So, the retro-wonderland video game Terraria received a massive content update at the end of June. I didn’t get around to checking it out until like last week, but I spent enough time playing it over the weekend to get full-blown Tetris Syndrome over it, with neat rows of terrain blocks artfully arranging themselves behind my eyes.
Sometimes described as being a side-scrolling Minecraft clone, Terraria sometimes feels like a video game designed with someone exactly like me in mind. Dynamic lighting and particle effects aside, it looks a lot like the video games I grew up with. It’s what I consider to be a true sandbox game, which means it’s not just an open world for exploration with limited sign posting and required goals, but it’s meant to be reshaped and built in.
In fact, it’s darn near what I imagined the future of video games would look like, back in the early 90s: looking about the same but shinier and you would be able to do so much more stuff.
A little background: Terraria starts by dropping you into an idyllic pseudo-16 bit paradise, where a cartoony Final Fantasy-ish looking character stands in a forest meadow surrounded by trees and bunnies. It’s less muddy (and far prettier) than the more famous Minecraft, but the basic idea is the same: day is relatively safe, the night is dark and full of terrors. You spend the daylight hours gathering materials and exploring, then dig in for the night with a simple shelter. As you gain more materials and gameplay familiarity (there’s no in-game experience or skill system), your simple shelter might become an elaborate castle, secret underground base, mansion, or town, and your tools for dealing with the horrors of night or the monsters lurking underground become more powerful and sophisticated.
The game does not have a linear progression, but nevertheless, it does progress. The quest for more and better stuff takes you into more dangerous environments with new threats. Random events can make the monsters more numerous and/or more monstrous. Horrible-looking screen-hogging bosses lurk in the background, appearing when the player accidentally disturbs them, deliberately summons them, or in some cases just grows too powerful. Defeating these leviathans results in fundamental shifts in gameplay, by giving you access to new materials and in some cases new areas to explore, but also unleashing more horrors and wonders into the world.
The most recent content updates to Terraria are much less geared towards me in particular as a consumer, as they are largely concerned with extending out the “end game” with more challenging content.
See, the game is “over” in the sense of there being nothing new under the sun when you had beaten the last boss, achieved the best armor, and built a town or mansion big enough to house all the friendly Non-Player Characters. That’s the point where people who play a game to completion tend to feel like there’s nothing more to do, whereas it’s the point where I feel like I’ve collected all the toys and it’s time to start playing for real. The new updates do add more toys, but they’re mostly focused on creating the equivalent of new challenge stages for people who have beaten everything else: new events to live through, new invasions to fight off, new bosses to summon and beat.
I’m not saying that’s not fun, but it’s not what I’m there for.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the times in my life I’ve been most into Terraria have been the times that I have felt the most powerless, the times that I have had the most emotional turmoil. Real life is complicated and messy. Terraria is neat and orderly. While people in real life cling to aphorisms about how the creator of the universe never gives you a challenge that you can’t stand up to, this is literally true about Terraria‘s dynamically generated world: it is a world full of problems, yes, but they’re all problems that are not only ultimately solvable, they are engineered to have solutions that are within your grasp.
Sometimes I see the meme circulating within Gamergate that anybody who takes on “gamers” is a fool because gamers are winners, because they have more experience with persevering over defeat and fighting losing battles than anyone else. There are many things wrong with this mindset, not the least of which is the idea that Gamergate represents the whole set of “gamers” and people who disagree with them (or haven’t heard of them, or don’t care) haven’t shared in those same experiences.
But the idea is also foolish because the challenges that Gamergate is used to overcoming are overwhelmingly stacked in their favor. Even the games that are designed to be devilishly difficult, to appeal to people who want a challenge, are generally designed to be just challenging enough to sink emotional hooks in the player and compel them to keep trying. When a game’s story tells you that you are struggling against impossible odds, that’s the story. The game is there for you to beat it. The obstacles within it are there for you to overcome.
And with very few exceptions in the modern era, death and failure are a temporary state that are effectively retconned away as soon as they happen. Even in games with no finite lives/continues or “permadeath”… you the player can still start your game again, even if your actions resulted in the death of the character you were controlling.
That’s not how it works in real life. Even if Gamergate is not exactly a life-and-death struggle, it is still possible to fail so badly at a thing that it impacts your chance of future success. The saying “You only have one chance to make a first impression” applies here. The gator-based assumption that everything they do—every attempt at something like re-branding themselves—should be and must be judged in a vacuum, it reflects this disconnect.
The faith they have that their time spent gaming will translate to real life has given them the expectation that trying again means their previous failures need not be addressed. It’s a fresh try.
I think older gamers, those of us who played games during the awkward transition between the quarter-eating devil machines of the arcade era and the development of the home market, might have a more realistic perspective. Certainly those of us who played adventure games that could be rendered unpredictably unwinnable by a single wrong move in the opening scenes have a pretty solid understanding that a thing can be so small and so random and yet still screw something big and important up so badly that it can’t be fixed again.
My older brother had a boxed set of The Ultima Trilogy, the original Ultima and its first two sequels. The second game was the one most interesting to us, as we’d already played the NES port of Ultima III and Ultima II, with its greater focus on time-and-interplanetary travel and conceit of exploring the real world was just… well. It was amazing. Or it looked amazing.
But the second game, unlike the other two, would only save one character per disk. And it included no mechanic for deleting your character and starting over. I mean, nowadays I know that anyone with a sufficient knowledge of DOS could delete the save file and/or copy the disk used for saving, but these things were not intuitive to us at the age of ~8.
So what happened was my brother started playing a game, and he saved it at a point where he was low on food (running out being a loss condition) and in no position to get any more. And that was it. We could run Ultima II. We could walk around a little bit before starving to death. That was the whole game as we experienced it.
Playing Ultima II in DOS taught me that you can screw a thing up so badly it can’t be fixed and all you can do is wander around watching the inevitable slowly fail, a lesson that Gamergate doesn’t seem to have ever learned.
Terraria is not a coin-op game ported directly to consoles. It’s not a text adventure. It’s not a game designed for a narrow niche of expert hobbyists who can be expected to do their own file management. It’s a modern game, designed for modern sensibilities, and all the problems it gives you are ultimately solvable. When the orderly world it presents is infected with chaos, you are given the tools to beat back the rising tide. You can fight off the monster hordes. You can purge the world of the eldritch infection that threatens to swallow it whole. You can put the sealed evil back in the can. And while you’re doing this, you can re-arrange the world to your liking.
My current self-directed goal in the game is to rid my generated world of crimson, a body horror-esque element represented by a biome made of bloody tumors. It has a chance of being present in your world at generation, and it spreads… slowly at first, then at the main turning point in the game’s progression, it makes a huge leap across a large swath of the map and then spreads much faster. The spread of the crimson (or the corruption, the cosmic horror equivalent that will be present instead if the crimson isn’t) makes the game much harder, and its progress seems inexorable, especially when you realize that not only can it spread directly but it will pop up in random, out-of-the-way places in response to certain actions.
But the thing is, the world of Terraria is finite, contained within boundaries that a human mind can easily conceive of and explore. Anywhere the crimson can pop up, you can get to. And you have tools to fight it. You can root it out. You can purify it. You can blow it up. You can blast a trench to hell in order to cut off its spread. You can spray a cleansing solution in a circle around you and clear whole screens at a time. You can watch the map of the world as you’ve explored it for places turning red that were previously green or gray. You can hunt it down.
You can fix it.
It’s not easy in the sense of being something you can push a button and fix it. The quickest, surest solutions are probably also the most tedious in practical terms. The in-game reward? Doesn’t actually exist. But it’s a goal, and it can be reached. It’s a problem, and it has a solution.
Last night, in the midst of an emotional conversation with my boyfriend Jack, I explained my current mania for Terraria with five words: “I can fix the crimson.”
Ultimately, of course, success in a video game means as little as failure does. I can wipe the crimson off the face of *this* map, but not only are no lives actually saved or changed or touched in any way by this feat, but it still exists in thousands and thousands of other Terraria maps extant in the world. And as soon as I start another game or take my character to another map, it’ll start up again. I know this.
But while video game problems and their solutions are completely immaterial in the strictest sense of the world, there’s still something compelling about them. In real life, the world around us is unfathomably vast, unknowably opaque, and unspeakably complex. You cannot solve the world. You cannot beat the world.
But just load up a copy of an old Mario game and you can beat eight worlds in a leisurely afternoon.