Saturday, February 20, 2016

Knowing too little

Lately, I've been playing a lot of Terraria. I got it on a Steam sale several months ago, and only in the past couple of weeks have I gotten into it. It was pleasantly surprising, albeit definitely tough (I have died many, many, many, many times).

It's reasonably fair about it, though. The key mechanic is the Guide NPC, who gives you clues about things you can do next, items you can make, and what you need to focus on next. Granted, I have looked things up, but this is more a case of force of habit due to other games. As you can probably guess, a lot of other games don't do this, forcing players into a cycle of trial-and-error or just to look it up online.

I feel that you have to stop playing the game to go look up how to play the game, the game has failed to make its own mechanics intuitive. While I'm an experienced gamer with over two and a half decades of playing games to help me, I don't want to judge things from that perspective. It's all about the new player, picking up their first game and trying to learn how it works.

It's not a mindset a lot of people share. A lot of players demand mechanics and functions that aren't friendly to newcomers, preferring things under some kind of grandfather clause. While I don't suppose I can blame them for wanting things they are familiar with, it doesn't help bring new people to our little hobby. And I want as many people as possible to come join us, since I can remember back when people didn't quite understand what the hobby meant to those of us that enjoyed it and children.

I may be a little older, a little wiser, but I'm no less of a gamer. And I will gladly advocate for anything that brings more gamers into the fold. (Funny aside: I'm trying to figure out how my spell check accepts "gamer" but not the plural.) If you feel differently and are attached to how those games are, fine, but just remember that it makes it that much harder for the next generation to get into whatever genre you're fond of.

So now, I'm off to finish my set of titanium armor, and then get the potions I need for the Destroyer. And from there, on to other hardmode bosses. Should be fun, as long as don't die too many more times.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

A crazy little thing called love

Ah, Valentine's Day is almost upon us. A day dedicated to blossoming romance, bonds of love held to be eternal. A shame that videos games can't really capture that kind of feeling, isn't it?

It isn't for lack of trying. There are many dating sims (up to and including more risque games for adults), and romance is a stable of quite a few RPGs as well. And yet, when romance meets the playable protagonist, it seems that developers, AAA to indie, can do no right when it comes to this.

The real problem stems from three factors. First, one of the trends in fiction in general (not just limited to video games) is that romance is portrayed as One True Love (TM), a fact which is unfortunate. The concept of casual romance is not something that is popular in fiction, and as such rarely gets shown. And even when it does, well, usually there's a case of the One True Love (TM) to go with it.

The second detail is due to the pacing of games. A deep romantic relationship is built over several years, day by day and week by week. Most video games aren't built around showing day to day affairs, and those that are tend to take place over a relatively short period of time. Neither of those things are built towards showing a serious romantic relationship in any major detail.

It doesn't help that some games are required to be vague about the time period over which the game's events take place, since they have to account for a player being able to blaze through the game versus a player who takes their sweet time and checks every nook and cranny. When that happens, it's harder for a player to grasp how fast or slow the romance is progressing, and thus it can come off as forced or drawn out, depending on your perspective.

The third factor is how romance can get tied to game mechanics and rewards. If the game gives specific bonuses for romance, especially it falls really foul on the first two points, it makes the whole thing seemed contrived. Instead of being a deep romance, players may read it as just another game mechanic instead of actual character interaction and development. Which kind of runs counter to showcasing the relationship as One True Love (TM)

The result is a huge mess, and one of the reasons I feel that romance, when explored in a game, should be between secondary NPCs, instead of playable characters. It's far too easy to fall into one or more of the above traps, and I'd rather I see video game stories done well, even if that limits the kinds of stories that can be told with them.

Either way, it's not stopping you from buying your beloved some candy and/or flowers, so go out and do that. And if you don't have someone to do that for...well, I guess you just can't count on video games to provide escapism in that regard, can you?

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Looking Back: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

As the name suggests, this is going to be a thing where I look back at a particular game and the influence it had on gaming (for better or for worse). Let's kick this off with a doozy: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

Released on November 11th, 2011, Skyrim was met with mostly positive responses. Like many Bethesda games, it did ship with a large number of glitches and errors, some of which have not been patched by the developer (and probably never will, given that we're over four years out). In hindsight, quite a few people (myself included) realized that choosing that release date as a marketing stunt (11/11/11) was a bad idea, and it probably should have been pushed back a few months.

Graphically, many people criticized it for using a dolled-up version of Bethesda's old Gamebryo engine. Frankly, I actually prefer this approach. I hardly find it fair to consumers to force them to upgrade their hardware every couple of years just to buy your latest game, so a game like that which wasn't all that taxing (relatively speaking) was a breath of fresh air in the industry.

In terms of gameplay, the game was mostly an improvement on Oblivion. The melee controls felt a little rougher, but the difficulty curve was nowhere near as insane as its predecessor's level scaling system made it out to be. The magic system was heavily simplified, but was much more viable for leveling than previous games. Granted, it still fell short in terms of balance, mainly due to Destruction being balanced around AOE damage when a lot of major fights like the dragons were about focusing on single targets, and Stealth being very powerful and very useful.

However, the writing didn't really make any advancements, and in some areas took a step back. Like Oblivion before it, the plot of Skyrim is a "save the day" plot; in this case, stopping the return of the dragons who will wreck your stuff faster than you can say "Fus ro dah". At least, that's the theory. With no real time limit or actual in-game threat attached to it, the story has no tension and feels superfluous. The same applied to the civil war questline and the various guilds. Add in the fact that the stories weren't particularly well written either, and the net effect was to incentivize skipping the story and just wander around doing whatever.

One thing that continued and grew was the concept of the game mod community, something that had been present with prior games. However, Valve (the owners of the online gaming service Steam) used the game as a basis for launching a new feature called Steam Workshop. This allowed players to upload their own mods for Skyrim (with limits), as well as quickly find and download other mods through Steam. This service turned out to be very popular, and has shown up on many other games since then, becoming a staple of the Steam platform itself.

Valve later attempted to launch a program where modders could sell their mods for a price, with both Valve and Bethesda taking a cut. Once again, Skyrim was the testing ground for this new initiative. However, due to their planned cut being too unreasonably large, and Valve's lack of curation of the mods that were on Steam, the plan was revealed to be a disaster and quickly scrapped. A pity, really. I wouldn't mind paid mods as long as there were more standards in place to ensure their quality. Sadly, that will likely never happen.

 Skyrim can be credited in part, with its huge success, for influencing the launch a new wave of games incorporating open world mechanics. The downside is that open world style games don't mesh well with strong narratives. (There are several reasons why, one of which I noted above). Yet many of these games at least attempt to have a central key narrative, which means this isn't quite so good. It didn't help that Skyrim's story wasn't good, as I noted above. Many of these games were met with a quite a bit of criticism.

In the end, Skyrim did make Bethesda a major player in the game market, in a way that it hadn't been before. More importantly, it helped paved the way for a more user-friendly modding scene, which is a net plus in my books. The games that tried to imitate it may not be as good, but the legacy is still there; it's a game worth noting and remembering.