Libraries, games and books

There’s no need for physical media any more, not really, not unless it is a beautiful and delightful object that requires physical existence in order to truly accomplish what it sets out to do.

I am thousands of miles away from my McSweeney’s quarterlies, my copies of the Codex Seraphinianus and House of Leaves, but I kept them, when we moved; they live in boxes in my parents’ spare wardrobe along with the textbooks and miscellany I couldn’t bear to get rid of. Since we landed I’ve bought three books: The Norton Anthology of Poetry, a Bible-sized chunk of literature that I pick up maybe every week or so for a hit; a field guide to Australian birds, because it helped me feel less like an alien if I could identify the stuff in the sky here; and S., a gorgeous full-colour library book full of fake marginalia and individually-produced inserts. A formal experiment of the sort I can’t devour enough of.

I can’t remember the last time I bought a physical copy of a game for the PC. Digital downloads have supplanted physical games for the PC, and in doing so they’ve freed a vast multitude of new, small, interesting games from the strange tyranny of the physical product. (Except possibly in Australia, where you can actually buy things like The Basement Collection on disk, presumably because the internet here runs about the same speed as a smoke signal.)

Now Steam sales and Kickstarters have turned my PC gaming library into the same sort of collection as the bookshelves I tore up before we moved to Australia. It’s loosely organised by genre and by ‘feel’, in a way that’s intuitive to me but makes little to no sense otherwise. Its construction and contents reflect a lot about me; the things I’ve chosen to dedicate time to, the games I want close at hand for replaying.

It’s also full of games I probably won’t play to completion, in much the same way as the Shelf of Shame I used to keep my unread books on. For most of those games it doesn’t matter – the concept of ‘completion’ is pretty fuzzy on games without linear narrative – but there are more that I haven’t started than I feel entirely comfortable with.

That never stops me from buying more. It reminds me in some ways of the glory days of the PS2, when publishers produced the most astonishing array of strange and wonderful (and often utterly awful) games, and you could pick them up relatively cheaply knowing you would get a flawed but often interesting experience. (The collection of interesting PS2 games is also in London; the bad ones we traded in, so some other poor sucker has the joy of playing Air Rescue Rangers and America’s Top Ten Most Wanted now.)

I’m also now part of the friends and family sharing system, which means I tend towards buying games that I might have been on the fence about, so I can share them with others who will probably get as much from them as I will. But it also means my Steam library has an extra 200 or so games in it that I didn’t put there, that don’t fit the system. Like merging books with housemates or lovers whose tastes overlap but don’t entirely cohere. I had to make a new category for games I don’t want to play – not the same as games I haven’t played yet but will, one day. Games I just don’t want.

But that sharing is a joy, and not just because we don’t need to pay twice for two people who share the same computer to play the same game. It’s joyous because I get to explore and discover games I’d never have thought to try, and because I also get to explore someone else’s library, the way I used to wander through bookshelves when I visited friends. It’s joyous because that library even in its barest form – as a list of names without categorisation – is a sort of access to someone’s identity, a carefully chosen stack of media that says, at the very least: this is how I like to spend my time.

Media consumption, especially conspicuously, is a way of constructing identity; it follows then that Steam sales are cheap ways of being people.

The PAX diversity lounge vs the benefit of the doubt

According to an Indiestatik report on some leaked documents today, PAX is introducing a special “Roll for Diversity hub and lounge” at events – a place “to provide a resource hub for PAX attendees in relation to marginalized communities within the gaming audience”. According to the post, “It will be a hub for communication, networking and, hopefully, an increased understanding of issues facing these communities every day and the promotion of a tolerant, safe space within PAX.” Which is… interesting.

From the post:

Despite the proposal documents mentioning these spaces to be part of a continued effort “to provide a safe and welcoming environment,” in labeling an entire, separate little village as the “diverse” space, I think you’re running into a lot of potential problems, even if the experience is supposed to be focused on non-judgmental learning. For instance, why can’t the entire PAX space be explicitly marked as a safe space? Why does it appear that this is going to be the only area where someone might not feel threatened because of their ‘biological gender?’

There are the added concerns about the “diversity specialists” on hand to teach people about diversity in the gaming industry. Who are they, and who is vetting them? Why have these individuals been chosen to specifically represent queer gamers or woman gamers, or gamers of color? And why does the promotional registration policy for the diversity lounge seem so draconian?

(Quick disclaimer: I’ve not been able to verify this story myself, so I’m relying on Indiestatik’s source & reporting for the facts here. I don’t have any reason to doubt them. If that changes, I’ll update this post.)

The diversity lounge isn’t just one tone-deaf response to the need to build an inclusive space and a diverse community at PAX – although it is remarkably tone-deaf, given that presumably one of the things this space will be safe from is the remarks of one of the company’s founders. The issue isn’t just that hiving diversity and safety off into a small space is strange when you control the rest of the space and could, presumably, decide to make it all safe and all inclusive. It’s not just one iffy approach that needs a bit of work. The problem is the context.

The context is that, since the start of the dickwolves stuff, there have been – what, five? six? – let’s say, a lot of incidents where Penny Arcade or at least one of its founders have gone through this cycle. It goes like this: do something dodgy, get called out, apologise (sometimes with a greater degree of sincerity than others). There’s an optional fourth step where they take back the apology or go on to do something else equally dodgy that demonstrates none of the criticism’s been taken on board.

And those are just the things they’ve been called out on – at some point presumably someone with some diversity training will take them up on their persistent use of “crazy-person level of attention to detail” in their job posts, for instance, but while that level of casual cluelessness remains on show it’s pretty much impossible to take their organisational approach to inclusivity very seriously.

This isn’t just one thing. It’s a pattern of behaviour – a hypocritical one that seeks the right to continue to do stupid, harmful stuff under a consumer-friendly cloak of vague respectability, as though the word “sorry” means more than not doing it again. Right now, none of PAX’s critics are going to take a half-hearted, tone-deaf “diversity lounge” as anything other than a hilariously bad joke at best and a disaster waiting to happen at worst. Even if it’s well intentioned. Because that’s what so many of their other half-hearted, tone-deaf approaches to diversity have turned out to be.

For this to work the way it needs to work, for it to be a positive space that can provide practical benefits for people traditionally excluded by events like PAX, it needs a lot of goodwill from the same people who’ve been hurt by PAX in the past – the devs, the game designers, the public speakers, those with personal knowledge and professional expertise, the people who’ve been put off and dismissed in public by the event’s founders.  The people who say they won’t be there at all, never mind corralled in a small safe space.

PAX needs to prove that it’s broken the pattern. It needs the benefit of the doubt. The problem is that Penny Arcade has never once proved that it deserves it.

Notes on Papers, Please

Papers, Please

1. Papers, Please is a much easier game to slip into than Cart Life even though they’re both tackling Big Non-fun Things. I found the feedback loop much more rewarding and engaging – I’ve not yet got much beyond day 3 in Cart Life despite repeated attempts, because I’m not finding the flow within it. Maybe that’s the point, and Cart Life is supposed to be boring to play as well as simulating a boring experience. Maybe I just haven’t hit the sweet spot with it yet. But Papers, Please is doing something much more engaging for me.

2. A chunk of that is the way the game’s designed to tap skills I know I have. I am reasonably good at this game. I’m not sure you’re meant to be good at this game. I’m not sure that’s the point. I’m also not sure it’s meant to be fun, but I’ve gone back to it several times, so there’s definitely something satisfying going on here.

3. When I had a friend, the security guard outlined in green, I was terrified that a bomber or a gunman would kill him. It made me worse at the job. Whenever I had someone to help I was slower and more thorough because I was scared of letting them down, these meagre human connections. By contrast, when I was concentrating hardest on the tasks in hand, I stopped caring about any of the other characters.

4. Everyone has an agenda. Sometimes they’re incredibly clear what that agenda is; sometimes it’s obscured. Sometimes you get taken in. There is nothing in the game more bitter than going out of your way, risking financial or other punishments, for the sake of a little human kindness, and then having that thrown back in your face. Papers, Please is very good at making you quickly feel very bitter. I hated the inspector. I hated the people who abused me. I hated the journalists, in particular.

5. This is a game I would recommend for journalists to play. If you want good examples of how interactivity illuminates systems in a way that words, images, video and audio just can’t, this is right up there with the best. It is a game I would suggest for journalism courses, not for its content so much as for its methods. It is extremely powerful in what it conveys, with a very clear internal rhetoric, and I can easily imagine reskins that would make it a vehicle for understanding, say, border control in North Korea.

6. That said, some of the power behind the game’s EZIC storyline is that it is not realistic, at all; it reads better as the desperate power fantasy of a powerless official struggling to find meaning in what they’re doing. It has the qualities of delusion: shadowy figures, cryptic messages, strange codes. An ending in which things are just magically better, somehow. I was almost expecting it to turn out to be a test, a front for the secret police. Its implausibility only serves to point up the grinding cruelty of the situation you find yourself in.

7. And it is grinding, too, it is awful. The game distracts you from the humanity of what you’re doing by giving you puzzles to solve. Simple, absorbing tasks against the clock, requiring concentration and attention to detail. No time for empathy. No time to feel bad for the people you don’t let through, only just time to kick yourself for letting through one or two who bring your totals down. Like the gorilla at the basketball game, no spare mental bandwidth to take into account the little human gestures people make as they come through the checkpoint. Just when you are getting the hang of it, being able to rely on your memory and instincts, the game complicates itself. Before long you are a monster.

8. The process of checking someone’s documents manipulates the pacing in an enormously clever and carefully judged way. The frantic checking makes the imposed pauses problems to be overcome – you are impatient, annoyed at the time it takes for a fingerprint slip to print or a scan to be undergone. But you are also stopped in that moment, and it gives you seconds where you become suddenly, uncomfortably aware of the task you’re engaged in. It breaks flow. The scans, in particular – suddenly the player’s perspective shifts a little and you realise, as the scan prints, that this is a horribly degrading and largely meaningless thing. Then you flip the image, spot the package of drugs, and hit the detain or deny button, but you have had that moment of connection with your actions and it is deeply uncomfortable. Especially when you are checking gender.

9. I couldn’t play it through without doing the EZIC tasks. There is an ending for just doing your job, and I couldn’t get to it, knowing there was no hope.

In defence of ‘gamer’

Simon Parkin in the New Statesman has an excellent take on the ways gamer culture strikes out at those outside it, and the way homogenous stereotypes reinforce that behaviour – it’s a great piece, and you should definitely read it, but the headline is wrong. It says “If you love games, you should refuse to be called a gamer.” But I love games. I’m a gamer. I’m a player too. And the good guys don’t get to do boundary policing and gatekeeping any more than the bad guys do.

(To be clear I don’t think Simon’s advocating this position – his point is that this is not a homogenous community, that people who play games aren’t just one thing, and I am 100% with him on that score.)

A friend of mine did some research looking at women who play games, their experiences of games and game culture, and found that a great deal of the people who responded to her survey would not define themselves as gamers, in part because of the stereotype and the hostility they felt from the community. I don’t look like the stereotype, so I can’t be one – a similar issue to the one facing feminism, where the strawfeminist is assumed to be the definition of feminism. Except that in gaming the stereotype is celebrated, rather than criticised on all sides.

Gamer as an identity isn’t going to disappear. It’s not limited to videogames (though lots of videogamers seem to think it is). It’s not limited to those who play vs those who don’t play. It’s a useful label, something that people bond over and around – and that’s not limited to dudebros playing CoD. It applies to me playing PC games, and tabletop RPGs, and board games, and live games, and finding commonality with all those gamer communities. It implies a shared vocabulary and a shared set of interests, but it’s also big enough these days to accommodate a huge number of overlapping sub-communities. And one of those – in fact, several of those – are mine.

Gaming has a huge identity problem. Many gamers see gaming as an integral part of their identity, and one of the messier results of that is that many people still perceive criticism of the games they like as criticism of them as people. That leads to all sorts of awfulness – backlash against those who are discriminated against in games and who dare to speak out, critics being attacked for doing valuable work. Some groups of gamers behave more like fandom than most of fandom does – ingroup/outgroup policing, jostling for status, assuming an outsider position, banding together against perceived adversaries. None of that is healthy or particularly sensible given the spread of the hobby.

But that doesn’t mean that’s all the label is. That headline falls into the trap that the article laments: assuming gamers are homogenous, and that the identity itself holds no value. It holds value for me: it’s been important in fostering a sense of togetherness, in creating shared spaces where I feel like I belong, diverse spaces that include other gamer women and other queer gamers. And many of us fought to be called gamers, used that label in public in spite of hostility, and we would not have done that or continue to do that if it wasn’t a valuable and useful thing.

I can criticise the actions of others who identify as gamers while also calling myself a gamer. I can be proud to be part of a community that makes Journey and Gone Home and Dys4ia and all those other games. I can be proud of being part of a community that’s – slowly but surely – getting broader, more accepting and more diverse, and I can fight against – not disown – the backlash against that process in my small corner of this culture.

Owning this identity helped me find friends on the other side of the world. It would be a shame to lose it.

Flow, realism and violence

Diagram of flow states
Challenge, skill and flow, via Wikimedia.

The fundamental problem with this New Yorker piece on the psychology of first person shooters is that the writer doesn’t really understand game design. Now, I’m all in favour of mainstream journalists writing positive articles about video games, but despite its positivity this piece makes some fundamental misunderstandings about the psychology of gaming and the way game design works.

It’s clear that the writer is searching for reasons for the incredible success of first-person shooters, but it ends up in some extremely strange places. For one thing, FPS games aren’t the majority of the market; while the CoD and Halo franchises are very popular, so are World of Warcraft, GTA, Assassin’s Creed, and so on. Even the Wikipedia list of bestselling games the article tries to link to lists Gran Turismo, God of War, Uncharted and Little Big Planet alongside FPS games in the Playstation 3 category. The premise that FPS games are somehow special, justified by the sales figures, just doesn’t stand up.

But the biggest problem is a fundamental misunderstanding of “flow”, and the mistaken belief that it’s somehow intrinsically linked to genre, rather than anything else:

What is it that has made this type of game such a success? It’s not simply the first-person perspective, the three-dimensionality, the violence, or the escape. These are features of many video games today. But the first-person shooter combines them in a distinct way: a virtual environment that maximizes a player’s potential to attain a state that the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow”—a condition of absolute presence and happiness.

Flow is not an intrinsic element of first-person games, nor of shooters. It’s not just presence and happiness: it’s concentration and absorption in a task, to the exclusion of all else.  It is often an intrinsic element of good games – perhaps that explains why Kane & Lynch didn’t have the same effect as Half Life 2 – but it’s also an intrinsic element of lots of other experiences.

I get it from working out knotty Javascript problems in Twine, sometimes, from reading fiction, and from doing my day job during massive breaking news stories. I work like crazy to make sure that every player in our live games gets it at least once during the experience, too, because that’s often the clearest mark of a genuinely fantastic game. Whether it’s digital or physical, FPS or MMO, whatever your genre or even form conventions are.

And because of that, I’ve got to quibble with the assertion that “The more realistic the game becomes…the easier it is to lose your own identity in it.” The best flow situations I’ve built myself have come when people forget they’re playing, sure, but that isn’t linked to realism or to shooting or even to a first-person perspective and a sense of control. You can get it from dancing stupidly to disco music, from fighting in slow motion, from matching 3 jewels of the same colours over and over again, from Solitaire.

Realism and violence are not necessary for good game design. And good game design is not an adequate explanation for their popularity.

Ludonarrative Discodance: how to be silly in public

Because if you want other people to look silly in public, you have to get them started somehow
Because if you want other people to look silly in public, you have to get them started somehow

Ludonarrative Discodance is a pun that got really, really out of hand. It’s also, somehow, a game we actually ran this weekend in Melbourne as part of the Playroom at This Is A Door. I’m eternally indebted to Pop Up Playground for the opportunity and the time and the wine involved in making that happen.

Grant’s already posted an excellent write-up that you should read if you want to fully understand (a) what on earth we did at the weekend and (b) why on earth he now has that moustache. (As of current writing, he still has the moustache. He has shaved the rest of his face, but not that bit. It’s possible he thinks I haven’t noticed.)

LD was a bit of a shot in the dark, a silly idea that got out of control, but it worked. The core of the game is performing a silly dance and, across a crowded room, seeing the person who’s performing your dance too – then running up to them, confirming it, and smiling broadly before running off to collect another card. It’s clubbing rendered down into shorthand: a breaking-down of boundaries, feeling more comfortable with our own bodies and the bodies of other people, a game of connections and performance and acceptance. People told me it recreated the poor impulse control of being drunk, too, which I like.

Despite the daftness of it, it is a game which lets you say – “Do you want to dance with me?” and for the answer to be yes more often than no. Which is pretty neat for a lot of people, including me, who are used to the opposite. And for it to be a safe question to ask, too.

The gist of the game is paired charades with dancing. Disco music plays and you dance, while also trying to find the other person doing the same dance as you. Round one is nice and easy: you have to act out disco moves – the hip thrust, the hand jive, the Uma-Thurman-in-pulp-fiction. Round two is harder – the lost keys, the high-noon shootout – while round three has you act out films like the Lion King while trying to find someone else crawling around, roaring, holding small lions up to the sunlight etc.

We didn’t get chance to do a full playtest before we ran in Melbourne, which meant the first few plays needed some tweaking. More disco admin staff, different balances of cards – having both Dungeons and Dragons and Lord of the Rings didn’t really work, for instance, but Star Wars and Pirates of the Caribbean worked perfectly as foils for each other to make the game a little harder. (Both involve a lot of waving swords around, which can also be mistaken for Harry Potter.) I’d like to run other versions, other editions, perhaps tailored to different crowds or different themes. But there’s something about disco that really, really works.

The Matrix, obviously
The Matrix, obviously

Fundamentally, the game’s about being silly in public, and being rewarded for it. The more exaggerated and daft you are, the better you’ll be at the game – if you hold back, you won’t score so many points. So it’s in your best interests to throw yourself into things and shed a few inhibitions in the process. Something about disco music just works for that, somehow; lots of us have mental images of Saturday Night Fever (though not the rape and drowning bit, obviously) and memories of school discos to use as touchstones for that kind of dancing. If you don’t, well, there are instructions on the cards.

It’s equal opportunity silliness: everyone looks as daft as you, so you might as well have fun with it. And it’s a good way to get people mixing and mingling, talking and laughing – you present your silliest, most overblown, daftest self and then someone else dances up to you and there’s a moment of recognition where you both grin.Often people would add little flourishes, dancing together for a moment before coming to hand in the cards – synchronised disco pointing, putting on Cinderella’s shoe, twirling towards the disco admin team in time to classical music no one else could hear.

My personal favourite card from this play was the dad-at-a-wedding. Everyone interpreted it differently, but it was surprising how recognisable it was. I got to see people’s joy as they worked out what was going on and got into the groove; actively encouraging people to dance badly is, it turns out, a great way to get them moving and laughing.

We played perhaps a dozen other games – eight shows in three days, two hours each, with Ludonarrative Discodance just a small part of the proceedings. Rainbow Running has a similar physicality, but it’s competitive in a broad way rather than collaborative, and it’s definitely not silly. Impossible Book Club is all about discussing a book that doesn’t exist, so it’s performative and intellectual and silly in a slightly different way. But my personal favourite from the weekend was The Ride, a game about slow-motion fighting and Valkyries.

Victory. Also Valkyrie.
Victory. Also Valkyrie.

You start with a cardboard axe or sword. You challenge an opponent from the other army. Then you battle in slow motion, not landing a blow until the Valkyries decide who should die. There’s smoke and dramatic music and shouting, and dramatic deaths on the floor. Then you do it again, but this time the dead fighters are spirits who can help out their living comrades, by helping them throw weapons or carrying them across the battlefield or repelling enemy attacks. Even if you lose, you get to lose in the most epic and glorious way possible, and then you get to help your fellow players to achieve even greater heights of epicness and glory.

It is a gorgeous game, absorbing, entertaining and delightful. It is beautifully, wonderfully silly, in a way everyone can get behind, because once again everyone is being silly, playful and physical, in public together at the same time. That’s something we don’t get to do as adults nearly often enough.

Ludonarrative Disco Dance in Melbourne this weekend

A bearded man in a bright pink wig that has three different disco-related light settings
Grant has acquired a tasteful and attractive costume for the game

Serious Business is premiering a new game this weekend at the all day playroom at This Is A Door, an excellent month-long festival of interesting games and play run by the Pop Up Players in Melbourne.

The game is called Ludonarrative Disco Dance. It’s possible we started with the name and then worked backwards until we had a decent concept. If it all works as well as we hope it does, we’ll be running the game in other places, cities and quite possibly continents in the next few months.

The playroom is happening at Theatre Works in St Kilda, and tickets are $20/25 from the Theatre Works website or on the door. If you’re in the city, please come along, say hi, and let us know what you think.

11 quick thoughts on the new Steam reviews

Steam reviews are a thing now, apparently.

Now it’s easy to see what other Steam users think about a product before you buy. With Steam Reviews, you can browse for reviews that others have found helpful, or write your own reviews for titles you’ve played on Steam

A few quick thoughts in no particular order:

  1. Valve is displaying the time you’ve spent on a particular game next to your review. That’s interesting; that suggests they might also use it as a ranking factor for your review. It certainly means people will judge your review as less helpful if you’ve spent less time in the game than others. For positive reviews maybe that makes some sense; for negative reviews maybe it doesn’t, so much, because I don’t need to play 20 hours of Duke Nukem Forever to know it’s awful, or more than 5 minutes of the PC port of Fez to know it’s unplayably crashy on my setup, for example.
  2. They’re also flagging up the number of things you’ve bought on Steam, even ahead of your Steam level (which is to some extent a proxy for money spent). That’s an even more interesting choice, because it is almost certainly going to affect how people see the review on a subconscious level.
  3. You have to launch the game via Steam in order to review it. So I can’t review some of the games I’ve played most, because I didn’t buy them on Steam. Platform lock-in. But I also can’t review games just for the sake of hating on them from a distance, which deals with some of the Metacritic & Amazon swarming problems.
  4. But what I can do, if I want to game this system, is launch the game once, leave it on overnight to gather Steam cards & game cred, and then review it. Whether anyone will care enough to actually do that is an open question at this point.
  5. The only ranking factor they specifically mention is time – ie more recent reviews will be visible on game pages – and that’s framed as a good thing for the devs. But there will be others – game time and helpfulness are the obvious ones, but Valve would be daft not to include things like friendship data, similarity of game libraries etc in personalising reviews for individual readers.
  6. They’re defaulting to post-moderation, removing or hiding things when flagged, and not giving devs the ability to hide things directly without moderator input. That makes some sense (hide all negative reviews won’t be a valid strategy) but is also potentially concerning (we don’t yet know how much moderator support they have, or the moderation guidelines by which they’re operating, or the speed with which they’ll respond, or… etc).
  7. This could be a serious Metacritic competitor, because of Steam’s metadata about who’s played what games for how long, which could tie into an authority system using upvotes and activity more generally…
  8. …but (at the moment) they’re not including a scoring system, just recommend vs not recommend. Thankfully. Any numerical system would be exactly as open to abuse as the current Metacritic system is, with all the existing issues about people only looking at the score when purchasing or devs’ pay/bonuses being dependent on numerical scores that are, let’s be honest here, based on spit and whimsy and nothing more.
  9. The language stuff – allowing users to review games in their own languages and search for reviews in particular languages – is great for users especially in areas underserved by games press. And potentially a nightmare for devs, if they can’t translate.
  10. Helpful vs non-helpful is a nice way to harness the middle bit of the 1:9:90 rule.
  11. Mutualisation is interesting. I wonder how many devs and users were clamouring for this feature.

ibis, fly!


I made a story game called ibis, fly! It’s about being an ibis, and not really fitting in, and simple pleasures. It has four possible endings and a (sort of) win condition, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Structurally it’s far simpler than Detritus, and it should only take you five minutes or so to play it through from beginning to end. If you have bug reports or feedback please let me know.

Play ibis, fly!

Morrowind and Miasmata: walking tours of fictional islands

Miasmata's map and compass
Miasmata’s map and compass

Played Miasmata today for the first time, and had some loose thoughts about islands and slowness and learning terrain in fictional landscapes. Morrowind is still one of my favourite games and the one that I know best, and every time I move house significantly I tend to fire it up out of some deep need for a familiar space. I didn’t notice I did this till the Sydney move, when I didn’t feel properly grounded till I’d managed to get the PC set up and then walk at starting-character speed from Seyda Neen to Balmora, for the thirtieth time or so.

Morrowind doesn’t have fast travel, or regenerating health or mana. Depending on your character choices at startup, you’ll start at a level where you have difficulty defeating even the weakest of enemies, and going up against bandits or other human attackers would be impossible. There are travel networks – boats, silt striders, the Mages Guild teleportation system – and some spells that will teleport you to the nearest shrine or temple. And one that lets you set a waypoint then port back to it.

That’s enough to let you navigate and move quickly between major cities, but most of the time the things you head out to do are in the wilderness, in the areas that those systems don’t reach.

That creates a world that demands time, exploration and slow discovery. If you want to experience all the different parts of the game you will have to walk the same paths many times, growing accustomed to the geography, finding shortcuts as you go. With no way to port back to town to pick up supplies then pop back to where you were, you have to plan your trips based on how remote your destination is, what supplies you might require, where you pass through on the way, which tasks you can do together to save travel time.

Your quests are not marked on any maps, so you find yourself leafing through journal pages to find the descriptions that will take you where you need to go. North-east of Vivec into the Daedric shrine Ald Sotha to find the flower Roland’s Tear growing on the east side. South past the Dwemer ruins and take the second road heading west to Malacath’s shrine.

Later Elder Scrolls games let you fast travel between landmarks, which promotes a completely different engagement with the landscape. Instead of carefully plotting your caving trip to make sure you can survive it, weighing up the wisdom of leaving your course for an unexpected dungeon, you can wander off-track however you like and take on new challenges knowing you can simply teleport back when you’re done. You find new locations not through landmarks and directions but through a marker on a minimap and then charging directly towards it, detouring to unlock new locations so you can teleport back next time and have a shorter distance to walk. You rarely walk the same path twice.

Let’s be clear: this is, for most people, a vastly less frustrating system; Morrowind now feels antiquated without fast travel, and Miasmata a little old-fashioned. But it has its drawbacks too. For one thing – despite its limitations, alchemy in Morrowind is a more satisfying skill than in later games. The gathering of ingredients is a natural part of travel: I am walking south of Balmora towards Hla Oad for a quest, so on the way there will be cornberries to make Restore Magicka potions and corkbulb root for Restore Health.With fast travel, gathering relies on serendipity and snapping up what’s there, and much of that synergy is lost.

I’m not too far along in Miasmata yet, but it shares a lot of design similarities with Morrowind in the way it slowly opens up deep knowledge of its landscapes to the player. Like Morrowind, it is an island, though a much smaller one. Islands are different metaphors to walled cities or vast plains: they’re exciting and exotic, sometimes dangerous and sometimes unexplored but always distinctly separate, finite and bounded spaces that seem knowable, understandable, if you put in enough time. Proteus takes advantage of this, as do GTA3 and Assassin’s Creed 4. On one hand it’s a simple way to gate locations and avoid invisible walls; on the other it’s a canny way of making self-contained worlds. Morrowind’s and Proteus’s are about uncovering, exploring and making known; Miasmata’s is also about those things, but it adds in being cut off, having no escape, being trapped.

Miasmata’s map is manual, and if you don’t know where you are – if you are in the woods with no landmarks visible – then you are lost. You can find maps that fill in blank spaces for you, but if you don’t have a map then you must start to triangulate your location using the landmarks you do know about to help you. Location in Miasmata (as in Morrowind, as in survival Minecraft, as in Dark Souls) is a resource, something that can be lost, something that requires significant player effort to maintain.

The game forces you to husband resources before you make foraging trips, plan your proposed routes carefully, make sure you can carry back everything you might find, think about timing to avoid being stuck in the woods at night with no light. So it’s sensible to keep to the paths, so you know where you are and where you are going. But your objectives, the flowers and plants that hold the cure for your mysterious plague, are generally off the beaten track. Leaving the path is a gamble you must make.

I learn cities by walking them. Two months after we moved to London I decided to walk all the Tube lines in segments as long as I could; tendonitis meant I only got about a third of the way through, but by that time I already felt much more like I owned the city. You can walk it, so it’s yours. You see the details, the shortcuts, the things you miss on subways (which are basically fast travel with really long loading times). You know the bones.

There’s a quest in Morrowind, a pilgrimage, in which you visit a priest in Vivec, the largest city in the far south of the map. You take a vow of silence, which prevents you from using any of the transport systems because you can’t speak to pay your fare, and you must travel to the Sanctus Shrine, at the absolute north edge of the map. There are some things you can do to make the journey shorter, using teleportation spells or spending significant time first to restore a semi-secret transportation network that doesn’t rely on speech. Given the choice, though, I would always rather walk.