail Quest, and now all have their own goblet shoved somewhere deep in their inventories. Two million heroes, one cup two million cups.

In Worlds Adrift, everything is persistent. If you find an abandoned ship adrift in space, like a celestial Mary Celeste, it must have had a crew at one time. You might find evidence hinting at their fate, you might be able to scavenge some spare parts or raw materials, and you might encounter other players on a sightseeing or salvage expedition. While the specifics of a ship's demise won't always be obvious, wrecks are likely to be found close to the storm walls that crackle deep in space.

The problem with space, as a place to play, is that it can be terribly empty. Worlds Adrift doesn't just fill it with the player-designed floating islands that are one of the game's key features, it also has environmental hazards, such as the storm walls. These almighty dark spots can strip a ship of its components and send the crew tumbling into the void. Grappling hooks can be used to anchor your character onto the deck, but if the deck ends up shattered and stripped of its engines and armour, that's not going to be much solace. Like Dorothy's house in the twister, you're going to end up blown off course and plunged into the unknown. Or just torn to shreds.

Those shreds would then become part of the world. A tale for other voyagers to decipher when - and if - they stumble across what remains.

It's that ability to leave a mark that makes me so excited about Worlds Adrift. I'm so tired of Teflon realms that only change when someone at the design HQ pushes a switch or pulls a lever to trigger the next avalanche of #content. As Alec noted when he looked at the game last year, it's not entirely clear how I'd spend my time in Worlds Adrift, beyond sticking bits of ships together so I can visit/bother other players and find more bits of ships, but I'm delighted by the idea that every little thing I do will have an impact. It doesn't matter how small; I'd rather have my failed attempts to engineer a new craft leave a mess for somebody to find - a mess that is genuinely mine - than kill the same demon lord that everyone else has already killed, even if I do get a fancy new suit of armour as reward for my efforts.

My excitement is tempered by the times I've been burned by the promise of a persistent MMORPG world before. Most notably, that happened with EverQuest Next. It's strange to read my preview back now, knowing that the game I'd heard described will never exist in that specific form or under that name. The dream of a world that not only acknowledges the player's actions but reacts to and accommodates them is still alive though, and Worlds Adrift's use of the SpatialOS technology is a key part of that.

I won't pretend to understand how it all works because I've got about as much chance as I have of grasping thaumaturgy, but here's wot the website says: "SpatialOS can create a swarm of hundreds of conventional game engines that overlap together to create a huge, seamless world". All I need to know is whether that swarm can give me the persistent online worlds I've dreamed of since I first plugged my computer into a LAN. I expected to be playing wargames where every tank left a treadmark and every explosion left a crater and scorchmarks. So many online worlds are about sharing a common experience, and there is great value in that, but I'm far more interested in leaving quiet reminders of my passing, and creating new experiences for whoever follows in my wake.

Worlds Adrift is coming to Steam Early Access at the end of April.

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About the Author

Adam Smith

Former Deputy Editor

Adam wrote for Rock Paper Shotgun between 2011-2018, rising through the ranks to become its Deputy Editor. He now works at Larian Studios on Baldur's Gate 3.