29Apr 2011

Shaping the world around you

I’m going to start waving my old lady cane around and talk about how things were “when I was a young’n.” Back then, we did have a computer with games, TV, and a gaming console. However, the computer was running Windows 3.1, there were a whole 5 TV channels to choose from, and the console was an N64 with only a handful of games. I’m certain I would have spent a lot more time with these electronics if my parents hadn’t rightly told me to “go play outside” or “get off that thing, it will rot your brain.”

I suppose most kids who lived in the city, upon hearing that, would have gone off to the park to play with their friends. And children who lived on farms were never short on chores to do and vast tracks of lands to explore. I, on the other hand, grew up on a 2-acre plot in a rural area with little to no friends within walking distance. My only playmate the majority of the time was my younger brother.

Both of us grew up with healthy imaginations that must have grown out of a combination of fantasy books and having vast amounts of time by ourselves. From this also came a desire to build things, to craft whole worlds.

At home

Around the house, we would choose between two different worlds/games that we had created. The first involved a massive amount of plastic dinosaurs that were divided up into the herbivores and their allied carnivores-gone-vegetarian (the good guys) and the carnivores (the bad guys). We never played against each other but instead took on certain characters on each side and spend entire days acting out elaborate on-going storylines. My brother’s whole room would become our stage: the blanket on the bed would be ruffled into a rolling plateau, the floor would become the valley below, and every bookcase and dresser was a high peaked mountain riddled with caverns, perfect for flying dinosaurs to perch on top of or for land-bound ones to hide in.

The second world was made from a combination of Legos and plastic sea creatures. It too would consume the entire room once we had set it all up, with everything below the top of the dresser being underneath the water’s surface. There were about half a dozen submarine type vehicles, a multi-roomed Lego castle that was the human’s base of operation (and the home of one friendly dragon), and more sharks, whales, octopi, and squids than you could shake a stick at.

Destroying and dismantling our worlds was never something that appealed to use. We absolutely loved building it but to take it all apart? Where was the fun in that? It was for that reason that over time, these two collections would simply continue to grow as we’d ask for more Legos, more dinosaurs, more sea creatures. The dinosaurs filled up an entire drawer in my brother’s mate bed and began spilling over into other containers. Our refusal to dismantle our Legos resulted in the submarines lining the bookshelves and the castle becoming a permanent fixture on my brother’s dresser.

In the bush

The Manitoban winters can be particularly cold and to keep the high electrical heating bill down, our home had a wood furnace in the basement and plenty of storage for all the cords of wood we’d need. So my dad would spend several days a year out in the bush on his parents’ farm, cutting down poplar trees and splitting the logs. He would bring me and my brother along despite the fact that at that age, my brother and I were pretty useless for anything other than carrying and stacking the wood. So when we couldn’t help out, we’d spend the hours exploring the nearby area and constructing very crude forts. We’d set a dozen or so branches between some trees to create the “walls” and then roll a spare log or two into the area for our seating. We’d spend all of the time we could improving our fort, using more branches for support and of course looking for suitable “staffs” so we could properly defend it. When it was time to leave, it was always sad to know that by the time we came back weeks later, the weather and the cows would have taken down our creation and we would have to start all over again. It was a good thing that building was so fun.

The virtual world

It probably isn’t surprising that this desire to build and create carried over into my computer game play. I used to spend hours upon hours in games such as Pharaoh, Stronghold, Age of Empires, and Majesty, building and maintaining these vast empires. My favorite activity was always to choose the largest free-form maps and expand my kingdoms until there was literally no more room on the map. Those maps were never too big for me and I’d always want to build more, to trek further out and forge new settlements. Even while playing the campaigns, I’d always hold back from completing the objective until I had explored the entire map and placed all of my favorite buildings.

Continuing into new worlds

I had heard of the concept of sandbox MMOs before, usually in reference to popular Minecraft. I was intrigued by the idea but was somewhat reluctant to try Minecraft due to its 8-bit-style graphics and lack of a sense of an overarching world. It was through the MMO Melting Pot that I heard of Wurm Online just yesterday though. I didn’t even have time to finish the tutorial last night but I am already excited to get home from work and spend the entire weekend playing this game. Here is a world with a map that is much larger than any building sim I’ve played before, so I can explore to my heart’s content. I can craft my own tools, buy a plot of land, create houses and walls, grow crops and trees, raise and hunt animals, dig out a mine…the possibilities seem endless.

There was one part of the tutorial where I cut down a tree, chopped it up into logs, carved a wooden shaft and head, and put the two pieces together to make a mallet. It probably took me about 10 minutes to do because of the chance to fail (which I did repeatedly), but I can’t even remember the last time I was so proud of a virtual item that I had created. And that was just a simple mallet!

I think this is exactly the type of game I need as of late. Something that’s simple overall and relaxing, a place where I can mold the world in the way that I want, and it will stay that way as long as I continue to maintain it. My Legos and dinosaurs and sticks have come back to me in virtual form and I’ll be damned if I don’t create something wondrous out of them.

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