Dark Souls 2 & a little bit more Final Fantasy 7

I made it to the final disc(final dungeon, really) of Final Fantasy 7 and it’s drawing my attention to what people seem to say about the game: that it gave rise to a problem with visual fidelity being more important than gameplay, that cut-scenes were now a necessity.  I have to be honest these don’t seem to be why the game succeeded.

   The amount of time true cut-scenes as we think of them today, CG/no control/”directed”, take up in the game is probably less than 3 or 4 minutes at most.  Though there are longer sections where gamers watch the weird polygonal figures interact this was an outgrowth of where Final Fantasy games had gone in the past.  The real reason the game seems to have succeeded was the fact that you could play it however you wanted, as well as the differences in kind.  

   Whereas many games slowly raise the numbers on enemies and weapons/armor over time, which is a necessity to some extent, the game loves differences in kind.  From the variety of weapons to the different games found within the larger game the story constantly  pushes people to do things besides the main combat.  This might be the real problem with the game, you can only get people interested in towns or mini-games so much until eventually this original combat problem is recognized since many other games have moved on from turn based systems.  

   But I bred a Golden Chocobo.  I’ll never get that time back.  Seriously though my real goal is to beat the weapons, the optional bosses with huge amounts of health.  But the problem is that if you build your team up to take these optional bosses out you’re probably going to destroy the actual final dungeon.  Honestly, I probably passed up that possibility a while back.

   Though what I’ve been keeping up with is Dark Souls 2.  Eagerly anticipated, however you look at it, to either achieve or fail to live up to fan expectations.  While Demon’s Souls was really a dungeon crawler but Dark Souls expanded this idea into something better than it’s simple roots.  The parts of Demon’s Souls that worked were advanced into something quite unique but also all things to all people.

   Those that didn’t like it felt it was too similar, and too hard.  Those that liked it often had problems explaining to others why it was such a standout experience.  The game had it’s problems, from modded accounts ruining your day in PvP to trolls in PvP(notice a pattern) the real selling point of the game was the intriguing multiplayer component where summons could join your game(whether just for a boss or for a stretch in a level) to phantoms who invaded and caused havoc until someone died or the invaded bit the bullet and jumped through the boss fog.  Getting the game for the PS3 has been pretty stark.  Every time I’ve turned into a human, thus been able to be invaded, I’ve been invaded by someone with way better gear than me.  Low level invasions are the real problem with the game, since some people can fight through the difficult parts in the beginning and get to the better gear later in the game while others don’t even have their stats in suitable condition for multiplayer.   I’m more the latter, always willing to let my health slide so I can put one or two more points into magic or dexterity.  When I finally get my character’s other stats right then I finally pump the health, though this also allows for some real challenges on the bosses I decide to deal with before this.  

   However, when I first thought of getting the game I wondered if there would be people doing the weird, asymmetrical experience, would it just be me alone?  That’s been the real driving force behind this game, even months later people are still playing it, possibly for years.  I thought just because I didn’t play in the first 6 months the audience would dissipate like many other online audiences, but the Souls community doesn’t dissipate.  

   The community has in fact elevated, from the two English Wiki’s and at least one Japanese the community has spawned countless youtube videos and posts on every message board with even the slightest gamer culture.  This is a game that came out in 2011 and it’s still growing.  

   Part of this is due to the PC release, which when tied to a magical mod that allowed the game to run well, compared to how it ran on consoles, the people who had been posting youtube videos could now make really good looking videos meaning people could appreciate more about the experience of the game.  From actually being able to appreciate the environments to the games few NPCs, there was a renaissance in the souls community as more people realized this game was something they would like.

   Who were these people though?  Part of me thinks they had my path, Dark Souls coming out in 2011 one of the biggest years in gaming ever, it was easy to miss coming out within a month of Skyrim.  But the “slump” that was 2012’s first 2/3 allowed for some much needed re-examining of less popular titles from the year that brought us Skyrim, and I think Dark Souls really stood out in that market.  The audience that had played things like Skyrim were looking for something different, nothing would ever really get at what Skyrim could do, but the field was open when dealing with what Skyrim got wrong.

   Dark Souls was everything Skyrim got wrong.  From fast and fluid combat with real danger, to sparse and atmospheric areas interspersed with dungeons.  The first few minutes of Skyrim were all fanservice to Elder Scrolls fans, more or less, the first few minutes of Dark Souls showed an entirely new panteon rise, and then fall, before the player has any control.  Yet, this information has very little context within the first 1/3 of the game, basically not being brought up.  As well the game purposefully tries not to give players too much information about the world, allowing for a picture to form somewhat but not fully realized.  Though there are only a handful of NPCs in the game each is in the last legs of their journey, all approaching their death, or undeath if you will.  

   To hell with the Nords of Skyrim, a gamer might say having tasted their first well tested victory against a difficult opponent in Dark Souls, this is the real Viking bezerking.  But like I said, most of this audience grew over time, and over time the game began to be hailed as a classic, not a game that was too difficult but something for a select set of video game fans, those with time and possibly youth.  However, I really wonder if Dark Souls 2 can handle this new audience. 

   Are the first few minutes of Dark Souls 2 going to be full of fanservice to their community?  From the first advertisement played during the VGAs last year the Souls community has been mirred in tiny debates about tiny things.  Some dumb-like the fear that the player character won’t be a blank slate- some actually bothersome-like that the game is going to falter with a new director or that the ending of the original game might not really leave much room for…well…that’s not the type of blog I’m writing.  What matters is that this community that usually spends their time figuring out what katana is best in the game, or how to defeat a boss at the earliest possible time, is now dealing with something much tougher to talk about-there’s a game being targeted for at them.  

   It’s easy to decide you’re the “alternative” person.  TV and other media designed for most people leaves you feeling like an outsider, your views don’t fit with the majority, but those who are outsiders tend to find each other.  In some ways that’s what happened in the Souls community, everyone was connected because at one time or another they played these games and felt something, whether a charge of energy from defeating a difficult boss to noticing the little details developers scattered through the environment.  

   When Dark Souls was developed the success it was following was Demon’s Souls, a sort of advancement on a known quantity, but Dark Souls 2 is something else entirely.  Expanding on the core design components of the first game won’t necessarily mean this next game has the same popularity as the first, or that it’s considered a classic.  And I think there are a lot of people in the Souls community worrying that somehow any shortcomings of Dark Souls 2 will reflect back on Dark Souls.  That’s what I’ve been wondering about, obviously the adage that “George Lucas ruined my childhood” doesn’t make sense-if you have good memories in the past they can’t be unmade like that.  But I think some people are worrying that what was great about the game is a bit like a ball of yarn, they’ve built it up and if the new game starts pulling at it the whole fantasy of the first might come apart.  

   Honestly, I had a lot of problems with Dark Souls.  People have said that the game has a story, it doesn’t.  Hear me out, please.  Video games aren’t books.  They don’t work like a novel, needing certain things like characters and plotting and a world.  What Dark Souls has is meaning.  The game is a “mechanics as meaning” story, while I already stated I won’t spoil the game the 2 Souls games have final bosses that are that sort of thing.  These villains have stories, they have a world, our character supposedly comes from that world and spends the entirety of the game encountering and experiencing the problems of that world, but the story isn’t really changing you’re just defeating obstacles-most of which exist because the main villain created them/put them in motion.  

    This is what really makes Dark Souls stand out against the backdrop of so many other games.  Skyrim has a story, you’re the dragonborn, you meet up with a former member of the blades, go to the greybeards monastary, pick up an older guy who takes you to the blades old diggs, the Dragonborn holds a summit for the civil war in Skyrim, then captures a dragon and uses it to enter the afterlife to party with Olaf One-eye.  Yet, as a role playing game there are problems, you don’t really see the world change that much, nobody really realizes you’re different, you just don’t feel things change that much.  Yeah, you get way more powerful, calling a dragon whenever you want pretty much ends any conflict you get involved in.  But the point of the matter is not that much changes, dragons continually try attacking the character, and the realities of life in Skyrim continue.  Dark Souls works because you aren’t doing that much to change things, NPCs move from place to place, you enter into covenants, but the game doesn’t force any of this down your throat.  I remember in the Witcher 2 there’s a decision you make at the end of the first chapter that completely changes what happens in the game and the world actually looked completely different, a hint would be that it was on fire.  But your choice drastically affected the outcome of this section.  While Dark Souls didn’t give the player as many options as Skyrim, it didn’t pretend to either.  

   The other great aspect of souls games are the quests.  While Skyrim(not to pick on them) had a tab just for all the quests you’ve picked up a souls game doesn’t really tell you you’ve started a quest.  Often they take a long time to finish, but really they’re stories.  By keeping tabs on characters and seeing what happens to them you finish the quest, often rewarded with unique gear or upgrade materieals.  Though Skyrim has a plethora of very well done quests, and great quests that were stories, Dark Souls had some really interesting quests.  Exhibit A: The Onion Knight.  

   Siegmeyer of Catarina is is a knight.  Though most laugh at the “onion-like” shape of their armor, Catarinan armor is very sturdy.  The man is first noticed waiting outside a giant gate, a very stark image as every path in the game so far has lead to a lot of danger, but next to a church is a path that leads to a giant closed gate.  You can tell on your first game this is important.  When you ring the second bell the gate opens and you continue to run into him from time to time, every few time you meet he gives you something.  However, when you are in the Duke’s Archives you find a golden crystal golem, these are unique because people are imprisoned in these golems.  Breaking it open reveals Sieglinde of Catarina, his daughter.  She is on a quest to find her father, and this begins the B-story of this quest as you keep running into his daughter.  While Siegmeyer has a way of seeming at once ready to tackle the problems of this world and at the same time expressing a need to be very careful, Sieglinde is all business as finding her father is important.  The reality, as you come to understand, is that he’s going hollow, he is slowly losing his humanity.  Expelled from these knights his daughter is chasing him down, possibly to spend some time with him before he’s gone, possibly to end his plight, possibly on a blood mission for the knights of Catarina.  However, Siegmeyer has progressed to Ash Lake, the entrance to the Way of the Dragon covenant, joined by those attempting to find the secrets of the immortal ancient dragons.  Presumably Sieg was going to lay himself before the Dragon if possible, and find a way to survive.  But when you make it to Ash Lake Sieglinde sits next to his corpse on this likely last leg of her journey too, now, if you’ve been as helpful as possible to Siegmeyer you get her Titanite Slab and can now smith the highest tier of weapons or armor.  I think it’s a double meaning, not only is she giving you this as a reward for paying attention, but she’s giving up on using it herself, without any family, and far from home, she’s possibly not going back to Catarina.

   That’s the type of story you get from a quest that happens in Dark Souls, and it’s entirely interpretation, I am right about some of it, but so many things, like where is Sieglinde going and why Siegmeyer ended up in this game, leave you scratching your head.  I really hope Dark Souls 2’s development team understand how important stories like this were in giving meaning to the original game.  That would really have me excited.



Back to the Past: Square’s Golden Age and Modern RPGs

With some hesitation I recently decided to jump into some old games.  Final Fantasy VI and VII, Tactics, and the report comes back like this: What the hell happened?

I purchased a used PS3 to play Ni No Kuni a few months ago.  On the machine were some old Squaresoft games, and feeling like 8 & 9 were probably not worth it I actually reinstalled 7 and purchased 6 to compare the two.  Also it doesn’t hurt to switch to a game designed for the SNES after the eventual burnout Final Fantasy 7 gives you.  Though these games share their namesake they couldn’t really be further apart.  6 has a sinister and evil villain in Kefka, though he is more like Mark Hamil’s Joker, evil but somewhat silly, while 7’s Sephiroth, yeah a khaballism tie-in, is more like Bane from Dark Knight Rises, worrying because he knows so much you don’t.

These villains are different but for the uninitiated Final Fantasy games really don’t have much in common with each other-this appears to be a problem the company that owns the franchise is trying to deal with now.  They have Chocobos, Mogs, maybe a dozen or so summoned monsters that appear in each game, but these staples appear in vastly different worlds ranging from more high-fantasy to stem-punk/cyber-punk settings.  While some games might have magic being core to the world others might have magic seen as evil, while some might have many people engaged in combat at once others have a pared down 3 or so controllable characters.  And yeah they all share status ailments, curative items, and some other things that all seem to come back, but like all the games based on D&D these are constants.  Even Demon’s Souls has Mind Flayers.

So aside from that these games have a very important element-story.  Or they used to.  Now the company that owns the franchise, SquareEnix(Enix took control of Square after the former head of Square created the film Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and the flop more or less tipped the balance into financial uncertainty-enter stage right Enix).  The modern mood seems to be they create a world for a numbered Final Fantasy game and then continue creating in that massive world, using the branding as a spring board.

Having played Final Fantasy Tactics some the world of that game, Ivalice, has been brought back in actual numbered FF titles, possibly because of the positive player memories but Ivalice has seen better days like the rest of these worlds.

Final Fantasy 7 though is often cited as the death nail of the JRPG genre, it’s graphic fidelity leading to a sort of arms-race amongst developers where the studios that couldn’t compete(or lost money on expensive games underperforming) were pushed into a less crowded hand-heald market.  Really the hardcore gamer in Japan is playing a hand-heald device now.  But there was a time, before this devestation, this cataclysm which would release itself on their market leading to bad business practices in the long-run when the cycle of new games was continually topped by hits coming from Japan.

With Final Fantasy 7 Squaresoft learned that their localization efforts weren’t close to where they needed to be.

Link:  http://www.1up.com/features/squaresoft-localization

Like the link explains they the company didn’t really understand how important the money from foreigners could be.  For many Final Fantasy 7 was the real introduction they had to the RPG genre, or at least their introduction to the Final Fantasy series.  Set in stone apparently every game contained World Maps, means of travel like Air Ships, Turn-Based combat, and apparently some guy named Cid.  Never the less these were really trappings, these games had grown to be more a huge story players were a part of driving and pushing it to go where they had to, but allowing players to do it their way.  While the smartest move might be to methodically build up a balanced team that could use the strengths of each member to make up for weaknesses(mainly in the designated healer) and slowly build your party’s levels and weapons up to stay on par with the enemies standing between the player and that final screen.  Generally there were a few accepted ways to get to the ending, either building your characters up to have a decent amount of survivability and then load up on healing items and have at it, get the best gear in the game and bring every party member to the level cap, or learn the toughest spell in the game on one character and try the odds.

One problem with these games was they didn’t allow you to go back, if you played long enough it’s not an option, your black mage will get an ultimate destruction spell, your white mage an ultimate holy spell, and whose not going to use those spell every chance they get?  Looking at it from a modern perspective I can understand the changes from 6 to 7.

Final Fantasy 6 was sort of the “final” high fantasy touch of the series.  Granted it had magitech mech robots shooting heat rays, and even crazier stuff, but it also had knights, castles and kings.  It was about empire clashing against free nations, and people perverting and corrupting the will of these very machine like power structures.  However, for all the headiness of it’s themes this game is imprisoned within a Super Nintendo cartridge.  Though it strived for so much more it looks similar to all the others that came before it, so one might not be able to tell with a passing glance what was underneath.

And in many ways Final Fantasy 7 was similar.  The first time a Final Fantasy game was encoded on a CD-ROM the team definitely wanted to “make an entrance” so to speak.  While it reminded me of Oddworld: Abe’s Odyssey remarkably as I played it with my modern eyes this was something to behold in its time.  It obviously was somewhat remarkable for it’s inclusion of graphically produced cut-scene animations every few story beats, but it reminded me an awful lot of a Lego game. Just not as well in the controls department.

And controls are something that stands out to me now.  These games suffer in modern eyes.  Instead of the 3rd person perspective seen in many RPGs now there is a fixed camera perspective for much of 7.  6, with it’s SNES graphical capabilities doesn’t quite suffer for this since the player is generally in the center of view, but 7 is definitely problematic.  Often I would juggle between screens because the directional pad pushing away from one screen also pushed away on the next, right back to square one, which with the perfectly reproduced load times gets old fast.  Controls are sticky on 7, and the use of the D-pad instead of the analog stick-not even an option-just doesn’t make sense and once you settle in and get used to it really messes with you when you turn on a modern game.

Which I did, I decided to try out my new copy of Fallout 3, immediately the perspective made sense, the analog stick again in full use(never thought I would miss an analog stick) but it’s not like these older developers knew what would become the norm.  But like Resident Evil I think the fixed perspective cameras was a trick to get decent graphics with the memory they had.  Final Fantasy games were known for being long, and a 3D world requires a lot of memory.  First you have the objects-an engine has to create them in real time based on the cameras perspective at 30 frames per second, then you have light, again at 30 FPS, and if you really want to go nuts shadows, reflections on glass, and things like special effects-all at the constant of 30 FPS.  Now it’s easy, a developer licenses an engine, hires a staff that understands how to work on that architecture and things sort of handle themselves.  At the dawn of the Playstation era the consoles were in flux, what worked on cartridges wouldn’t work on PCs, what worked on PCs wasn’t where consoles were headed, and yet nobody knew where they were headed.  But fixed camera angles made this stuff a lot cheaper in development so they could spend more time on new ideas.

Those new ideas were important in creating the dedicated fan base of Square.  These weren’t people making a great game every so often these people created great series of games.  Mana, Chrono, Final Fantasy, these guys were creating at a very prodigious level. Especially considering they would basically make an entire world for a Final Fantasy game and then throw it away and start from scratch.  They didn’t carry over heroes, they didn’t all take place in the same world, what the fans were buying was an entirely new adventure each time, only better.

The big change to me was materia.  I think that’s probably what many take away, besides the CG-ness, whereas before you got new gloves for your charaters, new helmets, new armor or robes, and weapons these were a thing of the past.  Every character in Final Fantasy 7 could use magic because every type of armor had room for materia, the materia would level up like the characters-eventually the fire materia would also allow fire2 and fire3.  Whereas previously you might have a black mage doing damage, a white mage healing everyone, and a fighter and thief taking care of their jobs(maybe a ninja thrown in the party, I wouldn’t want to be in a party without a ninja I know that much) materia meant you could really push what you wanted your party to do.  This system is expressed symbolically in the mother of all spoilers, the death of Aeris.

Aeris, or Aerith as her name was supposed to be air and earth combined(damn it localization) was the only character really designed for one thing because she had a severe weakness to dealing damage.  All of her weapons were low damage weapons, however her limit breaks(special powers activated by taking damage) were focused on her team mates getting health and she had high magic potential.  Basically everyone playing Final Fantasy 7 will use Aeris until her death because her limit breaks are basically game-breaking and her inherent magic stats mean she can heal more than anyone else casting the same spells.  However, before the end of the first disc, yeah they were so nuts this game came out on 3 discs, Sephiroth puts a katana through the young woman.

But this isn’t really a problem as previously stated anybody can do magic.  The next choice the player makes(who to place in their party now) shows the change in this games mechanics.  You really had a heavy amount of free will in this aspect of the game.  Did you want to base this on limit breaks, how many materia slots their weapons have, or whether or not they could attack from far away?  In the long run it just comes down to how cool everyone looks since the game is going to throw so many random fights at you you’ll get to the level cap before the middle of the third disc.

That is the bane of these older RPGs, the incessant random battles.  After playing Cthulu saves the World I see some problems.  CSTW has a battle cap in every area, 20 here, 30 the next, you can slog it out like old school games or go to your menu and choose battle.  The enemies are as random as if the fight popped up organically, but the game gives you that option. You can push through, searching for a chest that contains the weapon that might give you the edge, or you can do a couple of fights wasting magic like nobody’s business, and duck back to the inn to recharge slowly taking care of the necessary battles.

Whats interesting is that those older games had the same idea, in so much as the chance of random incidents of battle was based around trying to level characters up to a level allowed them to take on the next boss.  While you could escape from battles, generally this randomness worked the opposite, meaning by the time you got to that boss you were over-levelled.  And if you spent some time killing enemies trying to get a specific item to drop you were probably viciously over-levelled.

I say this because the area I most recently finished in Final Fantasy 7 was the snow area.  The idea for the area was, well, a snow area.  But they also wanted to disorient you by using many of the same screens over and over again, hiding the few useful items, and not giving you many clues to where you should be heading.  Oh, and every couple of minutes your character passes out and is “rescued” by some guy, waking up at a cabin.  The cabin happens to be where you need to go, but it’s also a hassle to be one screen away from an item just to see your character fall to their knees and that next screen be the cabin.  Not to mention every so often a random fight starts, and you’re pulled from the normal screen to a fight screen, and when you get back you forget what direction you were heading since they recycled SO many screens in this area.

I really felt like I had conquered antarctica when I started to know my way around that area, but what a bitch.  Sorry, but that’s the truth, the only way to describe the glacier is a bitch.  It didn’t have to be half that hard to get the idea across.  But the found a way to save a couple of bucks in what was probably a bloated project and they took it.  However this entire discussion is pulling away from the point of the topic.

When I plugged in to Fallout 3 I began to wonder what RPGs have lost, if anything, in the contemporary landscape.  While Final Fantasy might have been a phenomena of a very specific gaming landscape, Japanese developers able to get away with stuff because of a “right place, right time” sensibility, that technological boom has been replaced by a much more paced out cyclical hum of where the consoles have left us.  While the Playstation exploded onto the market, allowing for more money to be made if only projects could make it to the finish line, Microsoft’s jump into the marketplace has been decidedly one sided.

As Microsoft began developing their console the idea was to create a player base that was easily marketed to.  Everything about the advertising was designed to create a frequency loop so that unlike the chaos of the 90s gaming budgets would actually pay off.  They didn’t want a mega project to disappear seemingly over-night as they could in the 90s fading from the pages of gaming magazines; Microsoft leveraged televisions being in everyone’s house making sure games became a part of everyones media vocabulary.  Then, when one actually owned the console they began priming the consoles to become the center of everyone’s media world, though not entirely successful on that point.  Controlling every image that comes through an X-box 360, from Ads to what gets posted on that illustrious home screen the X-box, and to some extent the modern Playstation, are designed to keep gamers in the loop about what they want gamers to be in the loop about. The new Call of Duty, the new Halo?  These are what they wanted to be in the center of every gamers vocabulary because they were controlled franchises, they were something that could be marketed and sold easily, iterations each better(slightly) than the last.

The Final Fantasy games are suffering in this world, as even a Call of Duty game can’t help but bring back the previous cast the reckless creativity of the series just won’t stand.  So you have “Final Fantasy 13”, followed by “FF13:2”, followed by “13: Lighting something something something.”  While gamers might not care about the series protagonist or world, the people at SquareEnix can’t let the work that went into the title go to waste.  That just doesn’t work in this marketplace where developers have to spend massive amounts of money to make these HD experiences that not only rival movies but obviously can surpass them.  While Microsoft might have played up that middle-child syndrome gaming felt not quite as popular as movies, TV, and books but possible, so possible they could reach that level, the gaming developers proved again and again games could hit those marks, but they also changed the fan base to gaming in a major way.

Honestly, it isn’t entirely Microsoft’s fault, or anyones.  There is a generation divide happening now.  While I will probably never understand how someone could look at Final Fantasy 7 and say it was an amazing game it is somewhat indicative of how much gaming, as an industry and form, have changed.  Remember that R-rated dirty teen comedy?  You enjoyed it, laughed about it with your friends for like a year, and then a couple of years later another big version of that type of movie came out?  It didn’t really make sense to you how people could keep watching that movie over again, there was already a perfectly good version you saw when you were young.  A couple of years later they did it again.  Eventually there was a true generation gap, kids talked about some movie that you saw and knew wasn’t that good, but it was their first time seeing that movie and they didn’t know it was already played out.  Gaming culture has hit that sort of generation gap.  There are people who have been playing games their whole lives, and others who can remember the dawn of that possibility, still others only remember the take off of home consoles, others the PC…The people who enjoy this hobby have quickly out-paced any semblance of being unique.  Gamer isn’t a term that describes anyone, merely a hobby for some, a job for others.  But as a cultural entity video gaming has existed long enough it can be examined like film or literature and just as validly express itself, it can say as much as these other forms.

But what the hell happened to Square?  From what I’ve heard they aren’t the type of place where advancement is possible.  The way teams are put together and management works nobody is going to advance and become that new talent, and with most of their talent having left over the years they can’t really find people who have worked on the companies best achievements to work on their recent endeavors.  There’s the story of the woman who only makes the cobblestone roads in their games.  Yes, she does that well, but that’s her entire job at the company, cobbling digital roads until retirement.  Recently the head of SquareEnix resigned, but amid EA’s head leaving much of the American gaming press didn’t seem to notice this departure, and with so much gaming press being digital they don’t really have the infrastructure, like most digital press, to do hard reporting about what’s happening in other countries let alone domestically.

I keep running into roadblocks on Final Fantasy 7, the game would want you to do some sort of minigame, or just the ancientness of the entire endeavor leading to having to put the thing down and move onto Persona 3 or Disgaea 4 or Fallout 3 and I feel like there is a link.     Bioshock Infinite.  There’s a serialization in modern gaming that’s quite fascinating.  At the game store the other day I saw a man talking about his love of Morrowind and Skyrim, those were the type of games he really liked.  I’m from the south so his accent was obviously pronounced if I noticed it.  Really gamers have been taught to care about the developing studios of games, not so much star talent.  Unlike, say, rock music, where if you care about performer A you could read a Rolling Stone and hear that they love performer B, C, and D, but hate E for sleeping with their wife, there doesn’t seem to be a huge push to get that sort of understanding of games in many gamers hands.  That guy at the game store was in line ahead of another guy with the same situation, gamed as kids, quit and came back.  The market was designed to get those guys back playing, but not for them to easily figure out what a quality product is.  Even for those in the know quality products are debatable at this point.

There was a time when a huge fan base had sprung up for Bioware’s releases, but one too many games with the exact same plot and even that seems to be slimming.  But Bioware was a company forged out of Final Fantasy 7.  Their games have to have cut-scenes, have to have developed characters, even thrive or die based on their characters, yet have a problem with giving players a truly open world.  Bethesda on the other hand seems to never be able to make truly difficult games because their players truly can go anywhere at any time, characters really designed as set pieces for stories they want to create.  I couldn’t imagine Skyrim being more popular if you had to make a romantic choice between Lydia or Jarl Balgruf.  I’m sworn to carry you’re burdens, indeed.

In some ways it’s almost like Square’s golden age didn’t even happen to many RPG developers.   Maybe too much time has passed, or not enough.  An article on Kotaku recently praised RPG minigames.  I kept laughing reading it, like these games were so great.  Final Fantasy 7 has a 6 minute long snowboard minigame.  Plot-related of course so you have to do it.  At the time I’m sure people loved the possibilities, Grand Theft Auto 3 hadn’t yet arrived and we were still brimming with adolescent fantasies about games within games within real worlds…needless to say no part of 7’s snowbarding minigame is nearly as good as actual snowboarding titles.

However with the random battles you couldn’t walk for a minute without getting hit with a battle, by the time an hour was through playing you’d be wishing for a CG scene since the only other option was a minigame breaking up the monotonous fighting.  Playing a game like Skyrim or Fallout you get these atmospheric moments, the jagged mountains or cityscapes in the distance, the hum of the insects or radiation.  The feelings only cut-scenes provided are actually expected in modern RPGs ALL THE TIME.  I remember the first time I plugged the 360 up to my HD tv getting mezzed watching the infinitely exploding star behind the Illusive Man thinking gaming really had gone somewhere I always hoped it would as an adolescent.  The only problem is what do do now?

Whatever the future holds it’s probably not SquareEnix.  Seriously, what happened?

Someday there will be a great book about the saga behind the screen.  Until then.

The end of Skyrim

   They have announced production has ceased on any new Skyrim DLC’s.  When I found out about Skyrim I didn’t really know this was the type of game I would enjoy.  I hadn’t played an RPG in forever, and even then it wasn’t the type of game I liked.  Having gotten back to gaming because friends played Black Ops the single-player Skyrim experience was as far from what I was doing fighting zombies on the moon with random players.  

   Skyrim was the first time I had looked up videos on the internet for a game, and the videos showing what to expect by way of accommodations if you completed the assassins quest line or Winterhold quests left me speechless: who hasn’t been 5 hours into Skyrim and realized how epic Shadowmere would be compared to the horses that basically died every time you hit a group of bandits.  The game was full of moments that everyone had, the first “fight” with a giant, the first time you played for an entire sitting and forgot to save. I accidentally left the difficulty on the highest setting for weeks.  However, unlike many games, this wasn’t a problem, there wasn’t some escort mission that required me to lower the difficulty, all the problems of the game could be handled with patience.  The fact that the game let you pause in menus was also helpful.  

    But the game had so many things to try to master, from the different magic trees to trying to blacksmith the ultimate weapon it was fascinating to try and create your own goals every day-or just explore.  Over time you would find, though, there were best ways to do everything.  Make sure to get the spell that transmutes iron to gold, make sure to learn some blacksmithing and alchemy starting out so you can fend for yourself until you get money.  

   It got colder and colder in the real world, and I spent hours going literally every where in Skyrim-where I once would find new stuff constantly it would make my day if I hit a new random encounter or found a new dungeon even once a week.  The folks at Bethesda didn’t quite know what they had.  People were clamoring for DLC, something that would expand the game, and they didn’t get it.  I kept playing, others did, and unless you had a PC your experience was vanilla Skyrim.  Though they released some interesting additions via updates(the extra code Bethesda released every so often to fix the plethora of bugs their massive game had) these in no way really added value to the experience and sometimes caused more problems.  

   Eventually, like everyone, I put the game away, that boring opening, the long long long load screens, the same prompts from guards “yes, I am the archmage” “yes, I head the companions” “no, you’re not an adventurer any more.”  It was just old.  Some people would stand up for the game online-saying they still found new stuff.  But the fact is by the time DLC came out it felt like a chore going back to Skyrim and that was a huge mistake on the developers side.  I don’t think anything they made would be big enough for fans, they really should have focused on timeliness of new content.  Instead when new content came out most people had gotten past the game.  Sure some people still hadn’t finished the main quests, but some people leave their pets everything in their will-we don’t worry about them.  The tide had turned and Skyrim, The Elder Scrolls, they had left popular consciousness as briskly as it had entered.

   There were 3 DLC in total, one of which let you adopt kids and build houses.  That sounds interesting but it’s still kids from Skyrim.  The two meaty packs were a war with vampires and a trip to an island connected to the land of the elves.  After playing Skyrim I got deeper into RPGs-playing Dark Souls, the latest Fallout games, and The Witcher 2.  As much as the people at Bethesda tried to make going to be with the elves interesting nothing could be as interesting as the journey with the elves of the Witcher universe.  Their combat would never be as fun as any Souls game.  And compared to Fallout the Elder Scrolls stories feel clunky and forced.  Yeah there is the cave every so often filled with a dungeon full of mystery and a great story, but Fallout games had even better stories in their sidequests, with an interesting main story.  

   However, when I tried to get into their last DLC, Dragonborn, it was the music that stood out.  I didn’t spend any time, really, in the expanded area(partly because you couldn’t just fast travel there) because I wanted to hang out by Whiterun and listen to the music.  Skyrim’s music is spectacular, the type of thing that every game will be compared to from now on.  

   While Skyrim might not have been handled as well as it could have been in this current generation of DLC, the Black Ops style marketplace we find ourselves expecting, it was a great game in that it allowed gamers to find their own challenges, to explore and create their own story.  While all of these things could have been done better it was a great experience.  I hope the people responsible for the game have learned something from this experience, and that TES 6 is even better.  The combat can’t get any worse.  Sorry.  But they should try to take that stuff seriously even if part of why these games work is you can stumble on a ruin and just look at it for a second.  

   Before I quit playing the game that’s what I would do, find a great spot and use the wait command to wait until the northern lights would show up above.  Just enjoying the scenery.  That’s not something you do with many games, is it?  

What would I do if I could make the next Elder Scrolls game?

You would walk into the capitol of the empire as the tutorial, on your way to speak to the emperor you would get into a fight, to learn a bit of combat.  When you make it to the Emperor he would be there with some officials talking about weird stuff going on and task you with figuring out what’s happening.  So role-playing works because he could be sending an assassin, a warrior, a mage, whatever.  But you then go to the people who should tell you what’s happening, think Grey Beards, and that’s when you find out.

War of the daedra.  Every daedra decides the world of Tamriel is at an end, though you can do you quest lines like you normally would for the main quest you would go through a couple of quests, and then you would basically side with one of the daedra.  The game would the be fairly different from there, but all the monsters that would normally be in Oblivion and other realms would be getting let loose all over Tamriel so there would be these epic battles.  You would have better fighting, maybe feats in there.  But everything would be pushed to 11 since all the people who would normally give you power are fighting.  So destruction magic would have way more powerful variants of everything.

It wouldn’t be like a normal war, this is a war that literally re-writes history, this is a type of power cataclysmic in nature and it’s a fight just to make sure the world still exists.  To me I’d just say fuck it-if these games are so hard to create because you have to get your mythology right just burn it to the ground.  You could have a scene with a god lamenting their being snuffed out of existence because nobody believes in them-just beautiful stuff.  And what’s best, after you finish the game and save or destroy Tamriel you start a new game and choose another side. I don’t think Skyrim would be seen as such an amazing game if it comes out 10 years from now.  As we progress game worlds are going to be able to be bigger, though obviously the world of Skyrim was better designed than Dragon’s Dogma.  What I think we’ll see going forward is an attempt to put what would have been energy going into that giant world into a giant world with massive player agency-where things change.  

   When I put Skyrim down it wasn’t because the game was bad, it was because it was still Skyrim and nothing Bethesda could release made me feel like going back.