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Sunset in Skyrim

TESV 2014-05-25 10-00-03-09

Shut Up About FemShep Already

At some point in the last few years it became fashionable for a small group of idiots to act like playing the female version of a generic character was like taking part in a civil rights movement. That somehow playing the female version of Shepard was a bold and important step and that EA and Bioware were suppressing their FemShep civil rights movement by not emphasizing the female Shepard as much as the male Shepard.

blackshep

Pictured. The Shepard that FemSheppers don’t care about

Richard Cobbett is one of the worst examples of this, going on incessantly about FemShep in an article calling the generic female version of a generic character the greatest SciFi heroine ever. In RPS posts he acts as if namechecking FemShep is some sort of statement. It’s only a statement of idiocy.

Fact. Both Shepards are generic hero characters with minimal development. Playing FemShep is no bigger than playing a female character in Skyrim.

Fact. Playing a female character is not a statement, it’s a choice. It doesn’t change how games depict women. It does not make you a better person. It does not mean that you are a woman by proxy and can natter on about being the victim of EA’s sexism against FemShep. Doing that is so stupid that the language doesn’t have the words to accommodate a proper description of it.

Fact. FemShep is no more overlooked than BlackShep. EA not using FemShep on cover art is not sexist, just as not using BlackShep on cover art is not racist. It’s just a choice. Few of the FemShep fanatics though dwell on BlackShep or any of the issues that come out of that. I don’t know why that is, but maybe it’s not hip to be a white male who talks a lot about playing BlackShep the way it is to be a white male who talks a lot about playing FemShep.

Fact. FemShep does not substitute for the lack of female characters in games, but most games don’t have characters of any gender with depth. It’s a function of gameplay. When characters have no character, it doesn’t matter how you tweak their skin color, gender or features. They’re just a projection of you. Playing a character of a difference gender or race does not mean that you are experiencing what life is like for them or that you can turn your game experience into outraged rants about your virtual suffering.

Please stop. Just stop.

The Two Types of Games that will define Gaming

The split has been coming for a while, but it looks like it’s almost here. I’m not talking about RPG vs FPS or casual vs hardcore gaming. This isn’t a gameplay split, this is a design philosophy and business plan split.

One is polished and heavily locked down. A game that’s practically on rails in its gameplay, high end graphics and little user agency, and plans to monetize players outside of the purchase price with DLC and in game purchases. Its designers like consoles and apps better than the PC, and if they do publish it on a PC, they include crippling DRM and always on connections. They’re pushed into the social with user accounts and co-op and multiplayer.

The other is troubled, but ambitious. It has big ideas, big bugs and room for users to explore, expand and transform the game world. The flaws get fixed by mods, the mods expand the game beyond what it is. This type of game is PC oriented. Sometimes marketplace realities mean it’s a port, but it’s the type of game that only really makes sense and fulfills its promise on a PC.

There are plenty of examples of the first type of game. Diablo III, which is really Diablo as reimagined by Zynga, or the latest AAA FPS shooter, practically on rails, with amazing graphics, and a game where you don’t do much except push a button to make something cool happen, and then dive for cover, while your real or AI teammates yell things at you. Or something really silly like Assassin’s Creed.

On the other side, there’s Skyrim, a shambling grand mess of snowy peaks, bugs and mods that make the game something else. There’s Minecraft, which is ridiculous and ridiculously appealing. And the newest Game of Thrones game. And there’s a hundred obscurer and smaller games coming in through the cracks.

The marketplace, wedged into a handful of big companies, is aiming for the first type of game. Spend a fortune on marketing it, roll it out the door, brag that you sold more copies this hour than the entire GDP of Thailand, bribe and wow the game jornos, and pick up that bonus from the board.

The PC is being abandoned, not because it isn’t a huge profitable marketplace, but because it doesn’t fit into this business model. It’s not secure, its hardware is unpredictable, its players want more, its hardware is capable of more, it has too much piracy and too much chaos. Easier to just plan for the day when everyone who matters has an XBOX 720 or a Playstation 4 or a Nintendo DooWop or an iPad or something equally gated and shut in.

Microsoft doesn’t know what to do with PC gaming because it’s not in the business model. Neither do most companies. All they can do is tell us that the future is consoles, apps, cloud gaming, always on connections, crippled games with lots of user accounts that are always going down, no used games, lots of fees and no fun. And we better get used to it.

They have a point. If Microsoft, Activision, EA and Ubisoft want it this way, what choice do we have? What are we going to do, make our own marketplace? Invest in games that we like? Nuts. Go buy Diablo III and learn to enjoy it. Go play Frontierville and Angry Birds and Medal of Battlefields and all the rest.

But users have voted with their dollars at Kickstarter, funding the games they want to play. Forget the lame player boycotts of Mass Effect 3 or Diablo 3 that can never quantified and never get taken seriously. Boycotts don’t accomplish anything. Supporting an alternative marketplace does.

Kickstarter isn’t the solution, but it’s part of the solution, along with Skyrim mods, the whole indie game scene and an entire user created and often user managed marketplace. There’s no point in berating Activision for turning Diablo III into a Zynga game or complaining that Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age 2 are crap that were rushed out to cash in on the goodwill from earlier games.

The marketplace is splitting into two types of games. The AAA title that costs a ton to make and needs to hit the broadest and lowest common denominator target. And a range of games from big to small that are creative and unpredictable, that need work, but that open up worlds. Some are released by the big boys, but quite a few are coming in from the margins.

PC gaming isn’t dead, but it’s going to be defined by the second kind of game, more than the rest. The big boys will still dump Diablo XXXVI’s and Battlefield 61’s on the PC, while making it as miserable an experience as possible, but PC gaming will be a different place that will be defined by a different kind of game that values user agency, that is built for user modification from the ground up and that taps into the culture of PC gaming and its past.

It’s not hard to believe because it’s already here.

Skyrim, the Initial Impressions

Skyrim is to Oblivion as Windows 7 was to Vista, the basic guts are the same, but the surface has been polished, it runs trimly and there are so many pretty things that you overlook the old problems.

Oblivion’s biggest problem was that it lacked a reason for being. It was just another generic fantasy world where bad guys were trying to do senseless things and you were supposed to run around stopping them because there wasn’t much else to do. That isn’t true of Skyrim which gloriously brings a Nordic fantasy world to life with hot springs, waterfalls and angry people who sound like a certain former governor of California.

But there’s more to it than that. In Oblivion nothing really mattered, Skyrim puts you at the center of a conflict from its opening cinematic and asks you how you feel about it. Do you sympathize with the Stormcloaks who are resisting a brutal empire or the empire which maintains a certain order in a land where the native population might easily turn on the elves and other minority races. It’s not the deepest question in the world, but it adds layers to the landscape and the landscape adds layers to the people.

The engine still has many of the faults of the old, and the faces still need work, and up close the landscape doesn’t always look as good, but details are for nitpickers. It’s the bigger problems that are the problem.

You can spend hours running past streams that flow with the perfect ripple of glacial water, but your tasks mostly involve stumbling into the same old caves and fortresses and clearing them slowly of generic bandits who distribute themselves at one or two to a room in massive complexes of caves. The only way to make this any less fun would be for combat to still be the same pointless bash and blast, which it is.

Dual wielding makes combat more fun, but it doesn’t make it any less pointless. Set on Adept, the combat is almost too easy. The designers want you involved and killing things, which helps delay the moment when you notice that the combat isn’t really any fun and the missions are boring.

Then there’s the interface, designed more for consoles than PC’s, forget conventional inventories, you get to fumble with keyboard and mouse to scroll past lists and then try to figure out if you’re wearing them or using them. Right mouse button equips weapons or magic to the left hand and the left mouse button to the right hand. Use whatever is in your right hand with the left mouse button. This isn’t just counterintutive, it’s irritating to the point of breaking the immersion.

The consolization of Skyrim shows up in other ways. The RPG element is almost gone without anyone noticing. You can still build up skills and pick up perks and some of the numbers are still under the hood, but like Dragon Age II, it’s blended and simplified so that it hardly matters.

The water flows that have been lavished everywhere, even in some dungeons, are amazing, but the character animations and faces are weaker. Lydia, the first NPC, you’re likely to spend any time with is infuriatingly generic as a character and compares poorly to any of New Vegas’ companions. The voice acting hasn’t gotten all that much better. The guards still insist on saying stupid things over and over again. Some of the voices sound a little too much like Arnold Schwarzenegger, whether intentionally or not.

So what’s my initial feeling on Skyrim? So far it’s still amazing as an open world game. As an RPG though it’s far weaker. Still there’s no denying its spectacular vistas or the romance and legend that its designers have managed to infuse into that landscape. And if it’s not quite Morrowind, it’s much closer to it than it is to Oblivion.

Underwhelmed by Skyrim

Why can’t the company that published Brink and acquired Id trot out an Elder Scrolls game that looks good? The one thing that the Skyrim previews show is that the faces have improved, but Bethesda is still way behind the technology. Skyrim promises a lot, but so did Oblivion. And it looks like a slightly shinier version of Oblivion.

Story and gameplay could still save Skyrim. You never know. And it’s hard to imagine them completely blowing the icebound setting. But there’s no real reason for optimism. Not after Oblivion. And not after footage that looks a lot like Oblivion did, boring landscapes, whack and smash first person battles, poor animation and everything so shiny you could see your reflection in it if the engine were better.

The engine is a major barrier. But so is Bethesda. Oblivion and Fallout 3 were weak in the story and world building departments. Even 15 mins in Fallout New Vegas shows that even with a clunky engine, a great game can be made. If Obsidian were writing Skyrim, the clunky engine wouldn’t be that much of a negative.

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