Posts tagged Skyrim
Every now and then, I sit down and think about my “dream game”, the one I would make if I had unlimited time, unlimited cash, and unlimited talent at my disposal. I realize that there’s no guarantee that it would be feasible, or even of interest to anyone else, but it would be an interesting project for me, nonetheless.
Ideally, it would be a sandbox cyberpunk title, because I believe in the sandbox model, and I love old-school cyberpunk. I’ve written about some of the ideas here before, but what got me thinking today was whether or not it was even worthwhile to do an urban sandbox title in the age of Skyrim.
Grand Theft Auto would say “yes”. It was considered to be THE sandbox standard for many gamers and for quite some time. You could jack cars, drive around the city unfettered, mug people, steal stuff, kill people and…I think that’s pretty much it. I’m sure there are achievements to be had for locating certain things in the world, but as far as honest to goodness exploration goes, GTA really pales in comparison to Skyrim.
In Skyrim, you’re dropped into the uncharted wilds and are pointed in an initial direction. After that, it’s hands off. As you go about it, you find those paths into the woods, or even just ground that’s apparently uncluttered by undergrowth, which instantly sets off the endorphins for exploration because you know that the path into the mountains can end with a cave, or ruins, or a temple. After a few hours, you forgot what the heck you were setting out to do in the first place. And that never stops! So many people have lost countless hours of well-intentioned completion in Skyrim, not because they were sighseeing, but because they started out sightseeing, and then got sucked into a totally unrelated series of side-quests based entirely on what they found on the other side of the mountain they had no good reason to climb.
I haven’t played a lot of GTA (the combat annoyed me, and I suck at the driving), but I tried to mentally apply the Skyrim theory to an urban sandbox design, and came up short. We live in the same reality that GTA inhabits (though only to a degree. I may drive like a maniac, but I don’t pick up or kill hookers). We know what it’s like to move through a city, where people travel in vehicles more often than they do on foot and move at higher speeds along smooth streets designed specifically to bring people from point A to point B in the most efficient way possible. In between these pathways we have obstacles like buildings or infrastructure or natural formations like coastlines or rocky outcroppings. Even if we get off the streets and head down alleys or break into people’s apartments in GTA, how much variation could we expect? Each apartment has a couch, a TV, a microwave oven, and in a singular building each apartment design is just like the others in that building. I just don’t think that urban sandboxes provide the same kind of fuel for exploration that Skyrim had.
Although sandboxing is far more then the environment, the reality of the urban environment is a limitation that the realistic setting imposes. Consider Fallout 3. While not fantasy, it could be considered fantastical, a bridge between the reality of an urban environment and the make-believe world of high-fantasy. Fallout 3 and Skyrim can design their worlds without having to faithfully replicate our every day experiences, which aren’t really all that exciting venues for spontaneous exploration. The artistic license that the fantasy setting affords allows the environment to play a more central role for exploration in Skyrim then it ever could in GTA.
I came across a thoughtful post on narrative differences between Skyrim and Dark Souls in which the author put forth that the Dark Souls method of piecemeal narrative was superior to the “in your face” method used by Skyrim. Although I have not played Dark Souls, I have played Skyrim, and so I had enough mental ammo to disagree with the author’s overall assertion that Bethesda essentially “dropped the ball”. Which got me realizing exactly how I prefer my narrative presentation in games these days. Naturally, I had to bring in Star Wars: The Old Republic, partly because it soft-launches tomorrow, and partly because I know it’ll help this post show up in Google searches.
The Educated Nord
Skyrim is a “country in a box”, as one person described it. It’s a sandbox, in fact, allowing players to go where they like, when they like, for whatever reason they like. I’d venture to guess that more ground was covered “just because” than it was due to someone just being sent somewhere specific by an NPC. Often times a player could easily enter a dungeon or ruin and just ransack the place in true barbarian fashion, but that would occur in the absence of any narrative at all. Instead, Skyrim’s quests are sourced almost entirely from NPC conversation.
That’s a damn shame, because there are dozens of books in the game which serve almost no purpose. Some give you skill points, but the rest are “fluff”. In a way, if you want to immerse yourself in the lore of The Elder Scrolls you can read these histories and fictions-within-fiction, but in the context of the world of Skyrim, so much more could have been done. For example, books could allude to different events or different locations which might otherwise be unassuming if the player happens upon them in the act of exploration, but which unlock new areas or situations in those areas once the player has skimmed the knowledge necessary to unlock them. I’m not talking about adding a quest to your log, either. I’m talking about putting two and two together beyond the fourth wall and having the player discover what the book is telling him.
This is part of the author’s argument for the narrative in Dark Souls: that the player is given pieces to do with as he pleases. If he ignores them, then he runs the risk that an event or NPC may pass him by, never to be seen again. But if he puts real world brainpower behind the pieces of lore, he could discover content that may not have been happened upon through script, or by chance. It may only be lore, or it may be actual content (I don’t know).
But the author excuses Bethesda’s corner-cutting by suggesting that the world was so big that it couldn’t possibly accommodate such nuances, which is not something I agree with. Skyrim is a game of exploration. Moreover, it’s a game of choice: where to go, who to align with, which conversations to take, what arms to wield. That seems more the point of the game then to confine the player between the covers of a storybook, and Bethesda chose to focus more on the opportunities for off-the-cuff exploration then they did on nuance. Could they have done more? I suspect so, but although I don’t have the sales figures, I have a suspicion that Skyrim’s freedom has outsold Dark Soul’s clever narrative devices by a wide margin. I don’t believe that the lack of advanced narrative has mitigated the impression that Skyrim has left on gamers.
The Camera Eye
While thinking about this, I had to agree that narrative presentation in Skyrim, while good and fitting for the design, didn’t grab me the way the story presentation in SWTOR does. I placed both on a continuum, adding in the presentation of narrative used by MMOs. Why MMOs? In certain circles, a lot has been done comparing MMOs to Skyrim. Since SWTOR sits somewhere between traditional MMOs and the single player feel of Skyrim, it’s appropriate. Also, I’ve been playing MMOs for so long now it’s the majority of what I know.
MMOs narrative modus operandi generally takes the form of a “wall of text” which the player is expected to read in order to obtain the background “story” for the quest. So the wisdom goes, few people read these walls, preferring to quickly read the objectives and to worry about the details once they’re ready to tackle it. When combined with modern MMO’s quest tracker and map highlighting, there’s very little incentive to actually pay attention to what the NPC is saying, when the NPC is saying it. If MMOs are about the loot, then narrative is the bottom of the barrel in what the majority of the players care about, to the point where it probably wouldn’t be missed if it were simply not there (that’s extreme, I know, and actually untrue).
Skyrim puts you into the story in real time, a mechanic introduced by Half Life (I believe) which removes the need for cut-scenes, leaves the player in-character, and supposedly enhances the feeling of immersion. To a degree, this works because of the aforementioned points, but when I had switched from Skyrim to SWTOR, I preferred SWTOR’s method of “cinematic cut-scenes” to Skyrim’s in-character presentation.
The key, I believe, is in the “cinematic”. When playing Skyrim, the first person view allows you to look in any direction (when eavesdropping), or forces you to awkwardly face your single conversation partner as they stiffly said their peace. While normal “polite” conversations are intended to behave this way, it can break the immersion of a video game which is purposefully straddling the divide between interactivity and narrative presentation. It feels wooden and artificial.
Contrast this to SWTOR, which takes the camera out of the head of the player and gives it to the dolly crew. We see both the NPC and the player – and this system has allowances for multiple participants. It’s borderline cut-scene with limited interactivity, but it fits the game very well as Star Wars is first and foremost a cinematic franchise which fans have wanted to inhabit for decades. It’s because the style fits, and not necessarily because of the style or execution is superior to any other, that I find myself more in-tune with SWTOR’s narrative presentation then I am with Skyrim’s, which means I remember more about the missions from the former then I do from the later.
I’ve played Daggerfall, Morrowind, Oblivion and now Skyrim, and I’m convinced that there can’t be another entry in The Elder Scrolls series after Skyrim. My scientifically correct theory is based entirely off of the theme music. Music in games, as in movies is designed to set the tone (!) and to act as the emotional bedrock to any scene. Therefor, my theory – which is a result of minutes of in-depth research and is supported by a scientific community of myself — is as follows:
Nerevar Rising: Theme from Morrowind
Sweeping and epic.
Reign of the Septims: Theme from Oblivion
Same theme as Nerevar, but more heroic and urgent.
Skyrim Main Theme: Theme from Skyrim
Epic, heroic and brutal. If this doesn’t make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, you’re a zombie. Please kill yourself and save us the airfare of us having to do it for you.
By my projections, the theme from another TES game would have to be so ungawdly beyond epic that the following would occur upon hearing it:
1. Your brain would burst through your skull.
2. It would punch the nearest 20 people in the face with sheer barbarian brutality.
3. Gathering with all of the other newly emerged brains, they would form an army that would march across the planet in a scene that would make anything from Braveheart look like a kindergarten playground, setting fire to everything they encounter.
4. The Earth would explode.
5. The Earth would then implode.
6. Just to prove how awesome it is, the theme would resurrect the Earth, which it would then re-explode.
7. The universe would explode.
To put it into perspective, I give you this hastily constructed projection graph:
In conclusion, any furthering of the franchise would put the universe at risk during the opening credits, which, if my theory is correct, would mean that either A) any game following said theme would have to be suitably more epic then the theme itself, or B) we’d never know, because the universe would be dead before the opening credits.
I will now open the floor to questions.
This is a difficult post, technically, for a few reasons. I had an epiphany this weekend, which came as both a surprise and which was also not surprising. It is, however, something I am concerned about discussing because I know that any way I frame it, it’ll become fodder for some partisan camp to seize upon, and I really don’t want it to become a rallying banner for some frothy-mouthed fan or anti-fan to carry into battle. It’s also difficult because it involves the presence of a certain NDA locked MMO, which means I can’t speak of specifics that illuminate my points. But I’ll give it a shot. So here’s a disclaimer!
This post is not in support of anything. It’s also not an attack on anything. If you want to badmouth the principals involved in this discussion, please take it elsewhere. I’m writing this because it’s my own epiphany, and I’ll not let it be used to support to deny any quality product intended for our entertainment.
And so, I would like to start by saying that I believe that I’ve come at least to within sight of the end of my affair with the massive multiplayer online game genre. I’ve been playing them since I beta tested Ultima Online over crappy dial-up connections, up until now, where I maintain a six-month-at-a-time subscription to Rift. I’ve played all the “big name” games, and have played or at least tried or tested legions of smaller titles in the genre. I’ve played alone, with friends, and with strangers. I’ve been ganked, and have ganked, have both enjoyed and have hated PvP, and I do not regret the time or money spent having played in this genre. Not one bit.
Part of the allure of the MMO was that, at first, it was new. Back in the late 90s, “social networking” meant leaving posts on BBS or chatting in IRC. Having real live moving avatars was fantastic and exciting. As the Internet took off, and people became more and more interconnected, it only made sense that gaming follow suit and offer a more group-oriented experience. The single player game was declared “dead”, at least in it’s traditional, offline form, slain by the multiplayer, always connected experience.
Looking back from our vantage point of today, maybe the MMO genre has grown too fast. Video games themselves are barely 30-some-odd years old, with at least 1/3rd of that knowing the “modern MMO”. Now we have hundreds of them, maybe thousands. Sadly, the best mirror I can hold up to the current state of the MMO genre is Twilight. If you want a more palatable example, then Harry Potter. In both cases, the extreme popularity of a singular product spawned hundreds of similar or outright rip-offs in a very short amount of time, all looking to get some of the original’s zeitgeist while the getting was good. If the existence of Twilight is bad, then surely the existence of a Twilight clone is even even bigger target for derision? That’s what we’ve got in the MMO genre: constant arguments over who’s the latest copy of World of Warcraft, or a general malaise over features that many see as having been stagnant since EverQuest. This is apparently fuel for some, but for those of us who aren’t as partisan, it’s tiring to have to hear the same chatter over and over again with each and every new game.
This isn’t to say that it’s not warranted; some of us just don’t let it color our opinions of the product as a whole, standing on it’s own merits and not using it as a whipping-boy for our issues with other games. Still, there’s really only so many times we can look the other way as marketing departments work their hardest to convince us that this time it’s going to be different, but when it’s really only incremental if we’re lucky. It’s easy and even lazy to just dismiss and complain. It’s difficult – and far more rewarding – to look beyond the path of least resistance and the delusions that we have “higher standards” that demand to be met. But there may come a time when that attitude just can’t be maintained in the face of something that just brings one back around to what made gaming so enjoyable in the first place, and makes one realize that “settling” isn’t always the best strategy.
This weekend, I had time split between Skyrim and the oft-mentioned NDA MMO (herein known simple as NDAMMO). Both are hot properties. One is widely available, and invitation to the other is widely sought after. It would be criminal to have obtained access to NDAMMO and not participate when one is able, so I was constantly switching between the two. To say that it was like apples and oranges doesn’t quite cover it. One is online, the other is single player. One is tightly scripted, the other is sandboxed. The art styles differ. The genres differ. Both are extremely well done, but neither is without technical issues, but that’s neither here nor there. But on Saturday night, I think it hit me that Skyrim was fulfilling a need that no MMO had ever been able to fill, no matter how hard it tried or how noble it’s aspirations.
Skyrim isn’t the Second Coming by any stretch. It’s not going to be for everyone because it’s the Sandbox of all Sandboxes which means that you’re free to go anywhere, at any time for no other reason then it looked interesting. The northern land of Skyrim is a cold and empty place, punctuated by occasional bursts of interaction with far flung villages, secretive bandits or mysterious ruins – and the occasional dragon. It’s all of this combined with amazing visuals that gives you that sense of immersion that I think we so desperately want from cutting edge games. Trudging through the mountain pass in near-white-out conditions while stalking a target is both nerve wracking and exhilarating. In all my years of gaming, I don’t think I’ve encountered anything quite like spotting a dragon wheeling around the sky in the distance, heading closer, and scorching the ground as it passes overhead.
And then I transitioned to the NDAMMO. Sadly, I can’t say much because of the NDA, but to move back into the MMO space after spending time in Skyrim was…jarring. It was comfortable and familiar, even though I hadn’t played that game specifically. There were people all around me, doing MMO things like jumping, dancing, fighting. I’m sure the chat channel was abuzz with talk of World of Warcraft, but I ignored it. It was…an MMO, which should be enough to convey a set of parameters about the game without getting into specifics. I enjoyed my time there, after a while, but it’s that after a while that made me realize that I just wasn’t all that excited to MMO-it-up much anymore. I’ve barely touched Rift in the past few weeks, and the MMO-flavored highlight of recent memory has been DC Universe Online going free to play.
I don’t credit Skyrim specifically with my malaise regarding MMOs. I think that after 10+ years of walking a familiar road that I finally admit that I might be in need of a change of scenery. Skyrim is a once in a blue moon phenomenon. Others have tried to take on the open world fantasy (Two Worlds being a high profile miss), including “sandbox” MMOs (Fallen Earth, EVE Online, etc.) I can’t say I’d be interested in leaving MMOs entirely for games like Skyrim because there are no games like Skyrim, at least not on such a schedule so as to fill my gaming dance card. What I think happened is that there was finally another style of game that just blew me away, that showed me that although MMOs are fun, they’re not pushing any envelopes anymore. The notion that the future of gaming is online is incorrect; online gaming has shown us that their “future” is a hamster wheel of intra-genre cannibalism which is limited by having to please everyone while keeping up with the competition in a genre stuffed to the gills with contenders.
To sew it up, I’m still on-board for the release of this NDAMMO. After an initial sputtering start, I really got into it, and have some positive things to say about it at an undetermined point in the future. However, I expect that this may be my last and terminal MMO. Having gone back to many MMOs over the years, I am not sure that I can look at them the way I did when I was discovering them for the first time, or even delighting in what I find in any new MMO. I recognized early on that I Have a shut-down point in pretty much all of them that drives me away with boredom, and I’m bored with being bored in that fashion. It’s time to look at some of the non-mainstream, non-mass-market titles out there that may suit me. I’d have a lot of time to fill, if I did actually give up MMOing, and I suppose there’s a lot of titles out there to fill the space.