* Zelda 1 and 2.
* Dragon Quest in general.
* Shadow of the Colossus.
* Metroid II.
* Half-Life 2.
* Phantasy Star II.
* Metal Gear Solid 3, in particular.
* Lost in Blue.
There is a common thread to all of these. It has to do with the gameworld, and the player’s method of interaction with it.
Stacking boxes to make your own path or eating the parrot in Half-Life and Metal Gear are the same as the magic wand in Zelda 1 or the structures in Wanda that serve no apparent purpose except to look at them, climb on them, stand on them, ponder about them. Building a spear in Lost in Blue is the same as gaining that level or buying that copper sword in Dragon Warrior, as finding a heart container or a boomerang in Zelda, as making that leap of logic in Riven, about that device halfway across the island.
The technique names in Phantasy Star are the same as the number system in Riven, as the clues in Zelda, as the Erdrick lore is in Dragon Warrior, as the artifacts are in Lost in Blue. And these are the same as the boxes and the parrot and the spear and the boomerang.
These are all different approaches toward the same, or similar, ideals. Player progression relies on personal growth and curiosity. Within its own laws, the gameworld is responsive to nearly all actions allowed the player. There is a strong focus on trial and error. On exploration on both the micro and macro levels. On pushing the limits of the gameworld to see what happens, and maybe being punished half the time. On intuitive leaps of reasoning, within the given laws. On patience. On innate appreciation of the intangible within a greater scheme.
The laws and structure of the gameworld are a framework filled with an open question. Rote progression is never a problem, and yet the purpose never particularly lies in the plot. Or in completion. Any story, any imposed goals are simply excuses. MacGuffins. They’re there to get you out the door. To give you an anchor, a point of reference. Maybe a path to walk down. The real joy, the really important material, comes in the unimportant treasures of providence provided by the player’s presence in the gameworld, by interfering as an outsider in a self-contained system.
The player, as Link in the first Zelda in particular, is not particularly meant to traverse Hyrule. He has no weapon. He has no defense. He has no health. There is no path specifically laid out for him, and yet there is a certain logic to be exploited — inconsistently, though consistently enough. At no point does the game call for the boomerang, or the wand. The game can probably be beaten without the sword, if the player is so inclined. Yet the tools are there to be made use of.
The world of Riven is alien to the player, and presents a barrier at every turn — and yet there is a logic behind it all; a reason why everything is where and as it is. As an outsider this lack of familiarity is an initial barrier. Later that same outside perspective and status puts the player in a rarified position. The simple joys of Riven come again from a whimsical turn of that same relationship with the gameworld — from sitting on a sun-baked stone stairwell, listening to the birds and the insects and the surf below. Imagining the coolness of the shadows and the moss on the stones. Appreciating what would go unappreciated were the player to belong here. Finding one’s own treasure in a broader system.
And yet none of these games are wholly open. Unlike Morrowind or Fallout or Baldur’s Gate, there is a clear and immediate structure. There is a limit to the options available to the player. The rules and the logic of the worlds are all simple and compact. There are only so many actions. There are only so many items. There are only so wide a world, so many levels, so many set pieces, so much of a variance in direction. There is a specific ultimate task before the player, a specific direction to move in. Save the princess. Learn about these Biomonsters. Figure out what’s going on in this world. Defeat the Metroids. Survive and maybe escape. Defeat the Colossi.
The secret to success in all cases is in understanding the reasoning of the gameworld, and the method of understanding — as in life — is experimentation. It is in the quirks, the exceptions, the trivialities — that with no clear explanation — that the searching mind finds the most wonder and curiosity. And it is in these quirks that such a mind imbues the most meaning, specifically for their lack of meaning, their lack of purpose. Their lack of structure, and all it implies about the gameworld and the player’s presence within it.
It is in these imperfections that we find beauty and we find reality. In which humanity and therefore something we identify as truth shows itself. In which we see hints of a structure or a randomness beyond our comprehension, that is greater than us, that is greater than our mission and yet that leads us to our fate. It is here that we find significance, that we find meaning, that we find verification for our continued efforts.
It is this which drives us on.