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Birding Like It’s 1899: Inside a Blockbuster American West Video Game (audubon.org)
263 points by alexlrobertson 3 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 83 comments

This kind of tiny piece by piece interaction with the world is something I desired in the late 90s, dreaming as a teen, but my rudimentary O(n) skills showed me was beyond the computers of the time.

It's gorgeous & I love the potential that brims here.

What if something was this complex and well built, but the storyline was removed - the player simply builds their own story, ala DF Adventurer mode.

I'm sure we'll get there eventually, its just much more difficult to write for. Even in Westworld, the interactions were semi-scripted, with packaged "quests" along the way.

Some games come close though, the Witcher 3 includes choice-based gameplay with real consequences that last thoughout the game. However the developers still had to explicitly write each scenario as it unfolded.

Since we're listing games with long-lasting consequences, I'll have to recommend folks who have been living under a rock to play the entire Mass Effect trilogy – to me, still the greatest game ever made (and I've played far too many games)

Nothing has ever irrated me more than the realization that Mass Effect is a much weaker version of Star Control 2, and learned next to nothing from its predecessor’s mistakes. The only things I can say Mass Effect did better despite 20 years difference was combat, and perhaps planet exploration, though really only because of the move from 2D to 3D. Planet content itsekf managed to be just as lacking. (This includes graphics; star control’s aesthetic and particularly alien aesthetics are far superior).

"Long Lasting Consequences" like changing the color of the sky during the final cut-scene...

Don't get me wrong, I loved those games, but when I played 3 and that was the big pay off...jesus.

The DLCs fixed the endings somewhat, but in any case the journey itself was amazing. Sometimes it's not just about the destination but how you got there

Eh, when you say "hey, the things you do are going to have a dramatic affect on the story" but they DON'T have a dramatic affect on the ending...maybe you fucked up a little bit?

Again: loved the games, had a lot of fun, but I was also disappointing that decisions I thought would matter wound up being relatively meaningless.

Not trying to say your experience playing the game wasn't valid, just that it might not be the best example to point to since that was a rather noteworthy example of what NOT to do for many people.

Deus Ex had choices with real consequences lasting throughout the game too, fwiw.

The entire Deus Ex series is excellent.

Well, there was "Invisible War" I suppose, but we don't talk about that one.

I only liked one Deus Ex. The first one. Nothing beats it in the genre. I still replay it every two years :)

Best overall game ever released.

Check out some of the critiques for games like No Mans Sky. The short of it is that procedural “story” doesnt really work. You still need writers for engaging content, and that doesnt scale. If you remove written story you get something closer to a tower defense/tactics/arena shooter/grinding genre, which is “fine” but substantially different than most open worlds people envision.

See dwarf fortress for a counter-example. I’m of the opinion that story-writing is a red-herring in video games; an attempt to apply “tricks” from other mediums, by disregarding the “interactivity” of video games. A story can be sufficiently created by means of the player’s operations, if the simulation is sufficiently complex and built to support it.

Another example is competitive fps games like CoD/Halo/Quake — the story (and singleplayer mode in general) is wholly unimportant; players will continue to have, and create, stories, despite the multiplayer modes offering little more than a setting. Interaction between each other becomes the story you tell.

No man’s sky (NMS) was simply a bad game, and poorly implemented procedural generation (procedurally generated games are appealing in that you’re exploring the system/simulation, and trying to get a handle on it. No man’s sky had a lot of “elements” to its generation, but its system was very basic; it didn’t take long to mostly understand it, and it was sufficiently complex to allow interesting new phenomena to emerge). NMS’s failure says very little about what procedural generation can offer, because it didn’t make a very good attempt at it. Spore is another example of a failed attempt. Borderlands is another, to a degree. None of these games understood that it’s the system thats interesting, not the combinatorial explosion. Thus their procedural generation is totally unsatisfying, and uninteresting.

Dwarf Fortress is a different kind of game from No Man's Sky or The Witcher 3. It has a huge learning curve and takes a lot of effort to play. For every amazing story that people crafted there are hundreds, maybe thousands of failed game attempts.

That's fine and purely procedurally generated games can be amazing (I'm working on one myself), but they are a different type of game play, and often attract a different kind of player. Not everyone wants to be a musician, some people just want to play rock band.

For open world exploration games in particular, in every single example I've seen, mixing in hand crafted world building with systemic game mechanics always provides a better experience.

The learning curve and effort to play are more due to UI and the authors' own stubborness-slash-artistic vision. Rimworld is a somewhat-simpler DF without as difficult a UI and is still quite capable of generating stories for its users, organically as a result of interacting systems and random events.

For those who would like to play Dwarf Fortress, but are turned off by the incredibly steep learning curve or the offputting visuals, I suggest you look into Rimworld. Its similar to Dwarf Fortress in that it is a procedurally generated story with creation and survival aspects. But it is easier to learn to play, and has modern (albeit simplistic) graphics. I've enjoyed it quite a bit.

I don't think the difference for Dwarf Fortress is the learning curve, I think the difference is that Dwarf Fortress is better designed and it is designed in such a way that it's goal is to produce "stories" that Tarn and Zach have explicitly written. I think for No Man's Sky, they had a much more vague idea of what they wanted the user to experience, and thus the experience is more vague, and less interesting.

That's a good point. That is a big difference with Dwarf Fortress. It's definitely a masterpiece of game design.

To donavanm's point that you need writers to create engaging content, as you've pointed out Dwarf Fortress has writers--they're just operating on a different level.

But I still think the learning curve is a big part of it. Just look at how many "Get started with Dwarf Fortress" tutorials are out there.

I'm pretty sure the learning curve is more a result of DF's total lack of interest in reducing the learning curve, than any kind of necessary function of it. Obviously the complexity of the game leads to complexity of the interaction, but 10% of DF's learning curve is its nonsensical UI, probably another 30% is the fact that it has no tutorial or manual of its own, 20% is all the additional tooling surrounding it, which should be but isn't native to the game. And if my percentage allocation means anything, then only 40% of the game's current learning curve is essential (that is, unavoidable given the game's complexity).

I'm also not sure its fair to consider DF's writing as similar to donavanm's -- they're not operating at a different level so much as a totally different task. donavanm's writer as I understand it is trying to lead the player through a story, whereas DF's trying to produce a story through the player. The former produces an overarching theme, plot, characters, etc. The latter produces pieces that could fit in a story (or stories), and hope it will occur as an emergent phenomena of play.

It's like writing a protocol versus using one; you could say both are doing software engineering, but they're very, very different kinds of software engineering, and require totally different thinking.

Notably, story-component-writing probably also scales pretty well (the engine develops it out), while story-writing does not. Which of course is true of procedural games in general. You get the engine and the pieces right, and you've got exponentially many scenarios to explore (the problem is that, if you do it wrong, you have exponentially many scenarios that you don't want/care to explore ~~ No Man's Sky)

And while it isn't anywhere near as deep as DF, the mass attraction of Minecraft shows that procedural generated worlds where there are no real goals can be very attractive and approachable, even to children.

That's very true. But again I think it's a different type of game. Very few people, in my experience, spend much time exploring Minecraft for the sake of exploration.

The genius of Minecraft is that it's a vast canvas for you to shape, not an interesting world to study. The purely procedurally generated world that it generates are fun to build on they just aren't that interesting after you've experienced it for a bit.

>I'm also not sure its fair to consider DF's writing as similar to donavanm's -- they're not operating at a different level so much as a totally different task. donavanm's writer as I understand it is trying to lead the player through a story, whereas DF's trying to produce a story through the player. The former produces an overarching theme, plot, characters, etc. The latter produces pieces that could fit in a story (or stories), and hope it will occur as an emergent phenomena of play.

I don't think they were only talking about an overarching large scale story, but also the small scale side stories that happen throughout the world. Allowing the player to overhearing the backstory of 2 train robbers right before they start the robbery, or coming up with a back story for an abandoned house and telling it through the items left around. Small additions that add flavor and detail to the world. When you add to that some game mechanics around choosing to aid or stop the train robbers, choosing to find the lost treasure hinted at by a journal found in the abandoned house etc..., and then the game world reacts and changes based on those actions, to me, you're doing exactly what Dwarf Fortress is doing. To me the difference is scale (granted it's a huge difference and I think much more difficult to pull of right). Dwarf Fortress does it on a much grander level that allows for more variation and more genuinely unexpected emergent behavior.

The creators of Dwarf Fortress write small stories that add flavor to the world and then they add systems to make those stories possible. It requires much more human effort to develop than just piecing together systems and hoping that the interactions are interesting, which is what I think donavanm meant by being less scaleable.

Ah, Dwarf fortress. I loved hearing the stories generated from it and resolved to learn to play it, but that resolve quickly faltered in the face of the interface and learning curve. Sometimes I think to myself "I should try again", but I believe that it (along with Eve) is a game I truly enjoy reading about rather than playing myself.

"Not everyone wants to be a musician, some people just want to play rock band."

+1 for the apt analogy, and another +1 for maybe the best quote I've come across on HN in some time.

Thanks for that!

As the sibling said Most people dont see dwarf fortress as the same “open world explore & build” genre. And the arena style FPS was called out explicitely as an interesting, but different, type of game. “No story” doesnt mean no fun. But when people say “I want to go and build and explore” they usually, unintentionally, miss the draw of a well done story component. There are plenty of interviewers with producers of games like warcraft, witcher, or skyrim who explicitly call out the limitations/benefits of a written story system in an “open world.”

I think the issue is that you’re thinking of open world rpgs, which have trended towards very heavy-handed story telling. Mostly because they derive from dnd 3+.

But you also have dnd/adnd to derive from, which put much less effort into story telling, and more into setting/emergent stories. Roguelikes, dungeon crawlers, etc offer very, very thin stories wrapping the gameplay (dcss for example boils down to: you want to steal the orb of zot, and its on the 15th floor of this dungeon). Minecraft also gained most of its popularity before it too added a very thin story on top.

But the main thing to realize is that most games don’t have very compelling or interesting stories; at most approaching a marvel film. Yet the succeed regardless.

And even warcraft (I’m assuming WoW), I’d bet good money that 90% of its players don’t have any idea what the plot is, except at the most superficial level.

I think its mostly that the open world genre happened to really only have RPG’s currently available and well funded (I cant even think of any major ones atm beyond bethesda, witcher and bioshock); but there are plenty of games that put zero to little efforts into any kind of story, that it’s not at all obvious to me that its required in open world games.

I’d like to see some of these interviews you’re referencing, if you have links handy.

Indeed, as a once-heavy Warcraft and WoW player I can confirm that Blizzards story writing is to be actively ignored, even mocked. Great games, terrible writing.

> I’m of the opinion that story-writing is a red-herring in video games; an attempt to apply “tricks” from other mediums, by disregarding the “interactivity” of video games.

I’d offer Braid and Bioshock as clear counter examples, where a significant part of the emotional punch of the storytelling comes from the interaction. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons too.

Much like “build your own story” as a genre can’t be judged from the failings of NMS, it’s just as true that games as a conventional storytelling medium as a whole shouldn’t be judged based on the “make it cinematic” approach that a lot of studios aim for.

To be fair, No Man’s Sky has apparently seen some significant improvements. I don’t myself play it, but my kids have reported as much.

if you did that, it would be boring.

The difference between a livestream of somebody's house and a soap opera is the storyline.

Without the story, only the world, the intensity is much lower and you would need the world to be much much more detailed to hold any interest. A real fractal of details like in a real world is much more effortful to implement compared to a good story.

The interesting thing in the article is that there is no story, yet it holds the writer's interest. Narrative is not a hard requirement. Same for, e.g. Minecraft, or Legos, or other common toys.

And also, Dwarf Fortress is essentially a story building simulator, it is designed to generate interesting stories.

anyway, just some thoughts, people get fun from different things.

I think this is pretty neat, not just that so many species are featured but some of the other natural behaviors (e.g. fox and turkey vultures feeding on just-shot mallard carcass) are replicated.

Showed the article to my teen son, a big RDR2 fan, who was less impressed, calling it "sad" that someone would play a birder in that world. YMMV.

I wonder what he would think of the World of Warcraft panda pacifist: https://www.pcgamer.com/world-of-warcrafts-pacifist-panda-ha...

Playing as a birder was definitely an option by design. There are in game achievements for spotting through your binoculars and “studying” each species of animal. It is not even out of character of Arthur Morgan, who often draws landscapes and wildlife in his notebook.

Eh, they are still in that "everything adults do is lame" stage. Just watch, he/she'll pick up knitting or something in 10 years

Coupling those natural behaviors with the games audio cues let me hunt specific animals by listening more than walking.

I didn’t think it would work but it seemed to.

The RDR2 environment is an amazing horseback camping simulator. Fishing, hunting, beautiful vistas... bliss

I first got a PlayStation (1) when I was about 9 years old, and we got Road Rash 3D with it. Looking back the graphics were pretty shocking (though cutting edge at the time). But my main memory is how liberating it felt to leave the race route and just ride around aimlessly for hours and hours, exploring the countryside and the towns and cities you'd discover. I got a lot more out of that than trying to keep up with the race. Now I think I might try RDR2 some time if it offers a bit of that buzz again.

This is similar to what I remember from playing Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis. I wasn't very good at the actual game, but there was a post-credit sequence I would skip to where you could just walk, drive, and fly around quiet, rural, and sparsely islands. The simulation is pretty unremarkable by todays standards but being able to explore a huge open world at my own pace was incredible at the time.

One encounter that stands out in my memory was of driving along a remote road in the middle of the night and coming across a bad traffic collision where a truck had completely crushed a small car along with its driver. Something about the brutal and almost mundane nature of the encounter has stuck with me.

For you and the GP I would recommend picking up Horizon Zero Dawn. The environments are gorgeous and vast, with lots of "story" in the placing of props and such. The actual story of that game was prettt darn good too, but if all you want to do is roam around a beautiful landscape – and occasionally come upon murderous robots, but they can typically be avoided rather easily – it will certainly hit the spot.

Far Cry 4 is (spoiler alert) like this, once the game story is out of the way

Half of the pleasure of Sir You Are Being Hunted is that it's a very good English countryside simulator, with occasional murderous robots.

Gosh, I wish that game had been popular enough to fund continued development. (Last time I checked in on it, it looked like it had stalled out.) I remember following the developer on Twitter and they had SO MANY good ideas. I bought the game and found it very fun, but: - It felt like a 1.0, and really made me want a 2.0 - The difficulty ramped way too quickly. It started out as "Sir, you are being hunted.", but every time I played, after about 15 minutes, it seemed to ramp up to "SIR, YOU ARE BEING HUNTED!!!!!" - Imagine the multiplayer possibilities. Like, if there were different teams being hunted. Some players are on your team, and some are your adversaries. Like imagine PUBG in this universe, but instead of a plasma wall closing in, there are ever increasing numbers of hunter robots spawning near the edge of a dwindling circle.

Side question, do you think there's a market for this sort of game? Outdoor simulator I suppose?

Reminds me a bit of Jeff Vogel's blog post about the first Red Dead Redemption:

"What was more surprising, though in retrospect it should not have been, was how instantly attached my eight year old daughter became to the game the moment she caught an unlucky glimpse of me playing it. Of course, it makes perfect sense. This is a game where you own a horse, ride your horse, take your horse out into the brush, find wild horses, capture and tame wild horses, and make one of those horses your new horse."


Rockstar should consider breaking their games down into sub games. They could build a G rated game about caring for wild horses and sell it for kids; they'd only have to remove content. In the full RDR2 game my daughter might have fun caring for horses, but she might also witness a random murder, pick up new words I'd rather her not repeat, witness a rape, who knows. I haven't actually played RDR2 but all of those thing seem like possibilities in a Rockstar game.

Heck, all they'd have to do is release the toolkit à la Bethesda. Allowing players to mod the game is the best thing that shop ever did. Skyrim has an avid following with player-made mods still trickling out to this day, and it was released 7-8 years ago.

Exactly! The taxi, ambulance, and firetruck missions were some of my favorite parts of the GTA games, and featured relatively nonviolent, legal activities. They could easily be standalone games... One could argue the taxi missions already are, if you count Crazy Taxi.

I always thought Rockstar should've made an EMT / first-responder version of GTA where the goal was to help rather than harm.

War Zone Taxi Driver (GTA: San Andreas with cheat codes "everyone has guns" and "everyone's hostile to everyone" applied, and me in a taxi running missions) is a really, really good game. I'd absolutely buy and play a whole game of just variations on that.

In Blood, Sweat, and Pixels by Jason Schreier, I think he was also quoted as saying his daughter's insatiable habit of repeatedly mounting and unmounting the horse caused a serious bug, which they would not have found otherwise.

See Euro Truck Simulator. These kinds of simulation games have a pretty decent niche community, though I'm not sure they actually constitute a decently sized market. They're really relaxing though, in the right vein.

But it's still a balance between reality and the interesting subset of it; having to manually brush your horse with a mouse would be awful, while requiring that you take your horse to a stable every night would be fine.

The main issue is that to design a decent simulator like that though, you have to avoid basically 90% of modern gaming trends. Fast travel, mechanically-intense play, grinding missions, small-but-numerous subquests, etc are exactly what a modern (A)RPG pushes for, and are exactly how you ruin a game like euro truck simulator. It's the mundanity, scheduling and (some) repetition that makes the game satisfying.

Having to manually brush your horse with a mouse would be awful...

That was in Barbie Riding Club.[1]

As someone who brushes a real horse almost every day, it's not that bad with a mouse.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XjH_tKqipjM&t=186

Im not imagining it as unpleasant to do, but rather totally unsatisfying, and if made an important part of maintainence, a really big nuisance. Either it’d very quickly boil down to scrubbing really fast, or just a monotous drudgery.

Ofc, if the game was primarily about taking care of your horse rather than maintanence for riding your horse, it might be fine. But my tastes definitely tend towards the latter.

This is one of those difficult problems where I have a lot of respect for game designers. What's least unsatisfying?

1. Leaving it out altogether

2. A "brush horse" button that you click and that's the end of it

3. Making the player do it with the mouse

In American Truck Simulator you don't have to clean your truck, but you do have to get gas. Since a horse's cleanliness is more vital, maybe a cleaning mechanic (or at least a button/corresponding animation) should be in the game. Then you have to address the timing, which environmental/time factors, etc. would cause the horse to get dirty, if taking the horse into a lake will rinse it off (wait can our horses swim? Need to check with the dev team). I think I'd have a hard time designing a simulator that would actually be fun. So many trade-offs to consider.

I would say its not actually that difficult, its just constrained by whatever you're trying to accomplish. eg truck simulators dont have you cleaning, because its not part of the mental model of driving. But gas is a very necessary part of it.

Horse cleaning is important for maintenance, but a non-thought in travel. Thus a horse maintenance game would have brushing mechanics and it would be sensible, while it'd be a nuisance in a game emphasizing travel (even slow travel; feeding/housing your horse would be much more appropriate). But the key I think is to realize what the effect you're having on gameplay is pacing, and the mechanic of brushing or feeding or whatever is just an aesthetic/reason around it. So you'd only simulate so far as to render the pace of the game correct, and no more. So you might have feeding or cleaning, but probably not both in a travel game (it'd slow things down too much, and probably be part of the same operation anyways). A maintenance sim would prefer much slower pacing than even a slow travel game would

I loved the outdoor simulator aspect of RDR2. It might be my favorite part of the game. But I would get bored of it very quickly if it was the only thing I could do. Hunting and fishing and scouting were fun because they gave me a break from grinding missions, and it let me customize my character. But I wanted a customized character for when I was playing missions and working the story.

So the hunting and fishing and birding is fun because the rest of the game contextualizes it.

There's definitely survival games in this vein that have done quite well, The Long Dark is probably one of the better ones. Quite playable before they even had the story for this kind of thing.

There used to be.

Wilderness (1985)


From the sound of it, RDR2 would be a great starting point to build a modern implementation of Wilderness.

Well, the gameifized version of that particular trope is quite popular (survival games, that is camping with the added spice of death).

I don't know to what extent you can remove risk-reward loops without making it a product that can't pay for its own development.

That’s basically what Firewatch is (and it’s fantastic!!!)

Aren't there survival games like "Long Dark" and "Unreal World" that do this already.

Honestly, if VR improves its immmersion VR horseback rides could be quite therapeutic for the right individuals.

Absolutely. Just do a search on YouTube for bushcraft videos. There’s a market.

Funny. John James Audubon, working in the early 1820s, didn't have a camera. So he shot lots of birds.[0]

0) https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/8e/Jo...

Edit: Oops. Make that 1820s, not 1920s.

This sounds great for replayability... but does that even matter now that digital copy auth servers will be long gone before you want to?

Kind of a boring dystopia we have here. People enjoying the great outdoors from their climate controlled bedrooms. Good thing they only kept the cute animals in the game and not the mosquitos or black flies.

The appeal of these games are that there are no consequences. You can ride your horse as fast as you want, and if you crash into something, you don't actually get hurt.

Also you can ride a horse without the requisite care, cost, time responsibility etc. You can be whoever you want, and when you get bored of that personality, you can just ditch it.

I personally don't really enjoy this game, but it's easy to see why people do.

Back in my day, we had to enjoy the great outdoors uphill both ways!

We did. People used to spend more time outside, more time walking. Older novels seem to mention animals and plants modern people wouldn't recognize.

And of course there just existed more nature. We are destroying our environment and are losing many species. It's getting harder and harder to just enjoy a carefree joke about it...

I often think a lot about this, incidentally when taking long walks when not playing video games in my free time, and continue to arrive at the same conclusion: humans are merely evolution's self-brewed extinction event. A couple of severely consequential, yet random mutations led to an overtly destructive species.

Keep in mind that evolution is just the name for the mechanism that allows DNA to continue self-preservation by means of replication and recombination, allowing it to persevere in altering conditions.

So in a (sad?) way it is merely natural that many species die off as a consequence of our actions, as it was when the Permian-Triassic extinction hit. After all they are the result of our biology. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try everything to prevent extinctions and counter-act climate change. We do know that permanent loss of life is absolutely a possibility on this planet.

While we might cause Earth to become more akin to Venus with our behaviour, the apparent evolutionary disaster might also pay off for DNA by allowing it to become interplanetary.

Back when I was a lad, we used to get up before we'd gone to bed to go down the mines!

The other way to look at it is that these experiences promote a desire to go and see the real thing, in a similar way that zoos spark a lifelong interest in the kind of wildlife and habitats that you would never have normally interacted with otherwise.

Maybe not so much with the horse riding, but I'm pretty sure most people where I live would rather I did 200km/h through the city center in a virtual racecar than in a real sports car.

Games let you do things you really, really, really shouldn't do in real life.

Imagine the number of irresponsible people going camping or horseback riding in the wilderness increasing by 100x instead of playing a game.

My worry isn't that lots of people would die--because they would--but I worry that nature would be destroyed far faster. Seeing beautiful locations that were undiscovered suddenly become tourist hotspots, they're completely destroyed in the span of months.

The article ends with a similar point: "I was often left feeling hopeless and wanting to get outside to enjoy real nature while I still could."

Ah yes, only cute animals like turkey vultures

It does shed some light on the whole Fermi Paradox thing, though.

Passenger pigeons were still around in the 1890s, weren't they? Is their omission deliberate since their range seems to have been east of the Rockies?

in 1899, probably the only place you could see a passenger pigeon would have been the Cincinnati Zoo.

They were extinct in the wild by 1895.


I believe the entirety of the game is set in a fictional equivalent of east of the Rockies, so I doubt it.

There's really not much equivalence to anywhere, other than the different biomes resemble ones you'd see in the US (outside of a side mission to Guarma, a fictional island near Cuba). There's a swamp area similar to Louisiana with a delta city called Saint Denis (pronounced San Da Knee). To the West (yes, West) of that is the 'southern' town of Rhodes with plantations and antebellum houses. Nearby is a former Civil War battlefield. Further west is the typical wild west frontier, with the nothern areas being colder and mountainous down to the more southern areas being grass and desert plains.

In game there is talk about real places (like New York, Cuba, Tahiti) but there is little context to where those are in respect to where the player is.

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