Elder Scrolls Sequelitis: Oblivion VS. Skyrim

The Elder Scrolls games are each a product of their time.  The first three, Morrowind included, came out in the late 90s to early 2000s.  A time of games on three discs that you would pour hours of your life into.  It was an age of writing information down on paper.  Sometimes you’d be forced to walk away from a quest until you understood how to complete it.   The games were harsh, and so were many of the worlds.  For example, Vvardenfell was mysterious and intimidating, just like the game as a whole.

Oblivion brought in the Xbox 360 generation, when Xbox Live came into its own and games truly hit the mainstream.  The AAA games market was pushing towards the height of realism, experimenting with new physics and mechanics.  It used features like radiant AI and new dynamic facial expressions to enhance the sense of realism.  And for as horribly as they’ve aged, they were state-of-the-art at the time.  The new lighting technology also created a contrast of light and dark that I still love to look at today.

Skyrim was my first “real” Elder Scrolls game.  With the others, I’d mostly watched the action but didn’t really participate or make my own decisions.  When Skyrim came out in 2011, I knew immediately that I had to play it.  The hype behind it wasn’t like anything the series had seen.  It was the first game in the series to release in the true Internet age, when online playthroughs were becoming more popular and hype culture was alive and well.  In a time when AAA developers were perfecting the gritty aesthetic, Skyrim promised to deliver on realism like we couldn’t even imagine.  The web blew up when Skyrim was released.  It was immediately released to critical acclaim, some praising it as one of the best games of all time.  And at the time, it was absolutely revolutionary.

Bleak Falls Barrow
Bleak Falls Barrow, an early location in Skyrim. (Photo: BagoGames via Flickr)

Even after just a few years, though, people have already tired of Skyrim.  What started out as a love affair between the public and its new big video game has become a serious seven year itch.  So it only seems right to judge it based on its own merits and see how much it really changed compared to the game before it.

Let’s sling some arrows, shall we?

Story and World

Skyrim‘s tone is completely different from Oblivion‘s.  Like the other games before it, it’s highly prone to bugs and general gameplay flaws.  However, the serious, gritty overtone of Skyrim made these flaws stand out like a sore thumb.  In Oblivion, it adds to the charm.  In Skyrim, it turns out to be more of a distraction in my opinion.

Oblivion
The plane of Oblivion. (Photo: Fantasy Art via Flickr)

Oblivion has a diversity of environments and quests that I think makes Skyrim look like a chore.  While I think Oblivion‘s side quests are better than Skyrim‘s, though, the major questlines may be better or worse depending on what you value as a player.  Oblivion is high fantasy, and it’s not afraid to embrace absurdity, so I never felt any sense of high stakes.  I’d say the most tension I ever felt was the end of the Thieves’ Guild questline, but I won’t spoil it.

Meanwhile, Skyrim has more serious atmosphere and plotlines, so its quests tended to be more action-oriented.

As main story goes, neither one is good.  I found Skyrim‘s to be more compelling, but the sense of participation is lacking in both.  It’s all either “go fetch this” or “go kill this,” and I considered dragons in Skyrim to be more interesting than Oblivion gates.

Mechanics and Stuff

After a while I started to feel like the quests in Skyrim lacked creativity.  The first time you do a block rotation puzzle or a claw puzzle it seems interesting and creative, until you reach your 40th one and realize that this game can be a real one-trick pony.  For how big and beautiful the world is, it’s sure filled with a lot of repetitive challenges.  The good news is, I started with the major quests.  At the time their novelty made them feel more epic than they really were.

Whiterun Fields
The fields of Whiterun in Skyrim. (Photo: Joshua Livingston via Flickr)

Oblivion wasn’t much better.  I’d say since its dungeons were darker and more open, they had more atmosphere.  Both games suffer the same problem.  With each game in this series, the world gets bigger and bigger.  The amount of content in that world has to get bigger too, to fill out the empty space.  There’s an increasing distance between the designer and the player here.  In Morrowind, the world wasn’t massive, but Todd Howard and his team focused on crafting every inch of it deliberately.  Every location had a purpose.  Starting with Oblivion, they couldn’t help but copy and paste a little bit.  How could they?  100 years of work across the entire studio went into Morrowind.  Multiply the number of quests and NPCs, and you’re talking about an inhumane crunch.  I think the solution would be to take a step back to the simpler, more personal way of doing things.

It’s no coincidence that both Oblivion and Skyrim also have the quest marker.  There was so much to the game that the designers felt the need to direct the player.  I’ll admit, the ability to follow a dotted line to get through a quest was convenient.  But in the long run, I wonder how much it really makes the game better.  I don’t think Skyrim moved things forward there.

Dragon
The player’s first encounter with a dragon in Skyrim. (Photo: Joshua Livingston via Flickr)

Combat in Oblivion is terrible.  It’s fast, and blocking is more useful than it is in Skyrim.  But there’s very little balancing, and not much need to experiment with different options.  Weapons have very little sense of weight, and Skyrim fixed that problem.  The addition of shouts makes the combat way more interesting and engaging, and finding new upgrades to shouts is a great incentive.  That said, fighting things in Skyrim starts to feel like dead weight when you’re fighting your 58th Dragur Deathlord.  I think the lack of enemies is a problem in both games.  Most of them fall into fairly plain tropes.  You fight one, you’ve fought a thousand.  This is something I hope future games try to fix.

The Difference

The first 60 hours of Skyrim landed it permanently in my list of favorite games of all time.  Would I say it’s necessarily better than Oblivion?  Maybe.  Although I definitely prefer Skyrim, I’d say it’s completely subjective.

Northern Lights
The northern lights of Skyrim. (Photo: Kenneth DM via Flickr)

Overall, Oblivion is a game I play with my friends while Skyrim is a game I play by myself.

Counting all DLC, I played Oblivion for 90 hours and Skyrim for 150.  Oblivion is dated as all hell, but it’s a great time getting together with people who know nothing about it, to see them experience its weirdness firsthand.  It’s so awkward it’s become a meme, but I love it all the same.

I left Skyrim feeling very disillusioned, because I went back to the well so many times that the magic was completely gone.  And yet, I barely got over half the level cap.  There’s a good deal left in Skyrim that I never did, but I feel no desire to go back.  I want to show the final part of DimeTree’s series, “The Elder Scrolls Problem,” because I think it sums up how I feel.  In fact, I suggest anyone interested in these games watch his videos.

I’ve heard a lot of people say the same kind of thing, and it’s brought me to this conclusion.  There are some people who mod Skyrim and play it for thousands of hours on end, but for the rest of us, it’s the most magical game of all time until you exhaust it.  From that point on, instead of remembering the magic, we remember all the busy work and glitched quests.  We remember running into the same bandits or the same draugr for the 117th damn time.  Everything is so slow and deliberate that it starts to feel like punishment.  The thing is, those first 60 hours of discovery are unlike anything I’ve felt in any game.  They’re unique, and special.

These two games are both very flawed, but Elder Scrolls games are more than just a reflection of their times.  They’re about doing everything at once.  Maybe they don’t do everything well, but they definitely try.  I still can’t think of another series that looks so good, has full voice acting, hundreds of quests, and still lets you sit down in your house to read a book.  People had to create all of these things, and that alone is a feat.

This is why we play the Elder Scrolls games.  This is why I’m going to play them for a lot longer.  As long as there’s still caring, I’ll always go back to Tamriel again.

“May your road lead to warm sands.”

Elder Scrolls Sequelitis: Morrowind VS. Oblivion

When December rolls around, I get a hankering for a good RPG.  Maybe it’s the feeling of the holidays, and the combined wonder and stress surrounding the dawn of a new year, but an open-world fantasy always gets me going around this time.  And my preferred poison has always been Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls franchise.

I’ve been a fan of these games ever since 2003 when I would play Morrowind with my sister for hours on end.  I loved every second of it.   The sound effects, music, and rich environments felt vague and earthy, which I loved.  When Oblivion came out around 2006, we did the same thing.  The land of Cyrodiil was at our fingertips, and at the time, there was no offering quite as realistic as Oblivion.  Every character had voiced dialogue, and the world was intimately detailed.  It was amazing for a little kid.

I stepped away from these games almost entirely after Oblivion began to die down, and it wasn’t until Skyrim that my interest picked back up.  But I want to talk about Skyrim another time.  Right now I’m more interested in talking about the two games from my childhood.

Oblivion dungeon
A dark dungeon in Oblivion!

I played through Oblivion properly a couple years ago.  The game was so dated that I picked up the GOTY edition for 5 dollars at my local GameStop.  I was expecting to be let down by how poorly the game had aged.  I had no illusions about it, and it showed in every moment.  But I loved every last minute, even to about 80 hours in.

Morrowind has always been a tougher nut to crack.  About once a year, I try to get back into the game with my own character and make sense of it all.  It was definitely a game of its time, and it held onto the traditional western RPG roots for dear life.  Stats were a core component of the game.  There was no luxury of doing whatever you wanted, at whatever pace you wanted.  You could easily wander into the path of some bandit or creature that would waste you in seconds.  Even combat was based on random chance.  You can stand in front of an enemy, and not land a single blow if your stamina is too low.  To many people, this is like having a button to breathe.  In a video game, it rubs most people the wrong way, especially nowadays when the action element of a game is so much more pronounced.  People love the atmosphere, but don’t want to work with the machine behind it all.  They want the freedom to walk on out into the world and see all it has to offer.

In a lot of ways, I think Oblivion was reactionary to what these people were feeling.  Maybe it was Bethesda spotting a trend in games for the new generation of consoles.  Maybe it was trying a different direction based on people’s response to Morrowind.  Whatever the reason, there is a core difference between these two games:  Morrowind is a slow burn, and Oblivion is a playground.

A lot of discussion has gone toward which of these formulas is “better,” but I think this really misses the point.  Comparing one Elder Scrolls game to another is pointless.  In reality, they’re all completely different games that share certain tropes.  To say one is better than another means nothing.  But I still find it infinitely interesting to look at how this series evolves with time, to take stock of what’s left in, what’s left out, and how things change.

Morrowind Sunset
A sunset treeline in Vvardenfell. (Photo: Joshua via Flickr)

I’ve been doing this kind of thinking a lot recently, which is why I thought I’d take some time to compare these games to each other one-on-one.  I wanted to start with Oblivion vs. Morrowind because they’re polar opposites.

In Morrowind, I notice that I can spend five hours in a single city and not discover everything it has to offer.  In Morrowind, nothing is ever handed to you.  It makes you take notes by hand to keep track of what you learn, how every location relates to every other location, who’s important, and who might be important.  You never know what might come in handy.  Maybe you meet a person who you have to charm in order to obtain a favor.  If you have enough personality, it might be easy.  Otherwise you might need a certain vendor who sells a certain potion to give you just what you need.  There are always different ways to approach a situation, leaving room for the player to deal with things as they would in real life.  The opening of the game doesn’t tell you who you are or what your “end goal” is.  You’re just a prisoner from a boat trying to survive until at some point, you’re not anymore.  Heck, I had no idea what the story of Morrowind was until I looked online.

In Oblivion, you play through a very linear tutorial, and the story and your role in it are laid out instantly.  And logically, you’re basically unbeatable anywhere you go.  Partially, this is because of Oblivion‘s leveling system.  It uses an infamous scaling system, whereby a given enemy in a given cave could be a rat or a troll depending on the player’s level.  Bandits could be wearing cheap hide armor or a full set of the strongest armor in the game.  The world grows with the player, which has drawn its share of criticism.  It’s hard to suspend your disbelief in a world that’s clearly  based around you and your needs.  That’s why so many people value the brutality of Morrowind and, think Oblivion is kind of a joke.

Oblivion screenshot
A fight in Oblivion. (Photo: BenBenW via Flickr)

Oblivion is a joyous experience, though.  Sure, in a lot of ways I enjoy it for the “so bad it’s good” element.  Dialogue and faces are awkward, the combat is laughably simple, and some scenarios are so unbalanced that they ruin a climax.  For example, the last battle of the Mages Guild questline was so absurdly easy for me that I questioned whether it was worth my time.  The thing is, I enjoyed almost every step of my journey through Oblivion.  The setting is gorgeous, and really invokes that back-to-basics style of Arthurian fantasy that I remember from the old Errol Flynn Robin Hood or the vibrant illustrations of The Hobbit.  All the characters are a little bit different, and the combat leads to a lot of laughs.  Oblivion is one of those games that feels genuine for all of its flaws, and balances itself out with enough of a sense of wonder that it feels pretty great to play.  Some of the quests are also really clever.

Morrowind, as I said, takes a completely different tack.  Everything is uncompromising, and finding your way through the world is very difficult and time-consuming.  When you finally do master the game, though, the satisfaction is unlike any other experience in a game.  The thing is, Morrowind is a game that is extremely tough starting out, but which bends to the will of someone with the perseverance to find its weak points.  Becoming a master alchemist or enchanter gives you the path to complete domination of the world. You can buy things for free because your personality is too damn high and destroy the most powerful enemies in the game.  But no one’s going to tell you how to do it.

This idea of leading the player by the hand brings up another defining transition from Morrowind to Oblivion.

The quest marker.

In Morrowind, you have to intuit and remember locations of key figures and locations.  Oblivion will mostly just give you a quest marker pointing to exactly the thing you must interact with to advance the quest.  It also has free fast travel to any of the cities, or anywhere you’ve visited.  As a result, the game feels much more focused on busy work than Morrowind.  Sure, you need to find your way to the end of a dungeon, but the dungeon is marked neatly on your map, waiting for you to conquer it.   The less patient player will enjoy having the first steps of each action done for them, but they inherently miss out on the satisfaction of discovering it for themselves.  A lot of the mystery is lost from Morrowind to Oblivion.

Oblivion Inn
Some in-engine art from Oblivion. (Photo: faustina cartia via Flickr)

Is it better?  Is it worse?  That’s all a matter of opinion.  As I said, each one has its merits.  I found Oblivion to be much more relaxing than Morrowind personally, because I could enjoy the narrative of a quest by going from location to location and unfolding it easily.  Then again, the process of getting your hands dirty and making sense of a world like in Morrowind has a kind of value that modern games don’t replicate.  It forces you to play by its rules, and I respect a game that must be tamed.  That’s why comparing these two games in terms of which is the better iteration of a formula makes no sense.  They are vastly different.  In fact, if not for similar races and lore, I wouldn’t know they were from the same franchise at all.

What makes me curious is why Bethesda decided to make Oblivion after Morrowind, and call it a sequel?  I think that in the moment, they thought it was a revamp and expansion of everything Morrowind set out to do.  Instead, it handed the player a silver key to everything it offered.  But…it’s fun.  I like wandering through the Shivering Isles.  I love fighting through the arena with my bare fists right after finishing the tutorial.  It’s like eating a pile of candy starting with your favorite candy.  Morrowind, meanwhile, is very sweet-and-sour.  You have to experience the perspective and challenge of harsh NPCs, alien environments, and physical weakness before the world becomes your oyster.  I love them both for opposite reasons.  And honestly, I think that’s part of why The Elder Scrolls is so magical.

Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp REVIEW

Mobile games annoy me constantly.  I’ve been burned by them repeatedly, particularly by the way they create a ceiling for their players that can only be broken with constant attention or with real money.  I shouldn’t be so put off by this, because they are generally available for free download.  The consistent problem is that without spending money, progression in most mobile games requires so much time and repetition that they cease to be enjoyable.

Nintendo is particularly fair about its design and business practices, but I was nevertheless worried about Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp.  Fire Emblem Heroes was a great game, but it eventually got too big for its britches in by opinion.  The meta game grew so expansive and leveling so time-consuming that I couldn’t stick with it.  That’s the danger of creating a mobile game, and it’s a slippery slope to walk on.

Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp came out in late November, and having spent more than 300 hours in New Leaf I knew I had to try it out.

Nintendo has executed the mobile formula more elegantly than ever with Pocket Camp.  The secret is that they chose the perfect gameplay style in Animal Crossing.   I wrote once before about how the games’ strength is escapism, and somehow they managed to preserve that in mobile.

Pocket Camp is new, and designed for smartphones, so I expected the experience to be streamlined.  Thankfully, it’s streamlined without removing the most pleasant moments.  As a campsite manager, the player’s minute-to-minute tasks include crafting new furniture for the campsite, exploring small areas around the campsite to gather fruit, fish, bugs, and other items, and talk to other campers.  These campers will give you advice and make requests in exchange for giving you resources or Bells.  You can also invite them back to your campsite, and they’ll visit once you decorate with certain items of furniture.

Befriending other villagers will contribute to your overall level.  Level increases let you craft new items of furniture or amenities for your campsite.  You can also increase your friendship level with each villager.  Eventually they will also give you specific rewards like clothing or pictures after you spend a long time interacting with them.  New villagers will show up all the time with new requests.  Meeting up with them and socializing doesn’t just level you up, it also makes room for new regulars around your campsite.  This entire system feels like a huge step forward for the series.  You could argue that having “levels” in Animal Crossing is counter to the point of these games, but having trackable gains in your relationship with each villager is strangely rewarding.

The crafting and material system is also gracefully done.  I like the fact that you don’t have to play the waiting game to get furniture for your house.  There is still a marketplace where you can purchase furniture with Bells alone, but being able to make it yourself is quicker and more enjoyable.  Some of it takes hours or even days to build, but the beauty of Animal Crossing is that you’re probably only going to play it for about an hour each day regardless, so waiting doesn’t feel like a big deal.  It’s completely different from other mobile games like Pokemon Shuffle with point systems that force you to wait a certain amount of time before you can play anymore.  When your items are ready to place, the game also makes it easy to arrange furniture.  It uses a drag-and-drop grid system from Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer that’s quick and easy to use, another great evolution for the series.

In my experience so far, the game is paced in a way that makes it feel just like normal Animal Crossing.  Microtransactions also play a reasonable role.  The player can purchase Leaf Tickets to accelerate crafting, buy crafting spaces, or buy access to Shovelstrike Quarry, where the player can go mining for rare jewelry to sell.  But Leaf Tickets aren’t necessary.  Time, patience, and playing  the game to its fullest can give the player a satisfying experience.  Leaf Tickets are more like a cosmetic plus, an accelerant.  There’s no such thing as “having an edge” in Animal Crossing, so paying to win isn’t an issue.

Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp is a great mobile game so far.  I think Nintendo may have found its perfect franchise for mobile.  It may prove too much of a battery hog, or it could create an artificial paywall given the time, but I think it’s a fundamentally good game.  It cuts out a lot of the fluff and restraints that I’ve run into with every other mobile game.  I recommend everybody check it out for now on iOS and Android.

Sonic Forces is 3D Sonic Done Weird

I got my hands on Sonic Forces a couple of days ago, and it was pretty eye-opening.  The excitement for this game had built up for a year before giving way to terror, as the game hadn’t seemed to progress beyond what we’d seen an entire year before release.  It released to average reviews, but I thought it looked pretty fun, and I was determined to keep thinking that until I’d at least played it.

I was desperate for Sonic Forces to be good, but for everything I like, it just can’t let me think of it that way.

Every time I see something in Forces i just enjoy, the game takes at least two steps back with the horrific flaws in its gameplay, its blatant lack of polish, lack of ingenuity in stage design, and abundance of pointless deaths.  So let’s break it down like a fraction.

The camera in this game is so zoomed out all the time that sometimes I couldn’t see where I was on-screen.  This is opposite to the problem I had with the original trilogy of Sonic games, but it’s still really rough not knowing where I am spatially.  The modern stages are the closest I’ve seen any Sonic game come to “hold boost to win.” In fact, you could beat the demo with one button, and the rest of the game is not as far off from that as you might hope.  Enemy placements are useless about 70% of the time because most of them are put there to be boosted through.  Even the best modern Sonic levels in the game consisted mostly of timing a series of 5-10 homing attacks or a few rail jumps precisely in 3D.  It also had 2.5D precise platforming sections, which I didn’t mind in other games, but they’re a nightmare in Forces because of its awful momentum.

The player’s momentum causes them to continually speed up when they don’t expect to.  You might be going for a running start for a jump, but then go 0 to 60 and lose all mid-air control.  This will usually result in death, frustration, or being stuck on a worse path through the level that somehow manages to be more boring than the stage already was.

Sonic Forces is a walking identity crisis.  It blends a bunch of Sonic’s mechanics from the past 10 years or so, without giving them much of a proper home in terms of level design.  Modern Sonic himself is meant to be somewhere between Colors and Unleashed in terms of control, but his boost feels less satisfying.  His double jump, which was great for air control in Colors, fails in Forces because of its unrefined momentum.  Boosting is now also tied to Wisp capsules from Colors, which return once again for no reason in greater numbers than ever before.  This hampered my sense of urgency, since most of the time these capsules were placed specifically where I needed to boost.  I always feel the need to go forward as fast as possible in modern stages, but the placement of red rings requires you to explore levels like in Colors, and so the game gives mixed messages.

The Avatar stages are similar, but I do enjoy those for the way they’re laid out.  Using different weapons unlocked through the game gives you access to different Wisps.  These Wisps give you access to different areas or shortcuts in each level, encouraging you to go back and experiment with different routes.  This could be a great feature, although sometimes these different paths overlapped in confusing ways, and it’s not always easy to tell which Wisps you’re allowed to use.  The Avatar’s weapons are often jittery, unsatisfying, and sometimes downright confusing (like the drill), and the inclusion of Wisps sometimes annoys me because the Wisps used to be very situational, but now work in such short bursts that I find myself having to constantly re-grab capsules to get the necessary items.  Avatars also have different abilities depending on speed.  For example, birds can double jump to get more height or distance.  But the same problems arise because Sonic Forces doesn’t give you adequate mid-air control or momentum.  Things like the double jump end up getting you killed or damaged about half the time.  Not to mention the fact that Avatar stages feel so linear and scripted that the game practically plays itself in places.

Speaking of the game playing itself, the classic Sonic levels in this game are some of the most unnecessary and poorly implemented stages I’ve seen since Big the Cat.  Forces ties in explicitly with Mania because they have the same maguffin, so Sonic Team decided to bring the little guy back for a second outing.  Despite being teased from day one, these levels feel like an afterthought.  Whenever classic stages try to be inventive, something about the physics or control hamper them once again to make them feel like a chore.  In the level Iron Fortress, I took over 10 minutes and a number of deaths because of a screen-scrolling segment that required defeating enemies on very small platforms using half-baked platforming physics, as well as hopping between giant spinning wheels that will literally drop you off the stage to your death if the invisible wall catches up.  This pattern of unnecessary frustration due to broken mechanics is common in the few classic Sonic stages, and I didn’t enjoy a single one, with the possible exception of Chemical Plant.

The sound design in Sonic Forces is odd and somewhat disappointing.  In some places the music is catchy and great, but in others like Classic Sonic’s, the music feels generic and low-effort, which doesn’t do much to cover up the gameplay.  And it’s sad, because soundtrack is something Sonic has always done well.  Sound effects don’t feel as punchy either.  I found myself really missing the satisfying thunderclap of Sonic’s boost.

I don’t really even want to mention the game’s story because it’s so blatantly stupid and the dialogue so insultingly bad that it clearly took no priority.  The only thing I will really criticize is the fact that with all these old characters brought back, and with all of the mission-oriented narratives behind the stages, and with all the cinematic QTEs (which totally need to be there), it would’ve been cool if the characters interacted with the stages.  For example, I would’ve liked a Sonic level where Silver was defeating enemies in the background the whole time, and then helped me get through a normally impassable part of the level.  This would’ve been a creative move.

All this being said, I actually didn’t hate playing Forces that much.

The better stages feel fun to go back and earn S-ranks on, and the game’s mission system gives you tons of new gear to customize your avatar.  While I admit most of it is really ridiculous, some of the equipment is pretty cool and I genuinely had fun decking out my “OC” with the new stuff I got.  The game gets a little better with replays, and some alternate paths make the levels feel deeper and more variable.  A few bosses also stood out as having decent design.  For example, I like some of the fights against Infinite because getting hit by his illusions puts you in a more dangerous situation temporarily, creating a nice push-and-pull.

The game is also drop-dead gorgeous, but this might be a potential short-fall itself.  Despite being the same length as GenerationsForces feels like half a game to me.

If I had to suggest some ways to fix Forces, I’d say its biggest downfall was ambition.  Instead of having 30 short, low-effort stages to accommodate Modern Sonic, Classic Sonic, AND the player avatar, I would rather have seen a few longer stages with more focus given on one or two playstyles instead of having three.  It was like they introduced multiple playstyles to generate hype, but forgot to deliver on satisfying gameplay in the long run.

Developing ports for Xbox, PS4, Switch, and PC was also a huge ask.  I realize Sonic Team was put between a rock and hard place with the finicky fanbase, but anyone can distinguish between a polished game and an unpolished one, and I think a polished one would’ve fared better.  I think Sonic Team’s method of making modern games has is beginning to fail them.  Its standard of creating huge, detailed 3D backgrounds leads to some really beautiful stages, but gives way to linear gameplay that’s over in 2 minutes.  All that work is wasted on visuals that impress the player for a fleeting moment.

Sega needs to do something, somehow, to make sure that Sonic delivers on the meat of the gameplay.  If you’re going to give the player visual spectacle, it has to be worth it for the gameplay.  This is why Mania is one of the most highly-praised Sonic games of all time.  Granted, it worked with much, much simpler assets, but its simplistic formula gave it room to explore dozens of unusual mechanics.  It also made a smart, tactical use of rings either as a reward for a small mechanical challenge or as a way to indicate secrets or alternate paths.  I think most of us would rather have this than the Forces approach of giant, empty backgrounds and levels overstuffed with hundreds of pointless rings that make the player feel like a speck of dust floating around in a boring vacuum.

I think the Mania is important because despite being a fanmade project, it appealed to a massive audience.  It showed that even with a series as inconsistent as this one, charming visuals, tight level design, consistent gameplay tones, and good pacing win the day.  In a sense, the amount of tropes Mania abandoned gave it room to become something spectacular.  I’ve always admired Sonic as a series because even though it fails constantly, it insists on trying different things.  I still think it should do so, but it needs to be careful about what it invents and what it recycles.  Otherwise it turns out Sonic Forces, a game that tries to please everyone but doesn’t know how.

Super Mario Odyssey: 3D Mario Done Right

I wasn’t excited for Super Mario Odyssey until the day before it came out.  There are a lot of reasons.  Mario oversaturated the market so much in the late 00s that all my enthusiasm for the franchise disappeared.  I wanted a new 3D Mario because everyone else did, but when it actually rolled around, I never kept up with it.  When everyone started calling Odyssey the best in the series, I had to get my hands on it.   Soon, I started to see what everyone was raving about.

3D Mario never spoke to me much.  I grew up playing the All-Stars pack, like the original, Super Mario Bros. 2 and 3, and Mario World.  I also played New Super Mario Bros. Wii a lot.  I never played 64 or Sunshine.  The only one I finished was Galaxy, which is obviously much different but goes by a similar formula.  Up until now, people praised Galaxy as the best one, and…I didn’t see it.

Despite the opinions of my many friends who say Galaxy is one of their favorite games of all time, I don’t remember it very well.  I will admit, the presentation is absolutely gorgeous.  The musical score is fully orchestrated, tailored to each specific environment, and the background music changes depending on the player’s actions.  The cinematic thrill of flying through space between planetoids is magical.  A few actual gameplay moments that stood out are clever Wii pointer challenges, and a few tricky platforming challenges based around gravity.  I have to hand it to Galaxy, it achieved a lot with the limited resources of the Wii.

My problem is, the vast, open experience of Galaxy that everyone else remembers was lost on me.  I just remember a series of tasks in the same galaxies to get stars, and going into each world to do something specific, but never being quite sure what it was.  Power-ups opened up more of the world, but they were also mostly case-specific, and some only lasted a short time.  The result was that the game felt a lot more linear than it looked, and although the individual challenges were well-made, they were more compartmentalized.  I never felt as motivated to  complete the whole game as I thought I could.

But then along came Odyssey.  This game made huge waves, and for good reason.  Every inch shows off its immense polish and innovation.  More importantly, it also had that different structure that I was hoping for.  Instead of having lots of small galaxies with different themes, it has about a dozen “kingdoms” with tons of collectible moons and purple coins in each.  Everything is laid out at once, and most of the fun is finding every challenge in each overworld.  Many are in plain sight, some are extremely well-hidden.  There are so many small tasks that you find naturally, and it feels more like genuine exploration, a theme Nintendo also went for with Zelda: Breath of the Wild.  Plus, exploring new worlds and buying new outfits gives you access to content in worlds you’ve already been to, thus adding replayability.

Movement in Odyssey is also a major step up — the dynamic movement that 3D Mario is known for gets a whole new upgrade with the addition of Mario’s hat, Cappy, who opens up the possibility for tons of shortcuts and growth in skill.  You can use Cappy to bounce, dive, and give yourself much more reach if you use the right moves.  Imagine something like the F.L.U.D.D in Super Mario Sunshine, but built more around specific timing than precise platforming.  That, and the added possession mechanic adds tons of depth by making you use different creatures to solve different scenarios and reach new areas.  These creatures serve the double purpose of being good obstacles and being fun to control when you need to.  Just about every object and enemy in the game is there for a reason, and I never felt the need to jump through hoops to do everything.

Compared to games like Galaxy and 3D World, I think Super Mario Odyssey achieves what every 3D Mario has been looking to do since the beginning.  It’s a series of uninhibited sandboxes that keep on giving, there for the player to enjoy at any time.  It’s also full of heart, with references to the best of the franchise hidden all over the place.  All of the other games excelled in their time, and were great games in their own right, but the world of wonder presented by Odyssey definitely struck a new chord with me.  As I make the journey to get all the moons and traverse its many challenges, I’m sure that all the quirky goodness Nintendo put in this little cartridge will last a very long time.

Limbo and Its Elegant Pace

For as much as I love a game that challenges and intrigues me, there are a lot of great ones I haven’t played.  One of them was Limbo, which I played in one sitting with a friend late at night.  It was a real shock to the system, because although Limbo is considered an indie smash hit, I’d seen very little about it.  Everything I encountered was essentially new to me.  All the puzzles, environments, and mechanics flowed together into a tight little package with a ribbon on top, waiting for me to open.

I found myself lost in it all very quickly.  And that’s a good thing.

Hanging cages and a crow
A crow and cages. (Photo: mr. hasgaha via Flickr)

As games get more complex, realistic, and creative, we both gain and lose a lot.  One thing we often lose is a sense of pacing.  Sometimes we’re introduced to a new tool in the middle of a game, and it gives us a controller cue to teach us how to use it.  Other times it takes a slow hour or two for a game to get really good.  There are plenty of moments in games where they do something…inconsistent.  And by this I don’t mean they do something different, or fresh, but something that takes us out of the experience.

To be fair, making a game that doesn’t run into these problems at some point is extremely hard.  They don’t necessarily make a game bad.  The reason I mention them is, Limbo is the closest I’ve seen a game come to having a perfect pace.

Limbo's dark landscape
Art of Limbo’s eerie dark landscape. (Photo: Angel Barreiros via Flickr)

There’s a lot of debate surrounding Limbo‘s meaning and message.  It has no dialogue, no clear-cut cast of characters.  Some suggest that it’s the story of a murderer, of the afterlife, of the struggle between light and darkness.  The very name of Limbo suggests the theme of purgatory, a merging of all things into one silent world.  In this world, conflict has no clear meaning; characters have no faces, and death is only temporary (a truth you learn over and over again).  As I wandered through the grayscale landscape solving one brilliant puzzle after another, there was no obvious transition between places.  I remember being in the forest, in a mine, and in a factory, but not the order in which I found them.  It’s as though Limbo doesn’t have a beginning, middle, or end, and that feels appropriate.

Hangman
The nameless child stands surrounded by countless dead. (Photo: mr. hasgaha via Flickr)

The endless stream of symbols, solving puzzle after puzzle to reach an unknown goal, almost put me in the mind of the little silhouetted child I was controlling.  The only difference was the immense satisfaction I felt, conquering increasingly tougher, more mind-bending challenges.  When it all finally ended, it took me a while to come back into the real world.  It felt like I’d ended where I’d started, and even in the moments when I was stuck on a puzzle, I never felt fully conscious of everything outside the game.

The rain machine puzzle
The great rain machine. (Photo: mr. hasgaha via Flickr)

Instead, my full attention was on how to get a floating box in exactly the right place for me to reach a high ledge, or how to time my rope swing to get away from a giant saw blade.  Limbo is a master class in doing a whole lot with a clever approach and a creative vision.  It’s so simple, it doesn’t need to follow traditional rules.  It challenges not only the structure of puzzle games, but also our preconceptions of what games can say narratively, using the themes of death, darkness, and the afterlife as its tools.  To whoever reads this, go experience this game for yourself, and make sure it’s late at night.

Its creators, Playdead, repeated their brilliance with their latest game Inside, and I’d say check it out.

Villainy in the Virtual World

Video games are not a medium known for excellent storytelling.  They really don’t have to be.  Since the days of Atari and the Commodore 64, there have been games about nothing more than simple tasks.  Bounce a pixel past your friend, get a frog across a road, stack as many blocks as possible to set a high score.  Eventually, games became more linear, and some kind of context was added.  Whether this meant rescuing someone or obtaining some kind of treasure, games now had an ultimate goal.  And now, since there was an ultimate goal, there had to be an ultimate obstacle.  A villain.

For these past 30 years, games have had a lot of terrible villains.  Not the good kind of terrible either.

That said, all villains can’t be judged in the same light.  Props to Extra Credits for this distinction, but I’ll re-iterate it here.  In video games, you have your mechanical villains, your narrative villains, and your force-of-nature villains.

Mechanical villains are more stereotypical, put there to stand in your way, without much development beyond their design and animations.  Basically your platformer bosses, dungeon keepers, and the villain in any game without cutscenes.

Narrative villains are typically used for narrative games, made to develop along with other characters.  They propel the drama and prompt the player to go through a longer experience for a more climactic payoff.  Take Sephiroth from FFVII, or Frank Fontaine from BioShock.  They often run the game world and manipulate the protagonist, creating a moral obstacle along with a physical one.

Force-of-nature villains are a kind of hybrid.  These are villains of overwhelming power, or which represent a concept.  They are the embodiments of chaos, greed, or suffering.  They’re also used in the wrong places a lot of the time, because it’s hard to give them character.  Ideally, they have to be used to elicit some kind of reflection from the player, to make the characters consider their role in the story and world.  They’re like Kefka from FFVI or several throwaway antagonists from Sonic the Hedgehog like Mephiles the Dark, or Infinite.  Without compelling protagonists, these villains tend to flop.

When I started thinking about this topic, I thought of my two favorite virtual villains: Ganondorf from The Legend of Zelda and Sephiroth from FFVII.  However these two fill very different niches: Ganondorf has no distinct qualities beyond overwhelming evil, whereas Sephiroth is the sinister other half of Cloud, a deadly shadow of the protagonist.  But I love each of them in their respective roles.  Neither one is necessarily a “worse” villain.  Ganondorf is probably less memorable, but Sephiroth couldn’t fill his shoes.  He certainly couldn’t be the final boss of Mario either.  The key is, as usual, context.  A villain should fit the game as well as possible.  And I think there are some general guidelines for this.

First, I’d say make sure you’re using a narrative villain when you need one.  Too many games have rich worlds and backstories with cardboard villains that ruin the experience.  If you do know you need a narrative villain, make sure that all of their dialogue and screen time isn’t dedicated to cliched motivations or monologues we’ve all heard before.  The best kinds of villains are ones with variety, or who subvert expectations.  Maybe then you have to fight someone dealing with childhood trauma, who with values you partially agree with.  Even with the many flaws Skyrim has, I enjoyed the civil war quest because of the many gray areas it made me confront.  I didn’t want to kill the “villain” at the end myself, because I didn’t really think he was guilty.  In many ways, I thought this story was better than the actual main quest as a result.

Secondly, even if your villain is mostly narrative, don’t be afraid to make them part of the mechanics of the game.  Another one of my absolute favorite villains is GLaDOS from Portal.  Her twisted-yet-lovable autotuned voice reads quirky lines as you progress through the game and temporarily fail at solving a puzzle.  By playing the game, you’re basically fighting GLaDOS directly, like an omnipresent villain.  I see the same thing with what JonTron called, the “Gruntilda Effect.”  Gruntilda, the villainess of Banjo-Kazooie, taunts you ceaselessly.  When you die, she pokes fun at you.  When you reach a new area, she says you’ll never make it.  Once you finally defeat her, it’s like overcoming self-doubt.  Or an annoying witch.  Or both.

To avoid spoilers, I’ll just say that Metal Gear Solid and BioShock also do a great job of mixing compelling villains into the entirety of a game.  They have great plot twists that got me really invested.

I wrote all this because Halloween is a time of year when we love to examine fears and monsters.  The best monsters tell us something about ourselves.  They thrust us into the unknown, make us crave revenge or feel sympathy.  A great monster, a great villain, is something unforgettable to conquer.  I think it’s a shame that a lot of the character-building moments for villains is cut in game production.  With the talent and tools in the modern game industry, I think there’s room for some amazing storytelling.  Just as long as the will is there.

Horror Movies VS. Horror Games

So it’s the Halloween season, and things are gettin’ spooky up in here, so I wanted to take this time of the year to talk about some horror.  I don’t like horror much, but I find it interesting to talk about.  It’s a rare and impressive work that manages to get under people’s skin, and I think anything which can pull it off is worth talking about.  The strange thing is that horror movies are the bottom of the barrel in the film industry, whereas horror games tend to be pretty well-revered.

I admit this isn’t a site about movies, but I’m nevertheless a huge movie fan.  I spend about as much time in front of the big screen as the CRT screen.  Although they’re two completely different beasts, I think comparing movies to games has a lot of value.  They’re two opposite sides of the same coin: both are entertainment, but one is passive while the other is active.  The two have completely different approaches to horror as a genre, and I think they can shed light on each other.

The first thing we have to ask is, what is the essence of horror as entertainment?  The answer is subjective, of course.  My personal idea of horror is anything intimate and deeply unsettling.  Horror doesn’t just give you a quick scare and pump of adrenaline, it stays with you well after the fact.  But if you’re trying to actively give someone these feelings, it’s easier said than done.

Part of the issue is that horror is even a genre at all.  If someone goes to a scary movie or downloads a scary game, they go in with certain expectations.  Horror movies have trouble getting through to people these days because they’ve existed since the beginning of film.  Since games are a younger medium, they have the advantage of more uncharted territory.  Horror film, on the other hand, is plagued by tropes, cash-ins, and dead-end ideas.  Nevertheless, there are some movies that still manage to surprise people such as MotherSplit, and Get Out to name a recent few.  To me, that means there are reliable ways to freak people out.

I’m going to go out on a limb and  boil down the essence of good horror to a single word: investment.  The instinct of fear is rooted in survival, most often survival of something mysterious or powerful.    With an emotion like this, it becomes much more pronounced when the stakes are personal, and someone is directly involved.  Horror games therefore have a clear advantage as an interactive medium, because the player has agency and responsibility in this dangerous situation.  In a detached medium like film, the filmmakers have to use cinematography, character and world building, and intricate pacing to achieve the same effect.  It’s not as easy to make someone feel afraid of the unknown when the unknown is affecting someone else.  In his review of The Gallows in 2015, A.A. Dowd of The A.V. Club gave the film a D+, saying, “Making audiences care about the characters is always a more effective fear-generating strategy than just knocking off a bunch of dimwits in the dark.”  That statement alone captures the point perfectly.

As far as pitfalls go, games and movies run into the same problems.  And that’s important.

If you look at widely discredited horror games and horror movies, a lot of the same problems turn up.  For example, some common gripes are linearity, predictability, and cheap scares.  These things make horror feel manufactured and dull.  A lot of poorly-made Unity games do this, and Five Nights at Freddy’s has taken heat for it.  As movies go, look no further than virtually any horror sequel to see what recycling a formula can do.

Conversely, the best horror typically takes normal characters and puts them through hell.  It also helps if that hell could theoretically exist in the real world.  I like to think of this as the “what-if” template.  Amnesia asks, “What if you woke up in a castle of nightmares?”  Carrie asks, “What if the invisible bullied girl in your high school took unholy revenge?” Silent Hill asks, “What if you had to confront a world of your own fears?” while IT asks, “What if you had to fight fear itself?”

A fundamental difference between excellent horror in games and movies, meanwhile, is that they use fairly unique methods.  Horror games use gameplay mechanics like sanity meters and limited resources to build tension.  Horror movies use compelling character development.  Horror protagonists aren’t particularly remarkable, which is intended to make them easier for viewers to project themselves onto.  The viewer feels along with the character.  All that remains is to manipulate characters to elicit genuine fear, as they slowly break down and change.  In the climax of The Shining, we feel fear as a once-sane Johnny tries to kill his own family, not only because of Johnny’s downfall, but because this fear is easy to understand.  We become invested in their survival as we imagine what it would be like to have this happen to us.

To conclude, if investment is the key to horror, then I’d say the greatest virtue to practice in any form of horror is patience.  You need to really work over the audience to make them feel unsettled.  Viewers want to understand the threat, to understand the unknown.  Knowing this, let them make certain discoveries while withholding others.  Make the initial sense of danger something relatively ordinary.  Let the consumer scare themselves a little bit first as they go down a frightening rabbit hole.  The slow burn of discovery will create something unforgettable.

 

Horrible Boss Battles: Sonic Rush

Can you remember your favorite boss in any game?  Can you think of three you really enjoy?  How many do you absolutely hate?  For me, I dislike way more boss battles in games than I like.  So many of them miss the mark of making a fun, challenging encounter.  I haven’t talked much about this problem as of now, so I want to start with a boss battle that annoyed me recently.  It’s at the end of Sonic Rush.

I love Sonic Rush.  I think it’s a very fun game, and the best of handheld Sonic.  But its final boss is one of the worst I’ve ever played.  This series has a very bad history with final bosses.  They usually end up being a drudge, impossible, or overly-time consuming.  But I haven’t yet found one in the series worse than Rush.

Let me set the stage for you.  Rush has two campaigns, consisting of the same stages with different layouts.  One is played as Sonic, the other as Blaze the Cat.  They control slightly differently, but end with the same boss.  After getting all the emeralds as both characters, the true final boss can be beaten after completing both stories.  As I said before, the same boss must be fought as both characters.

I’ll try to explain it as best I can.

THE NUTS AND BOLTS

The enemy: Eggman/Eggman Nega in a massive mech suit.  Nine rings are available to the player in total.  The goal is to hit the mech’s cockpit eight times (on Normal) by baiting it into getting its arm stuck on the stage and running up its arm.

The boss has six attacks: 1) slamming the stage with alternating fists, which send out damaging energy waves; 2) a similar delayed slam with both fists that can kill instantly; 3) a repeated laser attack that automatically trails the player; 4) a series of drones that arc electricity across the stage in succession; 5) one similar drone that automatically trails the player and traps them, forcing them to follow under it or get hit; 6) slamming the stage to create energy 4-5 waves that the player must dodge to get on its arm.

Now, attacks 1 and 2 are the only ways to trigger 6, meaning the player has to wait for them and land a counterattack just for a chance at doing damage.  As the boss progresses, it will attempt to shake the player off its arm as they try to attack.  The player must crouch down and wait to stay on the arm.  If the player doesn’t, or takes too long, the player gets knocked back to the stage.  On top of everything else, it will also send rolling spikes down its arm that can not only do damage, but make the frame rate drop, which adds an unnecessary layer of challenge.

THE PROBLEMS

Three things make this fight fundamentally broken: length, random chance, and unpredictable attacks.

This boss drags on for about 7 minutes for each attempt.  Over the course of two fights, I had to take about 20 tries.  This part of the game took me over two stressful hours.  It should’ve taken maybe 30 minutes overall.

The attacks that Eggman will use at any given time vary randomly — sometimes it’ll take a couple attacks to make him vulnerable, sometimes it’ll take four.  Sometimes he’ll use the same attack twice in a row.

The problem here is that attacks 3, 4, and 5 that I mentioned above are impossible to truly learn.  That is, chance determines how well the player will fare against them.  4 and 5 are both virtually undodgeable.  What rubs salt in the wound is, these attacks are most common when the boss is nearly beaten.  This means that the player has to complete over half the battle before dealing with three attacks that basically come down to luck.  Again, this comes back to time-wasting design.

I wanna re-iterate, you have to fight this boss twice.

As difficult as this boss is, the true final boss is a chore.  It consists of hits with virtually no consequences, and collecting rings to avoid death until the player can deal out a hit.  Most of it is spent in meaningless hitstun.

But hey, the music is awesome.

SOLUTIONS

The final boss sequence of Sonic Rush is some of the most frustrated I’ve been playing a video game.  Here’s what I’d do differently for the Eggman boss:

  1. Reduce the necessary hits by 2 or 3.  If the undodgeable attacks are staying in, the fight has to be shorter, and get to the point.  This is less than ideal.
  2. Only include attacks with discernable patterns to which the player can adapt, to create a sense of progression.  Attacks that are virtually a toll on rings only create a sense of rage.  This improves the fight.
  3. Since the player attack sequence lags, remove the spikes.  They have no reason to be there except frustration.
  4. My best solution is to make every attack an opportunity to make the boss vulnerable.  This would cut down on wait time, leave room for learning patterns, and force out random strings of attacks.

On a fundamental level, a hard boss should be quick and dirty, and it should be something the player can improve at dealing with.  It should be less a gauntlet, and more a tug of war.  If the player fails repeatedly, they can become more efficient instead of waiting on a lucky run.

Again, this game is great.  The boss is not.  If the player is going to relive the same fight over and over, the number one priority is to give it nuance and ways to get better.   Sonic as a series should take that to heart.

Cuphead: A Great Game That’s 1930s Hard

I wasn’t one of the people following Cuphead from the beginning.  My early memories were an impressive trailer and a constantly delayed release date.  I remember thinking it seemed impossible for such a small team to create something interactive that looked so aesthetically complex.  But they did that and more.  It wasn’t until the game came out that I heard its main selling point was extreme difficulty.  Interesting, right?

Cuphead VS. Pirates
Cuphead squaring off against pirates! (Photo: BagoGames via Flickr)

Difficult games have a strange place in my mind.  Like most things in game design, difficulty is a delicate balance.  Too much and the game feels unfair, almost lazy.  Too little and the experience isn’t rewarding, and the consumer doesn’t feel a sense of getting their money’s worth.  Some of the most revered games of all time are tough as nails, like Ninja GaidenSuper Meat Boy, or the properties of From Software like Dark Souls.  But difficulty is an art.  Make a game too hard, it’s no longer rewarding to play through.  Make it too time-consuming, a player is likely to give up early.  There are plenty of traps to fall into.

Cuphead had the twofold challenge of creating a visual tribute to rubber-hose, classic American animation and a challenging run-and-gun experience.  One that would create a unique imprint on the industry.

Spoiler alert, they did it.

Cuphead is overflowing (pun intended) with personality.  Its simple story references over-the-top calamity of shows like Pop-Eye or Tom and Jerry.  The animation is suitably perfect — there are no awkward gaps where it was left out, and everything set piece is full of life.   And the off-beat aesthetic is…just beautiful.  Our two heroes, Cuphead and Mugman, are adorable twists on Mickey Mouse, and even though everything wants to kill you, the personality of all the bosses and enemies is enough to make you laugh every time.  Lobsters doing the backstroke, a giant cigar, the queen of a colony of overwrought bees…this is the kind of stuff you see in this game.  And it’s as good as it sounds.

The gameplay has just the right amount of depth.  By collecting coins throughout each level, you can unlock new abilities and weapon types.  Different loadouts are better for different situations, making the player experiment to give themselves an advantage.  Some bosses are easier with an extra hit point, some are easier with an invisible air dash.  Some might be easier with slow, charged shots that do more damage.  The designers thought hard about this, and it paid off.

It also has a very clever parrying mechanic, where every pink object can be bounced off of by hitting jump while in the air.  Most bosses require you to  use it in some way, either to avoid an attack or move about the battle arena.  Individual levels also have you use it to avoid enemies or platform through.  It’s a simple but elegant way for the designers to give themselves more options.  Just like how some levels give you a “pacifist” rank for not killing any enemies, adding another fascinating challenge.

Cuphead builds intricate situations rife with unique challenges, none copied from each other.  Some bosses involve managing three simultaneous attack patterns, threading the needle out of ever-complicating attacks, and completing tasks in a certain order under pressure.  Conquering each new beast is always satisfying, which is the core of the game’s character.

It’s still relentlessly difficult, but I rarely felt like it was wasting my time.  Very few challenges involve random chance, and fighting a boss over and over again leads to improvement.  You will fail quite a lot playing this game, and some levels feel a little bit too long.  Although Cuphead‘s not for the faint of heart, it’s an excellent experience for those who love a challenge.

And if you don’t love a challenge, play it for the soundtrack and pretty backgrounds.

Game Design and News to Amuse!