Monday, April 30, 2012

Byte: Growing pains

Over the last few weeks and months, there's been a tiny nagging doubt chewing on the loose end of my frontal lobe. As it's been munching away on brain cells that have been shrunk or killed by drinking too much beer, it's been whispering disquieting thoughts, such as this:

"Skyrim is as good as videogames are going to get. So why play them anymore?"

Now, this could be me being my usual dour, Scottish, optimistic self. *coughs* Or it could be the seed of something a little more profound.

According to Steam, I've got nearly 275 hours logged on Skyrim, which added to the couple of dozen hours or so I've put in on the Xbox 360 version, easily puts Skyrim into the top three of my "Most Played" videogames list (still a long way behind World of Warcraft, but probably getting even with Elite on the ZX Spectrum). This is what scientists like myself call "a jolly long time", so perhaps my nagging doubt is little more than a thought instigated by the maxim that familiarity breeds contempt, but I'm not so sure.

You see, I love Skyrim. If I take off my Rose-Tinted Glasses of Nostalgic Memory (+2), Skyrim's arguably the greatest videogame ever made, despite of (or perhaps because of) its many well-documented flaws. And it's not just because I want Lydia to carry my burdens or to jump Annekke's crag or hug a Hroki (yes, they're all euphemisms; do try to keep up) but Skyrim is probably the most exquisitely designed and realised and game world ever made. Here's why...

Not only is the design of everything within the game world (from the clothes and architecture, to the weapons and monsters) brilliantly designed and thematically consistent, while the graphical fidelity of the game engine and the game world is on a scale and level of detail that's unparalled in a game of this scope, there's still room for the most vital interaction between any virtual world and the player: there are still nuances and fringes around the game experience that allow the player to fill in gaps with their imagination to flesh out the game world and their experience. The player is given a beautifully realised game world to play in, but the designers have left tantalising gaps in fabric of the game for the player to weave closed with their own discoveries and narrative as they wander through the game world.

This is a design philosophy that is increasingly rare in modern videogaming. I may be generalising slightly, but for so-called 'AAA' releases the tendency these days is to create a highly polished game world and experience, at the cost of reducing videogaming to an interactive movie where all you get to do is choose which order you get to shoot stuff - in high definition slo-mo, of course... Perhaps more damningly, these (single-player) experiences are over in less than ten hours. In other words, less than a serious weekend's worth of gaming. You could argue that the modern gamer plays predominantly online, but I am not a modern gamer. I am old. I am old-skool. I am also a highly antisocial bastard. Unless I'm playing something like World of Warcraft, Unreal Tournament 2004 or Team Fortress 2, where I actively want to engage with other players, I don't want other puny humans standing between me and my fun. Furthermore, I want my interaction with the game world to be slightly more sophisticated than only having the option of going around killing things. Sure, in Skyrim, you get to kill more than a serial killer on uppers; vegetable, animal or mineral, you get to smack it to pieces with a sword, axe, pickaxe, bow or spell and dragonshout, or whatever the heck your preferred instrument of slaughter is. But the important thing is that's not the ONLY thing the game gives you the option to do. You can ignore the main quest, clear out a cave and live as a hermit if you want to. You can get married. You can become an agent of the goddess of love and help people find marital bliss. You can solve murders. You can become a murderer by joining the Dark Brotherhood as an assassin. You can invest in farms and shops and make money by being a silent partner in merchant enterprises. You can find obscure books for a curmudgeonly librarian. You can become a master Thief serving a Daedric goddess. You can do all of these things, or none of them, and many, many more things besides. They're just so much scope within the game world - much more so than "Run this way while we set off explosions around you to be dramatic and shoot some bad dudes. Rinse and repeat.", which is all the experience things like Call of Duty give you.

But what realy impresses me about a game like Skyrim is the way you can access the game's lore - that is, you can choose to or not. The game doesn't force the story down your throat. You don't even have to play the game fulfilling your character's destiny as the Dragonborn. If you want to ignore all the lore books and main story quests, you can. You aren't forced to play the game on any terms you don't want to. You could still easily stick two hundred hours or more into the game without touching the two main storyline quests, and you wouldn't feel short-changed by the experience. Skyrim is an outstanding game on just about every conceivable level - and that's even before you try to mod it. (I may write more about the game's mod support in a future post)

Videogames are amazing. The technology we have now is so good that comparing something like Skyrim to Manic Miner is ludicrous - it's not even in the same league. What we should learn from games like Skyrim is that even now, in today's vapid "if I don't get an explosion every thirty seconds, I'm not interested" culture, videogames can be complex, sophisticated, multi-layered and (most importantly) still be financially successful. So why should we be satisfied by anything that's not as good or ambitious as this? Forget mass-market, lowest common denominator crap with big marketting budgets like Call of Duty. I'd take one Skyrim over a hundred Call of Duty's any day of the week.
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