Skyrim Woes: A World of Difference

I could write a piece evangelize how great Skyrim is, and I could go on and on about the wonderful nuances of the design or the character of the world, and how refreshingly open it is. But that’s boring, and I’m sure that it gets tiring to hear nothing but praise. Skyrim is a wonderful game, but it has its flaws.It’s definitely gotten to that point where the newness and initial excitement of Skyrim has tapered off a bit, and we can finally start talking about what the problems with the game are. They may be few and far between, but they can be substantial. Whether it may be the observation that only a mere illusion of choice exists, making most quests boil down to a “do it this way, or don’t do it at all” structure, or whether the world feels severely disconnected, to the point where NPCs don’t seem to be paying attention to any actions the player has been doing. Those are fine things to talk about, but one thing that I could have done with more of, was the main storyline.

Before the game was released, it was reported that the main quest line could be beaten in just over two hours. I have to assume that is with no exploits, but just a very expedient, knowledgeable run. Either way, that is a pretty quick main story. Even when I played it after exploring for thirty hours first, the main quests came and went like any other quest lines. At the end, I just thought to myself, “Oh, is that it?” and continued on my merry way. And it isn’t just the number of quests, which is only a few more than something like the Dark Brotherhood quest line, it’s the content. I never feels like something special is happening.

I love the opening of the game. The dragon attack was sensational and exhilarating, while completely preparing me for an intense battle against vile beasts. Unfortunately, the rest of the quests never gave me a feeling like that. Yes, it was cool to actual find a titular Elder Scroll, though getting it was like going through many of the dungeons I’ve gone through before. Yes, it was cool to fight side by side with ancient heroes of lore, though it made the final battle a bit easier.

Maybe that is it. I expected one thing and got another. I felt that within the framework, the main story would have a little more pull towards my emotions. I guess that has been the case for most Bethesda developed games. Fallout 3’s main story line was quite lackluster, especially in comparison to the quality writing in other aspects the game. Oblivion’s main quest was barely touched upon by most people, given that it was never really that interesting to begin with.

But Skyrim has dragons, and dragons are really cool. I wanted to continue the story. I actually wanted to go on an insane adventure, ridding the world of dragons one wyrm at a time. I got some of that, but just not enough. Not enough to feel like I did anything of substantial value to the land of Skyrim. Even the NPC’s around the game did not notice a difference when I had finished vanquishing the evil that nearly wiped them out. I saved the world from ending…apparently.

The end of the world! Maybe that could have had some urgency to the storyline, or some directing of the player. Dragons are coming back to life by a devious monster bend on destroy humanity. Hold on. The thieves guild wants me to sabotage a brewery. Oh, well, that’s cool. I guess you’ve got some time, or whatever. Because the game didn’t treat this stuff with importance, I think neither did I. In reality, I could have never done the main story and it would not have made much of a difference. That’s the kicker, I feel like I didn’t make a difference. Like I stopped destruction for a fling.

For something that pertains to your entire existence in the game to some extent, the main story just feels incomplete. It contains all of the ideas for something much bigger, including being the goddamn “chosen one”. But it all gets condensed into a few fetch quests and dungeon crawls. Then, has a couple of quests that consist of having conversations with people. I don’t want to come off as someone who just wants pure Modern Warfare style action in all of my games, but with material this dense, and a situation this dire to the world, I expected something a little more grandiose.

The best example I can give to sum up my experience with the main story line is the encounter with Odahviing, a dragon you capture in Whiterun. You eventually convince him to help you, and he says he will fly you to where Alduin, the main antagonist is holding up. I start thinking, “Oh man! I’m going to fly on a dragon and it’s going to be so cool!” Then the screen fades out, fades back in and shows the dragon flying away, with my character sitting on top. Needless to say, it was disappointing.

Most of what happened felt like a tease towards something much cooler nearly every step of the way. Fighting Alduin at the end felt like fighting just another dragon. It just didn’t feel special. It is a bit disappointing when the main quests become:

  • Go through dungeon, but it’s just longer
  • Fight dragon, he’s just tougher
  • Find this artifact, it’s just more important sounding

There were chances for much more memorable events to take place in this potential beast of a story, and overall it feels like more hammed up versions of other quests instead of unique instances. It felt shorter than it should have been, it didn’t feel as pressing and it didn’t feel as extravagant as it needed to be.

Exciting.

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Eufloria: A Simple Challenge

Alright, now this isn’t a review really. What would be the point? I recently got this game in the Indie Royale bundle, started it up and found it pretty enjoyable. And it got me thinking about games that I catch myself planning and strategizing when I went in with no notion I had to do any of that. It was a pleasant surprise. These are some thoughts on that sort of stuff, I suppose.

Sometimes, simplicity is a game’s greatest asset. With just some basic colors, sounds and mechanics a game can shine through even the beefiest of graphics heavy, number crunching competitors. But just because a game plays and looks simple, never means that it can’t kick your ass, repeatedly. You can see this in early Nintendo games, or some newer indie games today. One such game from this year is Eufloria. Eufloria is an incredibly simplified real time strategy game. The objective is to take over every single asteroid on the map with your little seedlings without becoming extinct yourself. You can plant two types of trees on each asteroid. Ones that grow new seedlings and ones that pretty much act as turrets to defend the asteroid. Some asteroids can hold five trees, and sometimes they can hold only one. The player must defend against onslaughts from other factions of seedlings while expanding their own empire. But, Eufloria is a game that basically comes down to dot wars around differing sizes of circles. Sure there are fast dots, tough dots and lethal dots, but sometimes it just comes down to numbers.

It’s a neat concept executed in a completely minimalist form. It starts off deceptively easy, where you can basically hang out until you have an inordinate amount of seedlings to just brute force your way through all of the asteroids. I went through the first several acts this way, and never had to play a level twice. It was actually disappointingly easy. I sat playing the first scenarios wondering what the point was.

Unfortunately, this is the game at its worst. When you sit around, twiddling your thumbs waiting for your giant army to come into being (there is surprisingly no fast-forwarding time). Then you just send everything to each planet, and you’re done. It becomes easy to think that the game takes no real strategy, and that the level design (randomly generated) is lazy. I almost stopped playing out of boredom, and thinking, “Yep, I get it.”

However, when I got the later acts, I started getting my ass handed to me. What was happening? I started getting sort of mad at the game for throwing such a curve-ball of difficulty. Suddenly, it was time for actual strategy. Now, I had to figure out how many seedlings I could sacrifice to leave and try to start a new colony, or the ratio between growing trees and defensive trees on each asteroid. I had to actually decide if an asteroid was worth taking. I had to be careful that if I left one asteroid with too few seedlings, that it would not be bombarded by the other factions immediately.

Honestly, the jarring shift in difficulty really threw me for a loop. Where my hubris in obliterating other asteroids helped me in the earlier levels, I became frustrated that it simply would not work anymore. Enemies became relentless and outnumbered my forces constantly. Starting asteroids started sucking if I wanted expansion. It came as a sort of reality check that I needed to actually think carefully through the next level and it got me excited to keep playing it, really. And with each new level came new challenges. Eufloria’s hidden cleverness comes not from new mechanics or new gimmicks as the game progresses, but rather progressively daunting scenario design. It got to a point where I really had to play many later levels a few times to get the rhythm just right, or my tactics flawless.

In a way, Eufloria is sort of beginner’s training for more robust and mechanically dense real time strategy games. The stats between the three types of seedlings only occasionally come into play. There isn’t a wide range of forces at your disposal, and you are not upgrading buildings or maxing out tech trees, but there is a joy to the simplicity of it. It is strange to get excitement when seeing hundreds of blue dots leave one asteroid and swarm a busy rival faction’s. It becomes an entrancing mess of swirling colored dots, a feeling slightly trumped when you zoom in and see all of the individual seedlings dogfighting.

It is always infuriating when a game goes from stupid easy to unbearably difficult without the slightest warning. I remember the last portions of Brutal Legend got into controller-chucking territory out of nowhere. It sucks, but at the same time, it hopefully forces the player to take a look at their tactics and figure something out, as long as they haven’t been turned off by the entire notion already. Steep learning curves are like having a jog, then being told to continue up a mountain. Though, once you jump that hurdle, the rest is coasting. Maybe it was the piss-easy “tutorial” levels, or maybe it was just that the entire aesthetic of the game threw me off, but it was a frustrating yet satisfying experience.

All through school, my teachers have told to always keep it simple. Get across what you need to in as little as possible. It’s good advice. But in games, complexity can be incredibly intriguing for people who love to explore and pick apart games. To master them by know intricate details about every mechanic. Those are rewarding and fun, but there is a case to be made about games that have little, but give much more. Eufloria could be considered a “casual” game, and to some extent it is, but, cunningly, I think there is enough challenge and thought for any gamer that is looking for it.

The Elder Scrolls: What is CHIM?

So after playing an absurd amount of Skyrim and getting pretty deep into the lore of the Elder Scrolls, I came across an interesting theory of a sort of meta-narrative throughout the games. I started reading more and more about the metaphysical concept of CHIM, which is detailed through some of the in-game books and expanded upon by fans on forums. From what I gathered through the dense language of the discussions taking place on the subject, CHIM is basically a character realizing that he is in fictional world but somehow still keeps his identity, and therefore becomes able to control the world around him…I think. In terms of the Elder Scrolls lore, it is like gaining complete enlightenment, and having the world become much like a lucid dream, where you can change what you see in whatever way.

The cool part comes in where it seems like the fans, though it could be inferred that the designers wanted the idea out there, have come up with idea that CHIM sort of breaks the fourth wall of the game, where characters that have achieved CHIM, reference the Elder Scrolls modding tools and other crazy notions. Even main characters, the ones you play as in the games, reach CHIM, allowing you to do all the stuff you do. Yeah, it gets a little crazy. Who knows, everything I just said could be incorrect. It is all a pretty neat idea though, and I would not be the best person to convey the meaning of it because I don’t really understand it all myself, but if you want to know more about the cool meta-narrative that might be happening you can read more about it here:

http://fallingawkwardly.wordpress.com/2010/10/25/the-metaphysics-of-morrowind-part-3/

The Binding of Isaac: Mastering Your Luck

Isaac is a young kid with a wild imagination. The opening animation to Binding of Isaac presents the dark story of a religious, crazed mother out to sacrifice her child, shown through crude drawings by Isaac himself. It catapults the player into a fantasy world that can be disturbing yet funny, full of grotesque monsters and a multitude of strange hidden treasures. Story and style aside, the Binding of Isaac becomes more of an engrossing exercise in resource management than twitch shooter. While playing the game, it first comes down to luck, and secondly is how the player deals with that luck. The choices could doom them or save his pathetic, little life.

The Binding of Issac is an unlikely shooter from the minds of Edmund McMillen, of Gish and Super Meat Boy fame, and Florian Himsl. It incorporates the concept of the roguelike, or dungeon crawler, for its structure. Some of the main conceits of a roguelike is that when the player dies, they die for good. No saves, forcing them to start the game over. Another is the random, procedurally generated dungeons. The replayablility comes from never knowing exactly what you’re going to be handed next. This is where some of the joy and, sometimes, frustration of The Binding of Isaac comes in.

Now, I have very limited experience with roguelikes myself. They are an oddity to me. Games on the outskirts of my gaming knowledge. I have tried to play a few, but usually get stuck on the basic ACII interfaces or basic tiled graphics and sometimes high learning curves. The extent of my expertise with roguelikes is that I know of them, and I know a little of how their design functions. There is perma-death, but with each death comes new opportunities with randomly generated levels. The Binding of Isaac does this with a gameplay design that feels a little more accessible. To be able to move freely through each room and line up active shooting gives the game a sense of motion and excitement.

There is considerable skill involved in the game with the real-time shooting and moving. However, the player’s victory can merely come down to pure luck of the draw. The different permutations of dungeons and room and loot drops can either severely hurt a player, or make the game so much easier. From the treasure rooms that can hold any selection of the hundred items, to the pills, whose effects are never consistent from one playthrough to the next and hold no significant markings to help identify what they will do. It’s always a gamble on if you will be lucky enough to get a item drop to actually help you along your path. There is even a special room containing a slot machine and shuffling cup (or skull) game. You could come out of there with great items, or absolutely nothing.

Ah! The choices...

This is where the crazed genius really shines through, however. At first, the Binding of Isaac seems like a tricky Zelda-esque shooter with a Metroid style maze of dungeons, but the real strategy comes from managing your luck. You start to think, is it worth your hearts, or your items, or bombs or keys to go on through the next room? Do I need to see what items are in the shop, or can I push forward? Should I use this bomb to get those hearts, or should I try and find the secret room? Will I get more bombs later? What in God’s name will this pill do to me?!

It’s a deeper strategy than you even think you are employing. The quick use items need to be used at precisely the corrects moments, or they are wasted.  You should how many rooms it takes to recharge a off-hand item, and if the one you just found will work better for you, and if it will work well with the upgrades you currently have equipped. Some of the items you pick up can be detrimental to how you like to play. Take the chocolate milk “upgrade” for example. Instead of holding down the shoot buttons so tears automatically plop out one at a time out, the chocolate milk lets you charge tears. So for someone like myself, who prefers to hold down the buttons, that item sort of sucks. I have to be either tapping away or running around holding the button for just the right amount of time.

The one and only time I refuse chocolate milk.

Experimentation and trying your luck is just another part of the game. Whenever I get a pill that has the “???” as the description, I just instinctually gulp it down, hoping for the best. Any new item I haven’t seen before, I take, and haphazardly use it to see its effects. Experimentation with the, admittedly, unique and clever items is half the fun. A run could go a completely different direction because you sacrificed two hearts for something, like the powerful Brimstone upgrade, even though you had no idea what it was just from looking at the vague icon. When you try your luck and it works out, the run can become incredibly satisfying.

The layout of the dungeons are equally as harrowing. With each new game the placement of rooms is shuffled and rearranged into a completely new maze. Then, with each new placement, the rooms themselves become a mystery. You could easily walk into a room with nothing but a coin, then march into a room that completely obliterates your health. The choice of trying to find the shop or the secret room soon becomes affected by your courage in tempting fate with the rooms on the way. Even if you do happen to find the shop, it could be occupied by one of the mini-bosses, Greed, who is just out to take your coins. Finding an item like the compass is extremely helpful in meandering your way through danger and deciding whether to throw caution to the wind.

No matter what items you pick up, or which rooms you stumble across, this is a game that can take risk vs. reward and shove it in your face. The Binding of Isaac has the ability to leave you distraught with how cruel the random drops can be, or jovial with streaks of good fortune. But even with all the luck in the world, or the Lucky Foot, it still comes down to a player choice on how far they wish to push that luck.