On Perceptions and Oblivion

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I don’t know if we’ve ever seen a more ambitious early-generation title than The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.  By that time, especially following up on the critical and commercial hit Morrowind, the whole Elder Scrolls series was known for two thing; giant, expansive open worlds absolutely full of stuff to do, and not actually having any elder scrolls in the game.  Oblivion carried out all expectations of the former with aplomb, but shockingly, broke drastically with series tradition on the latter.  The gall of these folks.  But, when you’re leading a new generation, sometimes you have to move past your limits.

Perhaps as a result of being perhaps the most ambitious early-generation title in history, I don’t know of a game that’s aged so drastically and instantly as The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.  Although a multi-console release, it was developed around the Xbox 360 architecture from it’s nascent days, releasing a mere four months after the system did.  It’s scenery looked lovely, but its characters, looked……..

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Yeah.  Visually, even the best parts of it, most of the launch titles available at the time well outpaced it.  They were new at incorporating voice acting into a game this size, which led to a lot of awkwardness both as it meant the characters had a lot less to say than they used to, and oddly, everyone sounded so much the same as all characters of the same race and gender were played by the same actor.  DLC was a new thing, and this game was obviously experimenting with the market for that, mixing both the instant-joke expensive but useless horse armor with the could-absolutely-be-it’s-own-game bargain Shivering Isles expansion.  And they had tried to correct some problems of the old games that didn’t really need to be corrected, leading to a lot of clumsily-implemented features, such as the counter-intuitive leveling system that quickly became infamous.

Thing is, the presentation may not be much, but the foundation of the game is very solid.  The Elder Scrolls have always been at their best making you buy into the world, at feeling like it was a living, breathing thing that you were truly a part of.  At its best, the Elder Scrolls would make you forget about this dumb meaty world where all your problems are and get you believing in this place where adventuring rules the day and people will regularly hire warriors to collect the laundry they lost at the end of a monster infested cave.  It really excelled at that.  The engine may have been hopelessly glitchy and the quest streams may be endless, yet they did serve the immersive experience this game really drove.

What’s really strange to me, though, is just how much my perceptions of this game have been driving by the video games environment I played it during.  Usually I’m well able to isolate things, and just enjoy them on their own merit, but not so much this game.  I remember playing it shortly after Morrowind.  Back then, I experienced the game as a definite step forward in terms of engine, a game that was more directly interactive and less reliant on behind-the-scenes dice rolls and bore a lot more quality of life features that really enhanced the experience, even as it did simplify a significant amount of the gameplay.  It was lacking character compared to its predecessor, having followed up a very alien realm by turning what was supposed to be a very Roman-inspired jungle nation into the standard fantasy thing you’ve seen over and over again, and the advent of voice acting significantly cut down on what people had to say, but it was still a really full and solid experience.  Coming back to it after Skyrim, I found the game somewhat obtuse, somewhat inelegant, and again lacking in character and depth of world in comparison, and clearly outshone in different ways by both games on either side of it, but still a very solid experience.

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And now?  Well, I enjoyed it enough to give 70 hours of my life to it, but even so, once again, I’m getting a very different perspective on it.  It’s builds its worth on the whole open world thing, of making you feel a part of this whole experience beyond just your screen, and it has a giant world of its own, so it definitely should be able to stand on its own, but I still find myself constantly and incessantly comparing it to other games.  The Elder Scrolls has become the standard in open-world design, and open world has become so in vogue right now.  Zelda does open world.  Mario does open world.  Monster Hunter does open world.  From the 2D Platformer to the 3D Platformer to the 3rd Person Shooter to the Open World game, that now seems the default for basically everything released.  And so many other games have taken and absorbed everything that once made Oblivion unique, to the point that I now have the same experience I do with so many other historically important games, the developmental milestones in the form that were once unique to this game but have proven so influential that all the ground they broke has been paved into a superhighway.  It’s interesting to see where it comes from, things have gone far beyond it now.

I think every time I’ve played this game, I’ve had a different take on it.  And when I come back some years down the road, when, at the rate things are going, everything is a Battle Royale game, I wonder if I’ll have a different take on the game then.

Playing Against Type

Bloodborne.  Lots of people call it a good game.  And they’re right.  Some people call it a great game.  I’d agree with that.  Some people call it a masterpiece.  Those people, I start wondering if they need their heads checked.

Bloodborne has a lot going for it.  It was built on top of a great, proven engine, it has a great design, its lore is steps ahead of your average game, the combat engine pushes the player’s limits in just the right ways, and so on.  But it’s also a flawed game, and it has a lot going against it that other games I would consider true masterpieces, such as its predecessor Dark Souls, deliberately and deftly avoid.  Two big things come to mind.

The first, I’m just not very good at Bloodborne.  I don’t click with the combat style.  Which is fine.  I didn’t get to where I’d actually consider myself good at Dark Souls until Artorias kicked my face in for two hours, so I think I just need a moment like that.  And everytime I look online for help, I come across a past conversation with the type of infuriating wanker that thinks there needs to be a holy war between the haves and have-nots of Bloodborne skill.  Which, really, is not a problem with the game itself, but I get to choose what I think are masterpieces, and the skill barrier disqualifies a game until I cross it.

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The second factor, I have to blame on the game.  Bloodborne’s gameplay has several mechanisms that just work counter to each other.  Bits of the design philosophy that conflict.  The most prominent is that Bloodborne requires grinding.  Specifically, it punishes you with grinding.  Your health items and one of your key defensive tools are consumable.  You use them, and they’re gone, even if you screw up and get all your progress you had used them towards erased.  Enough failed runs, and you’ll have to spend an hour’s time just farming enemies in order to build your supplies back up for another go ‘round.

Which would be a black mark on its own.  But what makes it even worse here is that Bloodborne is built around trial and error gameplay.  You are expected, almost required, to fail.  Because that’s how you grow.  Enemies are built to be too much for you at first.  Even at second.  Maybe up to fifth or beyond.  It doesn’t matter.  They only put you down so that you can get up again.  They hurt you so you get better.  As you fail, you learn their timings, you try new strategies, you find yourself moving where they’re weak, and by the time you’ve triumphed, you have had internalized who and what they are, through your repeated trials in overcoming them.

It’s glorious.  It’s one of the things that make so much of From Software’s recent output so great.  But it’s made so, so much weaker by the fact that you are punished for it.  The game requires you to learn from failure in order to succeed, but if you fail, it will take away from your experience.  The game abuses you for playing as it intends.

Thing is, having some mechanics push in one direction and other mechanics pushing you back is totally common thing in games.  In fact, to some extent, games are built on it.  The later Persona games created their whole time management gameplay by matching their mechanics encouraging you to take as much outside-dungeon activity as possible with mechanics limiting the amount you got to do.  Resident Evil 4 was all about deftly navigating hordes of enemies as you cut them down, yet would constantly limit your ability to do so by locking you into a vehicle or situation that restricted your movement.  Fire Emblem is focused on utilizing the near complete availability of information to build completely safe and defensive strategies, yet still left the unpredictable elements of critical hits and enemy reinforcements in there.  And they’re all great games.  In fact, the counter-productive elements add to the experience.  So why is it that it works here, but not in Bloodborne?

A lot of it lies in the nature of how these counterproductive elements are used.  In all those good examples?  The interworkings were set in place to provide limits.  To place challenges to overcome.  Games require rules and boundaries, and those elements were how the designers set those in place.  They gave you something to work around.  Providing new gameplay, even if, the way I explained it, it seems they should take away.

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Bloodborne’s grinding requirements?  Along with stuff like Dark Cloud’s fragile freakin’ weapons when the game requires you to be grinding them down?  Like Skies of Arcadia promoting exploration when the game has a monstrous random encounter rate?  Like Final Fantasy 2 requiring you to enter doors, yet more often than not sticking you in a stupid monster closet whenever you did so?  Those are all mechanisms of punishment.

Failure needs to have consequence, or so goes a common set of game design knowledge.  Thing is, games don’t exist in meatspace.  They can’t reach out of the screen and slap you when you screw up.  Yet.  I call dibs on the patent.  In fact, game designers don’t have a whole lot of torque over players in the real world.  So, for punishment, they use one of the few things they do have power over.  They punish you by wasting your time.  They remove the progress or resources you’ve already bought with your time.  Or, as in Bloodborne’s case, they make you spend more time before you get to the stuff you want to play.

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It’s not a good system.  Wasting your time is one of the biggest sins a game can commit.  There’s a reason why gaming has largely been moving away from this method of punishment, or, at least, limiting its impact, as the medium has developed.  And yet, we still see it pop up.  And it’s never to the game’s favor.  The sparse placement of checkpoints and the long walks after failure was one of the few black spots on an otherwise gleaming game in Dark Souls, and that, combined with the time required to grind up to recover from your losses, is one of the biggest weights dragging Bloodborne down.

It does lead to a more old-school feel, which is what I believe the Soul series is going for, but unfortunately, it does so without adding to the experience.  It’s better than a lot of other applications, such as the Do It Again, Stupid style gameplay I’ve been running into all over the PS2 era lately.  But I do feel that this is misused.

So how would I overcome this without changing this feature of the gameplay?  Try and make more use of it to add to it.  Bloodborne’s a bit more straight-lined than Dark Souls, but mayhaps this would lead to an opportunity to expand upon the rails.  Have one area give you a certain type of resource as a common drop, another area give you another, both needed to get through.  So, if you’re having a lot of difficulty with one place, the game guides you towards the section that carries the resource you’re lacking, so you still make progress there, while taking a break so you can get back to your trouble spot with a fresh mindset.

Then again, that doesn’t really fit in with the philosophy of the souls series.  But then again, neither does making endless runs through areas you’ve already got down pat just to get yourself back to a state where you can try the area that’s giving you trouble once more.  In any case, the counter elements should be posed more as limitations or as obstacles to be overcome, rather than as punishments, in order to lead to greater gameplay.  If Bloodborne implemented a more complex system of resource management, or a better way of recovering your supplies than mindless repetition, this may be a good fit.  As is, it only hurts the game, and it’s largely because of the way it’s posed rather than anything else.