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My Journey into Haunting Ambivalence

Oliver Kiley
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Ann Arbor
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Not to be outdone by fellow bloggers, I figured I’d post my own link to a Michael Barnes article that resonates well with me. The article “So Sick of Your Excuses” is a memorable tirade about the corporatization of the video game industry that routinely results in worse game products:

Michael Barnes wrote:
And maybe- just maybe, guys- gaming consumers aren’t Pavlovian idiots responding to your marketing. Maybe- just maybe- consumers should be respected instead of treated as marks for day one DLC scams, unasked for multiplayer, and used game lock-out tactics like online passes. Could it be that maybe people are starting to NOT want the shit you’re selling? Could it be that with more choices available, the guys that treat their customers like mindless trash are the ones seeing losses, failures, and missed expectations?

I’ve been a video gamer since the 80’s when I was a young little lad. Perhaps I have always look back with rose-tinted glasses, but for me the best moments of video gaming existed roughly in the 1997 to 2003 era. Since then, I really struggle to engage with most video games – despite high levels of initial interest. Perhaps it’s that I’m getting burnt out on most of the titles, or perhaps my expectations are off and I’ll never recapture the glory days. Or perhaps, it’s as M. Barnes says, and the games “just fucking suck.”

I think that most of the major video game genres (RTS, RPG, FPS, MMO, etc.) hit a plateau during that era, and the commercial successes of a few key games in each genre set the stage for a flood of “me too” clones and copycat designs that continue to this day. AAA titles are largely regurgitations of prior versions, with the big establishments playing it safe and doing the next version of the same game over and over. Rather than allow gameplay and design to evolve and innovate within a genre (or create new genres, heaven forbid), games pander to the lowest common denominator of player in a pitch to get more sales and make the game “more accessible” for mainstream crowds. Screw that.




So You Want to Be a Gamer?



In 1989, Sierra Entertainment released the first installment of their PC quest series “Quest for Glory: So You Want to Be a Hero?” Incidentally, the series was originally called HeroQuest, until Milton Bradley in corroboration with everyone’s favorite game publisher requested a name change to not conflict with a well-known boardgame. See, this post IS related to boardgames!

That aside, the Quest for Glory series is one of my most beloved gaming moments. It blended an intriguing adventure story (stuffed with interesting characters and a good dose of humor) with action and modest roleplaying depth – all done with a good level of simplification that kept gameplay focused on the big-picture experience and not the minute details. The narrative was interesting and the choices you made mattered – and the world moved on without you. There were tough choices to be made, and despite being “almost” an open sand-box game you couldn’t do everything.

All of this combined to yield a game that was highly immersive and challenging – characteristics which made replaying the games over and over irresistible. It also set the barometer quite high for what I look for in video games. The series is well cemented in my gaming consciousness.

Which is part of the reason why I struggle to come to terms with Bethesda’s Elder Scroll Series




Sandboxes

The Elder Scrolls is a series of Action RPG video games, kicked off with Elder Scrolls I: The Arena in 1994. The second installment, Daggerfall was released in 1996, Morrowind in 2002, Oblivion in 2006, and the latest installment Skyrim in 2011. The changes and shifts in approach wrought in the series embodies, almost entirely, the tragedy I see playing out across the entire game industry.



I was first introduced to the series with Morrowind – and it was love at first sight. In my mind, The Elder Scrolls games are the spiritual successors to the Quest for Glory series wrapped in the promise of an open-ended 3D world to explore. Bethesda’s unofficial tag line for the whole Elder Scrolls experience can be summed up in one design objective: “Live another life in another world.” An ambitious goal to be sure. But as much as I love the games: where there is love, there can also be pain.

So I’ve come to the heart of the post, and of my own struggle with the Elder Scrolls series. And in a strange and introspective way, it is my struggle with all of gaming in all its forms. It can be stated simply with this question:

What’s the point?

I can readily spend 100’s of hours adventuring in the giant sandbox worlds of Bethesda’s games. Or spend comparable amounts of time building up my fleets and industries in one of Egosoft’s X-Series games (also giant sandboxes). Or building a space empire in Armada 2526 (one my current favorite 4X games). Or blasting away the hours in Mechwarrior Online or the countless others shooters that have come before.

I do all this, and without fail I come to a moment where I step back and say to myself, usually out loud: what’s the point?

I’ve been thinking about an answer to this question, and what draws me to certain games, and what ultimately pushes me away. The love and the pain as it were. And I think it comes down to three factors: narrative, immersion and challenge.

Narrative can be a number of things. It might be the story line. Or it could be the sense of progression towards some central conflict with an interesting resolution based on my historic choices. Or it could be the arc facing different goals and obstacles over the course of the game. Or it could be the novel and interesting stories that you and friends talk about for years to come. The narrative is simply the story of how the game unfolded, and games with a strong narrative are more memorable.

Immersion likewise can be many things. It might be the components of a board game, or the graphics and audio of a video game that draw you into the game world, where you emerge 15 days later from the dungeons wondering what happened in the real world why you were out. Immersion is about making the game world believable and putting the person playing the game in a way that is harmonious with the theme and pseudo-reality of game world.

Challenge is really related to gameplay and mechanics. It can be the challenge posed by the game system itself, or by other players in competitive games. But the key is that good games continually challenge players – pushing them to work harder, to improve, and to reward those improvements in step with the level of challenge players face. It is the obstacles and the incentive structures of the game.

My frustration with the gaming industry overall (mostly levied at video games), has to do with missed opportunities in these three factors; manifest through failing to provide compelling choices that matter to the narrative, an inability to maintain a suspension of disbelief, and the gradual dumbing down of gameplay and challenge. Let’s explore my growing frustration in terms of the Elder Scrolls…




The Skyrim Conundrum

When I play a game, of any kind, I want to feel like I’m an active agent in the unfolding narrative of the game space. I want to feel that my actions have consequences and broader effects. Yet, I also want the game world to plod onwards towards its own fate in the absence of my action. It’s a tough thing to achieve. I’m going to reference our dear friend Michael Barnes, because his commentary/review on Skyrim, the Elder Scrolls newest installment, is levied at the same struggle I’m experiencing:

Michael Barnes wrote:
There is a certain point at which the incentives the game has to offer break down and what it gives you is either less than or the same as something you’ve previously experienced or earned.

The directionless wandering, getting mired in endless fetch-quests and errands for various factions, and- um- what was that main quest line again? There’s never a sense of compelling urgency, tension, or desperation even when NPCs are urging you to go all the way across the map. Go ahead, you have time to collect the ten bear pelts. The end of the world will wait for you.

The process of ticking off quests from the list has begun to feel shallow, and the lack of any kind of challenge in combat, puzzles, or survival is making the game feel spent.

The skill progression and classless system has also begun to feel empty. Without any kind of class restriction, your character can do just about anything. It’s just a question of how well they do it. … I’ve tried to stay focused, but it’s becoming boring playing a jack-of-all-trades.
….
I don’t know if simply playing the game and looking at those beautiful faux-Scandinavian vistas is enough of a reward in itself at this point.

That sequence of quotes mirrors my own feelings about Skyrim – and the central criticism that in the absence of challenging gameplay, and in the absence of a sense of agency and narrative in the world, are the pretty graphics enough to hold the game? For me, I admit, it is nearly the only reason why I still play the game – a testament to its immersive accomplishments.

I don’t find the basic gameplay challenging at all. Out of the box, the the RPG mechanics are far too easy to work to your advantage. And the risk of death is non-existent; not only because you can easily reload the game (unavoidable, generally speaking), but because going into the menu to slam 15 different potions “pauses the external action” allowing you to risk-free restore all your health, switch around equipment, get your new spells ready, and whatever else you have up your sleeve. It’s just all too easy and forgiving.

It’s too easy to develop your character to do everything well - there is no hard choice. The quest lines have minimal interaction with each other, so rarely are you forced to ever make a genuine narrative decision between A and B. The quest dialogue options perpetuates this failing – often choosing the “wrong” dialogue response results in the NPC saying “you sure” and then forcing you to pick the “right choice” anyway. And there are no hard choices to make in what you bring with you on your adventure. As there are no survival requirements (totally missed opportunity in such an immersive RPG), your carrying weight limit is mostly irrelevant – and the lack of survival needs places no imperative on the player to pick a course of action and execute it. You are free to wander in the sandbox aimlessly forever.

As Barnes points out, the quest narratives are repetitive and trivial, with rewards that are redundant and uninspiring; and outcomes that have little bearing on the game world itself. Wit, humor, intrigue, and other positive adjectives that might make the characters and quest situations more engaging are mostly absent, except in the rare circumstances. Coupled with the hand-holding that the map and quest journal provide, playing the game is a matter of turning on the auto-pilot. The player rarely has to make any lasting choices that result in long-term changes to the narrative. You don’t need to engage your brain.



Despite these monstrous issues, I’ve found that I come back to the game on occasion. And the reason is that it succeeds tremendously as an immersive experience. For me, the game is at its best when I set out on an adventure. As a matter of preference, I avoid the fast travel feature in the game (the ability to warp between known map locations at will) because it undercuts the only redeeming quality of the game: the immersive experience. Wandering from point A to point B – maybe getting sidetracked to help a famer find his daughter or to deal with some scum-bag bandits, or maybe coming across an incredible vista at a particularly beautiful time of day – that is where the magic and love of the game is. But ultimately the immersion wears thin – and the rest of it is painful.




A Collapse of Promises

My bigger question is this: why couldn’t the game have been more challenging and more narratively engaging?

What happened in the gaming industry where immersion was suddenly all that mattered and having a good design was irrelevant? Why did game developers stop asking their audiences to think?

Incidentally, Morrowind, the 3rd installment in the series and my favorite by far, had avoided many of these issues and provided greater challenge, narrative, and immersion. Players actually had to be, you know, really really good at magic to become the Archmage of the guild – and the rewards for accomplishing that goal were commensurate to the challenge of getting there. The narrative was in congruency with the challenge; they fed on each other. And the immersion helped hold it all together.

As a point of comparison, check out this chart, that compares the gameplay mechanics from Morrowind to Oblivion to Skyrim. Almost every single category underscores a dumbing down of the mechanics. I suspect that the Bethesda’s justification is that this dumbing down creates a more immersive experience – and I agree with that in principle. But you if you sacrifice everything in the name of immersion – are you really creating a game or are you creating an interactive cinematic experience? Incidentally, I can’t help but feel that AAA publishers are hell-bent on creating controlled cinematic experiences, and not really games at all.

Which brings us to the other part of the equation...




Dumb dee dee dumb dumb dumb...

A big issue I have with most mainstream video games these days is the massive levels of dumbing down that occur in the gameplay. This, I’m sure, is an intended move by the big publishers to make their games more accessible to people – particularly for console gamers. As a point of reference, the dumbing down in mechanics between Morrowind and Oblivion coincided with the shift to cross-platform releases on PC and XBOX. Coincidence?

The dumbing down issue is particularly relevant in competitive multiplayer games. Let me offer an example: Counter-Strike. If you don’t know, Counter-Strike (CS) was a fan/user game modification (“mod”) for Valve’s game Half-Life. It was one of the first games aimed at being a competitive team-based modern warfare shooter – maybe it was the first.

Here’s the thing: what drove CS’s enticing gameplay was the ability to continually improve your skills (actual skills, like hand eye coordination, team work, etc.), and be rewarded for doing so. Early on, before the mod was purchased and released commercially by Valve, top players were massively effective – routinely finishing a series of matches with very high kill to death ratios (e.g. 10+ to 1).

Somewhere along the line, after being made into a commercial product, the developers started patching in little tweaks and artificial adjustments that made it far more difficult for a good player to dominate a map/match. The way movement mechanics worked, jumping, aiming, etc. were all tweaked to make it so you couldn’t use your “skill” as effectively. Now – I’m sure among the powers that be, someone said: “these high skill players are turning everyone off to the game because the newbies just get slaughtered!” Hence the dumbing down of mechanics to make it easier for lesser skilled players to compete –they leveled the playing field artificially.

But they missed a HUGE reality of the situation: newbies weren’t throwing in the towel in frustration. They looked at the highly skilled players and said to themselves, “I want be that good.” And that motivation is what drove the popularity of the game. The subsequent dumbing down process more or less coincided with the decline of the game, and the move to the source engine saw the end of the competitive scene for the most part. It was all over. Remember I mentioned the year 2003 up above? That was the year CS was ported to XBOX. And in large part, this ENTIRE dumbing down initiative is driven by the need to make games work for the console market and with the console input devices.




Salvation?

So much of my disappoint with recent games is in the promises the next game broadcasts in the hype storm, but in reality the developers only intended to deliver the veneer of that promise; because that’s all they need to sell the product. Rich and challenging game designs, compelling and deep narratives? Why bother – that sounds like too much work. The reality is that in the giant sandbox of Skyrim, you are not living another life in another world. The “world” sits there passively waiting for the player to turn it on, and when they do it merely provides a nice slideshow.

My hope in the future of games rests in the hands of independent developers and publishers, and I’ll lump the hobby boardgame market into this category as well. Between indie developers and game designers willing to provide innovation and narrative coupled with new crowdfunding tools that enable them to avoid the traditional publishing gatekeepers – I think the future will have its bright points. And as the lines start to blur between video games and board games (voardeo games?) – we will hopefully see a return to video games that take the mechanics and narrative pacing to heart in their design, and marry that with the mediums immersive potentials.
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