There are few game environments etched into my brain in as much detail as the Night Elf starting area in World of Warcraft. I can remember it almost as well as if it were a real place. Giant trees, rolling hills, wisps and moon wells and purple mist. Azeroth held many wonders, but Teldrassil always felt like home.
I started playing WoW in 2005, back when you had to reach level 40 before you could drop all (and I do mean all) your hard-earned gold on a riding mount. I came in with my teeth cut on adventure games and languid turn-based RPGs, and my approach to WoW reflected that. I explored every house, every cave, talked to every NPC. There isn’t an inch of Teldrassil I didn’t paw at. Getting around took time, but that wasn’t a problem for me. If anything, it was a complement to what I was already doing.
My meandering pace drove my little brother crazy. He’d bought me the game as a way for us to spend time together after I moved out of my parents’ house. His guild was short on healers, so he talked me into rolling a Druid and insisted on helping me grind. I remember him arriving in Dolanaar with his epic mount and his Thunderfury, clad in a full set of something far more impressive than my Cracked Leather Pants. I remember him tearing through a cave of spiders as I tagged uselessly along, asking him to slow down so I could look around. We quickly reached an impasse. He wanted me to power level, but I had no interest in that. I wanted to learn for myself, not have my hand held. He went back to Molten Core, and I braved the spiders on my own. I could practically hear him shaking his head over Vent. (For the record, I did end up raiding eventually, but my Druid was no healer. Bear tanks are where it’s at.)
My partner in climbing the learning curve was my real-life partner, who had never played an MMO, either. Our adventures in Darkshore remain a very happy bundle of memories. A wandering elf and a clumsy dwarf, running around with mismatched gear and woeful talent trees, dying again and again and again, getting a little bit better every time we fell. It was more fun than I can properly describe.
Thankfully, though, my gaming literacy has markedly improved since then. I know how talent builds work, and how to manage aggro, and why you should leave high-level areas well alone until you’re ready. I game a lot more today than I did when I first started playing WoW, and I play a much larger variety of stuff. My appreciation for the medium has deepened, and I’m confident in my skills, but something has changed along the way.
I’ve gotten out of the habit of taking things slow.
Granted, many of the games I play nowadays are for review, and that requires barreling through at a much faster pace than I would if I were playing for fun (deadlines are deadlines, after all). But I see this shift in many of my friends, too, the ones who play solely for their own enjoyment. While some will still take weeks or even months to savor a good game, most of them dart from one thing to the next, playing hard and burning out, or staring indecisively at their backlogs, overwhelmed by choice (it was quite by accident that I decided to write this the same week that the Steam Summer Sale kicked off).
In general, taking part in pop culture means consuming things the minute they hit the ground. If you want to join in the conversation surrounding your favorite show or book, you have to jump on it right now, or you’ll miss out entirely (or worse, have things spoiled). I don’t particularly care for that mentality, but I’ve yet to find a suitable alternative that still allows me to socialize online. The gaming world is no different. We’re all so eager to keep up — be it with other players or with the newest releases — that we’re not taking the time to ease in anymore. Or I’m not, at least. I am very grateful for the understanding of games that I’ve developed over the past decade, but at the same time, I can’t help but wonder: does that level of understanding correspond to increased enjoyment as well? I have loved a great many games over the past ten years, there’s no doubt about that. There have been cutscenes that brought me to tears, soundtracks that never fail to give me goosebumps, characters I am better for knowing. Perhaps I do enjoy games with the same enthusiasm that I always have. I’m just not sure that I give myself the time to let most games truly sink in (beyond a favored few). Gaming culture always operates at a frenzied, fevered pitch. I think I sometimes miss the days when my engagement with games felt like a long, slow soak instead.
My partner and I talked about this one night a few weeks ago. WoW came up (I quit after Wrath, she after Pandaria), and we got nostalgic for our days in Darkshore.
“No game’s felt like that since,” I said.
She considered. “We could roll new Guild Wars 2 characters.”
I hemmed and hawed. “It’s the same there, too, though,” I said. “I think the reason I stopped playing was because I felt a little lost. I never stayed in one area long enough to get to know it.”
Guild Wars 2, for those not in the know, has a quick travel system that allows players to instantly jump to previously visited locations. No portals or transit systems necessary. Just open your map, click, and you’re done. To anyone who’s spent ten minutes on the back of a griffon, it feels like a godsend. And yet:
“I can still see Darkshore and Teldrassil clear as day,” I said to my partner, “because we had to run through them so much. I don’t have a connection like that to Guild Wars. I like the game a lot, but I can’t picture anywhere there in the same detail. It just went by in a blur.”
“What if,” she said, “we roll new characters in an area we haven’t seen yet, and we don’t use quick travel?”
I lit up. “That’s… yeah, I’m down for that.”
“Me too,” she said. “We don’t have to worry about leveling, or where we’re supposed to be, or whatever.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Just quest and wander around. Like we used to.”
And that’s exactly what we did. We spent a whole evening leisurely going from farm to farm on foot, taking in the view whenever we pleased. When our story quests directed us toward Divinity’s Reach, we stood still for a moment after walking through the main gate. We glanced away from our monitors and toward each other.
“Do you want to just look around for a while?” I said.
She grinned. “Yes.”
So we did. For an hour, at least. We found readable books and charming marketplaces and statues of all the human gods. We oohed and aahed over the orrery and the glass eagle. We bought ale from a street vendor and watched the world go by.
I told one of my friends about my new character a few days later, over Vent. I know we were gaming at the time. I can’t recall what we were playing. I was expecting some teasing over forgoing quick travel, but he got it right away.
“Just, like, exploration mode?” he said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Aw, man,” he said, with a wistful sigh, his mouse clicking furiously in the background. “That sounds so nice.”