The Altered Scrolls, Part 5: Cloak and Fanservice

By Rutskarn   Sep 4, 2015   Video Games 49 comments

Daggerfall kicks off with a history lesson and follows it with an FMV. Modern sensibilities do not so much recoil as uncoil, but if you can bear it, you’ll learn two things pretty quickly: that Uriel Septim is a personal friend of yours…

...who looks nothing like he did in the last game, but never mind...

…and you’re a trusted Imperial agent with a very specific, defined track record of service. So far we’ve had two Elder Scrolls games and both have begun with the assumption that you’re a relatively senior imperial agent. The manual actually tells you what you did to win his esteem, but if you ignore this cursory storytelling–easy to do, even in the days when a manual was important–it almost seems as though you’re supposed to be playing the same character you did in the first game. Either way, taking only these games as precedent, one would not predict the Elder Scrolls series would become known for letting players determine their own backstory (which, as we’ll get into, was a pretty revolutionary idea for a CRPG).

You’re charged with putting to rest the ghost of King Lysandus and recovering a letter intended for the queen of Daggerfall. The game starts with you getting shipwrecked and ending up in a dungeon. This will set you up for the rest of the game’s story: political overtures and cloak-and-dagger aesthetics setting up series of elaborate puzzle dungeons.

The last of which is this dungeon, which is such an unspeakable all-gracious pain in the cripes that it replaced about 45% of my memories of the game.

Which is not to say the game’s theme is halfhearted. Far from it, actually: the game’s high fantasy trappings are wrapped up tight in a Game of Thrones-styled 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.

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Knights of the Old Republic EP5: Canderous the Manderous

By Shamus   Sep 3, 2015   Spoiler Warning 112 comments

Link (YouTube)

New games have spoiled us. There’s this unspoken assumption: If you change zones, have a cutscene, or pass through a loading screen, you get an auto-save. But in 2003, this was not a rule. We had all three of those things happen here without getting a save. Spoiler: This comes back to bite us in this episode.

If you want to know about this Invisible War game we were talking about, there’s an Errant Signal episode for that.

I find the comparison interesting because both of these games came out the same year and both were multiplatform releases, coming out on both Xbox and Windows. The original Xbox had just 64MB of ram. For comparison, Good Robot – the 2D side-scrolling indie game I’m helping to develop – currently eats about 200MB. To be fair, a lot of that bloat comes from the third-party libraries we’re using. Over the last 12 years, a lot of software has come along to relieve coders from the drudgery of making their own code for interfaces, audio code, rendering pipeline, controller input, and a dozen other things. That’s wonderful, inasmuch as it’s made the current surge in indie development possible for a whole generation of developers who would rather focus on gameplay than building complex technical frameworks. Sure, there’s a steep performance cost to doing things this way, but like I said in the column this week, Moore’s Law was pretty sweet while it lasted, and gave us so much extra power to spend on stuff like this.

Still, it’s amazing to think that my little game uses more than three times as much memory as KOTOR. Actually quite a bit more, since certainly the Xbox operating system would have eaten into that 64MB.

EDIT: Actually Good Robot only uses 132MB. I was looking at the numbers for the debug build when I wrote this post. So Good Robot is only twice the size of KOTOR, not three times the size.

I think one of the big technical blunders for Invisible War was moving to bump-mapping and bloom lighting. Those technologies were pretty new at the time. KOTOR doesn’t do any of those fancy tricks, and has a super-primitive lighting model. Going strictly by technology, KOTOR came out in 2003 but was using technology from 1999 or so. It’s also third-person, so the camera is further away from the scenery. Which means they can get away with low-resolution texture maps.

Not only were the texture maps in Invisible War larger, but they needed double the texture maps, because bump mapping / normal mapping requires another texture. The bloom lighting would have required an extra framebuffer, which would have eaten 3 precious megabytes all by itself.

EDIT: 3MB was based on the assumption that this game ran at 720p, but it was only 480p. So the bloom framebuffer would have been just under a megabyte. I still say that’s not the best use of resources in such a memory-starved situation, but not nearly as bad as 3MB.

By not blowing memory on fancy rendering tricks, BioWare was able to spend more of their meager memory budget on game space: Rooms and corridors and such. Yes, KOTOR looks pretty barren and could clearly use some furnishings here and there, but it’s still better than Invisible War and their closet-sized cities.

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Mass Effect Retrospective 12: A Chat With Vigil

By Shamus   Sep 3, 2015   Mass Effect 201 comments

Like I said last time, the conversation with Vigil is my favorite part of the game. That incredible music plays, you’ve got your two favorite companions with you, and Vigil lays it all out. He explains just how long the odds are, just how powerful the enemy is, but he also explains the little glimmer of hope you have.

Fridge Logic

Shepard has trained his team to stand in `triangle formation` during long conversations.

As much as I love this section, you knew we weren’t getting through it without a little nitpicking, didn’t you? Let’s paraphrase / summarize this conversation:

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Knights of the Old Republic EP4: A Bib, for Tuna

By Shamus   Sep 2, 2015   Spoiler Warning 123 comments

Link (YouTube)

It’s always a bit of a gamble when we select what game we’re going to play next on this show. When we begin covering a game, we’re committing to spending several months with it. We don’t want to get three weeks into a series and find we hate doing it and the audience has mostly stopped watching. That’s bad for our morale, bad for the show, and bad for everyone else.

For a while we were shy of games we hated, because we didn’t want to be “too negative”. We had a few series end badly for us and descend into a dull slog of repeating the same four complaints again and again for five hours. (BioShock is the biggest example of this, and for years we’d say, “Ugh. That game would just turn into another BioShock season” when discussing potential games.)

But eventually we realized it’s not negativity that hurts the show, it’s the repetition. It doesn’t matter if we love a game or hate a game, as long as we have lots to say about it. Hitman Absolution is a great example. It was a stupid game that we all disliked on one level or another, but the brokenness was so widespread that we always had something fresh to discuss.

By that standard, KOTOR might just be too good. There are so many facets to this game that we’re interrupting each other trying to cover it all. Consider…

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Ten Years of Twenty Sided

By Shamus   Sep 1, 2015   Notices 135 comments

Today is September 8036, 1993. It’s also the ten-year anniversary of this site.

I thought for a long time what I should say to mark this occasion. This is a pretty big deal. Ten years ago I was 34 years old. I was half the programmer I am now and I didn’t think of myself as a writer at all.

Eventually I decided to write a post talking about the idyllic pre-colonial internet that existed before the Eternal September. I could talk a bit of internet history, which would dovetail nicely into personal history, and then bring it back around by talking about how this community is a lot like that long-lost world. I got a couple of paragraphs into this project when it started to seem very familiar. Did I already do a post on the Eternal September? Maybe somewhere deep in the archives there was an old post about this? Maybe I mentioned it in the Autoblography?

So I did a little search and found that yes, I have indeed written about the Eternal September before. But it wasn’t “deep” in the archives. It was one year ago. And the post was the nine-year anniversary of this site. So not only had I written on this topic, I’d actually done this exact same concept for a post, with the exact same through-line. It’s actually a pretty good post. Better than this one, at any rate.

From this, we can conclude four important facts:

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Experienced Points: What Does the End of Moore’s Law Mean for Gaming?

By Shamus   Aug 31, 2015   Escapist 122 comments

My column this week is described perfectly by its title. I always get nervous writing about hardware. I’m not a hardware guy and I’m more likely to make factual blunders in that area.

I didn’t get into it in the column, but it’s sort of unfortunate the consoles launched when they did. They’re just barely (in Moore’s terms) short of the power needed to handle 60fps games and VR. Another eighteen months might have fixed that problem. Then again, nobody realized 60fps was going to be a big(ish) deal, and it would be suicide to show up to the market 18 months after the competition. You don’t want to launch a next-gen console into a market where everyone already has a next-gen console and several games. You either want to launch at about the same time and at roughly the same power level, or you want to launch several years later when you can have a nice technical advantage.

Or you can do what Nintendo does and put out an “under-powered” console and focus on gameplay instead of technology. But that’s crazy talk.

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Diecast #119: Until Dawn, Darkest Dungeons, Pillars of Eternity

By Shamus   Aug 30, 2015   Diecast 123 comments

Direct download (MP3)
Direct download (ogg Vorbis)
Podcast RSS feed.

Direct link to this episode.

Hosts: Shamus, Josh, Rutskarn, Mumbles, Campster.

Episode edited by Rachel.

Show notes:

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Knights of the Old Republic EP3: Carth Blocked

By Shamus   Aug 29, 2015   Spoiler Warning 108 comments

Link (YouTube)

That’s the OTHER reason people dislike Carth. If you stray from the light side, he gets sanctimonious and acts like he’s in charge. Okay, he kind of has a point, inasmuch as the “evil” choice is usually a blend of Zsasz-level sociopathy, Rimmer-level pettiness, and Doofenshmirtz-level stupidity. But it’s still a major killjoy when you’re trying to have some fun with the game and Carth cuts in like he’s your mom.

Of course, having him ignore your evil shenanigans wouldn’t work either. I think the problem here is that the writers gave you all of these idiotic villain choices in the part of the game where your only companion is a pushy boyscout with trust issues. If go go evil he’s a killjoy, and if you play it virtuously he’s still difficult. On top of that, he’s the only character available to pull exposition duty, so when he’s not judging you, he’s busy dumping exposition on you. He gets better later if you stick with him, but by then most people have started ignoring him and spending time with the rest of the team.

So I don’t personally hate Carth, but I do see why he gets a lot of hate from the fanbase. The deck is really stacked against him.

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The Altered Scrolls, Part 4: The Dagger Falls

By Rutskarn   Aug 28, 2015   Video Games 84 comments

I said some unkind things about The Elder Scrolls I: Arena. I said that the open world was barely integrated, the storytelling was weak, the quests were repetitious, and the setting was a streaky photocopy of a late 70s metal album with none of the character. And all that’s true, but none of it 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, does.

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Knights of the Old Republic EP2: Carth O-Nasty

By Shamus   Aug 27, 2015   Spoiler Warning 236 comments

Link (YouTube)

I can’t find it now, but somewhere in the depths of the blog archives I had a post making the case that traditional dice-based tabletop systems are actually a bad fit for action-oriented (not turn-based) videogames. That’s not to say you can’t make a good game from a tabletop ruleset, but that you can probably make something even better if you design for a videogame in the first place.

For one thing, the pacing is completely different. In a tabletop context, you roll the dice, what? Once a minute, if the fight is going smoothly and nobody at the table is dicking aroundSo, more than a minute always, then.? In a videogame you’ll have a combat round every couple of seconds or so. Those dice rolls that are so exciting with real dice are just background noise.

In a dice-based game, the designer wants to give you lots of little feats and perks and special abilities. Do a backflip to escape the fight! Grapple a foe! Throw dirt in someone’s eyes to lower their chance to hit! Spend a full round concentrating to try and break through their defenses! In a videogame, those all end up getting cut, because they’re expensive to animate. Also, your abilities hotbar would be enormous and complex. That’s fine if you’re taking turns, but completely impractical if you’re trying do do anything real-time.

At the table, your eyes are focused on the character sheet. You’re aware when those numbers go up or down and you can follow how they impact the game. Getting de-buffed by an enemy is a big deal and getting a combat bonus from an item feels tangible because you get to add that +1 every single time your turn comes around. If you roll a 12 and think you missed, but then remember the +1 hat you just put onA to-hit bonus on a hat? Just go with it., and that bonus turns your attack into a hit, then you immediately feel the benefit of that item. In a videogame, all that messy math is handled by the computer and your eyes are focused on the gameworld and not the numbers. You might not even notice you’ve been de-buffed unless you see the small icon in the corner, and even then you’re not really aware of how badly or for how long unless you pause the game and familiarize yourself with the stats. You won’t notice bonuses until they’re extreme enough that they end fights a couple of combat rounds sooner.

Videogames are way more combat heavy and light on roleplaying. It might be fun to cast your buffs on your party members at the start of the fight at the table, but in a game it ends up being something you have to cast again and again, turning it into a repetitive chore.

Basically, tabletop games and videogames are completely different ways of playing a game, with completely different needs, expectations, pacing, focus, strengths, interfaces, and which demand completely different things from the player. Any system tailored for one will be a frustrating compromise for the other. And that’s assuming you’re familiar with the rules. If you’re not a tabletop player, then these games are just gibberish. If you’ve never played D&D before, than you have no idea how significant a +1 bonus is.

On top of all this, KOTOR had the additional challenge of adapting a system designed for swords & sorcery to a world of blaster rifles and hand grenades. I think BioWare did an admirable job of making it work, but there are still a lot of messy seams.

I’m glad we moved away from these awkward adaptations. I can only imagine how intolerable Mass Effect would have been if they’d decided to build it on D&D 3.5, or GURPS.

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Mass Effect Retrospective 11: Ilos

By Shamus   Aug 27, 2015   Mass Effect 150 comments

Now we have a big block of cutscenes to try and wrangle this open, player-directed adventure into a conventional three-act story structure. Shepard has the fight with Saren, Kashley snuffs it, and the Normandy flies away from Saren’s base as the whole thing goes nuclear.

Assuming you’ve visited all the planets now, you do one final mind-meld with Liara, and the vision reveals that the conduit is on the planet Ilos.

Race Against Time


Annoyingly, you’re locked into the endgame here. When you interact with the starmap the game simply triggers a cutscene taking you back to the Citadel. On one hand, we’ve just gone through a big emotional turning point and it would make no sense at all to suck the tension out of the story by wandering around the galaxy. On the other hand… BUT WHAT ABOUT MY SIIIIIIIIIDE QUESTS?

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Knights of the Old Republic EP1: Knights of the Dumb Questions

By Shamus   Aug 26, 2015   Spoiler Warning 320 comments

Link (YouTube)

Warning: We average about ten inflammatory / controversial assertions a minute for the first few minutes of this video. So expect broad statements about the BioWare catalog, Star Wars, D&D editions, and the historical importance of this game. Try not to freak out.

To be clear: I kind of overstated the importance of this game in making me an RPG fan. I was indeed a shooter guy in the 90’s. But I was also really into System Shock and Deus Ex, which I think qualify as RPGs, even though I didn’t think of them that way at the time. I just thought of them as “interesting shooters”. Ultimately I think it was the one-two-punch of KOTOR and Morrowind that made me realize that RPGs were my jam. This is why I never played Baulder’s Gate or Ultima. They pre-date my interest in RPGs, and I was never able to get into them retroactively.

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