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Less Content, More Game

The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind from Bethesda is a prime example of a game that would have been better with less content

Last weekend, I had the enormous pleasure of gathering up all my old Xbox stuff and passing it on to a friend for his children to enjoy. Pulling my old games off the shelf, I encountered Morrowind and quite suddenly was struck by what an enormous waste the game represented. A fantastically detailed, living, breathing fantasy world over which you could walk or fly in its entirety, exploring to your hearts content. And yet, in spite of running several characters over many hours of play, I never finished it because the game was fundamentally flawed.

Some of those flaws are well documented. The character building system was fatally undermined by the ease with which you could build super-powerful characters, and by the way it sidelined mages. A senseless economic system that forced players to either beggar themselves or utilise built-in Easter Eggs. But those, surely, should be nothing more than a minor annoyances in a game that’s defined largely by its immense scope and story. As I stood there gazing down at the box it occurred to me that the game was in fact simply crushed under the weight of its own ambition.

Morrowind sold itself on creating a realistically immersive fantasy world, and invested immense time and effort to that end. Every square inch of the island was mapped, every inhabitant named and given a home, different people in different places had fates that would intertwine in unusual and evocative ways. I cannot begin to imagine how on earth all that detail was authored and programmed and managed before making it into the game. But the illusion which all that detail was supposed to maintain was constantly shattered at fundamental levels. When you talked to all those individually named people, they just repeated things from a tiny stock of phrases related to their location and allegiances. Many of them never left their homes, or never went in them. No-one ever went to bed. When you were on a quest, the quest giver would wait in perpetuity for you to complete the task. Worse, you could often completely undermine the quest and still complete it. Wherever you went, whatever you did, you were constantly reminded that you were just playing a game in a computer generated world, with all the limitations that implies.

Skyrim made minor improvements in realism over its predecessors but still fell well short of the mark, as demonstrated by the bucket on head trick
Skyrim was supposed to change all that with its radiant story technology, but it largely failed to live up to its promises. What was supposed to happen was that characters in the game world would react to your actions and reputations in a more realistic manner. What actually happened is that the game engine tied itself in knots over trying to understand your intentions, exemplified by the lovely anecdote from one player about the time he accidentally stole a book, put it straight back on the shelves, and then spent several hours fighting off hired thugs that the bookstore owner kept sending after him to recover the book. And radiant stories could do nothing about the fundamental unrealities that still riddled your interactions with the game environment, such as the now infamous exploit where you could put a bucket over someone’s head and they would stand quietly while you looted their house or shop. Simply put, modern technology has never been, and is still not, anywhere close to the level where it can mimic a vaguely realistic web of human interactions on the level that Bethesda keep attempting and as a result the central conceit of the Elder Scroll series has always been, and for the foreseeable future will continue to be, false.

The same is true of the wealth of side quests in the game series. One of the key reasons I never progressed very far in Morrowind is that I spent inordinate amounts of time wandering off the beaten track and fulfilling tediously boilerplate side quests for petty rewards. The game sold itself on the number of these sorts of things on offer, but the reality was that they felt rushed, being badly scripted and badly balanced and usually adding nothing to the wider narrative of the game.

The point I’m driving at here is that when it comes to game design, all too often less is actually more. Contrast the Elder Scroll series with, say the Fable games. The Fable designs failed in equally fundamental ways being generally too easy and having certain powers and abilities that were far more useful than others, resulting in stereotypical figher/wizard character builds but in their limited scope they succeeded far more than the Elder Scrolls games in creating believable, entertaining fantasy worlds. They were incredibly shallow worlds, of course, but in a curious way the fact that you were literally unable to poke them and find out they were only skin deep stops you from noticing or caring about that fact. By contrast, the attempt in the Elder Scrolls games to make them seem believable when computer technology is still so far short of that capability just leaves them looking ridiculous. If all the effort that had been put into radiant stories and side quests had simply been put into plot, imagination and characters instead, the result would have been a more believable, immersive and simply better game.

The Fable games are incredibly immersive and entertaining in spite of making no attempt at realism
This doesn’t undermine the validity of sandbox games though. It’s simply that there’s very little point in trying make a sandbox game realistic: instead the value is in making it as reactive and as explorable as possible, a lesson that Rockstar seems to have learned but Bethesda has not. The Grand Theft Auto games have always been fundamentally daft, and very little effort was made to make them seem otherwise. The result was that designers were able to leverage that stupidity to make their task easier, such as the closing off of central bridges for long periods of time in order to draw out the thrill of discovery, while the player was still largely free to explore and destroy things to his hearts’ content, which is basically the essence of a sandbox game.

One possible solution to this problem is simply to limit the scope of the sandbox. Limiting the scope means less to model, which in turn means less to go off the rails and end up looking ludicrous. This seems such an obvious fix that I’m amazed it hasn’t been tried more often. One game that does fit this model is Dead Rising, which I’ve never played but when I read about it, I was struck forcibly by how limiting the action to closed shopping mall filled with mindless zombies and only a very limited human cast inherently overcame many of the problems with realism in a sandbox world. It sounds as though the failings in the game had very little to do with its environment and I’d be interested to know if there are any other extant or planned examples of this approach. And again, it’s worth repeating that it’s yet another example in which a game is actually made better by putting less content in it and tightening the focus on what matters.

I can’t resist closing this column by contrasting the problems that video games have in creating a believable setting and atmosphere with board games. Oddly this is because board games are a less immersive and immediate environment. A video game occupies all your attention and makes you feel like you’re right there in the world that it’s creating, so even small anomalies can destroy the suspension of disbelief. In a board game most of the work in terms of setting and narrative is done by the imagination of the players and as long as you’re engaged with the game and enjoying it, that imagination will fill in all the blanks for you as you go along. Perhaps that is ultimately the reason why less is more when it comes to content in video games too. If so, then it’d do everyone good to avoid games like Skyrim in favour of more crudely drawn, but ultimately more thrilling fare.

Dragon’s Dogma in Review

Had Dragon’s Dogma presented itself as a Japanese-style action game with light RPG trappings, I might be writing today about one of my favorite games of 2012. With a development team including alumni from some of the better Resident Evil and Devil May Cry titles, it’s a game with a great pedigree and huge ambition. Brilliant ideas abound like the Pawn concept, which essentially simulates playing a MMORPG asynchronously with vaguely intelligent party members that learn how to fight more effectively over time and speak incessantly in a faux archaic patois. If your main Pawn gets hired by another player, he or she comes back with items or knowledge about quests or how to deal with certain monsters. There’s an excellent item enhancement system that’s as streamlined and straightforward as any I’ve seen, there are well-designed dungeons rich with atmosphere, and you’d be hard pressed to find a more exciting video game moment than scaling a hydra wound around a watchtower to lop off its head.

But it’s not exactly a Japanese-style action game, although elements are present. Despite offering some singular, possibly innovative hack-and-slash RPG concepts Dragon’s Dogma makes the mistake of thinking that it can compete with Western RPGs like Skyrim. It’s a shame because this is a far better and more compelling title in terms of action and gameplay than Bethesda’s OCD morass of enervating sidequests and unfocused narrative. Yet here is a Japanese-developed game that trucks in the worst qualities of the open world genre. The story, such as it is, is almost completely an afterthought and the world-building offers little more than a bland pastiche of Western fantasy tropes. NPCs are little more than Westworld-like automatons, standing by patiently for you to interact with them in their lifeless world. Nowhere is this more apparent than when you stand on a rock outcropping overlooking a vast valley and you can see bandits literally standing around doing nothing.

The world of Gransys is empty and soulless to the point where it makes Kingdoms of Amalur’s setting look inspired. Vast areas of nothing, tediously coupled with no fast travel option in the early game, mean lots of walking and wishing that there was something- anything- to fight or do. The quest log tracks laughable you-gotta-be-kidding-me gigs like finding flowers, killing X number of rabbits, and escort missions.  The story missions have no more urgency or dramaturgy than menial, void-filling tasks issued by question mark-haloed quest dispensers, urging you to the next spot marked on the map- if you can find it before you tire of lumbering around the map looking for a route. As for the narrative line, after twenty hours of play I’ve got that a dragon ate my heart and that’s irritating the local royalty and that’s about it.  There’s probably something about a prophecy in there somewhere, and your character is called the Arisen- as if any of that matters when the game is at its worst when it’s pretending that it has a story to tell or game world to express.

Yet in its best moments, most of which have nothing to do with the paltry narrative or sandbox aspirations, the game celebrates its Eastern lineage. The patrimony of the Souls games is evident in its sometimes staggering difficulty and its willingness to punish the unprepared, hasty, or unskilled player. Fighting some of the larger Monster Hunter-like beasts in the game- Chimeras, Hydras, Gryphons, Cyclopses- is grueling, awe-inspiring, and you can climb on them to hit weak points a la Shadow of the Colossus. Fussy details abound like worrying about keeping your lantern dry, food in your inventory from spoiling, and a Giant from seeing the women in your party. The ladies drive him crazy.

And oh, that fighting. Eschewing the sludgy tank battles of the Bethesda titles, the ersatz Gears of War pop-and-shoot of Mass Effect, and the ever-present MMORPG cooldown ability trope, the combat system is brutal, complex, and completely successful. It’s not tactical or measure like in the Souls or Witcher games. It’s much closer to the Japanese brawler idiom and it’s a better game for it- there’s combos, juggling, charge attacks, and more. Swinging a sword, slinging a spell, or blasting a goblin with ten flaming arrows is completely satisfying and all actions are tied to stamina, weight, speed, strength, and other traits. Classes, abilities, and specializations are strict- the trend toward characters that can do whatever in the name of accessibility is here refuted.

The idea is that you’ll hire, fire, and rehire Pawns by either entering “The Rift” at Rift stones or by running across them wandering the game world to suit your current needs and to augment your character’s abilities. You might run an all-Fighter/Warrior party to handle conventional foes, or recruit a team of Striders and Rangers for some long-distance bow-work backed with up-close dagger-work. Of course, without a supply of curative herbs and potions you’ll want to bring mages to provide healing and combat support. The AI isn’t terrible and the abstract simulation of learning works, I just wish that they wouldn’t constantly remind you to cut off a Saurian’s tail first once they figure it out.

Too often, these chatterbox Pawns ruin the game’s moments of sensory grace with their unasked for advice or commentary. And there are wonderful moments where the game is immersive. Before you go hacking the tails off of those Saurians, you might stop for a minute to admire the vista, with the alligator-men sunning themselves on the rocks in a creek. Or a swarm of bats might explode up a shaft circumferenced by a massive spiral stairway, leading to a horrible Thing in the Pit-style creature. Castles are imposing, the flicker of a lantern feels warm, and the sound of the clash of arms is impactful. This is a very well made, good-looking game with an art style that is more Elmore and Hildebrandt than Blizzard and Games Workshop. Framerates aren’t always the best and the camera, of course, goes haywire when you clamber onto a gryphon, but technically this a very polished, mostly well-appointed game that a lot of care and attention went into.

But the problem with this sometimes brilliant, utterly hardcore, and relentlessly clumsy trainwreck of a game is much the same as we’ve seen with any number of Japanese-developed games where the creators stray from the unique qualities of their national design idioms. Attempting to emulate the successes of Western designers is a tragic mistake. When this game looks, feels, plays, and even sounds like a classic, AAA-class Japanese title I’m loving it. When it’s trying to be an Elder Scrolls game, befuddling me with labyrinthine menus, or constantly reminding me with pop-up messages that I can buy more quests or special weapons through DLC I’m hating it. I don’t recall another game in recent years where my opinion has swung so wildly, often within a single hour of playing it. I do like this game, and quite a lot sometimes. But not always. It’s the dilemma of Dragon’s Dogma, a game that too often turns away from its own strengths and character in pursuit of elusive and unlikely foreign success.

The Elder Scrolls Online Revealed

Game Informer has the goods on the next Elder Scrolls game, which is teased online but will be revealed more in depth in the June issue.

It’s a MMO for PC and Mac and will ship in 2013.

An in-depth look at everything from solo questing to public dungeons awaits in our enormous June cover story – as well as a peek at the player-driven PvP conflict that pits the three player factions against each other in open-world warfare over the province of Cyrodiil and the Emperor’s throne itself.

“It will be extremely rewarding finally to unveil what we have been developing the last several years,” said game director and MMO veteran Matt Firor, whose previous work includes Mythic’s well-received Dark Age of Camelot. “The entire team is committed to creating the best MMO ever made – and one that is worthy of The Elder Scrolls franchise.”

Not sure what to think of this as obviously details are few at the moment. Personally, I’m done with MMOs but your mileage may vary. I see ‘three player factions’ and that sounds like a Realm Vs Realm type of deal which would jive with the Dark Age of Camelot design, one that was picked up in Warhammer Online.

Dishonored Video and Screenshots

YouTube video

Bethesda is starting to roll out the barrel on Dishonored info as the company just releasesd 11 freshly baked screenshots for the upcoming Assassin Style-Steampunk shooter. The more I read about this the more it sounds like if Assassin’s Creed, BioShock and Sherlock Holmes had a wild, absinth filled party and the result was Dishonored. I’m now officially excited for this one.

The GameSpot video above is definitely worth watching if you want to get a look at the art direction. The more I see the more I like what I see…plus:

Steampunk Hookers.

Sold.