Gameological recently kicked off a new feature that will focus on the “empty spaces” in games. I highly recommend reading at least the intro to their first piece, which does a great job at explaining this aspect of video games that’s fairly unique. Unlike a movie, TV show, or music album, which moves ahead at a deliberate pace determined by its creator, many games give the player agency to determine where they will go, how they will spend their time, and what they will see. In a few rare, delightful cases, you can come to enjoy simply spending time in a corner of the world: not advancing the plot or deepening your understanding of another character, but finding a deep sense of restfulness that you can inhabit and share with your character for as long as you like.
Honestly, that’s one of the most memorable aspects of the Elder Scrolls games for me. A few years after I finish each game, I’ve forgotten the majority of the plot, but the sense of space and quiet continues to linger with me. I remember traveling through Cyrodil in Oblivion, seeing a mountain far off in the distance, and thinking, “Huh, that looks cool.” Then I hopped on my horse, and rode in real-time towards that mountain, watching it slowly grow closer and closer. I rode as far up the paths as I could, then dismounted and worked up the rocky crag to the very peak, where I could turn around and look down over the incredible valley below, including the spot where I had first spontaneously decided to embark on this journey. Not a quest: there was nothing important up here, no notes in my journal telling me to come here, no experience rewarded for making it all the way. The beauty of the surroundings was its own reward. It’s natural in these games to always rush ahead, trying to cut down on the To-Do list in your journal, but here I waited for many minutes in real-time, watching as the sun slowly finished its arc across the sky, and set in a glorious wash of purple and orange over the horizon, as Cyrodil quietly and gracefully embraced twilight.
Empty spaces have grown bigger and more detailed in recent years, but I’ve long enjoyed them. One of the earliest spaces I can remember that probably fits the bill is Erana’s Peace from the original Hero’s Quest (later Quest for Glory). Much of that game felt very dangerous: the town was safe, but whenever you ventured into the woods you risked being ambushed by goblins, or brigands, or worse. A few unique locations in the woods helped advance the plot and introduced new characters, but usually held their own hazards as well. The game also featured a day/night cycle, and if you didn’t pay close attention to the light, you could get into trouble: the town gates shut after the sun sets, and if you get tired and try to sleep outside the safety of town, the night gaunts will get ya and you’ll immediately die.
Erana’s Peace was notable as the single spot outside of town where you could safely sleep. Aside from this, it didn’t have much connection to the game, but there was a mystique around it that fascinated me. You hear a few whispered stories about Erana, and the good she did for the valley, but while you continue to benefit from her grace you know so little about her. Perhaps most importantly, Erana’s Peace had a unique theme, composed by the terrific Mark Seibert, that I never, ever got tired of hearing. Even when I didn’t need to worry about the night gaunts, if I was in the neighborhood I would always try to drop by Erana’s Peace, where I could eat fruit from the tree, sleep on the grass, and enjoy the music and beauty of the valley. Eventually I would need to leave and challenge the evils confronting the valley, but I treasured the time I could spend there.
Some other empty spaces that come to mind include:
- Practically all of Britannia in the Ultima series. Even more so than the Elder Scrolls games, Ultima was a fantastic space for free-form exploration and roaming, or just chilling out. You could spend a day harvesting wheat in the fields that you would later bake into bread; or sit and watch a play being performed about the exploits of the Avatar; or sit in the tavern in Jhelom and enjoy the good-natured brawl that breaks out every night; or climb into a hot air balloon and just let the wind blow you around. Most of the land was just wilderness, though, and I found walking through Britannia an oddly meditative experience, to the point where I tended to resist using moonstones except in times of danger.
- Moving to the real world, the modern Grand Theft Auto games have shared a similar dedication to world-building, and each of their cities are crammed with interesting, engaging spaces that are totally disconnected from the plot. Mount Chiliad is a HUGE location, and could take hours to fully explore, but it’s a lot of fun to just stand at the top and gaze down at all the lands below. Similarly, I remember being shocked at the end of GTA IV where you end up on their equivalent of Governor's Island: I hadn’t realized that it even existed, and had never gone there before, so I ended up walking around in bemusement, watching the crowds of tourists chattering as they explored it by my side. After the heaviness of the game preceding it, it was a surprisingly welcome respite.
- And, projecting into the future, the Fallout games have done some terrific work with the eerie, deserted atmosphere of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Everywhere you go, you see the relics of a much busier time: freeway overpasses, now torn in half and gaping over a river; road-side tourist traps that haven't seen an automobile for over a century; enormous city libraries with every volume burned; and everywhere you go, discarded soda bottles, snack cakes, and cigarettes. The landscapes in Bethesda's Tamriel are empty because they haven't been developed yet, so there's a sense of optimism amidst the danger they pose. The landscapes in Bethesda's Fallout are empty because they were destroyed, and you are constantly reminded of the fact that they used to be teeming with life. This lends a constant melancholy to the series, and is one of the best examples of the dichotomous tension it builds between the vigorous, upbeat, cheerful optimism of the past and the grim, dark, hopeless reality of your present.
- The house in Final Fantasy VII. VII was an RPG pioneer in many different ways: it introduced romances several years before BioWare’s pioneering BG2, and it’s also the earliest game I know of that introduced the idea of offering real-estate as an end-game money sink. Usually, late in an RPG, you’ve already bought or acquired the best weapons, spells, etc.; but the enemies you’re killing now are giving you more money than ever before, and it can be annoying to build up a large bank account with nothing to spend it on. So, clever games will give you one or more absurdly expensive options to buy a house or other property. There’s little or no in-game benefit to owning this, so players don’t feel compelled to grind for it; but it’s also unique and cool enough to feel worth saving up and spending money on. Anyways, in VII you could buy your own resort villa for the staggering price of 300,000 gil. Once purchased, you can walk in, sit down, put your feet up, and say, “This is MY house!” Useless, but oddly comforting. I would sometimes leave Cloud here resting while I took my own break to use the toilet.
- ICO. ICO actually might be the best example of the sort of empty spaces Gameological is talking about: a vast castle, marked by an ominous history, but isolated and practically deserted. Much like the puzzles in an earlier generation of adventure games, you’re invited to explore and progress at your own pace, without flashing arrows popping up on the screen directing you to the solution. (Yorda might occasionally point at something she thinks is interesting, but is much more likely to play with the birds or stare at her reflection in the water.) It's also yet another beautiful space; even though your ultimate goal is to escape, it's easy to forget that while walking through the grass under dappled shade while a windmill creaks in the distance.
- This probably doesn't count, but when I was younger, I would continue playing Civilization games after I had conquered the world. All my enemies vanquished, I had now united all of Earth's various tribes under my benign reign, and, freed from worry of backstabbing rivals, I could turn the game into a kind of large-scale version of Sim City: planning where I would plant my next outposts, how to grow my population, what buildings to construct, the amount of care to show for the natural world. But, unlike Sim City, the memory of conflict remained fresh in my mind, making me appreciate the calm planet much more than I would if I'd never faced any opponents from the start.