Tag Archives: Skyrim

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.”

The Importance of Sounds in Video Games

I was watching an episode of How About This Game? on YouTube recently, a show about game design by Barry Kramer.  I value Barry’s opinions a lot, and I think his view on games is very interesting, so by all means, take a look below.  In particular, I love hearing him talk about satisfying things in games.  Sometimes I even joke that he’s a “game design hedonist” because he’s always drawing attention to things that feel good in games.  A nice color palette, good controls, and satisfying sounds.

Sound is one of the most important parts of a game.  What you do in a game must be satisfying in itself, and sound plays a bigger role than you might think.  It can be a way of setting a mood, making an environment come alive, or empowering a player.

One of my personal favorite examples is the Unrelenting Force shout in Skyrim.  It’s always my preferred shout, not only because it’s useful, but because it feels incredible to use.  Whenever you trigger it, there’s a buildup as your avatar utters the words of the shout.  It culminates in a sharp, echoed lightning crack, and the shaking of dust and grass in your surroundings.  These aren’t particularly complicated sound effects, but combining them in context makes the player feel like a god.

Wandering around a large world with nothing but the sounds of your environment as company has a striking effect as well.  Look at the echo of a cave of chamber, the sounds of animals in the forest, the rippling of water.  They can make you feel happy, lonely, or afraid.  This is where some indie platformers and RPGs succeed thematically.  A lack of music directs focus specifically to the character of the environment.  This is why the soundtrack to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is so interesting.  The soundtrack has drawn a lot of criticism for its very minimalist, non-iconic soundtrack, but the emphasis on environmental ambiance drives home the hopeless, dire story themes much more effectively.

Realistic sound can be great for this kind of thing, but as with visuals, realism isn’t always appropriate.  In fact, some of my favorite examples of cool video game sounds come from cartoony 3D character platformers.  Your Crash, your Sly Cooper, your RatchetJak, and Banjo.  These games have a lot of silly action and collectibles, and usually the tasks you do aren’t epic or compelling in themselves.  So the solution is to fill the game with fun stuff to do at every second.

One of the core mechanics in Crash is “collecting” boxes by breaking them.   When you break the boxes, it makes a short, sweet sound.  You hear the surface of the wood breaking and all the pieces knocking into each other.  It’s simple, but packs a punch.  Other can take ten bounces before breaking, and each successive bounce gets higher in pitch before the box breaks.  Again, a great buildup and payoff.  This kind of thing is small, but so visceral that it sticks in your head for years afterward.  In fact, this is one of my gripes with the Crash trilogy remake: the sounds have more fidelity, but feel less satisfying.

As with every aspect of game design, sound is a key tool in making the player feel what you want them to feel.   It can reinforce the feelings behind an action, and its absence can make the player fill in the gaps.  Sound can take us into another world completely.  The tension of lightsabers clashing, the breathing of a predatory alien…these things affect us to the core.  Think about sound as you make your game: it can make the difference between a good one and a great one.

Reactions to 01/13 Nintendo Switch Presentation!

Well, first of all, the Nintendo Switch presentation was amazing.  I was nervous going into it, because it had to lay the foundation for an important console.  The Switch is Nintendo’s future in an uncertain time.  This presentation needed to win over some fans.

Let me start off with some partial cons here.  Not everything about the presentation was perfect.  Nintendo is switching to a paid online multiplayer model.  I don’t think this is a bad thing, mind you, since now that money is flowing into the infrastructure, it’ll likely improve the service.  Although I’m going to miss being able to play games online at no cost.  If it keeps Nintendo competitive, though, I have no objection.

Another issue is that the Switch is going to be $299.00 US.  Again, this is a reasonable price point at launch, and Nintendo isn’t making the Switch at a loss.  But it also means that it’ll have to compete with PS4 and Xbox One price-wise, so it’ll have some work to do to justify 300 bucks.

The Nintendo Switch
The Nintendo Switch! (Photo: BagoGames via Flickr)

The Switch has a seriously low portable battery life, only 2 -6.5 hours depending.  I was hoping for a solid 4-8.  The Switch’s gimmick of home-to-portable console seems like it’s in danger now.  Lastly, it also seems like apart from Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the Switch will have a fairly weak launch lineup.  All this worries me.

Now onto the good stuff.  The Switch is packing some great technology, including HD rumble that delivers extremely detailed vibration.  The new game Arms is planning to capitalize on this technology with a sort of multiplayer Punch-Out!! style.  The Switch has a virtual console, as we saw, with a promising lineup.  Above all, it promises a LOT of great games in just this coming year.

Breath of the Wild gameplay
Gameplay of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the WIld! (Photo: BagoGames via Flickr)

Breath of the Wild is looking more action-packed, compelling, and beautiful than ever.  Personally speaking, this is new-favorite-game material.  Super Mario Odyssey, the new open-world 3D Mario platformer, is exactly what I wanted Nintendo to do with the series.

Skyrim is confirmed as coming to the system, and Nintendo is set to release Splatoon 2 and Xenoblade Chronicles 2.  These are now two of my most highly-anticipated sequels.  Splatoon 2 is offering a wealth of new content and portable play, and the new Xenoblade is stunningly beautiful and looks like it’ll tell a great story.

Koei Tecmo is also making a new Fire Emblem Warriors title as a follow-up to Hyrule Warriors.  I’m extremely excited for this, because I predicted the announcement of Fire Emblem Warriors and I think the two series are a great fit.  More is coming on the 18th in a Fire Emblem Direct, so keep an eye out for that!

Overall,  I have a lot of faith in the Nintendo Switch after Thursday.  Nintendo trades on good games, and the Switch looks like a return to roots.  From here onwards, it’s important that Nintendo keep giving out information on its games, and announcing new, interesting games.   I personally can’t wait to see how the Switch does, and I’ll keep reporting the news as I see it.

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.