What if loot was less insidious than another, seemingly innocuous game mechanic? Like many of you, I eagerly read each of the articles in GameChurch’s series on our love of loot in games like Diablo, Borderlands, and Fallout. The articles raised piercing questions about what drives us to play games that incorporate on a loot distribution system. And yet, even if these games distributed items differently or had no loot at all, I think I would still play them, because many of them employ a mechanic that taunts me with the elusive possibility of absolute knowledge.
I suffer from what I like to call “exploring the darkness” syndrome. In any game that uses a “fog of war” effect to mask unexplored areas (either on the map or directly on the playing area), I am obsessed with revealing every nook and cranny of the game map, thereby removing the black fog concealing unexplored areas. I will do this in ways that defy reason–if a sliver of one corner of the map remains shrouded, I must uncover it, despite the unlikelihood that such a small scrap of real estate will contain anything significant; while playing Morrowind, I walked back and forth across the island until the entire map was highlighted to indicate that I had been there. Truthfully, Diablo II is responsible for turning my obsession into a full blown disease with the option to overlay a large map onto the screen, so that I paid more attention to the ever revealing edges of the map than to the game itself.
Recently, to alleviate the pain of not having Diablo III (living off a graduate student stipend has its limitations), I signed up for the Torchlight 2 Beta (an action RPG by two of Blizzard North’s founders) and was able to play for the first time a couple of weeks ago. As my Embermage swept through hordes of enemies, I had one thing on my mind–making sure every bit of the mini-map in the corner of my screen was explored. Even quest markers didn’t tempt me away from completely revealing an entire area, and on occasion I left loot behind just to make it to the edge of map, then returning to pick up the detritus from my most recent battle.
Part of this compulsion has a definite “Star Trek” component to it; exploring the map is reminiscent of the Starship Enterprise plowing through space discovering aliens left and right. As such, the fog of war serves a logical purpose in such games, as it designates your character’s sight limitation, and the receding fog is a visible representation of discovery–what was once unknown has become known. This kind of exploration is one of the delights that video games offer, and many games purposefully reward those who go out of their way to fully explore the game’s world, whether it be with loot, side quests, or humorous easter eggs.
On the other hand, my compulsion also points to a wrinkle in the benefit of exploration–in a videogame, it is possible to explore everything. The world, ultimately, is finite and limited; by uncovering every last pixel of explorable area, I assert my control over that virtual world. In reality, of course, such a level of mastery over our physical world is never possible, so games offer an attainable level of complete knowledge that our lived experience will never possess.
My neurotic preoccupation might have gone unnoticed, if my wife, with whom I play many games, had not brought it to my attention. Until the day that she asked why I was running along the walls of every dungeon in Oblivion, I never critically examined why this had become my standard practice on most games. While I wouldn’t recommend that we all start leaving vast areas of a game map unexplored, it is helpful to remember that even our control over a game map is illusory. What knowledge we can attain is only granted to us by the game’s developer, leaving us always at the mercy of those whose illusion we have paid to enjoy. Such reminders can serve to attenuate our sense of exaggerated power in the midst of virtual exploration; instead we can approach the darkness of our games with an attitude of authentic possibility–recognizing that the total discovery and exploration in games is still only a pale gesture toward the gradual revelation that is a fundamental part of our humanity.