Having been playing mostly Skyrim for the past several days (with brief detours into LOTRO and a weekend beta for some other upcoming MMO for the heck of it), I find myself converted as a believer in the type of single-player world Mr. Randomessa has been trying to sell me on for years. I knew buying that copy of Oblivion for him would pay off someday.
Whether it’s because the technology has finally been able to catch up to the graphic quality I expect and envision in a fantasy world, with years of improvements on previous Elder Scrolls incarnations like viable 3rd person view and NPCs that don’t trigger my uncanny valley horror reflex, or some other factor, I don’t know. All I know is that Skyrim is the first single-player game I’ve truly enjoyed enough not to quit before the end of the first act.
So it’s the case that I enjoy the sandbox elements of Skyrim, the removal of rails, the ability to go spelunking without a care that I might run into an invisible wall, or that I can’t leave a town until I’ve sufficiently pleased enough inhabitants to obtain passage elsewhere. But I also enjoy the elements of convenience; that when someone mentions a town to me, it appears as a landmark on my map, and that once I’ve traveled there in person I can hop back at any time. I like that I can learn my skills by using my weapons, or I can find someone who excels at that ability and pay for them to train me.
I know that there are elements of these features in previous Elder Scrolls incarnations, but in the wistful talk of some gamers who would love to see something like Skyrim translated into MMO form, some of these, such as fast travel, are the kinds of features that would be shouted down on any gaming forum. I commented on my love of Skyrim’s fast travel on Keen’s blog, only somewhat facetiously, but it did get me thinking about the ways in which Skyrim has only served to make me more excited about Guild Wars 2.
Everyone acknowledges that GW2 is a themepark MMO, not a sandbox. Some have helpfully offered the term “sandpark” to describe the ways in which ArenaNet has blurred the edges of what we have come to think of as “themepark” play. Yet what people generally think of as sandbox when it comes to MMOs is far removed from what I experience in Skyrim. It sometimes seems to me that when people want an MMO to be more like a sandbox they want it to be more obtuse, explain less to the player, remove elements of convenience as though these are what make a game a themepark. Yet I keep seeing features in Skyrim that remind me of my time playing Guild Wars 2′s demo.
In Skyrim, huge text floats over my head when I discover a new location or obtain or complete a quest. I can track every single quest objective in my journal all at the same time. That I can choose which to complete, and in which order, is merely icing on the cake; I always know exactly where I can go to get something done, while still retaining the freedom to veer off and do something else entirely.
In my demo experience of Guild Wars 2, the UI is more prominent, with an event log keeping score in the corner of the screen. However, I rarely found myself having to talk to an NPC to contribute in some way to completing a task (although I could if I wanted to). As in Skyrim, sometimes I merely followed the shouts of NPCs to a place where something big was happening; more than once I just had to follow the smoke to a fire.
Is there a main storyline to Guild Wars 2? Yes, as there is in Skyrim. But do I have to do it at once, or even at all? As with Skyrim, the answer is no. I can ignore that green diamond as easily as the quest marker in Skyrim, and simply fill my roster with “Miscellaneous” (in Skyrim), or pick up eggs and place them in trees to please the Raven Spirit (in GW2)… and incidentally, when a dragon in Skyrim landed, breathing fire, I pummeled it with magic and sword alongside several screaming NPCs, and was reminded of doing the same in Guild Wars 2 at PAX Prime.
Scouts in GW2 serve the same purpose as that random person you meet in Skyrim’s towns who “tell you more about” the inhabitants, unlocking the location of the mill, the market, the nearby farms, and the taverns so that you can talk to and help the inhabitants there. It’s just that GW2 circles those spots on the map for you and dots them with a heart. Even features such as learning skills based on weapon and magic use are features that ArenaNet has implemented in GW2 and “feel” similar to the way in which I get better at one-handed sword use in Skyrim.
I “learned” how to make specific alchemical potions by combining “optional, optional, and optional” in a similar manner to how we have seen crafting demonstrated in Guild Wars 2 as well.
I wish that rather than hard terms such as “themepark”, “sandbox,” or even “sandpark” we could recognize that such games run on more of a continuum. When we speak of sandbox MMOs providing player freedom, we are so often only referring to freedom to create content (which is not a bad thing depending on whom you ask and what the content is) but not freedom to explore existing content, which is what I happen to be much more interested in. Guild Wars 2 might not provide much of the former outside the WvWvW realm of the Mists, but in my opinion it does offer plenty of the latter, in a manner surprisingly similar to that of “vanilla” – sans mods – Skyrim.