headfourthemountain

Open World Dreams (Part 1): Head for the Mountain!

As far back as I can remember, the limited geographical scope of video games often frustrated me.

I was rarely satisfied with the restrictions and boundaries established in each world I visited. Even as a ten-year-old I’d read enough books and watched enough movies to understand that grander visions were a possibility, yet at the same time knew that video games were only really being held back by the technology that drove them. I’d occasionally get a sense that the game’s developer(s) felt frustrated by those restrictions too.

I remained ever mindful of the bigger picture. Where did the titular Space Invaders come from? Did a mothership hang somewhere in orbit, dispensing wave after wave of invading aliens? Why was the action focused on just one base that was protected by only four bunkers? Where was the rest of humanity while I was fighting off the alien hordes? Were we actually on Earth at all?

Space Invaders from Royksopp's Happy Up Here video

Come to think of it, the video to Röyksopp’s Happy Up Here answers all my questions about what the Space Invaders were getting up to off-screen!

It’s important to note that these questions, usually asked subconsciously, were exclusively about the notion of space and physicality within these digital worlds, rather than anything of a more introspective or philosophical nature. Looking back over the books, movies, and music I’ve enjoyed over the last three decades or so, common themes emerge: exploration, environment, isolation, loneliness, and a sense of time and place. It’s no surprise that I came to expect as much from games too.

The interactive nature of games afforded me the opportunity to push at these physical boundaries. Perhaps not so much with the very early titles, but as games grew in complexity at an exponential rate, so too did the possibility for exploration.

“Head for the mountain!”

Those four words became a battle cry for the small group of friends with whom I’d regularly meet up for the sole purpose of playing games. Our initial objective in each and every game was clear: if the game depicted some sort of background scene, which typically included a panoramic mountain range, we’d do everything in our power to reach those mountains.

Deep down we knew this was a futile exercise. We’d played enough games to become savvy to their inner workings and the limits of technology. But we’d be damned if we weren’t going to have fun trying! An inaugural attempt at a racing game would see us veering off the track to see just how far away from it we could drive. Top-down games with a four-way scrolling mechanic were ripe for testing the rigidity of the map and what we could find away from the action. One day, we’d reach that mountain.

Auto Racing: Beyond the Track

A minor early success came in the form of Auto Racing on the Intellivision. This was a top-down racing game, not a million miles away from what would become Micro Machines. One of the game’s particular nifty features was that each track’s boundaries were defined by a seemingly ad hoc placement of trees. We quickly discovered that two very careful drivers (this only worked in 2-player mode) could navigate through the trees and reach areas beyond the track that you weren’t necessarily supposed to reach.

A screenshot from Auto Racing on the Intellivision of a crappy driver crashing into a building.

No, idiot. Drive AROUND the trees! Also, yes, this is an actual game from the olden times.

From a technical perspective, what was actually happening was that all the game’s track data was stored on one huge map; each level simply put you at a different starting point. Once you found an exploitable gap you could theoretically drive around this mini globe indefinitely. The developers, perhaps realizing this possibility, even hid a secret drag strip somewhere on the map as a reward for the player’s perseverance!

The Open World

As video game consoles and home computers evolved and found themselves with ever more RAM at their disposal, gaming worlds began to expand at a significant rate. Expectations grew to match, but even then a small number of titles had the ability to go above and beyond the call of duty, often in spectacular fashion.

The sheer geographical scope of Lords of Midnight blew every other strategy game away. The Tolkien-esque backdrop went a long way to attracting would-be adventurers, but the 4,096 discrete locations verged on the overwhelming, even if their visual representation was largely repetitive. Nevertheless, Mike Singleton, the game’s developer, set an early precedent for open-world gaming.

Acornsoft’s Elite, released on the BBC Micro a few months after Lords of Midnight, upped the ante once again, this time delivering a space combat/trading game that took you to the stars.  2,048 of them, to be precise, each with their own (singular) planet, space station and rudimentary ecosystem of fellow traders/pirates.

A screenshot of Elite on the BBC Micro. So, basically, lots of wireframe shit.

Space! Spaceships! Suns! Planets! Pew-pew lasers! A radar system only 0.04% of players could decipher!

It’s difficult to convey to modern gamers the giddy sensation of freedom these titles offered, especially when so many of their contemporaries were single-screen games with maybe the odd scroller thrown in for good measure. Being able to consult a map and consider a near endless number of options for navigating it gave the player a very real sense of empowerment within the game space.

Mercenary for Hire

The pinnacle of 8-bit open world games, at least for me, arrived in the form of Mercenary, which crash-landed the player in a huge wire-frame city and gave you one simple directive: escape. The perfectly curated simplicity of both the game’s objectives, visual presentation and (apparently) borderless geography conspired to instill a sense of agoraphobia in the player. Nevertheless, the ideal game for generating water cooler discussion: “What did you do after crash landing?” suggested hundreds of possible answers where far too many other games usually only have one.

Screenshot from Mercenary running on the MDDClone emulator.

The Palyar Commander’s Brother-in-Law’s house and ship. Just… don’t attack it. (This screenshot’s actually from a nifty Mercenary emulator called MDDClone that you should obtain forthwithly.)

Beyond the confines of the narrative, one of the overriding joys of Mercenary was that it gave the player the ability to walk off in any direction (although I’d recommend driving/flying) and discover any number of curious wireframe structures, some of which had a legitimate in-game function other than the purely aesthetic. It was the first game I can remember that not only gave the player an epic sense of freedom but rewarded them for their curiosity and desire to explore.

Yes, there was a mountain of sorts in the form of a mysterious pyramid. Did I head towards it? Take a wild guess!

Next week, on Open World Dreams, Mark tracks the rise of open world games as we head through the 16-bit era and arrive at their modern counterparts.

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About Mark Stevens

Mark is British but lives in the USA, which is why you'll see him flip-flopping between British and American spelling without a care in the world. As a veteran of the 8-bit and 16-bit eras you'll notice a decidedly retro slant to his posts, but he has just as much to say about contemporary gaming too. Outside the world of blogging Mark has previously written for Wired and The Guardian and has written a number of Doctor Who short stories for Big Finish.

  • https://twitter.com/WallCrawlinHero Wesley Hampton

    I know you’re not even close to this point in gaming history yet, but the title put me in mind of one of my favorite PC games from the 90′s–Motocross Madness. I’ve never been a huge racing face, but the openness of this game, along with the insane amounts of airtime and the ability to play online made me a longtime fan. One of my (and presumably every player’s) favorite things was the giant wall bordering the open-air stunt arenas. The programmers didn’t just say, “Well, here’s the end of the level, let’s put a wall.” They built a wall and made it easily climbable with a big surprise on the other side. I’ll never forget the first time I went a little too far past the top of that ridge just to see what was out there. Had this been made a few years later I can imagine the programmers yelling out “You shall not pass!” as they coded the violent reaction.

    • http://runjumpfire.com/ Mark Stevens

      Ah yes, an altogether more visceral means of dealing with the player who decides to wander behind the scenes instead of doing what they’re told. Many other games opt to just give the player a countdown timer and threaten to “fail” their current level/mission just for being inquisitive (see Assassin’s Creed).

      And now I’m suddenly thinking of Team Fortress 2, where if you study the background closely in some areas you see it’s all a balsa wood facade, almost like a movie set. Which then adds a slightly disturbing, although truly fascinating, psychological layer to the game!

      • https://twitter.com/WallCrawlinHero Wesley Hampton

        I still haven’t had a chance to play TF2, but that sounds exactly like the kind of self-referential joke I expect from it based on everything I’ve seen and heard.