Sea of Thieves finally dropped anchor this month, opening a new world of pirate swagger to PC and Xbox One owners across the world. Despite some matchmaking and server setbacks, the merits of the game have been scrawled across every game review site around, but one particular element of the game has received less attention than many give it credit for. I’ll start with some tales from the ocean.
The first tale comes from Brandin Tyrrel of IGN: “I first thought my bucket was only good for bailing out water. Easy enough to grasp, right? But once I learned I could drink too much ale, put the resulting sick in the bucket, and then throw it at an enemy to disorient them, I quickly started to reconsider the real value of seemingly straightforward items.”
Then again, Paul Tassi’s experience somewhat differs: “I spawned in a bar with a barkeep that wouldn’t speak to me. A prompt said I needed a tankard , but I couldn’t pick up any of the 30 lying around the bar”
When we speak of intuitive objects we’re talking about video game objects that reflect the real world to the extent that you can use them for pretty much anything you would do in reality. Puking into a bucket and throwing it at the enemy, strapping loot to your back and hanging off the back of a ship to avoid enemy detection. In an ideal Sea of Thieves world it’s not about what you find, it’s how you use it – and that both breeds and encourages the purest and oldest form of human creativity, experimentation. It’s not a stretch to envision this kind of dynamic interaction for Rare’s title. Toted as a vibrant open world for social play, a sandbox of immense proportions, Sea of Thieves stands for everything intuitive objects can accomplish, and yet currently falls short of implementing these values consistently.
Creativity, teamwork, those ‘aha’ and ‘what if’ moments that ultimately lead to success or spectacular failure – Rare has been cultivating these elements, and the emotions that ultimately go along with them, since its first E3 demos. They’ve achieved this dynamism in their world design – the threat of a storm, the potential turbulence of the surf. They’ve managed to incubate an experience which is at once defined by the user but also highly intertwined with the world’s ecosystem. This experience is the essential foundation on which multiplayer sandbox worlds need to layer dynamic interaction. In essence, Rare’s discourse of ‘redesign yourself as a brand new pirate and do whatever you want with that power’ isn’t fully supported by the nitty gritty of everyday interactions. Unfortunately this nitty gritty is often what sets experiences like this apart.
Sea of Thieves was never destined to act as a fully immersive experience. With its stylised cartoon visuals and supernatural folklore remnants, it’s not a virtual reality machine. That’s not to say it can’t, and shouldn’t, strive for a dynamic, responsive user experience however. In fact, Rare’s initial discourse surrounding Sea of Thieves put considerable emphasis on this freedom of experimentation and player manipulation of the game world. Cast your mind back to those early E3 presentations. You can shoot yourself out of the cannon?! The developer play through we all witnessed was designed to show off just how much gameplay is designed to fit around the player’s decisions and needs, rather than the other way around. Tyrrel’s experience epitomises the creativity and intuition Rare developers want their players to express, whereas Tassi unfortunately saw the effects of oversight in this respect.
There are, no doubt, thousands of objects in the Sea of Thieves game world. To make each one interactive in every single way a human will use them would be a mammoth task. In so many words, it’s never been done before and would represent an unprecedented achievement. If there’s any environment it will work in, however, it’s Sea of Thieves.
Why Have Intuitive Objects?
The short answer: it makes gameplay more fun. The long answer? Let’s get into that.
Everything is a simulation game from David O’Reilly that hit PS4 consoles this time last year. It puts players in the role of literally everything in the Universe – from tiny cells to polar bears, eagles to snails. The fascinating thing about this experience, however, is the fact that when players are offered the opportunity to play as everything they believe they can do anything. This is all achieved using one of game design’s best friends – simplicity. There’s no confrontation, no goals, no special moves determined by each organism. You simply are a moose, and then you are a moon. The potential of unlimited possibility is only achieved through the player’s own belief that it exists, it’s an intricately realised illusion made possible only through the simplicity it runs on. Call it mundane, call it a walking simulator – player feedback from Everything is extremely powerful. The levels of immersion and identification with the game world witnessed in Everything was unprecedented, and players’ reported intense flow states and singularity with the digital environment they were inhabiting.
One of the biggest reasons such immersion and singularity was made possible in Everything was the fact that the word ‘no’ didn’t exist in this universe. Place yourself in Paul Tassi’s shoes, you’ve entered a tavern in the vibrant, dynamic world of Sea of Thieves. You need to pick up a tankard and you see one on the bar – great there’s one right there! Oh, no. That’s not the tankard the game wants you to pick up so you scrabble randomly in the air, your hand slipping through this obviously decorative object until you give up. When you walk into the tavern your belief in the game world is at an all time high. You believe you are a pirate and you believe you are thirsty. Once you stop being able to interact with the game world in the same capacity as reality, that singularity is broken, possibly irretrievably. When the game world doesn’t match up with every day truths of reality, any possibility of identification is shattered.
We still return, however, to the intense work required to make every single object in Sea of Thieves interactive in a number of potential ways. This is where our discussion of Everything comes into play. Everything achieves the illusion of what Sea of Thieves initially hinted at in its earliest demos. That is, a dynamic world centred around the player’s will. Rather than saying no, or creating decorative tankards, Everything never introduced a context it would have to refuse. You could do everything you were introduced to in the game world, and if the game couldn’t handle something you weren’t introduced to it. Put simply, the decorative tankards shouldn’t have been there. In reality, this concept can be extrapolated in much more depth than we have page space to dedicate here. At the moment, Sea of Thieves is saying no too much. Regardless of how small these details are, any tankard is enough to break the belief in player agency.
Why Sea of Thieves?
Sea of Thieves runs off the discourse that the ocean holds a wealth of opportunity and possibility. A secretive, unexplored arena where even the scalliest of wags can make it rich, the sea represents everything a video game world should stand for. Experimentation, curiosity, and imagination are greatly rewarded on the open waves, and so should they be in Sea of Thieves. That’s what the game was built on. That’s the hype -wave it created and rode all the way to release day – the opportunity to explore and experiment with gratifying rewards for your efforts. A logical extension of that creed would be the illusion of open, unencumbered interaction. Sea of Thieves is uniquely positioned to break open this chest of dynamic user experience, all they need to do is jimmy the lock.