Amazon’s new MMO, New World, may be the latest victim of cancel culture. New World is a game set on a pseudo-colonial island called Aeternum. At first glance, New World has all the trappings of a game aimed to address colonialism, its effects on the environment and how it forces people to battle each other for a place in the world.
The result? The game utterly fails. On a surface level, New World is a game that was bound to touch on some hard subjects. Yet in execution, it somehow completely skates over all of them, leaving several missed opportunities in its wake.
When I initially got this game, I was excited to feel something, either negative or positive. When you first load up New World, a Spanish Conquistador greets you with a disclaimer that the game's developers include people from multiple cultures, similar to the disclaimer in Civilization VI. That got me pumped. Surely, this game was bent on attacking colonialism, and ready to tick someone off.
Instead, that was the last bit of emotion I would feel for the game, other than frustration at lagging graphics and game-breaking bugs. This is a real shame, because the Caribbean setting that Aeternum channels has a turbulent history of strife, with many problems stemming from its colonization.
Caribbean history and shallow stories
The Taino of the Caribbean were the among the first people to have contact with the Spanish colonists. When Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492, he reported to the Spanish royalty about his dealings with them. He also called them “Indians,” because he mistook the area for India. Columbus later implemented a labor system that rewarded the Spanish with the labor of the Indigenous population. He enslaved the region's natives, and tortured them to reveal the locations of gold throughout the area.
The harsh realities of colonization hit the Caribbean first. The area has a devastating history — so why doesn't New World make any attempt to grapple with it?
To say New World has a plot might be giving the game too much credit. New World has a bare-bones premise, which barely explains the lore of the world, let alone address issues of colonialism. You are simply shipwrecked on an island with mysterious crystals, which allow you to never age. You must struggle against the villainous Corrupted on the island, and take control of the land. That’s it. I wish there were more to say.
During one of the quests, you'll learn about Azoth, a mineral specific to the island, which allows you to fast-travel across the map. While I was playing, I could not help but think about my current playthrough of Final Fantasy XIV, and a story arc where you investigate that world's fast-travel crystals. All I could think was that Final Fantasy had both a better storyline, and a better attempt to explain the ramifications of colonization in a fantasy world.
Getting it wrong, but keeping it fun
My problem with New World isn’t that it takes a disagreeable stance on colonialism. My problem is that it doesn’t take a stance on the idea at all, while trying to sell itself as a colonial-era game. Ultimately, the game has a boring story because it is not willing to risk making people angry.
Let’s compare New World to Horizon Zero Dawn, a game built on Indigenous aesthetics and mythology — a design choice with which I disagree. I still enjoyed the game, and could not wait to play it. The first time I played Horizon Zero Dawn, I could not put it down, if only because I could not wait to see what the developers would get wrong.
With New World, the lack of surprises and risks makes it a slog. Furthermore, New World feels utterly unplayable when you hit roadblocks or game-breaking bugs.
This game has a lot of untapped potential, and missed a big opportunity to explore Indigenous stories for a bigger audience. For contrast, I have a lot of Native friends who love playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Even though Skyrim is about Nordic people, it deals a lot with colonization in a way we can recognize. We can also remove ourselves from the setting enough that it’s an enjoyable gaming experience.
Stardew Valley, Animal Crossing and Skyrim all fall into this category. All of these titles have something that Natives can relate to, or want to get away from, and have massive gaming audiences. I feel as though the New World developers were so scared of insulting this demographic that they elected to do nothing with them instead. For the most part, it was another way to alienate the Indigenous demographic.
Missed opportunities with factions
Once you reach a certain level in New World, you can join a faction: Covenant, Marauders, or Syndicate. The factions have little to do with the plot, but play a lot into New World’s colonizing aspect. Players from the three factions can fight each other for territory. They can also get involved in other PVP adventures, such as ambushing players outside of safe zones (perhaps while that player is watching a cutscene).
A majority of the game's mechanics focus on faction territories. These represent the biggest missed opportunity in the whole game. When I started the faction quest chain, I was so excited. Surely there was a hidden faction in the game, right? I scoured the web for signs of a secret faction, which would neutralize the effects of other factions, and return contested areas to the land. A fourth faction could represent the Native people in an area who are not Corrupted. Alternatively, it could be a group of people who want nothing to do with any faction, and want to return the area back to its natural condition.
I reasoned that a game based on colonizing new territories would also have a way to return each territory to a time before colonization, just like many current, real-world Indigenous movements across the globe. But I was wrong. I would have loved nothing more than to belong to a faction where you have to finish game quests in order to gain entry, just like joining the Dark Brotherhood in Skyrim. Instead, you can just walk up to a faction representative and talk to them. Once again, my hopes were dashed.
New World's future
In the first few weeks after this game came out, I hung out in its online chat server. I asked fellow gamers how I could just focus on the plot and not worry about getting sniped by an enemy faction. They asked me why I'd want to do that.
As early as a week after the game’s release, I realized that there wasn't much substance in New World. The game could have gone for any flavor and any political stance. Instead, it took the vanilla, "not much to it" route. New reports suggest that New World is shedding 135,000 players per week, and it’s no wonder. When you promise a lot, but fall short in everything but aesthetics, you are going to lose a lot.
My advice to players is this: If you want a plotline that deals with colonialism, go pick up the umpteenth iteration of Skyrim that just dropped. It’ll suit you much better.