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Are Mazes at the Root of All PC Gaming?
We hate them, and yet they are everything that we love.

Wizardry I, which is awfully maze-like

The maze is perhaps
 the lowest form of game design that follows in the spirit of the sort of game we talk about when we talk about PC games. At the outset, the explorer has no idea where to go, and no information gleaned from her immediate surroundings offers any clues, other than random directions that appear equally useless. She stumbles forward until she collides with a dead end or recognizes a landmark and fears that she has walked in a circle, and the only recourse is to follow a different thread. The in-game character is inert, with the real-life player only gaining abilities by collecting memories of dead ends. If she can avoid enough of them, she wins.

So why might we say that a maze is a “PC” game? First, the primary obstacle is the accumulation of information for information’s sake. It doesn’t inform another process that’s, in fact, the game’s primary distraction. The player isn’t learning about a new enemy in Super Mario Bros. that spits a spiky ball out of its mouth, something to aid in the stomping or avoidance of enemies that spit spiky balls out of their mouths. The game of the maze plays out primarily in the player’s mind, and will probably happen only once. Once the world has been explored and puzzled through, it will probably be time to move on – there’s less of an opportunity for iterating design, in the style of Mario, where skills in the twitch game build on each other to overcome increasingly difficult levels. Mazes never really get easier.

Maze 1.0: As open-ended as Skyrim?

Let’s also describe mazes as the first open-world game worlds, as long as we’re generalizing. There are many sets of rails, and each eddy, channel, thread, or whatever you want to call it, is about as beneficial in the overall quest, of reaching the end, as any other. Every failure shades in the player’s understanding and impression of the world, whether she’s playing a top-down analog maze (on a piece of paper) or wandering through a first-person labyrinth (like in Zork I). Therefore, as with the side quests and random spawns and minor dungeons in Skyrim, the possibilities open to the player are almost as large in scope as the world’s outermost boundaries, and success won’t mean a beeline for the finish; that’s not really possible. First, the player will have to level up/learn.

The thrust of the prototypical console game (Plato’s Pac-Man) is one-dimensional, and the skill comes in how the player deviates from this ray reaching into the future. The ur-PC game is harder to pin down. A two-dimensional maze isn’t far from a working example – its corridors are one-dimensional and open up into choices. The experience travels along one of a number of rails but remains on a larger grid that tends, somewhere, to a conclusion.

Unsurprisingly, we see very few bare mazes in games nowadays. The example below, from Zork I (1980), is deadly dull.


Add doors and textures and sprites for temple fountains and castle guards twirling adamantite flails, however, and you’re halfway to Daggerfall. The distinct pleasure of PC gaming has always seemed to have something to do with its ability to “simulate” a reality in an almost realistic way and be “immersive” – no surprise that uber-PC games Deus Ex, System Shock 2 and Thief all belong to a genre, “immersive sim,” combining those two words – and it’s the randomness and obstructive qualities of the maze form that allow PC games to carry on the impression of being expansive and free while remaining intensely finite. They’re so finite, in fact, that they’re measureable in the volume of the binary data they contain. (Morrowind takes about 15 minutes to download from Steam, on a broadband connection.)

An empty, digital space is both infinitely huge and infinitely small, and to crystallize something navigable in between, we end up with The Maze: the form that any good PC game has to both adopt and run away from, if it wants to entertain anyone. It leads in about as many different directions as the player can choose but always remains within limits, building upon itself until player progress grows to such a degree that she finds her way to the end.

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