Recently I’ve been unnerved. The pre-election craze left me to spend two evenings doing nothing but reading about recent political events, and it seems that no matter what scenario unravels — a more peaceful or more violent one — the common people will be the ones who lose.
Anyway, still bitter after the My Little Pony hype — a show that I would just ignore otherwise, but which I got to utterly hate despite never watching it because of its obsessed fandom — I decided to finally take a peek at the next big thing, well, you know, that game with number five which is a sequel to the big thing of five years ago, more or less the same thing but with number four.
Hype has its downsides, and I’ve learned to set my expectations low by default when taking a look at big things, because a lot of the hype comes from blinded fanboys who refuse to see any fault in their precious franchise and from mainstream critics, who basically have to write positive reviews lest they lose the press benefits. But that’s just repeating the obvious banalities by this point.
Sometimes I get pleasantly surprised. Often I don’t. I thought Mass Effect was a genuinely great franchise despite my initially low expectations (I expected a bland KOTOR clone with silly implausibilities galore), and I thought Dragon Age was solid but needlessly dragging, unforgiving, and retreading on BioWare’s earlier grounds that had become cliche by that point. Certainly not the avatar of perfection on this sinful Earth whose very piss smells of nectar and makes flowers blossom. On the other hand, I installed the much-maligned Dragon Age II fully thinking it’d be good but not my kind of game, and well… it’s actually good, story-wise and presentation-wise, and my greatest issue with the game is the patently ridiculous and unfair encounter design: somehow they managed to make combat even worse than in DA1. (I’m expecting inquisitors with stakes and bonfires any time now.)
Even Portal, which I would call the overall best game I’ve played (first game, not second), would probably have ended up in my blacklist had I not had the fortune to play it before the hype wave started. But I was fortunate to play it when it was still not a big thing. I was looking for something to play while taking a break from Episode Two, and I thought I could as well try this puzzle game bundled with it. It was before the cake and companion cube craze started. The rest is history. Portal 2, on the other hand, was a big thing from the very start. I preordered it knowing exactly what to expect — more of the same, more puzzles, more portals, more Chell, more GLaDOS, more black humor — and that was exactly what I got, no more, no less. I don’t really have a problem with Portal 2 — it’s Valve’s best executed game from a technical standpoint. But story-wise it’s a sequel to a game that didn’t really need a sequel, and one that made the story of the first part retroactively impossible to take seriously, turning all of Aperture Science into a cartoonish farce.
Anyway, the great and bountiful Skyrim.
I’ll be brief. It’s atmospheric, yes. The music especially captures the mood from the get go. As a sightseeing exercise, a sort of fantasy Google Street View, or for someone who wants to actually pretend to be a denizen of a fantasy world — as opposed to realizing they’re a real person playing through someone else’s story — it may be the way to go.
Let me reiterate, Skyrim is not a bad game. It has its players and I think they deserve the right to enjoy a game they like. But it’s not my thing. It doesn’t inspire me, it doesn’t capture my imagination or instill a sense of awae in me. To my eye, it’s just unmemorable, in a “so okay it’s average” way.
One thing BioWare and Obsidian games in general did well is inspiring you to care about the world even in sequels. I’ll be honest: I started Skyrim completely new to the TES franchise. The earlier big things, namely Morrowind and Oblivion, passed by me.
I can start a BioWare or Obsidian game and immediately feel engaged, even when I don’t know anything about the setting. Here, after ten minutes of a scripted scene where I ride a cart while listening to small talk without being able to do as much as turn my head — a scene that would make Valve scratch their heads, then scrap the prologue and start over — I’m suddenly dumped into the world as ye olde Adventurer Classic, the one that fetches bear asses to ungrateful villagers, and I just find it hard to care, or to even understand why I’m supposed to care about these empty forests and bare hills, with bland and unmemorable NPCs in between.
I heard that the focus is on immersion and exploration, but well, to immerse yourself into a setting and explore it, you first somehow have to start caring about it, which brings me back to square one.
And I’m probably a minority on this one, but to me, a game (except for little timekillers like Tetris and Minesweeper) is first and foremost a work of literature — like movies and TV series, but with different media possibilities and conventions in each form. And I prefer a game to have a story: a clear beginning, end, and a suitably complex storyline with a fleshed-out cast of characters in between. The TES series is… quite different and, again, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s just not what I like in games.
Speaking of conventions, Skyrim deserves a special award for quite possibly the messiest video game UI I’ve seen. I’m not a designer by any means, but I’ve read essays and saw quite a lot of desktop software, and my experience as a programmer has taught me to distinguish good UIs from bad UIs. Bluntly, Skyrim doesn’t have a good UI. It breaks too many principles to count, the most important of which is the principle of least surprise. Conventions don’t exist for this game. Keys do unexpected things, widgets behave in an unexpected way, and just about every screen — trade, inventory, spells, you count them — is done in a “new and improved” way that goes completely against existing RPG traditions. I understand developers’ need to feel original, but originality shouldn’t get in the way of usability. Conventions exist for a reason: they let users easily get used to a new interface. Bethesda instead preferred to confuse the heck out of the user in the name of looking “trendy”.
With that said, I’m back to hacking and fireballing my way through the remainder of Dark Messiah. This game might not have been gushed by critics and fans, but I would prefer even a bad game (not that this is a bad game) that at least tries something interesting, anything at all, to a game that appeals to reviewers with form while feeling trite and hollow on the inside.