With roughly two weeks left in 2011 Bethesda Softworks’ Skyrim is my game of the year. I can only think of two games I’ve yet to play that I’d be interested in that could wrangle away that title, and choosing between Arkham City and Saints Row 3 with what time is left is going to be a difficult challenge, especially given that I’d rather play more Skyrim.
Skyrim is the sort of game where you look down at your phone, see that it’s 9pm and know that you need to start getting things together for work the next day, then look down again and it’s 2am and you’ve already committed yourself to wearing the same clothes you wore the night before.
And then you keep on playing.
I’ve said before that my one true test of a good game is that while playing I’m unconcerned with the internet, or food, or my bladder. Skyrim goes beyond that and turns off the passage of time itself. It isn’t so much a game as it is a destructive, consuming force that leaves little time for other games or social commitments or gainful employment.
Which is remarkable when you realize that Skyrim as a videogame is sorta, well, awful. Mechanically It’s no God of War-- It’s hardly even Minecraft. Skyrim follows the Fallout 3 gameplay system without VATS with an emphasis on melee. If you just recoiled in horror, there is good reason; this is a damned awful concept for a videogame.
But somehow that doesn’t matter. Let's imagine that video games aren't made using the tears and sweat and the ground up remains of the hopes and dreams of game developers and were instead produced using a device known as, for lack of anything better, The Game-O-Tron 3000. The Game-O-Tron 3000 is brown and covered in lens flare and if you stare at it too long everything becomes desaturated and blood begins to pool at the edge of your vision and you eventually die.
On the front of the Game-O-Tron 3000 in are a bunch of sliding levers among them levers for “gameplay” and one for “freedom of choice”. Every time you use the gameplay slider to further refine your pixel-perfect platforming mechanics you lose a notch on the “freedom of choice” slider and the rooms become progressively more corridor-like and full of oddly useful waist-high barricades. We know developers have to make these choices a the absolute best gameplay experiences. Games like Bayonetta feature very limited or nearly rudimentary exploration elements; whereas open world games that place an emphasis on freedom, like Just Cause 2 or Saints Row 3, offer downright poor gameplay fundamentals.
Bethesda, as it is their tradition, moved the freedom of choice lever so far to one side that the handle on gameplay broke off and struck Shigero Myamoto across the eyes, forcing Chris Kholer to immediately announce Shiggy was struck blind and would never produce another game in his lifetime.
Given an unlimited budget and time and publisher with unlimited patience you could drop God of War-level gameplay into something resembling Skyrim and it'd be the best game ever made but I'm not sure anyone but us would care. We may find out early next year when we finally get to play Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning: The Revenge: Redemption, although I suspect its exploration element will be more stilted than Kurt Schilling’s relationship with The Boston Globe.
I don't want to call complaints about Skyrim's gameplay model invalid, but I'm not sure people complaining about it could have ever been happy with any game Bethesda would conceivably produce. There exist any number of games with near-perfect gameplay models-- to be sure, far fewer than the days when the arcades reigned supreme, but they exist, and those games remain classics. God Hand is just as playable in 2011 as it was in 1975 when it's 3d engine was first coded; Sonic CD remains the transcendent gameplay experience it ever was. And hey, we’re in an era where you can buy both of those games any time you want.
Games like Skyrim come about roughly once every two years, and a large percentage hail from unpronounceable countries and feature a development budget roughly 1/10th of the advertising budget of the average Activision game. Bethesda is the only major studio interested in producing games like Oblivion and Skyrim and Fallout 3, and the fact that no one has attempted to improve upon Bethesda’s godawful gameplay model would seem to indicate that it’s not worth the effort.
But there is a worse option. A far, far worse option.
Skyrim, Bioware, and the Future of Western RPGs
Remember Bioware’s Infinity Engine games? The gameplay was similarly poor; stilted and slow and forced gamers to save constantly and reload area to avoid disaster in even the most minor encounter. Bioware eventually resolved this problem, but at a high cost. Bioware’s gameplay model slowly evolved through Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, Mass Effect and Dragon Age 2, and at the same time stripped gamers of traditional WRPG exploration and roleplay freedom. Sprawling dungeons full of secrets to explore were replaced with tightly focused cover-based 3rd person shooting corridors, and roleplaying freedom was replaced with a dating sim. The resulting compromise-- a sort of amalgamation of Japanese Role Playing Game sensibility and Western action games-- made no one happy except for a rapidly dwindling fevered core of Bioware fans.
Skyrim rejects this compromise. and it’s sales numbers indicate gamers are receptive to Bethesda’s vision. Where Bioware chased the mainstream market by streamlining the Western Role Playing Game model into an abstraction, Bethesda trusted that same market with a modicum of intelligence and produced most obscure, baffling and ultimately rewarding WRPG experience this side of the Soviet Bloc. Whereas Bioware ensures that 99.9% of the game is experienced by anyone willing to finish the game, Bethesda hid the main storyline amid a pile of unrelated side quests and only vaguely hints as to what the main storyline thrust is supposed to be.
Whereas you could see Bioware’s growing disinterest in the WRPG market from Knight of the Old Republic to Dragon Age 2, Bethesda built upon what they created in Oblivion and Fallout 3 and gave gamers more freedom and more control. It’s almost as if Bioware holds gamers in contempt. I hope this is just a result of most of the company’s core talent being diverted to The Old Republic, but the cynic in me wonders if this is just a natural consequence of Electronic Art’s corporate meddling and thus now a part of Bioware’s itself.
You can see the evidence in the differences between online reaction for Dragon Age 2 and Skyrim. Skyrim has become a vector of countless memes and a font of breathless youtube videos revelling in even the most basic interactions. Dragon Age 2 was met with dismay and derision, it’s fans concerned that perhaps finally Electronic Arts had wound it’s tendrils so deep into Bioware’s corporate culture that they didn’t really care about it’s core audience anymore. Bioware has since attempted to apologize for it’s seeming lack of interest in creating a quality WRPG experience in Dragon Age 2, but it was the sort of half hearted “we’re sorry if you’re offended” apology you’d expect to hear from a marketing firm attached to a billion dollar publishing behemoth. Hopefully somewhere in Edmonton, Alberta Canada at this very minute there are game designers dissecting Skyrim taking notes an realizing just how far Bioware has slipped.
If you’ll allow me to engage in a bit of melodramatic histrionics; the current differences between Bioware and Bethesda isn’t so much the story of two very different development studios as much as it is a battle for the very soul of hardcore gaming. This is more important than waggle vs buttons or Hollywood budgets vs indie sensibilities. This is the choice between developers showing some degree of trust in gamers or the continued devolution of games into guided rollercoasters where we pay an admission fee to be shepherded along for six hours while mashing on-screen prompts whenever the camera switches angles.
Either developers will continue to have some sort of trust in our competence at playing games or we’re going to be viewed as contemptible idiots who need to be shown everything. I don’t know if there is a middle ground-- certainly Electronic Arts has shown no interest in finding it.
But enough of the lovefest. Skyrim has problems, real problems, and shit that simply should not still exist coming from a game company with 25 years of experience under it’s belt.
The Glitched Mobs
Look, I know, Skyrim the biggest and most complex console game of this console generation, maybe even the biggest and most complex console game ever made and Bethesda simply could not catch everything. So when I see a table and everything on the table is trying to bounce off of it and the NPCs think nothing is amiss, I overlook it. It’s best to roleplay every Bethesda game as if you were in a lucid fever dream. A Bethesda game without jank would be like owning an MGB where the body panels all fit right and the roof didn’t leak. You’d wonder if something was amiss.
But the scripting errors in this game are unforgivable. All too often I would enter a room and be stuck as for some unfathomable reason a scripting trigger never occurred and the only recourse was to load from a previous save and hope it was far back enough that the error didn’t already occur. What’s worse is that the dungeons are fairly large, often difficult to clear, and the solution for getting through the dungeon is sometimes not obvious. So when a scripting error occurs it’s not readily noticeable and the act of backtracking just to make sure you haven’t missed a cleverly hidden lever can easily wipe out an hour of progress. As a result you can’t really trust any given encounter to play out properly.
This resulting lack of trust manifests itself in other ways. I like to play Western Role Playing Games without the safety net of a quick save and deal with the resulting carnage of a bad decision, but Skyrim doesn’t easily allow that. I don’t want to have to save my game before I attempt what should be a routine attempt to pick a lock in a friendly town, but I have to because I can’t trust the guards not to randomly swarm upon my location immediately after thanks to an unaccountable line of sight glitch. These same errors can crop up in pickpocketing attempts or stealing items from empty rooms.
It’s difficult to tell how much of this is due to Skyrim’s open nature, how much of this is due to Bethesda’s Gamebryo game development engine being older than the average age of it’s player base, and how much of it is simply due to a lack of proper bug testing. It is certainly a combination of all three, however I have to think that Bethesda games would be far better if half as much money was spent on the voice acting budget and that money instead used to hire more testers.
Lessons From Fable: Or How To Make WRPGs Work on a Gamepad (sorta)
The transition from a PC gaming to the console market has been rough on PC-based developers, and few more so than the purveyors of hideously complex Western Role Playing Games. Suddenly Bethesda is working with a very limited amount of hard drive space, a minuscule amount of RAM, and virtually no control over how online content is delivered. But worst of all, they’re forced to switch from a UI based around 104 fully customizable keys and a laser guidance system capable of picking out 5700 dots of resolution per square inch to.. this ...fucking ...thing
Skyrim on the PC uses the 360 gamepad as it’s default controller option, but much like an obese uncle that tries to hide his embarrassing girth behind a straining belt buckle, Skyrim’s WRPG roots are impossible to hide.
You use a lot of skills in Skyrim, mainly because there are no set classes. Anyone can use magic and swords in equal measure, and it’s rare to see a character stick to the standard genre archetypes of pure Thief/Mage/Warrior. Thanks to Skyrim’s godawful party system (more on that in a bit) you wind up a jack of all trades. The problem is you’re only allowed to ready two skills at any given time, one on each hand, represented by the analog triggers. If you’re using a heavy two-handed weapon then you’re effectively stuck with one skill-- Swing Hammer Really Hard. This is despite the fact that you also need to have some sort of ranged weapon handy (if you’re a melee character then your bow; if a caster than one of the many ranged spell options) as well as a some sort of elemental magic on hand for magically-infused enemies. Plus if you don’t want to go bankrupt from buying potions you’ll want a healing spell as well as a Soul Syphon spell to charge soul gems for enchanting and recharging magical weapons.
For magic-focused characters the situation is even worse. You’re going to want a melee weapon or a staff at the ready to save valuable mana. Also you’ll need a powerful alpha strike spell such as Fireball, a freezing spell to keep angry vikings away from your fragile body, an electricity spell to sap the mana of opposing wizards, as well as your healing spell, a second healing spell for your idiot NPC partner, the aforementioned Soul Syphon spell, a spell shield so you don’t die from a ranged attack ambush, and hopefully some sort of conjured magical bodyguard as chances are your NPC party member is nearly dead and cowering for her life.
With a keyboard and mouse this isnt’ an issue as you would simply hotkey skills until you ran out of keys. Bethesda’s solution gamepad solution, however is clumsy at best, and bordering on downright awful. There is a “favorite skill” feature where you can tag skills and then cycle through them using the up/down buttons on the dpad before assigning them to a trigger, but you can easily wind up wading through a dozen skills at any given time.
The annoying thing about Skyrim’s setup is that there’s a perfectly usable solution to this issue, and it came from an action RPG series that never really needed a lot of skill slots open at any given time: Fable. Fable allowed the player to assign skills to all four face buttons with three different face button layouts accessible on the fly, effectively giving instant access to 12 different hotkeyed skills.
Skyrim has more important things to do with your face buttons, such as a jump button in a game where you absolutely should never have to jump. Also there is a contextual button that sometimes allows engages dialog with NPCs, but also sometimes grabs that NPC’s belongings before their very eyes, forcing a instant battle to the death between yourself, the NPC, and every guard in earshot. Or alternately every guard in every town for the rest of your game, provided you’ve found another line of sight error.
To put this in perspective: Peter Molyneux perfected console WRPG controls on the first Xbox in a game oldschool WRPG fans universally despised. Bethesda meanwhile, they used-- ye gods, I don’t even know how to describe the logic in what Skyrim uses. It’d be different if they at least allowed you to cycle between skills using the bumpers; instead those are used to access the sprint command (much more useable on the clicky stick in lieu of the near-useless 3d perspective toggle) and dragon shouts (which, if the face buttons aren’t going to be used for anything else, may as well be placed there instead.)
User Unfriendly Interface
That’s not the end of the baffling interface issues. As you could expect from game where your action buttons are on the analog triggers, Skyrim plays like a first person shooter, albeit one without any form of aim assist. This is all well and good if you're in melee and your enemies are largely impossible to miss anyway, but it’s terrible if you play a wizard and most of your mana bar has just been used up on a fireball that went wide 2 pixels to the right. I don’t know if that’s intentional as magic is powerful already, but the end result is that area of effect spells and directed streams of elemental magic are the preferred means of magical attack, but this also creates a lot of collateral damage and revenge-minded townsfolk.
A lot of the gameplay gripes with Skyrim would vanish if there was a simple way to click to a target and keep the camera focused on that enemy. At the very least it would be nice if you could highlight an enemy and command party members and friendly NPCs not to come between line of sight between yourself and the target. Nope, if you’re a wizard-- or even a melee character with a quick trigger finger-- you’ll constantly be casting on your friends and loved ones as they blindly step between your target and the massively overcharged double-fisted fireball that’s sure to vaporize your professional relationship and most of your mana.
Speaking of NPC commands-- they’re not there, really. If you’re familiar with the Fallout 3 party structure then you’re already an expert with Skyrim’s party interface, because it’s the same thing only with fewer options. Gone is the ability to tell your NPC companion to prefer range or melee, gone is the ability to tell your companion how closely to stay around you, gone is you companion’s good common sense not to shove you out of the way in rabid pursuit of an enemy that will assuredly boil her in her own armor before she can get within 20 feet of the object of her blind rage. NPC companions in Skyrim are bloody-minded lobotomized idiots who only understand anger and line-of-sight and have no respect for their own well being.
Look, I understand you’re not supposed to rely on your party members, that they’re there to provide minor support in areas your character lacks and mostly to act as a pack mule, I’m just asking that if my companion can see the pressure plate on the floor when following me that maybe she could step around that plate instead of on top of it and then relentessly through the resulting hallway full of swinging blades. If they’re going to be stupid and disposable then make them obviously inconsequential instead of giving the NPC companions unique voice actors, lines of dialogs, and their own motivations. If this is the best that could be done then just have the local adventuring guild supply me with and endless stream of redshirts.
The UI limitations in Skyrim seem to be some sort of stilted clumsy compromise between having a fullly-featured PC-based WRPG and the concessions needed to streamline those same features to a console. This is frustrating, as Skyrim’s core conceit is that it’s not supposed to acknowledge those concessions.
I could name a few other complaints, but at this point I feel like I’m nitpicking in some lame attempt at impartiality. But I’ll go ahead and say it-- I really wish you had the option to kill everyone in the game, even of the price for killing a story-dependent NPC was an immediate game over screen. Also it seems like Bethesda is taunting everyone who wants to kill children in their games by producing the most annoying, rude, mouthy, beheading-worthy children to ever grace a game where you are specifically prohibited from murdering children.
Despite the seeming severity of everything I just complained about, I must stress that when put in perspective of Skyrim as a whole these are but minor quibbles. They will annoy you, they will infuriate you, they even may cause you to ragequit and do something productive with your life. But you’ll be back. It knows you’ll be back.
Skyrim is my game of the year, but it’s more important than that. I hate to make grand statements as they’re usually pretentious and almost always regrettable, but I’m going to make a grand statement here-- Skyrim is a line in the sand. On one side developers will trust gamers with an unspoken agreement that we don’t mind the prospect of not seeing most of the games we pay for. On the other-- well, on the other is another decade of Modern Warfare, where everything is scripted, everything is seen, and we are never trusted again.
I know where I want to be, and more importantly I know where I want us to be. Please play this game.