Something made me hate Fargoth.

I had just entered the world of Morrowind. I had enough problems without this guy in my face, whining about his stupid ring. One well-aimed arrow shot later, and I found myself squatting in his secluded Seyda Neen cottage. But it wasn't just somewhere to keep my spare weapons and armor. I found myself decorating. I kept the place clean. It was my home.

That's when it really hit me: This wasn't just some level in a game. This was my vacation home in a digital environment.

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Contemporary games are quickly becoming self-contained virtual worlds. Most levels aren't just paths through streets or buildings - they're entire square miles of cityscape or countryside that you can see, hear and even feel if you've got controller vibration turned on.

Game designers, who 20 years ago could rely simply on a fun gameplay mechanic, have been replaced by world-builders. Today's biggest games have unique architecture, precise physics, history, culture and creatures beyond imagination. Titles like Mass Effect and Halo have even spawned entire novels that take place in their unique game worlds.

We've spent hours, even days in these worlds, from BioShock with its sprawling underwater city of Rapture; to Lost Planet and Gears of War with their alien landscapes and savage life forms; to Grand Theft Auto IV with not only the streets and structures of Liberty City, but its own name brands, fast food chains, radio stations and politics. These games provide us with a name, occupation and sometimes even friends and family. Open-world game are like being whisked away into a digital witness protection program where you are told who you are and why.

Oblivion Lead Designer Emil Pagliarulo believes that we have delivered the promise of virtual reality that was often discussed and hyped in the '90s. Through first-person visuals, realistic physics and simulated time and weather, game developers have brought about the visions of immersive VR, but without the bulky headgear and excessive wires.

When you play an MMOG, a game like Oblivion or Bethesda's current big project, Fallout 3, "you're not controlling that character, you are that character," Pagliarulo says. "You get a sense of control over the world that you can't find anywhere else."

A fellow Bethesda world-builder, Executive Producer Todd Howard, describes these virtual worlds as existing in two layers, the believable world and the game world.

"The allure [of the believable world] is that players can imprint themselves," Howard says. "Players think 'I want to be this person, I want to do this thing!' and it's our job to fulfill as many of those
ideas as possible."

To do that job, Howard believes in one principle above all others: "Great games are played, not made." He explains that if you don't approach the development of games as a gamer, then you're all about the process and not the product. "It's pure entertainment you can tweak. You have to know constantly 'What's the vibe? What does it feel like?' in order to tweak the story and the world and get them to highlight each other. ... And the simpler everything is, the better it all works together."

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