Thoughts On Producing The Ultimate In Computer Escapism

So I put some thought into it, and basically the game I want to play is the game everybody wants to make.
Tabletop roleplay can create a reasonable facsimile, but we've thus far been unable to fully bring that level of unlimited escapism to a simulated computer environment.
It should have the following features:
  • Open-endedness to the extent that players believe they can do anything because, after all, that's a core component of escapism.

    Minecraft or Starbound are penultimate examples because the geography potentially goes on forever (or large enough that it's as good as forever) and you can change every square inch of the game (although eventually you'll reach unbreakable bedrock).  However, the overall sophistication of the parts could be a lot greater, as mods like Buildcraft demonstrate.
  • An ongoing narrative that absolutely rivets the player with the awesomeness of taking part. 

    While we all may have played roleplaying game that had great stories that kept us riveted, I am thinking of a scope that is significantly longer lasting than static content.  In other words, procedurally generated narratives that are actually intelligent enough to keep the story interesting over a prolonged amount of time.

    Sometimes, Dwarf Fortress achieves this, although funny enough it's mostly an illusion created by over-describing the parts of the game and having a really overwrought combat and physics system that can't help but produce unpredictable, ridiculous results (just read down the log of Boatmurdered or similar ones for examples).

    Lets just call this bullet point the quality of a never-ending story that's actually good.  Without this, escapism cannot exist, because it would not be better than where you already are.
  • In this riveting narrative, you need to play an important part as someone who matters.

    It's not real life, so you don't need to deal with the consequences, and this makes it a roleplaying game in the most significant sense of the term: you get to play the role of someone else.  However, without consequence there is an overall lack of significance.  Therefore, within the narrative, you do need to create a feeling that the players' actions really matter.

    Few games actually have much consequences of significance in them, but I think world simulators are the best places to look, as they set up entire systems of inter-related parts.  EVE Online is one prominent example, a game whose main appeal is building significance and reveling in the drama of it all going wrong. 

    This bullet point is a part of the last bullet point because you can't have a riveting narrative unless the players feel as though what happens in the story really matters to them.  Thus, like the last point, it's not true escapism unless you can accomplish this.
  • This is a game, and so the core gameplay should be worthwhile.

    For an example of a game with good gameplay, recall any game you might have played with good gameplay.  (Of course, lousy games are much easier to find.)

    I believe that the differentiating factor of good gameplay can be seen in the principles of flow theory: the gameplay should possess a level of sophistication that can engage the player, without being so sophisticated that is it is daunting or overwhelming.  As the player's skill improves, the sophistication should increase to keep them engaged.  A gainfully occupied mind is a happy mind, that's "fun" in a nutshell.

    The really tricky bit behind this is that exact level of player skill will vary from player to player, even before they even start playing your game!  If a game is too overwhelming for the player (too complicated) they'll leave.  Conversely, if the game is underwhelming (too trivial) they'll leave.  You might have the space of minutes for your game can't adjust for how skilled the player is.  If your game lacks that kind of flexibility, you're basically just taking a shot in the dark as to whether or not your game can engage them.
If this is the game that everybody wants to make, then why doesn't this game already exist?  Because making it is hard.

First, you need a really flexible open-world engine - and this is the easiest step, it's essentially rendering a database for the players while imposing few limitations.  Then, implement a compelling narrative experience that a player can enjoy participating in... liken it to teaching a computer how to convey the experience of a good novel, and this is a pretty tall order by itself.  Now, make the core game interaction entertaining... bear in mind that your average finicky gamer considers 9/10 games to be lacking sufficient entertainment value.

This game doesn't exist because, while a remarkable talent may achieve a few of these aspects, never in twain have all these aspects been met.

Who knows?  Maybe I'm wrong; maybe an example of what I'm looking for exists somewhere out there, but it's buried under the thousands of existing of games that are not this.  I can think of a few prominent cases where I was at least close to getting this:
  • MMORPGs have tried to do this many times, but they are usually neutered by lack of dynamic content, lack of compelling narrative, and monotonous gameplay.  Perhaps EverQuest Next will be the game I'm waiting for, but that would require the implementation go absolutely perfect.
  • RimWorld is close.  It starts with Dwarf Fortress, but adds a virtual game master AI to keep a compelling narrative going, and has generally more coherent gameplay.  It might be a bit narrow in scope since it is centered on the trials of a single space colony.
  • Minecraft is mostly lacking in the narrative aspect.  It just plops you into an elaborate procedurally generated world.  Why are you even there?  Nobody knows.   You just survive, find crap, build crap, and maybe kill a dragon if you feel like it, which also accomplishes nothing.  The Millenaire mod improves this by adding some things of minor significance happening, but the player is still treated as a third party entity.
  • I stopped playing The Sims: Medieval awhile back, but to a decent extent it does provide dynamic content (in the form of growing a kingdom in unfortunately prefab areas but with sims of your own design), a good set of goals to keep the gameplay rolling, and a prefab narrative to drive a simulated action featuring fairly robust AI to create added significance.  If there was a little less boundaries here, and the gameplay were less kludgy, I might have been content.
  • Bethesda's Fallout and Elder Scrolls games do a fairly decent job of accomplishing that feeling you can do anything, in a world with a compelling story, where you matter, with decent gameplay.  Unfortunately, they fall just slightly short of the mark, with the narrative coming to a screeching halt when you exhaust the main storylines, and slim to no true dynamic content, and honestly Bethesda could stand to hire a few people who know how a good computer game is supposed to play and be balanced because Dark Messiah Of Might And Magic had rendered Skyrim's combat obsolete five years before it was even released.
  • Din's Curse and Drox Operative were excellent stabs in the direction of creating a procedurally generated adventure where your actions shape the world, but they lack a lot of terms of genuinely compelling narrative, and the gameplay is far too rudimentary to sink my teeth into.
  • If was willing to accept a significant reduction in scope of what the players were allowed to do in the game, Zelda: Ocarina Of Time would fit this qualification: it has a compelling narrative, the player feels like they matter, and the unique way in which its GUI leveraged individuals' spacial awareness skills may have created a wide aperture of flow for many players.  Little wonder it's on many peoples' lists as the best game of all time.
Clearly, I've set the bar of my computerized entertainment higher than is feasibly likely to happen.  However, I'm not going to say such a thing is impossible to create.  I've seen a great many games nail some of these aspects - if not to perfection, then at least to a sufficient degree that I am content with.  If I can get game that can nail them all, I might yet have something to be excited about.


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