|Willam Mageborn, Skyrim hero :)|
I've been playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim lately - finally, after getting a new computer. Yes, the game was released almost a year ago, but I wanted to wait until I could play it with the highest graphics settings. (Note that the screenshot above hardly does it justice, but I wanted to show you my character.)
It's been lots of fun, as I knew it would be. Of course, that doesn't mean I like all of the design decisions. I've played all of the Elder Scrolls games, and I wish they'd taken a different direction in some ways.
So I thought I'd talk about that, at least at first. (This will be a multi-part post.) But don't get me wrong, I'm really enjoying Skyrim. And it brings back fond memories - very fond memories - of the previous games, as well.
I didn't grow up with computer games. I'm much too old for that. But I fell in love with them in the 1980s. The early games were turn-based pretty much by necessity, but since I hadn't been playing them from childhood, that was my preference, too - also from necessity.
You see, I'm bad at 'real-time' games - really bad, even now. I might be better than I used to be, but I'm never going to be really good at them. I preferred party-based, turn-based RPGs, because they were more about strategy than about eye-hand coordination.
Not only am I bad at such things, I really prefer to think about what I'm doing. Even when I play games like Skyrim, I always play a sneaky character, someone who can think carefully about what he's doing. Of course, if I were better at reacting to surprises, that might be different, too, I don't know. :)
As time went on, as computers got better, we started seeing fewer and fewer turn-based RPGs. Developers took advantage of better graphics by making first-person games - single-player, 'real-time' games, where quick reactions and good eye-hand coordination were essential. That's not me.
The first Elder Scrolls game, Arena, was released in 1994, and it was 'real-time.' But I bought it because I'd heard that the game would pause when you opened your inventory. A character could switch weapons, drink potions to heal himself, and, frankly, stop and think, even when in the middle of a desperate battle - so that even an inept player like myself might be able to play it.
And that turned out to be true. I loved it. My preference was still for turn-based, party-based RPGs, but Arena was a new experience for me, and a great one. Here's an example, part of a YouTube playthrough. It's hard to believe now, but in 1994, these graphics were great. (Well, 1994 is a long time ago in computer years.)
Even better, for me, were the sound effects! Different creatures made different sounds, and you could hear them in the darkness around you. Doors opened and then closed behind you, but some enemies could open doors, too. You could hear monsters, and know that they'd sensed you. You could hear doors opening and know that they were trying to get to you.
Unlike in Skyrim, where even ancient crypts, unexplored for centuries, are somehow well-lit with oil lamps, most of the ancient ruins in Arena were dark. You could see the immediate area around you without the annoyance of carrying a torch (an excellent gameplay decision), and some places were lit for good reason, but ancient ruins in general didn't have modern lighting.
One of the pleasures I still remember from Arena was of casting a Light spell at the distant darkness. The light would travel ahead until it hit a wall, lighting up its surroundings as it went. It was really neat. (Of course, you could cast the spell to hover overhead, too, so it would follow you around.)
The above video shows one of the first dungeons, and it's mostly rooms and corridors. But there were much larger places in some dungeons. You could cast long-lasting spells in Arena (none of that 60-second nonsense we see in Skyrim), so you could have a magical light illuminate your way. Of course, that would make it easier for monsters to spot you. :)
That combination was great! The darkness was frightening, especially with the scary sound effects. But you could easily light up your surroundings to enjoy the scenery, too. (And every character could cast spells, so you didn't have to be a mage in order to light your way.) There would still be darkness elsewhere, of course. And you could hear all the scary things which were wanting to kill you.
Note how, in the video above, different monsters make different sounds. As you explored, you'd regularly hear something new, and you'd know that it was probably something more dangerous than what you'd faced so far. That anticipation really added to the game.
I mentioned long-lasting spells, and that was one of the highlights of Arena (something missing from later Elder Scrolls games). I especially remember a long-lasting "Absorb Magic" spell, which was hugely useful later in the game, when many enemies cast spells.
I could cast an Absorb Magic spell and keep it protecting me as I explored. It wouldn't absorb all enemy spells, but enough to be an effective defense and to keep my pool of mana full, so I could cast healing spells whenever necessary.
Did that make the game too easy? For some people, no doubt it would. Of course, you didn't have to use it. And for me, I loved the experience. I didn't finish the game (I almost never finish RPGs, because I get bored after awhile and move on), but I came a lot closer than I usually do.
Unfortunately, later Elder Scrolls games changed that. In fact, spells in general have become annoyingly brief in Skyrim. I'm playing a mage character, and it's lots of fun, but 60-second defense and conjuration spells are quite annoying (not to mention ward spells which seem to be completely useless).
|Another Skyrim screenshot|
Arena wasn't too different from other RPGs in some ways. You gained experience from killing enemies, and your character would level up that way. Also, the main quest was rather typical of RPGs at the time. You had to explore several big dungeons in order to accumulate parts of a magical staff, which would allow you to defeat the villain of the story and restore the rightful emperor.
There were other locations in the game, and you generally had to complete a quest in order to proceed to the next main-quest dungeon (the dungeon in the video is part of one of those preliminary quests, in fact). That part seemed pretty standard. Well, I really enjoyed Arena, but it was the next game in the series which really blew my mind.
I've already blogged about Daggerfall, and I don't want to repeat myself too much. You can check out my previous post for the details - and for some video clips - if you want. But Daggerfall took the Elder Scrolls series to a new level.
For one thing, in that game - and in succeeding Elder Scrolls games - skills increased by using them. Your character advanced in level that way, too. You didn't have to kill monsters, necessarily (although combat was inevitably the biggest part of the game). You advanced by using your skills. And the choice of which skills was up to the player.
Daggerfall dungeons were at least as spooky as those in Arena, with similar sound effects and enemies which would open doors to come find you. (Admittedly, they were also too big, and too hard to navigate - although Skyrim dungeons have gone much too far the other way.) But Daggerfall felt like a real world. The world was huge - twice the land-mass of Great Britain, with 15,000 locations - and much of it was seamless.
Oh, the inside of buildings and dungeons were separate, but overland, you could just walk around exploring. You could see a town in the distance and then walk right into it! You could see a city in the distance - and cities were also enormous - and either enter through an open gate or levitate up and over the walls, in either case without a cut-scene.
You could walk from town to town, or even from city to city, if you had the time, and you'd encounter people (in the daytime, at least; ghosts or other dangers at night), roads, farms, dungeons, caves, crypts. You can't imagine how wonderful that seemed!
Of course, you can do the same thing in later Elder Scrolls games, but for 1996, that was just incredible. And the Daggerfall world was far, far bigger than in later games. Daggerfall was procedurally generated, but, unfortunately, Bethesda abandoned that in later games. That's such a shame!
Sure, most of the buildings, dungeons, and landscape of each province in Daggerfall looked alike (the provinces had different architectural styles and different terrain, as I recall), but this game was just the start of procedurally-generated worlds. I would have loved to see what mainstream game developers could have done with that.
And these days, the increased focus on expensive graphics and spoken word conversations, while impressive, has several downsides. It's hard to make destructible terrain when you spend so much attention and so much money on fancy graphics. (And therefore, you can cast a fireball inside an old wooden shack - or even at a pile of straw - in Skyrim, but it won't burn.)
Spoken words require expensive voice acting, plus you have to know what to say. You can't use the character's name, as you could if the player were just reading such conversations. More importantly, you have to know what the player is going to do, at least to the extent of various options. You can't let the player do anything you didn't predict.
Well, none of that was in Daggerfall, either, and I can't claim otherwise. But in some ways, Bethesda turned away from the promise of Daggerfall, and I think that's a real shame, much as I enjoyed the succeeding games.
OK, this is enough about Daggerfall. Read my previous post if you want more. And it's enough for this post, too. I'll continue this later. For now, I've got to play some more Skyrim. :)
Note: Here's Part 2.