Columns, Opinion

Mapping Around Mediocrity: How Beautiful Worlds Distract From Mediocre Gameplay

You’ve recently completed a new game. Your feelings are distasteful. You sit in your chair, wondering how this story could even be published, or how gameplay so bland and boring would be given the green light. You step away, annoyed at the many hours you’ve slaved away in hopes that the end of the game would give you a final reward that never came. Finally, you calm down, and you decide to move on. Then, two days later, a strange feeling urges you to return to the world you initially felt unsatisfied by and experience it all again.

Gamers will go on about a game’s amazing story or fun gameplay, but an overlooked element is how the world is artistically put together, or rather, how certain pieces of these worlds subconsciously resonate with the player. Few people talk about how looking at the worlds they walk through allow them to overlook the flaws the game has. They may say, “Oh, the story was bland, but the world kept me going,” but never discuss why the world helped them push past those flaws.

A great example would be Bungie’s 2014 game, “Destiny”. This game was hyped up to be Bungie’s masterpiece, but was released to mediocre reviews. The criticism was mainly directed towards the confusing plot and horrible voice acting. How could a game like this end up becoming one of the most popular multiplayer games of this generation?

Those that stuck around were enthralled by the beauty of the locations given to the player to explore. The experience of players who jumped on hidden beams to find a gold chest, only to turn and see the isolated mountains in the background, was a rare one. 

All the game’s problems wash away—the distant sounds of alien conflict start to go silent and the anticipation of a new piece of equipment fades as the beautifully crafted environments give you a sense of peace and satisfaction. Although the view will not aid you in future battles, the experience reminds you that you aren’t in a game but instead a whole new world entirely. Experiences like these gave fans the patience to allow Bungie to flesh out their stories and lore, and the wait certainly paid off with the critically acclaimed The Taken King and beyond.

Another example would be the Gamecube exclusive “Star Fox Adventures”. Criticism of the game pointed towards its weak and uninspired combat, its clunky controls, and its horribly acted story. However, the game’s cult followers focus on the beautifully crafted landscapes that the game offers. 

The game can be frustrating, but it’s in the moments where I can take in the atmosphere that it shines. The world around me is heavily snowing, and I find a blocked cavern. I enter it, unsure of what I’ll find. The walls are dark grey, and there is nothing except for a lit fire in the middle. The blizzard outside goes away, and a song starts to play. The song is calming and peaceful, in contrast to the despair outside. All those hours led to this moment of isolation and peace. At that moment, I felt that despite the annoying hurdles I had to overcome, I finally understood what the developers tried to craft and felt the care they put into this world. That one moment inspired me to play the rest of the game and drudge through its flaws so that I could experience the many other beautiful locations the developers inserted.

This idea of “show, don’t tell” is crucial when developing games. Video games have more angles to work with than film or television since the players will be walking through these developed worlds. A bad story is a bad story, but a bad world is a bad game. 

If players are not interested in exploring the world, then it will he hard to engage them in its story. The map can either inspire the player to look past a game’s flaws or cause them to give up entirely. After all, a player isn’t just turning on a game—they’re stepping into another world entirely.

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