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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Trip: Exploration and Discovery

When I was a kid, every place I came to was an experience waiting to be had. And I'm not saying that an experience could be had in it- the place was the experience.

Take our old shul in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. There was this very little room with lots of coats hanging in it, and we used to play hide-and-seek around there. Now, an adult looking at this situation might say that I was hiding in the coat closet because we were playing hide-and-seek, but he'd have it backwards- I was playing hide-and-seek so that I'd get to hide in the coat closet. And when I ran in the hallways, I wasn't just using the hallways for running. I was enjoying that hallway! See, hallways are long, so they're best appreciated by running. Kids are connoisseurs for such things.

The hallway -which, along with the coat closet, was on the bottom floor- looped around a big room, with little rooms all around the edge. The big room was a place I only went in on Yom Kippur for davening. (At other times, that boring activity took place upstairs.) The rest of the year, I didn't go in there, which give it a bit of mystique. The little rooms I darted in and out of, which satisfyingly gave the impression of their tangential nature.

But there comes a certain time in a person's life when a room becomes just a room, when a hallway is only notable for leading you to where you're going, where a closet is no longer a place to hide but only a place to hang coats. And I am ashamed to say that I've passed that point.

That is what I learned on the second Shabbat, when we went back to the shul of my childhood. It was not, as the cliché goes, "smaller than I remembered". In fact, the rooms were exactly as I remembered them. But they were just rooms. I was on the other side of that big room now, the side which now hosts a second minyan. It was a room to daven in, nothing more. There was nothing left to discover except that the room wasn't any prettier than it absolutely had to be. The building had shrunk metaphorically; it had lost its magic.

This deterioration of spirit can't be helped, because it is tied to other socially assigned responsibilities. It is a social necessity to eventually see past what something is to what it is for - the rules of each and every social setting must be understood and obeyed. It is a social obligation to abandon abstraction in favor of practicality. It would be childish to see inherent value in architecture, or in streets and forests and the rest of the world for that matter. Focusing on them is a waste of time. A good adult should concern himself only with the question: "How efficiently does this serve my goals?"

Still, the change has left a big hole in my life. I fill that hole with exploration-driven games- namely, Metroid Prime and Myst. They provide me with worlds detached from social context, in which it is perfectly acceptable to walk around beautiful areas without having anything specific to do in them. Metroid Prime's world of Tallon IV is exquisitely designed, and offers platforming with which I can appreciate the world design. Because if there is a small platform, and a larger platform next to it, the proper way to appreciate that design is by jumping from one to the next, no? We gamers are connoisseurs for such things.

Unfortunately, a few remnants of the Real World find their way into both series. They would have to. If you think about it, there's something odd about a game serving the practical goal of an escape from practicality. And skipping past the cute little paradox of it all, the real problem in practice is who would want such a game? A kid won't need to look for a socially-accepted outlet for socially-unacceptable indulgence, because he wouldn't care about what's socially acceptable. (And how I envy him!) But an adult will have trained himself not to care about self-indulgence! The only people who would want such a game are those who understand practicality but don't want to live by it, those who indulge in art but need to fit into society regardless. In other words, people like me. But people like me are not numerous enough to pay for a game's development.

So compromises are made. Metroid includes a lot of action, and Myst includes a lot of puzzles. I can handle that. Action and puzzles aren't bad. And they are marketed promoting these as their selling points, along with stories which justify the exploration. That way, they can be sold to people who will have no appreciation for the exploration, who will play the games only so that they can beat them. These games are not made for them, but they would not be made without them.

All three subordinate game elements can be a bit of a nuisance at times, but I put up with them because I love to explore. I love the magic of the unknown, and how those foreign and wondrous lands can be integrated into my world-view with just a little repetition and backtracking. After a few times passing through a certain area of Tallon IV, I get to know it so well I don't need a map anymore. It becomes as real to me as any place I've ever been to in the Real World, and more real than most, because this place I've been allowed to experience.

There are very few places in the Real World I've had the privilege to get to know so well. For that matter, there are very few places I'd want to get to know, thanks to society's obsession with practicality. Most places are exactly the same, most places are boring. But I'm always looking for a place that can be different, a place that can not only be an experience in itself, but a good one. And when I find such an opportunity, I make the most of it. I once had a "Metroid moment" in Eilat, exploring by myself (on foot, of course) to find the pizza place. That was very satisfying. And possibly my fondest memories of the seventh grade -indeed, some of the fondest memories of my life- were exploring the big campus of Kiryat No'ar with Tuvia, filled with diverse and interestingly-placed buildings. And you'd better believe we experienced those buildings from every angle. We climbed roofs, scaled walls, hid in giant bushes, you name it.

Some of my family members, seeing me in areas I've been to a few times, think I have an excellent sense of direction. They're wrong. I have a terrible sense of direction. But when I find a good area, I leap at the opportunity to explore it, and so when I return to that area, it's almost like I'm coming home. Discovering an area isn't just short-term entertainment. It gives you a sense of ownership over that area, a sense that can last a good long time. Not literal ownership, mind you- I'm referring to how it implants itself in your memory so well that you could find your way through it in your sleep. It's satisfying in a way that you can't really understand unless you've done a fair amount of exploring yourself.

Why can't such experiences be more common in the Real World? I blame it on whatever idiot decided that cars, rather than people, deserved 80% of the road. The moron who dictated that these ugly, stinky metal machines were more entitled to inherit the world than humans. Cars don't explore. Cars efficiently move from point A to point B. That's a chore, not a process of discovery. The awkwardness and rigidness of their mechanical movement makes it impossible to appreciate the nuances of the world around you. On top of that, all the rules of driving distract you further, making it such a practical mishmash of little details to pay attention to that you're barely allowed to see where you are. And you're never alone on the road. Exploring is a personal experience, but you're never able to go in your own direction. There are cars in front of you, and cars in back of you, and cars to your side. So what should be a single-player experience is completely buried under the weight of this massively-multiplayer environment.

And the 20% of the road that's left? That stinks too. The sidewalk is just about the most simplistic piece of world design I can imagine. And it's all over the place. I would have no problem with a sidewalk placed here and there. There's nothing specifically wrong with them, since there's nothing to them. But a world with so many of these straight and boring stretches that its identity is defined by them? That's a pretty pathetic little world. Then add in the smell and noise of the cars, and maybe a dog doo every so often, just to make the picture complete.
Where are the cliffs to climb?
Where are the moving platforms?
Where are the tiny tunnels?
Where are the dangerous shortcuts?
Where are the gates dividing areas?
Where are the multi-level underground mazes?
Where are the above-ground skyways?
Where are the rooftop passageways?
Where are the colors?
Where are the sounds
And the sights
And the smells
And the whole experience?

Without diversity in world design, there's nothing to discover. And without the promise of discovery, there's no opportunity to explore.

It may be too late to save the streets, but thankfully there are still houses to fall back on. It is socially acceptable, though not socially agreeable, to have an interesting house. After all, if it's your house, you can do whatever you want with it. You can put the main entrance on the roof, or make the half-built attic into a bedroom, or face a couch to a window so you can watch the rain comfortably.

On the other hand, a house doesn't need to be unique to be good. For instance, my grandparents' house is perfectly socially acceptable, and yet it still excites me to be in it. One reason is that there's just a lot to discover in it. My father and his brothers lived in that house once, and all their old things are there waiting to be found. As such, the whole house is partially a way to escape into another time, with working 8-Track players and a Mattel Intellivision. I think there's even an Apple II lying around somewhere. And even better than all that is the box, sitting somewhere in the house, of my father's old Mad Magazine collection. These are issues from back in the 60's, back when the magazine was hysterically funny.

It might seem odd that I'd associate the house with these little gems, but every world designer knows that the easiest recipe for exploratory magic is a good treasure hunt. The promise that you might always find a new treasure around the corner -be it one of Metroid's power-ups, Myst's book pages or Eilat's pizza- raises the entire experience to a new level. And I must emphasize that actually getting that treasure is not the essence here- the promise is. I never found the box of Mad treasures, but it enhanced my time there to know that it was there for the taking.

Even beyond all that, though, it's a great house. Some of the rooms have truly striking appearances, and even the smell of each room is distinctive. When I said that I wished I could stay in that house, someone said I'd get bored of it quickly. But that person was an adult, and he was wrong.

When I was a kid, every house and every street seemed like an experience waiting to be had. Now that I'm older, the world has gotten a lot less magical. But every now and then, I'm reminded that there are still worlds worth discovering.



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