Tag Archives: RPG

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.

New Games Leaked: Pokemon Sun and Pokemon Moon!

Some new rumors have surfaced in anticipation of the Pokemon-themed Nintendo Direct on Friday, February 26th – namely that a 7th generation of games entitled Pokemon Sun and Pokemon Moon is to be announced as part of the broadcast.

Although this hasn’t been confirmed (and won’t be until the Direct at 10:00 AM / 7:00 AM PST), the leak is in the form of seemingly legitimate trademark information discovered by Nerdleaks revealing the titles of the game and even showing off highly polished logos.

A seventh Pokemon generation seems to be coming at the right time as Nintendo releases a new wave of Pokemon titles as a jumping off point into their next console generation.  It should also serve as an excellent promotion for the spinoff title Pokken Tournament, coming to Wii U on March 18th.

As for my thoughts on all this, I like the idea of another generation with elemental and maybe even mystical theming.  Some individual Pokemon like Solrock, Lunatone, and the legendary Cresselia are based on the sun and moon, and I think there’s a lot of potential there, stylistically and otherwise.

I likely won’t be getting myself any of the next generation games, unless some irresistible changes to the formula come with them (I already filled up the whole Gen 6 Pokedex, so don’t be judging me), but I do have a theory from the game alone.  I personally wouldn’t be surprised if Sun and Moon types were added to the already extensive list of types in place.

After all, Fairy type was introduced in Pokemon X and Y, much to the joy and/or frustration of many, so this seems like a prime moment for new type additions, especially if new Pokemon are created specifically to be put in these categories.  Even if the hardcore players are forced to tweak their precious metagame all over again.

No matter what happens, I’ll be fairly stoked if a new Pokemon generation is announced, and especially happy if it plans to bring a lot to the table in terms of enriching an already amazing franchise.  I’ll be keeping right on top of this broadcast on the official Nintendo Direct website, so until then, stay frosty!

How JRPG and Western RPG Genres Differ

With Christmas less than a week away, I want to talk about one of my favorite genres of video game: the RPG, or Role-Playing Game.  The holiday season always puts me in the mood for RPGs.  The childlike sense of wonder I feel during this time of year makes me crave the kind of exploration and mystery that only a deep fantasy RPG can provide.  But I got to thinking about what ‘RPG’ even means for a video game.  The discussion is everywhere from the forums of GameSpot to YouTube by people like Trailer Drake.  This is a hard question to answer, but I figured I’d give my two cents.

A statue of the man-god Talos from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. (Photo: Flickr)
A statue of the man-god Talos from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. (Photo: Flickr)

The way I see it, the main characteristic of an RPG is freedom of choice.  This is where the line is drawn in determining whether a game is an RPG or not.  Think about it, the RPG is one of the oldest genres of video game, but it didn’t start electronically.  It has its roots off the screen and on the tabletop with cultural phenomena like Dungeons and Dragons.  In these games, players would get together, create their own characters, and spell out their own fantastical adventures together.  It was literally a game of playing roles, and this tradition of crafting your own story has made it to the digital age.

As a contrast, look at games like Super Mario, or Sonic the Hedgehog, or even Battlefield.  These games are fun because each time you play is different and unpredictable.  But they essentially consist of lots of little experiences.  In each of the many matches, levels, stages, or what have you in games like these, there’s a set goal in mind.  Success is binary: you either win, or you don’t.  Winning is the end goal.

This isn’t a bad thing, of course.  Linear games are very fun provided they aren’t repetitive.  It’s just easy to look at something and know it’s an RPG.  These games have an entirely different flow.  They tend to take place in larger worlds of some sort, and goals are rarely obvious.  You can follow the “main story” or you can go build something, or fight something.  RPGs are worlds apart from reality.  Player agency is king.

If you try to go deeper than freedom of choice, though, things begin to diverge.  For example, consider two of the most popular RPGs of all time: Final Fantasy VII and Skyrim.   One might guess they’re similar — after all, they’re part of the same genre.  They both last for hundreds of hours.  But these games approach the same genre in two different ways.

These videos by the phenomenal YouTube channel Extra Credits lay it out pretty well.  They point out the same idea of an special divergence in the RPG genre.

Skyrim is experienced from an individual perspective.  It has a single, player-customized protagonist.  It contains many, many quests, with no particular need to complete any of them.  Completing the main story isn’t the end of the game, because there’s lots of other content.

 Final Fantasy VII, on the other hand, is more story-oriented.  It has seven different protagonists, met over the course of this story.  Its overworld is explored differently, and combat has completely different mechanics.  Clearly there must be some reason for the difference, right?

As it so happens, there is a big difference.  The differences seen from one RPG to another almost always come down to region.

This is why we hear terms like “Western RPG” or “JRPG,” (J is for Japanese).  In fact, this is basically the only instance in which a genre of game has been divided by region.  That’s unheard of, but it has good reason.  The difference basically emerged because the west and the east came up with separate schemes for role-playing video games.  We ended up with different interpretations of the same idea.

Western companies like Bethesda Softworks, Mojang, and Blizzard have famously created games like Minecraft, Fallout, The Elder Scrolls, or World of Warcraft.  They have no clearly defined “goals,” but tend to focus more on exploration and questing.  The idea of “role-playing” is more broad, leaving more room for the whims of the player.

Japanese companies like Nintendo, Square Enix, and Monolith Soft, on the other hand, have seen series like Mother, Xenosaga/Xenoblade, or Final Fantasy.  These are more goal driven, and focus more on storytelling, often with many playable characters with certain specializations, and detailed management of stats.

Of course, these definitions are far from concrete.   We see a lot of overlap with MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) RPGs like WoW or Guild Wars that are largely unrestricted in terms of goals, but have myriad amounts of playstyles, equipment, weaponry, and so on.  There’s also the hit Nintendo Legend of Zelda series (a personal favorite) that blends playstyles.  It focuses on a single main protagonist and has equipment mostly for exploration, but also focuses on the completion of a main quest.

This kind of overlap makes perfect sense, because RPGs all have their roots in the Gygax-esque tabletop format.  Both involve decision making, encounters with enemies, and stat management.  Where they differ is in mechanics and style.

“Western” styles meet with a lot of popularity worldwide because they involve a very broad range of cultures.  They’re also more accessible in a lot of ways.  Combat is natural, leveling isn’t as crucial, and grinding is rarely necessary.  This isn’t to say that one type of RPG is better.  It’s just a testament to the point of this post: RPGs and JRPGs are different beasts.  This is why it’s interesting to see them interact.

The reason I bring up this whole question is that many people point at games like Zelda or Minecraft and say they aren’t “real” RPGs.  My argument is that the question of whether a given game is an RPG or not depends quite a bit on your point of view.  And in fact, I think it’s a good thing that RPGs come in all shapes and sizes.  “RPG” serves as a sort of banner for various different games from all over the world to unite under.  In my opinion, that’s just how it should be.