I’ve talked about how Skyrim‘s context is frequently inappropriate or poorly constructed, but it must be said that much of the gameplay was built not to rely on it. One of Skyrim‘s most marketed features during previews and early coverage was its “radiant quests,” alternatives to necessarily finite handmade quests.
The idea was that in addition to questlines with unique storylines, voice acting, items, and triggers–quests that required direct and deliberate placement by a developer–it’d be nice to have some NPCs and factions that could generate new ones forever. Obviously these “new” quests follow specific formulae–go somewhere and kill bandits, steal something and bring it back, punch somebody until he surrenders–but the player would never end up exactly repeating themselves, always killing a different bandit in a different fort or punching a different townsperson for a different duration. It was a pretty appealing idea–and the marketing materials knew it. Radiant quests were featured in dozens of early previews as the next grand experiment, the newest and boldest innovation of the franchise.
If you’ve been reading this series, you might recognize radiant quests as “every quest in Daggerfall.”
There’s no meaningful difference between the new “radiant” (?) stuff and the old procedurally generated Daggerfall errands except that Skyrim‘s quests are more fun to play. Having randomly created tasks fill out the game isn’t a next-gen innovation made possible by technology and a limitless budget, it’s a well-explored paradigm that was neglected for two whole releases in a five-game series. It’s not forging a new frontier, it’s a trip back to your old college town.
The question is: did the development team know that? How you answer is how you see modern Bethesda.
By far the more positive assumption is that they did know. They felt the need to provide more new content in Skyrim and weren’t afraid to draw on past experiments to make it happen. They knew this wasn’t something brand new and crazy–it as tested and it worked– but they also knew that not even journalists would know that and that they might as well market it as a total upset. This Bethesda is a shrewd company that knows innovation depends on the data and experiences of the past, and that the age of an idea should not preclude its revival.
Or they didn’t know. The fresh crop of developers who hadn’t played Daggerfall or hadn’t thought about it lately had to re-invent something they were doing twenty years ago and marketed it, sincerely, as a fresh triumph. This thought is a little depressing; this is a company that’s only aware of what it’s most recently done and what it’s currently doing, a company that’s likely to make mistakes and get trapped in poisonous loops.
It’s impossible to say which, if either, is the real Bethesda. For the record I’d say Skyrim feels more like the former Bethesda and Fallout 4 more like the latter–but I’m not about to get into that right now.
Having said all that, Skyrim‘s procedurally generated content surpasses Daggerfall‘s, and that’s not just a factor of budget and engine. It is a bit, but only indirectly. The key feature damning Daggerfall is its scope: its procedurally generated dungeons are patently unreal, poorly laid out, endless, and unamusing to delve. Its towns and NPCs are wholly lifeless–absolutely interchangeable to the point where a modern Bethesda wouldn’t dignify them with proper names–as pregnant with motivating and intriguing context as a blast of static. Skyrim‘s dungeons might not be genius and its NPCs may or may engage the player–or might engage in the worst way possible–but they provide appropriate grounds for killing, stealing, and object retrieval. As fun and uncomplicated diversions, they’re exactly what they’re supposed to be.
And that really is what Skyrim is supposed to be.
|Remember this screenshot of me killing bandits? Here’s the same screenshot. Because I’m still killing bandits.|
Skyrim embraces the idea that however many quest they can write, however much context they generate, the experience of playing an Elder Scrolls game–and the player’s memory of that experience–comes down not to the game’s text but its silences. I love Morrowind for its story and culture more than anything else, but when I think back on it I don’t remember conversations with Vivec or time spent reading Almsivi propaganda–I remember my footsteps on a dirt road, cliff racers circling over a mud flat, torches flickering around the corner of a smuggler’s grotto. More than even those, I remember the sound of a weapon swinging and the bizarre crunch made by a hit. And the combat is Morrowind‘s weakest feature; it was just also, unavoidably (without completely sundering the genre), the medium through which you experienced most of its world.
Every game acknowledged the primacy of dungeon crawling and exploration and every game did its best to make it rewarding. Morrowind did so by putting good and often unique treasure into its dungeons, the bribery route. Oblivion mixed up its dungeon types and added unique features to each, such as special kinds of treasure, locks, and traps found only in certain tilesets–the exploration route. Both good ideas; both insufficient. At the end of the day Morrowind‘s dungeons were septic ennui labyrinths roamed by tedious combats and Oblivion‘s dungeons were insulting yarn-and-lockpick warehouses staffed by tedious combats.
|Found another one!|
Skyrim was a first. It did something they hadn’t ever done right and had actually messed up pretty badly for the past three games: it made combat feel good.
Daggerfall took Arena‘s functional-but-unimpressive fighting and made it inexplicably cumbersome. Morrowind asked players to hit targets successfully so they could discover if they hit a target successfully and did so years after that made sense. Oblivion had a lot of really great ideas and techniques and ruined them by handing everyone boffers.
Skyrim is just right. Fighting sounds good, looks good, and plays well. A double-handed axe kills a bandit in a chop to the head or two, not–as it felt in Oblivion–seventeen thousand enchanted precision hammerblows. A sneak attack is more likely to end a fight than start one. Part of this feeling diminishes as the game goes on, and I wouldn’t say any of the combat was too easy, but the key is that I always felt like I was powerful–and that was a new feeling when it really shouldn’t have been.
|This might be a different dungeon and a different bandit. There’s really no way to know for sure.|
But I might have felt differently if I’d played a mage. Combat spells in Skyrim are weak, but at least they look and sound good. I was always disappointed by Oblivion‘s fuzzy blobby portrayal of everything except lightning–spells in this game, on the other hand, really look like the element they’re trying to evoke, making you feel more like you’re a sorcerer and less like you’re learning to use Corel Photo/Paint in 2005. And there’s even a few new utility spells–a welcome addition, considering the trend thus far had been to cull as many interesting options as possible. If the next game released and fire spells were replaced with three new non-combat spell types, I’d call that a win.
Starcraft: Bot Fight
Let's do some scripting to make the Starcraft AI fight itself, and see how smart it is. Or isn't.
The Best of 2016
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2016.
Crash Dot Com
Back in 1999, I rode the dot-com bubble. Got rich. Worked hard. Went crazy. Turned poor. It was fun.
Skyrim Thieves Guild
The Thieves Guild quest in Skyrim is a vortex of disjointed plot-holes, contrivances, and nonsense.
Artless in Alderaan
People were so worried about the boring gameplay of The Old Republic they overlooked just how boring and amateur the art is.