Sanctuary: Home, Hearth, and Hub in Our Virtual Worlds - quasiconundrum Blog - www.GameInformer.com
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Sanctuary: Home, Hearth, and Hub in Our Virtual Worlds

This week, Bethesda released its Hearthfire DLC for Skyrim on Xbox 360. As my copy of Skyrim is on PS3, I can't get Hearthfire now, nor can I get Dawnguard, the previously-released vampire-themed DLC. But I'm not here to debate the PS3 issue.

I'm here because it struck me that Hearthfire is considerably more appealing to me than Dawnguard. Actually, this came as no surprise to me, as I like to think I know my own tastes pretty well, but it certainly got me wondering. Dawnguard features new areas, new enemies, a new questline—not to mention a vampire skill tree, for crying out loud. In Hearthfire, on the other hand, the premise is much simpler: you build a house.

A house. And yet, the trailer I've seen and the information I've read about this DLC have me far more excited than I ever was about Dawnguard. Now, we can argue about Dawnguard's overall quality and appeal in and of itself, but that's not what I'm getting at. Instead, what got me wondering is this: what is it that's so appealing about being able to build your own house in a game?

One might say that it's simply a logical extension of Skyrim's robust, complex world. While this is true, it doesn't really explain why the concept is so attractive. Having the opportunity to make your own physical mark upon the world—this, I think, is closer to the heart of the matter. And I believe the appeal is twofold: this ability to alter the in-game world is both permanent and personal. These two aspects appeal to us in different ways, and to a lesser extent are represented by a wide variety of other in-game features as well.

Opportunities to leave a permanent, physical mark upon the world, at least in the case of Skyrim, seem elusive. Sure, you saved the College of Winterhold, and the Thieves' Guild, and the Companions, not to mention Skyrim itself. But what did you ever have to show for it? A new title? Perhaps some snazzy new gear that you probably didn't use? Or maybe it's those prestigious Archmage quarters—which, incidentally, you had already thoroughly explored, because you had full access to them before. But now, they're yours! Congratulations, you now have another bed you can sleep in. Assuming you ever sleep, that is.

Skyrim's existing houses have a similar, if somewhat more meaningful, appeal. At least in their case you can't experience the place until it's actually bought. Once it is bought, though, you can then purchase upgrades to make it even more "homely," in a manner of speaking. You can arrange books in your bookshelves, adorn your weapon racks, and dress up your mannequins. For the most part, however, these houses, and their upgrades, are static and uniform—they are not only present for everyone, they are the same for everyone.

Hearthfire, on the other hand, presents an altogether different opportunity. In the scenarios above, the player merely interacts with the game world as it already exists—those houses were a part of those towns long before you ever set foot in them or did anything to spruce them up. Hearthfire, however, allows you to add something brand-new to Skyrim's static world.

But Hearthfire is certainly not the first instance of a game allowing the player to permanently alter the look of its world. I'll set aside examples like The Sims and Minecraft, as these games feature inherently dynamic worlds, in which the player, as a matter of course, has the ability to change his or her surroundings. I'm talking about games, like Skyrim, which feature a largely static world, but give the player some option—however minute—to alter the face of that world.

Right now, I'm playing Xenoblade Chronicles on the Wii. It's a fantastic game all around, with an interesting story, an expansive and varied world to explore, and a fun, immersive combat system. Despite all of these great features, though, there is one questline in particular that has piqued my interest: the rebuilding of a town that was destroyed by invaders. I've barely begun this questline, but still, there is an undeniably powerful appeal in being able to, through my own actions, permanently affect the look of the game's world.

The Assassin's Creed series also features similar world interactions, from the rebuilding of Monteriggioni in Assassin's Creed II to the restoration of shops, historical landmarks, and assassin dens in Brotherhood and Revelations. A more esoteric example—but one that stands out prominently in my mind—is from the PC game Neverwinter Nights 2, specifically the Storm of Zehir expansion, in which the player takes control of a fortress and is able to rebuild and strengthen it in preparation for an attack. And perhaps the most dramatic example of a game allowing the player to permanently alter its world takes place in Fallout 3, in which you are given the opportunity to wipe an entire town clean off the face of the Earth.

As opposed to simply making a permanent mark upon a game's world, however, the concept of establishing a personal foothold is perhaps a bit more nebulous. But in a general sense, as human beings I believe we all have an innate desire for a certain amount of personal space. Some of us need more personal space than others, and some seem to have little need for it at all, but each of us needs a means by which to pause, to reflect, to be with ourselves. We need a sanctuary, so to speak, whether it is an actual, physical place or simply a reflective mode of thought amid a storm of outward activity.

Our games contain numerous aspects that embody this innate need for personal space. In many action-oriented games, this sanctuary may be as simple as a pause menu. Within other genres, the embodiment of personal space can take on all sorts of forms, probably the most prominent of which is what we refer to as a game's "hub." It is a place free of enemies, a place to pause, to reflect, and to gauge our next course of action. There may be merchants here, as well as other characters and quests. We may even have a home here. This sanctuary is the place we return to, when we need a bit of personal space, a quiet moment in which we're not constantly on guard against enemies and other perils.

That's how I view it, anyway—but I am a bit of a romantic. For others, a game's hub may be little more than a refueling point, a means to an end. These, I suspect, are likely to be the more action-oriented gamers, those for whom a simple pause menu may in fact be enough of a breather to keep them going. In fact, I might even go so far as to theorize that there is a direct correlation between a particular gamer's need for personal space and his or her desire for an in-game sanctuary. It's an interesting thought, at the least.

I, however, enjoy my sanctuaries. They may take the form of a hub, or a house, or any other sort of in-game "haven," so to speak. In Mass Effect, for example, it is the Normandy; Fable III took a unique approach and transformed the standard pause menu into a physical sanctuary—which was dubbed, incidentally, the Sanctuary. On the other hand, there have been instances in which I was disappointed by a game's distinct lack of such a "safe place." In Batman: Arkham City, for instance, I constantly felt ungrounded, for just this reason. I craved a haven, a Batcave, some place where I could—even briefly—seek refuge, be at peace, and perhaps even have the chance to personally influence and interact with that place.

I get a thrill every time a game grants me the opportunity to apply a personal touch to my sanctuaries, be it through building, or furnishing, or even simply exploring and interacting. Such opportunities serve to further establish myself within that virtual world, to further immerse myself. But I do wonder, why building? Why is it so appealing to have the ability to alter the look of the game's otherwise static world?

Perhaps it reflects an inner desire to influence our own world, and to leave our legacy within it. Games constantly offer us myriad opportunities to do the impossible—in fact, in some sense one might say this is the very essence of video games. These "impossibilities" can extend from the truly inconceivable—such as saving the world—to the downright mundane—such as, say, building a house and raising a family. Yes, we can do these things in real life, and many of us do. But why shouldn't the Dovahkiin have the same opportunity to make his personal mark, to leave a permanent legacy of his own? After all, he is saving the world.

As for what it is about making such a permanent mark upon a game's world that appeals to me personally, I have to say I feel a certain sense of righteous accomplishment whenever I build something in a game world that is otherwise unchanging. So many of our interactions in most games are inherently destructive: killing hordes of enemies, sometimes even destroying environments, and then killing some more. Outside of largely predetermined plot events, most games offer us relatively little opportunity to affect constructive change in our virtual worlds.

It is somewhat ironic, then, that in my experience, such opportunities have never quite lived up to my expectations. It seems that regardless of the scope of these constructive scenarios, I always want more. More options, more potential for customization, for personalization. And while it is undeniably limited in terms of options, I think content like Hearthfire is not only a step in the right direction, it is a harbinger of the wealth of options that may yet come.

Whether we're simply utilizing the various sanctuaries presented to us within a game, or taking the opportunity to build our own, we are all, to varying degrees, constantly seeking means by which to establish a personal connection to our game worlds. We take comfort in knowing that we have a place in that virtual world, and that our presence within it actually matters. With each decision we make, with every change we affect, we leave behind a piece of ourselves, a legacy to mark our passage.

And if we're really lucky, that cold, virtual world will start to feel just a little bit like home.

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