Saturday, April 21, 2012

Boats vs Space Boats vs Pirates

I’ve always had an embarrassing thing for games about boats. It has a connection to the books I read when I was a kid. I read a number of the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome, while sitting by the ocean at my grandparents’ house. That’s a good experience. My stepfather also read the Aubrey-Maturin books by Patrick O’Brian and recanted all the stories of the horror of grapeshot and mealworms in the biscuits. I’m not sure which I find more frightening.

I remember playing a lot of Sid Meier’s Pirates as a kid, and a whole lot of KOEI's Uncharted Waters series (the two first games--that is, being the only ones translated into english). I even fell into the trap of trying to play some free-to-play Korean online game about being a naval person (it wasn’t very good). Furthermore, the one and only week I played World of Warcraft was spent almost entirely in the water as I skirted the continents and saw just how far I could get with my character through the world using the night elf powers of invisibility (the answer is pretty far). But even that fun wore thin pretty quickly after the novelty wore off of being the only trial-levelled night elf in the human starting zone on the other side of the world from my own.

For some reason the myriad space exploration, trading, and combat games based on Elite fail to sustain my interest, despite having virtually identical mechanics to the Uncharted Waters games of my adoration. I will still play them, but feel that guilty grime afterward of time wasted pretending to be in a spaceship, instead of the satisfied thrill I have upon buying a whole lot of silk in Istanbul and then sailing down the Nile because I can, before starving to death in Ethiopia, reloading my save, trying to sail around Greenland and to Newfoundland, before starving to death again, and then turning it off, all warm and fuzzy and tired, and responsible for a good number of crew deaths. Space sims commonly deprive the player of crew management, maybe this is their downfall? Or maybe it is the lack of that feeling of being at mercy of the winds, rounding the cape of africa?

Or more likely, it’s for the same reason that playing the original version of the board game Risk, set on our very own earth, is infinitely more compelling than playing one of the versions set in space, or on Middle-Earth; and the same reason that Civilization continues to include an ever popular map to play on, which is an approximation of, again, our own earth.

I haven’t a connection to the journey to Alpha Centauri, because we haven’t gone there yet. It’s a part of the narrative of human culture as a hypothetical, not as a collective memory, as for instance, sailing across an ocean is. When I watch my little boat sailing across a screen, I remember the salty air, and the wind in my ears. I taste stale hardtack. I smell sweat of a hundred crewmates.

...I remember why I’d rather play a game made from this experience, and why I haven’t signed up for the navy.

Every year that goes by I legitimately mourn that there aren’t more games about boats released. Why weren’t the later games in KOEI’s Uncharted Waters series of naval rpgs ever released? Why does every re-release of Sid Meier’s Pirates have to be exactly the same game? Why aren’t more developers trying to push the naval genre forward? The answer must be that not enough people care. But I do. And I must find relief that the ones that do exist, no matter how imperfect, at least do scratch that junkie’s itch.

Anyway, go play Sid Meier’s Pirates (just released for iPhone at 3.99) and cry with me. It’s not fantastic; but it’s kind of the best we’ve got.

My rating
I could:
A. Crush this game with the back of a spoon and snort it.
B. Take it.
C. Leave it.

PS. (in Uncharted Waters news)

In research for this entry, I’ve come to be aware that they DID finally localize Uncharted Waters Online for English players. This is a dangerous realization. Tortuga, here I come!

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