Of Graph Paper and Quest Markers

Video games… the very term conjures up something different for each one of us.

For some, the wispy mists of the ‘80s fills our visions: Packman, Temple of Apshai, Pitfall. Crunchy pixels blipped across the screen in true marvels of electrical engineering.

Others may hear the sounds of tiny plumbers feet scuttling about levels made of brick and green pipe, or the whirring of blue hedgehogs, or the unmistakable music of Japanese RPG games.

And the youngest of us may see only sharp, 1080i, clear explosions and hear the sounds of squad-mates barking commands and off-color jokes into their microphones.

Or, if you are someone like me, a thirty year gamer with the bad posture and twitchy mouse-button finger of a digital addiction, you may see all of that and more. One long blur of slain dragons, flaming wreckage, and reloading BFGs.

And if you have gamed for long enough, you may be noticing a trend in the industry: Our games are being simplified, or in the parlance of the angry Internet forum dweller, “dumbed down”.

Amirite?

 

A defining quality of early gaming, especially PC gaming, was complexity.

“Listen here, youngin’!” the ancient gamer shook his carpal tunnel addled fist at the sky, “When I was your age, the games played you! And we liked it!”

In-game maps? Pah!

Quest markers? Bah!

Saves? Hah!

Tutorials? You see that four-hundred page manual over there? The one you are using to chock your computer desk with? That’s your tutorial.

And, sometimes, it was a beautiful thing. Real, true exploration would uncover the secrets. Taking notes, on an actual notebook made of dead tree matter was almost required for some games. You could come out victorious, using only your wits and copious amounts of cheese puffs. No one could take that away from you, oh you vanquisher of goblins!

Except an electrical brownout, of course. Stupid lack of saves.

And sometimes, old curmudgeonly gamers like myself wave our canes at the newest games, and cry foul.

“What? You have little markers on a compass that tells you where to go?”

“What? An in-game map, with little symbols on it to help you navigate?”

*Shakes fist at young gamer*

“Why don’t you play a real game!”

 

Allow me, if you will, to present to you Exhibit A: The Elder Scrolls.

Few games demonstrate this trend of streamlining and simplification, quite like the Elder Scrolls series. Starting in 1994, these content-heavy RPGs have been a mainstay of the nerdy fantasy loving gamer for two decades.

Feel old yet?

First there was Arena. Originally slated to be a sort of gladiatorial fighting game, what emerged was the most complex RPG to that date. It was tough, it was brutal, it was huge, and there was nary a quest marker to be found. Try, if ye dare, to even get out of the starting dungeon alive.

Then there was Daggerfall. If anything, it was even more complex and interesting than Arena, and chock full of NPCs, monsters, random dungeons, and a host of game breaking bugs that were part of the fun. Oh, and Liches that would eat you for dinner.

And, of course, Morrowind, maybe the most notable of the Elder Scrolls games for gamers of a certain age. Stripping away the randomness of its predecessors, Morrowind was deep and unforgiving. Hidden goodies were tucked away in random logs, NPCs conversed in huge conversation trees, there were more skills and attribute than you could shake a dead guar at, and things could — and often would — own your face.

But then something happened. The fourth game in the series, Oblivion, came out and pushed all the boundaries — graphics that choked the most potent gaming machines of the time, a world larger than Morrowind, a real-time combat system, and…

And…

I can’t say it!

And… quest marker arrows that floated in a compass that told you where to go and who to talk to! And quick travel! And a world that leveled with you instead of owning your face!

“Oh the humanity!” cried a generation of gamers.

And then came Skyrim, the most recent iteration of the Elder Scrolls series. Gone are the myriad character skill choices at the start of the game. Quest markers actually float in-world, beckoning to you, come here, this is your quest objective…

 

So, I ask you, is this a bad thing? Have games gone soft? Are gamers being hand fed their easy-mode gruel as they stare blankly at the screen?

Were the “good old days” actually good?

Or are our memories of how great it was to be lost in the trackless wilderness of Daggerfall with no guidance and a tight time limit maybe just a wee bit… inflated?

The fact is, half of the complexities of the hard core games of yesteryear weren’t part of the game by design.

They were there do to limits. Limits of the hardware, limits of the software, limits on memory or cartridge space or controller buttons.

The RPGs of old didn’t make you map out the dungeons as a design choice. They did it because they couldn’t display a map. Or couldn’t spare the space to save where you had been. Or didn’t have the space to fit it in the limited memory and screen space of the ‘80s machines.

These things came on floppy disks, people!

The developers of Daggerfall didn’t decide, “Screw the quest markers! Let’s go hard core here! 1337!”

No, the very idea of little floating quest markers weren’t even a thing at the time. How would you display them on the pixelated 400×300 resolutions of the time? What part of the maybe 2 MB ram you had to work with would you use for this task?

The fact is, a lot of what we consider “hard core” gaming was only that way because it had to be that way. Usability and simplicity had to suffer in order to fit all those dungeons and quests.

Games are entertainment, and developers want to reach as many people as possible. The more people they entertain, the more money they make, the more games they make.

I have little doubt that if the technology allowed it in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the games would have included many of the “easy mode” things we take for granted now.

There always needs be player choice, margins for error and recovery, places for the mind to roam as we play these otherwise amazing games.

Gamers like being able to make a broken class, or screw up a conversation in a way that changes the outcome of the entire game. Gamers like at least some risk of things not going smoothly.

We enjoy conquering a difficult foe using our over-caffeinated brains.

And it is our job to hold game developer’s feet to the fire, making sure they make the best and most stimulating games possible, mixing the wonder of the old classics with the technology of today.

But streamlined gameplay and quest markers that keep us from wandering aimlessly looking for an NPC whose name we cannot pronounce — We should embrace these things. With open arms.

Bearhug the good changes.

Brush away the hazy, cobwebby memories of the good old days, when men were men and games required a degree in cartography.

Because, in the end, who even likes drawing maps on graph paper anyway?

K. L. Neidecker
K. L. Neidecker is a writer of nerdy fiction, a gamer, and a blogger for The Deep End, a web design studio in Los Angeles. He enjoys slaying monsters, pwning n00bs, long walks off short piers, and trying to be witty.
K. L. Neidecker

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