DOCRANTS: Bigger Isn't Better

A rant about why bigger game worlds aren’t necessarily better.


xkcd is a popular webcomic by Randall Munroe that occasionally experiments with what a webcomic can be. Every so often, a strip goes up that’s sprawlingly large with hidden content waiting to be discovered. Such is the case with the strip for November 24, 2015, titled “Hoverboard.” At first, it appears to be a simple score-attack in which you navigate a small play area to collect coins as quickly as possible, but you can escape the play area to find a much larger world, laden with jokes and references.

A lot of xkcd fans eat this stuff up, exploring the world and documenting their findings. I think the idea is that there’s a thrill of discovery - you head out in a direction and come upon something interesting. There’s a sense of ownership of the experience, and the possibility that you are the first to see whatever it is that you found.

And it’s great that people enjoy this, and I’m sure Randall has a lot of fun making these comics. But for me, a comic like this is basically one that’s just very hard to read. There are gags and easter eggs aplenty, but they’re scattered and hard to find, with no map or checklist. Playing with it for longer than a minute or two becomes tedious, but stopping that soon guarantees I’ll miss most of the content.

Presumably, Randall is okay with this. It means people have unique experiences with his comic, so they can say things to each other like, “Oh, there were spaceships? I didn’t find those, but then I did get stuck in Elon Musk’s volcano lair.” But if you’re okay with most people missing most of the content, then you can’t value that content particularly highly. You don’t hide something that you want to show off. So the main value must be the uniqueness of each person’s experiences and the thrill of discovery that creates.

But I don’t enjoy that thrill of discovery, because it’s false. Randall wrote and drew everything you can possibly find in his comic. You aren’t discovering anything that wasn’t placed deliberately to find. It’s very telling that when you first escape the initial play area, flashing red text tells you to go back. This creates a sense of transgressiveness in continuing to explore, but that’s false too since the entire point of the game is to leave that play area and see what else is out there.

When I visit xkcd.com, it’s because I want to read a comic, not experience a world. I want to see the high-quality content that Randall has created and curated and deemed worthy of publication. I want ideas and jokes that have been polished to his normal standards. I don’t want to work harder than usual to read content that is lower-quality than usual.

Of course xkcd is a comic and not a game - most of the time. But in games, the same themes can apply. While there are games that actually give you the tools to create an experience that’s truly yours, others fill themselves up with busywork to present an illusion of depth.

A Valley Without Wind is described by its creators as “a procedural Metroidvania with crafting.” It’s a huge game that feels like it was designed to be played forever. It’s got a ton of deep systems - exploration, platforming, combat, resource gathering, item crafting, spell crafting, character build customization, town-building - all in a procedurally-generated world.

But the result might actually be too big for the content. Just like in the xkcd Hoverboard game, the fun stuff is spread too far apart. A Valley Without Wind actually seems to know that it’s too big - several times, the game flat-out tells you not to waste time exploring fully and going after the low-value resources, as there are far more in the game than you need and you’d be wasting your time. Just focus on the valuable gems and such and get on with it.

A few minutes into the game, you find a gravestone indicating that someone literally spent so much time collecting low-value resources that she starved to death. A couple minutes later, you find your first abandoned building, and the explanation indicates that only the “stash rooms” have useful treasure, and that you should find these rooms and then - I quote - “get back to questing.” Several minutes after that, in the first dungeon, a sign indicates that by simply entering that room you’ve proved you’re playing the game wrong, as the dungeon map indicates there’s nothing of value there.

THEN WHY IS THERE EVEN A DOOR TO THAT ROOM? Why are the low-value resources in the game at all? If large portions of the game are intended to be ignored, isn’t it better to just remove them? If the game’s design leads the player astray, the solution isn’t to put up a textbox - it’s to change the design. How can the player focus on what’s important if the game itself refuses to do so?

When I was a kid, my world was small, and I relished games with huge worlds to explore, even though there were often wide spaces between the things worth caring about. But now as an adult, I have the real world for that. I want my created experiences to also be curated ones - whether they’re a webcomic, a video game, or anything else. I’ve only got so much time, and I want to spend it on things that provide a return on investment. Padding out a work is rude and wasteful, and when there are more excellent works out there than anyone can consume in a lifetime, I have no patience for it. Don’t try to trick me into thinking I’m an explorer by making the world big - do it by making the world worth my time to explore.

SteamWorld Dig is described by its creators as “a platform mining adventure with strong Metroidvanian influences.” It’s not huge - in fact, there’s an achievement for beating it in less than two and a half hours. But the game is exceptionally well-paced - it’s sized and scoped perfectly for its content and mechanics. You’re set loose in the mine to play with and master your abilities, and just when they’ve lost their novelty, you’re given an upgrade that allows you to interact with or traverse the world in new ways. While it’s not strictly necessary to gather all of the limited resources, it’s also not a waste of time - it’s a manageable goal to set for yourself, since they’re packed fairly densely and provide opportunities to cleverly use the abilities and mechanics you’ve mastered.

Yes, the game is over relatively quickly - for most players, a single playthrough is probably not more than a couple of sessions. But that time is filled well - there’s always something to do that’s actually worth doing. You don’t have to go hunting for the fun. Rather than complaining about a short run-time, I praise this game for its high-quality run-time, and argue that more games - and web cartoonists - could stand to learn from this model.