The Altered Scrolls: Morrowind (Part One: Feel)

12 Aug

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Sometimes you’re at a used bookstore and you pick up an old paperback fantasy novel you’ve never head of. You’re not even sure why you buy it–maybe you like the cover, or the summary on the back was well written, or the author photo is of somebody who’s not a hirsute chunky American white dude. Nothing specific. Nothing you can really point to later.

You don’t read it right away, because it’s not that kind of purchase–you just throw it onto the backseat of your car and forget about it for a couple days. Later you’re getting out of your car and you remember to  bring it in and put it on your desk. Then one day you sit down with your lunch, realize you left the Comic History of the Peleponnenisan War you’d been reading at home–and your hungry eyes fall one the cover of that paperback . Chapter One; Page One.

From that lunch break onwards, you find yourself coming back to the paperback regularly. It’s good–but it’s not really that it’s good. It’s that it’s weird.

The hero is born in a village that isn’t burned down by orcs. Magic rules are patterned around some obscure historical mystic tradition that doesn’t comfortably conform to established conventions or even vocabulary–spellcasters aren’t wizards, but byrzkars, and that’s somehow relevant. Elves aren’t haughty fey, which would be cliche, or evil celestial beings, which would be the edgy cliche–they’re some third choice that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with anything anyone’s done with elves before.

It’s kind of like you showed up to watch a stringed instrument contest. For hours you hear everything from Jim Croce acoustic guitar to twanging Southern six-string riffs to wailing glamrock solos to doom-shaken death metal crunch. And just when you’re trying to figure out where on the sliding scale of soft folksy guitar to ear-splitting electric guitar your tastes lie, some guy comes on with a cello and effortlessly changes the context of the entire show.

That paperback fantasy novel probably won’t end up being your favorite ever. It may not be the first book you recommend to people. You may not even seek out other work by that author. But years later, if you come across the spine of that book on your shelf, it’ll all come rushing back. For better or for worse, that book was different enough to stick with you to the grave.

Give it time, and that’s exactly what Morrowind is. It may not be your favorite videogame, but give it time and something about it will crawl into your brain and refuse to leave.

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Sneak Preview: Altered Scrolls, Morrowind

08 Aug

Sometimes you’re at a used bookstore and you pick up an old paperback fantasy novel that you’ve never head of. You’re not even sure why you buy it–maybe you like the cover, or the summary on the back was well written, or the author photo is of somebody who’s not a hirsute chunky American white dude. Nothing you can really point to later.

You don’t read it right away, because it’s not that kind of purchase–you just throw it onto the backseat of your car and forget about it for a couple days. Later you’re getting out of your car and you remember to  bring it in and put it on your desk. Then one day you sit down with your lunch, realize you left the Comic History of the Peleponnenisan War you’d been reading at home–and your hungry eyes fall one the cover of that paperback . Chapter One; Page One.

From that lunch break onwards, you find yourself coming back to the paperback regularly. It’s good–but it’s not really that it’s good. It’s that it’s weird.

The hero is born in a village that isn’t burned down by orcs. Magic rules are patterned around some obscure historical mystic tradition that doesn’t comfortably conform to established conventions or even vocabulary–spellcasters aren’t wizards, but byrzkars, and that’s somehow relevant. Elves aren’t haughty fey, which would be cliche, or evil celestial beings, which would be the edgy cliche–they’re some third choice that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with anything anyone’s done with elves before.

It’s kind of like you showed up to watch a stringed instrument contest. For hours you hear everything from Jim Croce acoustic guitar to twanging Southern six-string riffs to wailing glamrock solos to doom-shaken death metal crunch. And just when you’re trying to figure out where on the sliding scale of soft folksy guitar to ear-splitting electric guitar your tastes lie, some guy comes on with a cello and effortlessly changes the context of the entire show.

That paperback fantasy novel probably won’t end up being your favorite ever. It may not be the first book you recommend to people. You may not even seek out other work by that author. But years later, if you come across the spine of that book on your shelf, it’ll all come rushing back. For better or for worse, that book was different enough to stick with you to the grave.

Give it time, and that’s exactly what Morrowind‘s world and story are.

 

The Altered Scrolls: Daggerfall (Gameplay)

06 Aug

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Because I’ve watched six recordings (and about an hour and a half of my time) mysteriously vanish, I’ve decided to introduce a new feature–brief gameplay samples. What follows is an actual, factual, wholly organic account of what a ten minute sample of gameplay looked like while I was trying to record.

And to head off the inevitable questions: the game is pretty much always like this.

I’m out in the middle of nowhere, which is less than ideal. All the classic adventures of song and legend tend to transpire in places with things. So I move my cursor down to the bottom bar, to “transportation,” and select my sailing ship. I teleport to it instantly. It’s a vast, expensive ship; the size and cost of the ship have thus far not proved relevant in any capacity, but there you go.

Now that I’m on my ship, I go to the map, select one of the provinces at random, then select one of the inns in the middle of nowhere at random. Traveling to it costs me 0 coins–the perks of having your own ship, I guess. Six hundred thousand gold well spent.

The inn’s name on the map is…some auto-generated bullshit, honestly, I couldn’t really tell you. I didn’t check in the first place; there’s no point in seeing what a place is called because the name is totally meaningless and you’re probably never going to go back. Let’s just call it The Monkey and Monkey Tavern. I arrive there to find there’s actually two taverns in the small loaded area tile, neither of which are called the right name, and a couple of houses. The nearest tavern is about ten feet away, so I summon my horse, ride up to the front door, and unsummon my horse.

I enter  to find a man kneeling permanently by the fire and a woman in a low-cut dress. I ask the man for directions to the building we’re standing in, and he replies that it’s to the east and south some. Then I ask him about current events. He says he’s never heard of anyone by that name.

I ask the woman for news, and she drops several paragraphs of mathematical formula about how the game calculates strength damage.

I decide to rent a room to heal my wounds. The barkeep asks how many days I want it for–just one, thanks–and the game auto-haggles the price down to four gold coins. That’s actually most of the gold I have on me; I have several million gold total, but the bulk of that is in the bank. I accept his deal, press the the “rest” and then “rest until healed” icons on my quickbar, and find myself teleported to my room to rest.

I wander into the hallway and open the door to the next room. Standing in it is a woman in a black bikini, high-heeled leather boots, and a thong. I shut the door to the next room.

I enter another room that’s empty except for what genuinely looks like a half-open cardboard box. I click on the box, and the game informs me I’m stealing and asks if I want to continue. I do. The box contains a red cloak and a gold-spangled “formal brassiere,” which, needless to say, replaces my shirt when I equip it.

Immediately I hear shouts of “Halt! Halt!” Nobody could have possibly witnessed me taking from the chest–but someone did anyway. Now the game is glitching out pretty bad and doors are opening for no reason, but I go out to meet the guards. They swing at me and the game asks if I’m resisting arrest. I decide not to.

On a separate screen, I am read my charges and asked if I’d like to plead guilty or not guilty. I choose not guilty. It asks if I’m going to debate or lie. I choose lie. I fail and my sentence is stretched from one day in jail to nine.

I’m released from jail and immediately spot an enemy on the horizon–a random female rogue. She has her back to me, but I recognize the character model–it’s the one with the hood running down to a sleeveless, wide-open vest. I get on my horse, ride towards her, attack with my battle axe, and am informed I’ve pulled off a sneak attack backstab. That’s when I decide to quit the game.

So that’s Daggerfall. Don’t believe me? Well, you’ll just have to see for yourself.

 

No Regularly Scheduled Posts This Week

07 Jul

My inconsistent it’s-done-when-it’s-done schedule of updating has worked out pretty well so far, but for this week, I’m going to have to go ahead and explicitly suspend it. My duties running PR for Unrest take up half my time and I need the rest for my wrists to recover. Until things plateau around Sunday, I’m not going to get the chance to knock anything out.

I will say after this week, I’ll finally have some stuff besides the (very fun to write) Elder Scrolls retrospective. I’ve been taking the time to get my thoughts straight on a few topics/do the legwork on a few others and I think it’s beginning to pay off.

I do have video knocking around that just needs an edit and an upload. If that pops up, it will be late Wednesday. Otherwise–see you guys next week!

-Ruts

 
 

The Altered Scrolls: Daggerfall (Part 3: Narrative, Sex, and Conclusion)

04 Jul

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Remember that pernicious notion that Elder Scrolls games all kick you off as a blank-slate prisoner with no preordained backstory or circumstances? Well, we’re zero for two on that. Arena established that you were one of the Emperor’s champions–specifically, the son of his captain of the guard–who was thrown into prison for posing a threat to Jagar Tharn’s clandestine coup. While that does technically include the prison angle, it sort of leaves out all the reasons people think the prison angle exists in the first place.

You’d think Daggerfall, which in many ways blazes trails for the TES franchise, would have a more hands-off approach. Nope; the game’s surprisingly even more specific. Daggerfall lays out more premises in its half-minute FMV intro than you can shake a dangle at.

According to the FMV, which establishes firstly that Uriel Septim is your bro and secondly that he looks nothing like he looked in the last game (stay tuned for the screenshot hoedown next Tuesday), you’re a trusted Imperial agent with a very specific, defined track record of service who’s been charged with putting to rest the ghost of King Lysandus and recovering a letter intended for the queen of Daggerfall. How do we get from there to prison? We don’t. The game starts with you shipwrecked in a…dungeon? Look, there’s a very specific reason why, and we are not going to get into it. Let’s just say most of the game is running errands for nobility and clearing out puzzle dungeons.

If this all sounds like a pretty standard high-fantasy pitch, you’d be surprised; shit turns cloak-and-dagger pretty much instantly. The game’s high fantasy trappings are wrapped up tight in a Game of Thrones thematic fabric, highlighted by the fact that the playable area of this game–the Iliac Bay–isn’t one placid nation, but a collection of tense, culturally opposed factions on the brink of war. The missions by and large involve nosing into the affairs of various royal families–peeking behind the scummy veil of propriety to uncover a cobwebbed heap of romantic intrigue, betrayal, conspiracy, murder, and naked women, like, seriously everywhere. No kidding.

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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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