One of my favourite things about video games, other than narratives, is exploration. I love the feeling of being transported to somewhere wonderful and given a new world to discover, not knowing what lies in store around the next corner or over that mountain in the distance.
This is the reason I find myself always returning to The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO). I might put the controller down for a while after playing it constantly for several weeks, but you can guarantee I’ll end up going straight back to it after a few months. It’s thanks to Solarayo from Ace Asunder (my gorgeous partner for The Great Blog Crawl event) that I’ve reinstalled it again recently after she decided to try it for herself during the lockdown. It’s amazing how quickly you get back into it and it feels as though you’ve never been away.
There are so many things to enjoy about this game. Find a book and the tales within help create a world which feels living, with its own history and colour. Dungeons provide plenty of action if you’re brave enough. And when you’re tired of slaying monsters, you can head in any direction and simply run because there’s all sorts of other things waiting out there. A villager who’ll reveal some local gossip, a hunter chasing a fox, a clifftop with a beautiful view; all simple events that don’t have any real impact on your journey but ones which add more depth to your adventure.
This partly explains why I’ve always been keen to give Sea of Thieves a go, even though it’s taken me over two years to get around to doing it. I can’t deny that my fondness for the Monkey Island series has helped too: there’s just something about swashbuckling characters who are out to seek their fortune which is attractive. The blue waves, sandy white shores, swaying foliage and shadowy caves of Rare’s 2018 release always appeared as though they were hiding plenty of secrets and buried treasure.
So why such a long delay? Well, as I’ve written before, I’ve never been all that keen on competitive titles. Long workdays, family commitments and adult responsibilities mean I don’t have enough time – or the desire – to improve my skills to an adequate level to be able to compete. The lockdown may have given a lot of us more time to play video games but in my ‘normal’ life, it seems pointless spending the few free hours I have being slated by my teammates for not being good enough.
But when friend-of-the-blog Phil offered to give me an overview, I gratefully accepted. Here was my chance to finally try out Sea of Thieves without being made to feel completely useless by a group of strangers online and I knew he’d be patient with my lack of hand-eye coordination. In preparation for our session, I created a character (a blonde-haired pirate in honour of Guybrush Threepwood) and worked my way through the short tutorial, trying to remember the buttons so I wouldn’t let our small team down. So far, so good.
In fact, the Maiden Voyage section captured exactly what I thought the game would be like in my head. You awake on a dessert island and are greeted by the ghost of the Pirate Lord who kindly guides you through the controls. You’re given the opportunity to explore after finishing with him and this was exactly what I wanted: beautiful beaches, tranquil waterfalls, abandoned caves, secrets notes and the promise of treasure. If the rest of the title was like this, I immediately knew it was going to be one I enjoyed.
And for the first hour, it was. Phil showed me where the Mysterious Stranger was so I could find out more about the three Trading Companies; where the Gold Hoarders were located so I could collect our first voyage from them; and how to loot barrels for food and cannon balls. Less usefully, he also showed me how to drink enough grog to make your character throw up – and then how to catch the vomit in a bucket and throw it over your teammates (that’s just his sense of humour). After spending a short time at the Outpost, it was time to hit the seas.
I’ll admit, he thankfully did most of the work while we sailed but I tried to help where I could and not get in the way. I could see here why playing with a team was beneficial because there were several jobs to take care of at once, including steering the ship and angling the sails. We made it to the spot marked on our map and finally set out to find some treasure on a small island – after I was momentary distracted by how cute the snakes were and became sidetracked with chasing a pig along the beach.
The good news was that we eventually managed to find what we were looking for. The bad news is that we also found other players.
Before we could even make it to our ship with our loot, we were ambushed by a team of four others. Obviously I’d predicted this because Sea of Thieves is a competitive multiplayer; but what I didn’t expect was just how relentless this group would be. They kept knocking me down repeatedly and were waiting for me every time I respawned. They even ignored our white flag once we’d raised it and after my fifth death in a row, I gave up trying to defend myself or attack them back. Was this supposed to be fun?
I was aware we’d eventually end up in battles with other players. But I hadn’t expected it to happen so quickly, and I was hoping I would have been given more time to prepare for it. The initial enjoyment of sailing in our boat, discovering dessert islands and even being crushed by a massive Kraken eventually sunk below the waves, along with my desire to continue playing. That was the one and only time I played Sea of Thieves; I’ve now uninstalled it from our Xbox One and I’m sure I’ll ever bother returning to it.
Don’t get wrong: I completely understand that the cause of my disappointment with the game was me. I’d been focusing on the exploration elements I’d been attracted to and not what the title fundamentally was – an online action-adventure multiplayer where participants strive to become a Pirate Legend. When it became apparent that what I was searching for here wouldn’t be delivered in the way I wanted it to be, and the gameplay was going to be far more competitive than I could ever get into, I couldn’t help but feel short-changed.
I spoke to Phil about this the following day and he mentioned a thread on the Sea of Thieves forum, where someone had posted a suggestion for a peaceful mode for ‘people who just want to complete voyages and not be bothered by other pirates’. I checked it out for myself and was surprised by how many negative responses they’d received. Comments such as ‘I’m pretty sure it says in the name SEA OF THIEVES not sea of peace’ were not only grammatically incorrect, but not very respectful.
I don’t get it. Why would certain players feel so hostile towards the implementation of a new mode which didn’t change anything about the competitive aspect they enjoyed, but had the benefit of welcoming different kinds of players into the community? Rare would expand their customer-base as a result and could potentially use the extra profit earned to implement further improvements to the game, and surely that’s a win-win situation for everybody? If being a pirate means I must deal with scallywags like the people on that forum, it doesn’t seem so appealing any longer.
Have you ever wanted to play a game in a way other than it’s been designed? And how do you feel about exploration or non-competitive modes in new releases? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.