The Roles of Rivers: Waterways in game play

Passing over the historic Brazos River this past Memorial Day weekend I flashed back to Fallout: New Vegas [FNV] and the time spent exploring the Colorado River and its shorelines. I heard the distinct sound my character would make as he started to drown and gulp for air, trying to sneakily reach a distant shore. I saw John Marston, of Red Dead Redemption, herding cattle (no, not nerds) against the river’s current in hopes to rope out a future for his polygon family. I visualized screenshots of Bethesda’s upcoming Elder Scrolls Skyrim and the beautiful rivers rendered with its new engine. I then swerved back into my lane and finished crossing the bridge.

Were I almost met my watery death, the Brazos River.

What this brief brush with wet death brought to mind, other than “Watch the road!”, was the huge roles rivers play in games. At times rivers act as a game’s protagonist or as a roadblock to exploration. Some developers use them to create a natural looking “invisible wall” that your character can’t pass – I’m looking at you Left 4 Dead. As in FNV, a river can play an integral part to the storyline and an actual enabler to exploration.

In real time strategy [RTS] games rivers can be (as is the case in real life) an asset that can garner you resources or positional advantages – a fine example of this can be seen in the entire series of Civilization games. In a war focused RTS a river can help protect your main base’s flanks, a tactic I used to my advantage constantly in Relic’s Company of Heroes.

The bridges of Company of Heroes Lyon map made protecting my flanks a bit easier.

As was the case this year with the Missouri and Mississippi, real rivers around us can create stories of their own with each flood. They can bring new twist and turns to the world’s geography and to a game’s narrative. Rivers were the basis of cities in early America and provided life, and death, to those around them. The same can be said of rivers in video games but without the actual pain of loss or the excitement of life…unless you’re me, were at times the difference can become like the water, murky.