I feel like a non-French speaker stumbling into a conference of snobs. The reason for this rests primarily with a game called The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Everyone, from Lazygamer’s own Garth Holden to my non-existent children, had been waiting for and then, upon procuring, has loved this game. Big words and loaded descriptions, pumped full of the hot air of gamers’ expectations, took up unnecessary focus in the gaming landscape, like a fat man sitting in front of you at a movie theatre. It looks beautiful; it looks exciting. But, after playing it for some hours, I’m utterly unconvinced that Bethesda has improved on their consistent mistakes.
Similarly, I’m also convinced they’ve pulled off the biggest middle finger to gamers in recent history.
This is not surprising to anyone who has spent considerable time on Bethesda’s previous stupid titles, like Fallout 3 and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Here are some things Bethesda still doesn’t get right.
Human People Faces and Bodies
The first sign that you’re playing Bethesda game is when, upon encountering a strange amalgam of pixels, which speaks in (usually) a British accent and calls itself a person, you react with: “Argh!”What are you! Kill it with fire!”* Whoever makes character-people-person-human models for Bethesda hasn’t seen a human person since he or she was breastfed. Or perhaps this is how humans look to those who kidnap and tie people up in cling-wrap.
You’ll notice these characters don’t actually have expressions and/or their mouths move but their eyes, eyebrows tend to remain static. The fact it is unnerving we can handle; it’s that the game is trying to be realistic that makes this laughable.
And that’s not good. I don’t want to laugh. I want to be as engaged with the characters as I am with the beautiful environment, weather and fluidity of clouds and sky and rain. The natural world is one of the most immersive environments since Myst. The sound is brilliant and the textures and landscapes, as you move through areas, fill one with awe, wonder and the sensation that you really are there. Drops of water echo throughout cave-systems; grass sways to the thuds of giants’ steps; clouds swirl and mists quiver at one’s feet. Mountain tops really are misty
But then a mannequin, which Bethesda calls a person, comes fumbling through like a one legged ostrich and squawks at you about some missing sword or gem or child. As it does so, its weird stupid features make you wonder which species this is meant to be. This breaks the immersion and all the beauty they worked so hard to create is sucked away into this ugly vacuum called a character model.
This has been a consistent problem since forever for these developers. Just go through the scary montage of faces for Oblivion and Fallout. It’s quite disgusting – actually, disturbing (see Cling wrap Psychopath thesis) – that anyone thought these were passable human faces.
I can’t take a game seriously that deals out this amount of insult to the human species. That’s my job.
Models move as if they’re constantly on flat land, with legs barely recognising height differentiation. This might sound petty, but I assure you it’s not. See, when your character doesn’t react to the land he’s standing on, it’s like the game is pointing a fat finger at the model and saying “LOOK! IT’S A GAME! YOU’RE NOT REALLY THERE, NERD! YOU’RE JUST IN THIS VERY UGLY DUDE’S BODY!”
Not reacting to the land is not reacting to the environment. It throws you out of the experience. Now, obviously you can play Skyrim in 1st-person, but the problem persists for all models. So you might be fighting alongside or amidst a coterie, but you just can’t take any of it seriously when they’re all moonwalking forwards toward your foes.
This too has been a stupid problem, like the previous. Players have expressed how much they enjoy playing in 3rd-person but who wants to do that when it looks like your character is flying through the environment? Who wants to play a game where models barely acknowledge the sloped mountain they’re killing dragons on? And, seriously, fix your stupid “horses” (or, as I call them, steroid moose).
Yeah, screw you, Bethesda. I’m both intrigued and angered by the common reply of “Oh well, it is Bethesda. You should expect it to be buggy.” I expect humans to do stupid things all the time; I expect us to make laws banning research into areas that promise the most in terms of medical science; I expect humans to literally kill each other over what happens in games. I also expect every game to not work on my PC and on my PS3, since no game is perfect
But there’s a difference between expecting and accepting. See, what people are saying when they claim we should “expect” Bethesda games to be buggy is that we should just “accept” it. I’m sorry: When did we start accepting half-made items that we pay full-price for? Since when, as consumers, did we stop saying “I’m giving you all of this money for the entire package, as you claim it to be”? It is unacceptable that Bethesda consistently releases DVD-shaped poop and hope you don’t notice the smell.
This, like the character models, has still not been improved on.
Grey, dull, lifeless. No, I’m not describing Mitt Romney but the textures and colour variations used in Bethesda’s games, from Oblivion to Fallout 3 (especially Fallout 3). They’ve actually improved a lot in Skyrim, so this is a less critical point. However, this is about variation which Bethesda uses up on their brilliance of sound textures, music, and, mostly, landscape details.
Towns look similar. Character models look and sound similar. Speech and dialogue lines from NPCs are all the same, even so far as using the same voice actor (despite an impressive number of voice actors credited – about 70 I believe): merchants talking about how great their wares are, herbalists wanting to pull the quackery we see in today’s world by diagnosing you with ailments that don’t exist (detox anyone?). Towns are too similar in design and structure. And, of course, the old carrot of clichéd plotlines which I’ve beaten you with my own stick before..
Go there, fetch this, solve puzzle, come back, fetch this. Rinse, gargle (also known as “Bethesda dialogue”), repeat.
It’s a big map (understatement). But, as all the women I sleep with know, bigger is not necessarily better. Yet, as with many sandbox games, we are deceived into thinking a stupid fetch quest is “epic”, when in fact it just took so damn long to get there.
An example of a game that minimises distance, somewhat, but gives you immersive and truly epic quests is Deus Ex: Human Revolution (probably the best game to come out recently, in my opinion). For example, I was told to get money back from a woman who hadn’t been paying her bills to this dodgy bar. I go through and discover there’s another side to the story: she claims to being extorted. Now you have two or three choices in how to proceed. Kill her, intimidate her, go on her side, confront bar, etc. It’s a simple quest, but the complexity that arises out of it is not only unexpected but treats you like a moral adult. Fetching a sword from the other side of the world so you can have some sexy time with it is hardly worth 3 hours of my life.
Skyrim has the same combat mechanism as that other overrated, repetitive nonsense Diablo: click-click-click x 1,000. At least Diablo has many other things going for it, like being fun and having a bitching storyline and mythology. In Skyrim, swords, like characters’ feet, don’t really interact with what they come into contact with. You just kind of hack in someone’s general direction until they fall down. We’re not expecting the brilliance of Condemned’s melee combat, but at least physics could’ve woken up even a little to say something about the meeting of two objects in the world: say a sword and some flesh. Instead, characters just seem to fall down after awhile and react like empty bags of skin to the ground.
Also, characters are terrible at blocking and the slo-mo super death thing just doesn’t look that great (Dragon Age: Origins probably has some of the best I’ve ever seen).
Combat is a nasty affair in Skyrim, as it was in Fallout and Oblivion, and not in the way the developers intended.
Ah, my old favourite criticism point. It seems that few companies know how to make a good story. F3AR, for example, is different because they got not one, but two, great horror writers to produce their story: John Carpenter (The Thing) and Steven Niles (30 Days of Night, original comic series and later cool movie). I’m not sure who wrote or did the plotting for Skyrim, but the story does not flow, it’s mostly meaningless and is not very exciting.
And, as game writer Nicole Tanner highlights, even if you enjoyed the main quest, there’s little reward or acknowledgement that you’ve done anything so grand as complete the main quest in Skyrim itself. Life continues as if nothing really happened. Real life should continue as if you’ve done nothing but sit on your arse for hours, but the least the digital world could do something: a castle? A book? Groupies?
The game essentially says: “So what if you saved the world? You still need to pay rent, take the trash out and walk the dog, big man.” Yeah, well, most of us get that regardless of whether we’ve saved a gaming world. The point of a gaming world is to obtain some kind of grand reward to match up to the grand conflict we resolved. This is the ultimate case of blue-balls, but worse, it’s a major failing when a game doesn’t recognise or react properly to your incredible achievements. We’re creatures spurned on by incentives: otherwise, why the hell should we do anything you say, Max von Sydow?
Praises, Solutions and Conclusion
I’ve already highlighted what Skyrim gets right: some beautiful graphics, immersion, sound and the ability to suck you in (as long as there’s no moving character models). I’m greatly impressed they’ve increased their voice-actors to number more than three (despite it feeling like they’re only three, but I’ve pointed out the problem with variation above).
And their implementation of dual-wielding is fantastic, despite my reservations of the combat. That one can wield magic, while swinging a sword, is brilliant, as well as doubling the power of the spell if its dual-wielded. Now we just need to actually “feel” like the blade is penetrating flesh.
Though the skills tree is quite silly to use (just try getting to a specific spot on the PS3), it does look elegant and the sounds and little notes are quite charming. The Witcher 2 did a better job and a mixture of the both games would probably be better.
Character models still look and act really stupid. It’s bizarre to me that today we’re still having this problem; it’s more bizarre when you think of what Bethesda achieves in every area except their character models: whose faces look like Satan’s estranged haemorrhoids and who consistently ignore the laws of physics. You can make our hearts fill with wonder with golden dawns, rain on long grass, shadowed caves, and creaking trees, but you can’t make Farmer Joe look like he’s walking properly back home to sleep with his wife-daughter-sister (same person)? For shame.
And the story? Really? I’m not an accomplished story-teller, though I’ve written some fiction in my life that people have appreciated, so I kind of know how to create, and what constitutes competent stories. Stop hiring people who either don’t know or can’t help you execute your games. Sure, finding out why the dragons are back sounds cool but its not entirely original or that exciting. If you’re going to use dragons, why make them one dimensional? Why can’t we ride one or be friends with one? Why not make missions where you have to defend towns, by helping them fortify the town, setting up positions for defence, etc.? Blah, blah. You get it. These aren’t great ideas but they are certainly more interesting than most of what occurs in Skyrim, for me. At least these kinds of options should be there to add something more to the game in relation to the quite banal idea of dragon attacks.
Indeed, games companies should have more open engagement with their fans to create stories: for example, have short-story competitions for quests and get gamers to write it. Give them a free copy of the game as a reward, since you’ll have your most important element down – a love of the game and knowledge of it. And, you’re giving them a product which the gamer contributed to. I’m not sure why games companies don’t use the passion of the gamers to create games, too: There is so much untapped talent out there (I don’t just mean on Friday nights in underage clubs), and so much of it driven just by raw passion for games, everybody wins if games companies actually enlisted the help of those they create the games for (just consider Naughty Dog and their response to gamers’ issues with aiming in Unchartered 3). Sure there’s dangers of exploitation but that’s a given in any area. Anyway, that’s just my last thoughts on this where I think most games – not just Skyrim – could’ve benefitted.
Considering this game got a perfect ten, like your sister, on many websites (including this one) I’m sure there will be a few disagreements. Don’t worry. Unlike Bethesda Pacifists, I’m not “expecting” anyone to support me.
* The way some people reacted to this horrible monstrosity.