Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

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.


AJ said...

What I like about the graphics in Daggerfall is that you can see the pointer. In Skyrim, half the time I can't see where I am pointing with that little white crosshair. The fighting is more difficult than Morrowind...and I'm not quick at all, either. Seems I do a lot of spinning around, looking for the opponent, and striking out wildly because the view is so crammed with "other stuff" interfering. The exploring part is what I like the best, so far, but I've only just begun.

WCG said...

I sneak everywhere, Ann, so I can spot enemies before they spot me. And I've been using a headset, which makes it easier to hear where they are.

In most games, I play an archer, since sneak attacks can usually kill a foe with one shot. (And in melee, I keep losing track of my opponent.) But I'm playing a mage in Skyrim. Since you can tell, when sneaking, that someone has detected you, I just conjure a Flame Atronach, who'll go attack an enemy (and therefore show me where he is).

In fact, very few enemies attack me, anyway. They usually attack my follower or that conjured Flame Atronach, leaving me to snipe from the sidelines. (On the other hand, it's difficult to be sneaky in a dungeon with Lydia along. I often have to tell her to stay put - and even then she'll frequently run forward.)

But I know exactly what you mean about that crosshair. I keep missing even dragons, because that pointer is so hard to see in the heat of a battle. :)

I, too, love to explore. I've been choosing a home base, then exploring around it. It's been lots of fun. And playing as a mage has worked out well, so far, although I'm quite disappointed in the spell selection. But I'll get to that later.

Chimeradave said...

If you are playing a sneaky character you have to leave Lydia behind. She really only works for melee characters.

Bill, I can't believe you wrote a whole Skyrim post and hardly talked about Skyrim. :(

I wanted to hear all about your game like those wonderfully detailed posts you've done about Dwarf Fortress and that zombie game.

WCG said...

Actually, Lydia isn't that bad, John. I just have to tell her to stay put (far back, because she'll still run forward quite a bit). Then, I can run back to her if I get in trouble.

She's saved my butt any number of times, so I hate to leave her behind. She's also a pretty good mule, though she doesn't like that much. :)

And I'll talk about Skyrim eventually, but not like those previous games. After all, in Skyrim, everyone has the same adventures. So what's to describe?

In Dwarf Fortress and Cataclysm both, each playthrough is unique. Basically, each player can write his own story. But that's not the case in Skyrim, which is scripted the same for everyone.

In fact, at the very beginning of the game, I chose to go with the Imperial soldier, rather than with the Stormcloaks, because every video clip I'd seen of the starting play showed the player choosing to stay with the Stormcloaks.

But even that didn't give me a different experience. Everything still happened the exact same way I'd seen it happen for everyone else, right down to my companion going back home to Riverwood. That 'choice' made no difference at all.

Chimeradave said...

That's true. I guess the only difference is how you use your upgrades. My first character was a melee character and completely different than my next character who was an assassin and an archer. And my friend made a character that was a mage. You go through the same story, but the gameplay can be very different.

Chimeradave said...

Or what you could do is just go into random dungeons and see what happened. My friend was doing that, he was largely indifferent to any of the game's storylines. Basically, he was just a grave robber. This would maybe get you in trouble with glitches in the sotrylines, but if all you want is a unique experience that would be how to do it.

WCG said...

John, you can create a different character, so that you fight in a different way, but the story doesn't change for you. And I'm finding that, as a mage, I fight the same way in every battle, pretty much.

Exploring random dungeons doesn't do anything different from clearing them during a quest, so I don't see how that would be a unique experience, either. I enjoy exploring the countryside, but I've avoided clearing random dungeons, because there are quests associated with most of them (if only just "kill the bandit leader" type quests).

The world is pretty, so it's interesting to look around. And the dungeons all look different, too. But if it weren't for the graphics, this game would have little going for it. But I'll get to that in later posts.