I should be the sort of person that enjoys a lot of lore in my video games. I’m a historian, a history teacher, and a big rpg fan in general. And yet, I’m increasingly aware that the games I enjoy most are the ones where the civilisation, culture and the history of the world is buried. Quite literally buried, in many cases.
I’m very late to the Zelda: Breath of the Wild party. I’m having an absolute blast, not least because of the world aesthetic. The entire premise of a kingdom fallen 100 years ago, exploring it’s ruins, is something I seem to especially enjoy. And this isn’t the first time.
I’m not against games full of history. I scoured through all the history notes and monster lore in the Witcher series, and I have always tried (and failed) to keep up with the massive amount of knowledge throughout The Elders Scrolls. Nevertheless, a world where things feel lost or forgotten really captures me in a way I can’t quite explain.
I am a fan of everything Team Ico has put together. Their game worlds (or world?) are the epitome of less is more. Just a smattering of sunken structures hint at a little corner of civilisation that was laid low by an epic disaster. It feels like there is a wealth of past events and antiquity buried deep beneath the service, and the fact that I can’t grasp it increases my love of the world rather than disappointing me.
Perhaps it’s the fact that my imagination can fill in the blanks. I come upon the remnants of some ancient weapon or the scattered pieces of a destroyed town, and I can wander over the scene wondering what might have been. Whether I find an answer is irrelevant. If there is a little audio recording or scrap of parchment to collect, then I’m happy providing there are still unanswered questions.
Of all the sites and scenes that I came across in Red Dead Redemption, I was most delighted to see a small, abandoned dwelling in the middle of nowhere. If I didn’t find anything unique or exciting, it didn’t matter; I had found a little, secluded piece of the world – dead body curled up in its bed, signs of a bear attack, or in one case, an impact from a meteorite – I was a happy little gamer.
There are so many other examples. Lots of sandbox games in particular are post-apocalyptic in nature. What’s strange about this fascination with ruins, it that I seem to be happy with less stuff in my games. Collectibles of all sorts are strewn over open-world games, but the less full the world feels, the more evocative I find it. My favourite image from Last of Us for example, was that one view of the skyscraper leaning against another. I stood there for a solid minute on each of my run-throughs, contemplating what must have happened to cause such a scene.
A lot of modern, open world games like to boast a large, sprawling map, but then make it painfully easy to find everything on it, whilst also insisting that every square inch have something to interact with or collect. Whilst it’s good for a game to have a great deal of content, I enjoy the gaps, the empty spaces where something might be but isn’t. The scenes that are there to be just that: something to admire or contemplate.
This is not to say that I don’t enjoy worlds that are not in ruins. Give me your giant, neon, tech-heavy cities and humble villages and meadows, full of NPCs rich in dialogue options and collectible notes chock full of lore.
Just make sure that the corners of your world have a few empty ruins, the occasional broke statue or ruined village for me to wander through, achieving nothing.
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