Archive for June, 2014

The Altered Scrolls: Daggerfall (Part 2: Sins)

23 Jun

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On Friday, I presented to awestruck eyes the Gospel of Daggerfall. Unbelievers fell prostrate before the game’s epic promises–promises of a world the size of an actual country, of three-quarters of a million NPCs just waiting to be bothered, of thousands of massive dungeons and sprawling villages to explore and more playable factions than you could count on two hands. The create-a-class system was of unparalleled breadth and graciousness; the storyline was nonlinear, hands-off, and had numerous endings; the skill system encompassed such baffling and enticing options as speaking other languages. All of this in a gameworld with lore as rich and well-presented as it ever would be in the history of the Elder Scrolls franchise. It sounded too good to be true.

It was. Daggerfall sucks.

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The Altered Scrolls: Daggerfall (Part 1: Intro)

20 Jun

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I said some unkind things about The Elder Scrolls I: Arena. I said that the open world was barely integrated, the story was weak, the storytelling was weaker, the quests were repetitious nonsense, the leveling system was cramped and feature-light, and the setting was a streaky photocopy of a late 70s metal album cover colored in by a RoseArt budget pack.  But none of that really constitutes fair criticism–Arena was trying something that nobody had really attempted before and that nobody else would attempt for some time afterwards. The astounding thing is not how little Arena resembles what we’d think of as a proper Elder Scrolls game. The astounding thing is how much The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, released a scant two years later, totally does.

Daggerfall is a grainy sprite version of everything we think of as TES standards. Customizable classes. Lots of different guilds and factions to join. Scads of side content. Nonlinear main quest. Wilderness exploration. The Elder Scrolls lore coalescing all at once, like Athena from Zeus’ skull, into a bizarrely complete and fully-formed whole. Which all leads me to wonder, bluntly: what the fuck happened in the two years this game was under development? Daggerfall feels three or four sequels ahead of Arena and it’s young enough to be an expansion pack. It feels like devs from 1995 caught a glimpse of Skyrim and made a cargo cult version with more moving parts than the real thing.

I mentioned that every Elder Scrolls game has a different design goal, and I mean that in a couple of different ways. Later I’ll get into what Daggerfall is trying to accomplish taken as a stand-alone title, because that alone is gonna take a couple posts to explain. But in the context of the larger series, Daggerfall is what happens when you get a team of people willing to push absolutely any idea, no matter how fiendishly or even pointlessly complex, just to see if it’ll work or not. The final product must have been a shock to contemporaries, because frankly, it was a shock to me as well.*

Daggerfall has all the basic mechanics you’d get in later titles. You know what else it has? Ships that you can purchase, sail, and live on. Banks, bank loans, and notes of credit. Language skills. Several different types of lycanthropy (up from “fucking none” in Arena and down to “fucking none” by the time Morrowind launches). Classes you can customize down to the nitty-gritty details of what materials you can wear and what conditions you can recharge Magicka under. Witch covens with staggeringly complex systems for summoning Daedra. A fast travel system that took into account what transportation you were using and how quickly and comfortably you were going. More guilds than any TES title that came before or or would come after. And the world map…dear lord, the world map.

Picture yourself standing inside the general store of the charming, out-of-the-way little hamlet of Cromcart. How out of the way is it? Let me put it this way: nobody else in videogaming history has visited it. Cromcart is one of a little over one hundred villages in the region of Northmoor. Northmoor is one of forty regions in the game; in my entire main quest playthrough, I’m all but certain I never even set foot in it. It wasn’t like I lacked for company everywhere else–the game has shockingly close to a million NPCs, almost none of whom are important or memorable.

Even if all you wanted to do was dungeon-crawl, a total completion run would still be monstrously infeasible. There are thousands of dungeons in the game, and they are big. How big are they? So big that the guy so obsessed with Daggerfall he wrote a guide that remains definitive to this day put “smaller dungeons” at the top of his wish list for the sequel.

And that, in a way, leads me to one of the key questions we’ll be answering: did any of this Brobdingnagian feature-creep actually amount to anything? And if so, just what the hell did it amount to?

Next Week: Darker, Edgier, Naked-er

*Then again, perhaps I’m surprised because of my modern critical context. The “throw lots of complicated, hypersimulationist ideas at the wall and if they don’t all work, that’s no big deal” school of design was arguably peaking back then–X-COM: UFO Defense is a good example.

 

The Altered Scrolls: Arena (Screenshots and Video)

17 Jun

Above all else, this series is trying to analyze how and why the Elder Scrolls games feel the way they do, and–especially with early, obscure titles like this one–some picture and video evidence really is called for to get it across. So here’s a selection of screenshots, and one two-minute gameplay video, to provide a window into what Arena was like:

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The Altered Scrolls: Arena (Part 3: Wrapup)

10 Jun

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Arena‘s combat is pretty simple, but that’s because it doesn’t really matter. It’s that classic sort of dungeon crawler where monsters aren’t  a test of your skill, but of your planning. Every encounter is a stress test of your careful preparation: have you been spending your points properly? Did you buy enough potions? Did you pick the right spells, the right weapon, the right skill set? Have you been finding time to rest often enough? Are you high enough level? Have you been dicking around this dungeon too long? Every dungeon is just checking all those boxes until you accomplish the objective or your pencil breaks.  It’s classic RPGs in their purest form–combat that’s about the journey, not the moment.

We’ve covered a lot of ground, but if there’s one way to sum up the first entry in the Elder Scrolls franchise, it’s this: Arena is probably the game least like any of the others. With its poached fantasy setting, model-kit RPG storyline, hardwired class system, and nonexistent wildernesses, Arena was the dream of an open-world RPG constrained to a few carefully-selected mechanic sets. But considering how much ground it was trying to cover, it could have done a lot worse.

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Unrest: Character Trailer

07 Jun

Since it’s a weekend of last-minute fixes and scripts for Unrest that have kept me too busy to finish my RPG post on time, I might as well post up the game’s latest trailer.

Let me tell you–Unrest is a pain in the hindparts to design a good trailer around. Most of the game is walking around getting into non-voice-acted conversations–which, that’s exactly the experience, but it doesn’t make for very gripping B-roll. So we decided to show off our characters (and, implicitly, environments) instead. Without any spoilers, I present to you the character trailer:

And in case you were wondering: it continues to be fucking weird to have a Steam page for a game I worked on.

 
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The Altered Scrolls: Arena (Part 2: Intro to Game Feel)

03 Jun

When you play The Elder Scrolls I: Arena, the first thing you do is create your character. This means picking one of the game’s pre-existing classes, each with its own hard-coded sets of restrictions with regards to equipment and magic. People who played any RPG before Arena wouldn’t be surprised by such a system. People who played any TES game after Arena would be, because the franchise has very much became known for not that system of character creation.

Since Daggerfall, TES games have eschewed traditional classes, skill point allocations, and levels in favor of more organic systems that convince the player they’re not just a stat block wandering a world of stat blocks, but a reasonable simulation of a person in a world of reasonable simulations of people. It’s one of the most profound and easily visible thematic departures the series makes from other fantasy RPGs. So why isn’t it in Arena?

You might well argue that Arena had traditional XP-based, class-based character systems because it didn’t know any better—and you’d probably be right. The game was very much thrown together out of spare Dungeons and Dragons sprockets and all-purpose public domain fantasy pap, so it isn’t fair to expect it to undermine the traditional systems from its inception. But all that said, it is fair to point out that the less “organic. immersion-focused” approach to character design is reflective of a less “organic, immersion-focused” approach to the rest of the game. Arena doesn’t care about making the world feel cool and interesting; it cares about making you cool and interesting. Its methods in this regard are subtle.

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