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A call to return to player-driven games

I was going to write a piece on 'my ideal game' that segued a smooth back and forth transition with 'how games are taking control away from the player' but the more I started scribbling points on the latter, the more I realised it warranted a full article in itself. I'm afraid you'll have to wait for a future time to hear the exciting nuances of my ideal game, if you're really really interested. Meanwhile I'm going to rant about consoles and dumbing-down and publishers and other things that make me huff and puff (no, not that).

One of my favourite ever games is Morrowind. I compare every other RPG ever released to Morrowind. One of the reasons I like it so much is that it allows for so much depth - but only if you want it. There's more lore presented in that game that you can shake a very sizeable stick at, but it's presented in such a way that you can take it or leave it. This is enabled by the interface design. When you speak to a character in Morrowind, you get a huge unwieldly pop-up box with paragraphs of dialogue and a long list of conversation topics down one side that grows longer as you unlock new dialogue points-of-interest. You can read them all, if you like, but you don't have to. The size of the box, and the fact that it's all presented in text and not voiceover, meant that Bethesda could really really flesh out the world and present it to the player without worrying about voice artist costs and an end-game filesize made ginormous by a bazillion audio files.

Morrowind's Interface

While voice acting is sometimes a nice touch in videogames, it's seldom done so well that you pause mid-play and think, 'wow',they really did a great job with the line delivery here'; more often than not it's 'wow, that's some really crappy acting'. Deciding to put voice acting in a game means a higher production cost and a larger end file size - and THAT means less dialogue overall. Far less dialogue than if everything were presented in written format. It's a method to increase immersion that often ends up doing the exact opposite, and detracts from the player's experience. There IS voice acting in Morrowind, of course - the NPCs make passing remarks; guards remind you to keep your hands to yourselves, Dunmer mutter insults at you in their own tongue (You n'wah!) - they're small snippets of conversation, but they make the world feel alive and dynamic around you. It's a good alternative to voicing every line of dialogue - a 'best of both worlds', having a text system for presenting the lore and hefty conversations but still having little snippets of voice acting to add to the immersion of the world.

In Morrowind, you can drink a potion that increases your alchemy skill, make an improved potion of alchemy skill, drink it, make an even better alchemy potion, drink it, and so on indefinitely. There's no cap. You can do this with enchanting until you've got boots of constant perma-effect levitation and just fly around the world. You can wear a left steel gauntlet with a right cloth mitten with a left chitin shoulderpad and a right Dwemer pauldron. You can kill essential quest NPCs - it warns you, in case you want to load a save game, but it doens't stop you. In Morrowind, the Khajiit and Argonians have paws and claws and can't wear boots or gloves because the people who played games when Morrowind released cared about immersion and publishers didn't think things like 'ooh that's not human enough, it's too weird, make them more human'. Morrowind is a weird world and for TES fans, it's almost always the favourite of the series.

Before and After of Oblivion's UI

Morrowind was Bethesda's first big X-Box release and the console version was pretty much identical to the PC version, which I guess didn't work out too well for controller users and Bethesda knew something had to change for their next release. For Oblivion, it seems they turned a full 180 for the 360 (hahahah I so funny) and gave a full console-friendly UI that the PC port also got and had to live with. One of the first mods that came out for Oblivion on the PC was a mod that un-console-ified the interface. This was The Beginning Of The End as far as I'm concerned - when dev studios started prioritising console builds and fobbing off the PC gamers as secondary. I can understand it from a hardware perspective - PCs were way ahead of the 360s hardware even close to the 360s release - and I can *kinda* understand not wanting to spend time and money on making two interfaces when one will do, but still, giving PC gamers a console port is like giving us second-hand merchandise.


In Oblivion, your gloves come in unmixable pairs. You can't layer clothing, like wearing a skirt over greaves or a robe over your chestpiece (as you could in Morrowind). Khajiit and Argonians have 'human' hands and feet and are able to wear gloves and boots. Alchemy shows you only what you CAN make with what you have, where in Morrowind you had to know what you were doing to mix potions. Oblivion introduces map travel. In Morrowind, there were RP-friendly modes of transportation like silt striders and boats, and though they took you instantly to your destination, you had to pay. In Oblivion you click an icon on the map and you go there instantly (though in-game time passes) and for free.

These changes were all, presumably, to cater to the console generation - to simplify gameplay for easy controller use. Please don't think I'm on some anti-console-gaming rant (or even an anti-TES rant; TES and I have a deep and passionate relationship; nobody has a love like ours). Consoles are awesome for bringing quick, convenient gaming to households worldwide. You don't have to bother (mostly) with compatability or bugs or mods or anything beyond just gaming, and that's a wonderful thing. But the console gaming industry has, unfortunately, made devs and publishers LOSE THEIR GOD DAMN MINDS when it comes to PC releases.


Neverwinter Nights

When I was about sixteen I discovered Dungeons and Dragons and my life became suddenly enriched with fantasy worlds I'd never known existed. I was an elf fighter and had a magical longbow that was +4 against everything but +6 against orcs. I got so immersed that I started learning Quenyan Elven (from the Tolkien universe) and at one point I was conversational in it (yes, I'm the worst kind of nerdygeek and I'm damned proud of it thank you very much). It took me about six games to get to grips with THAC0 and that was in ADnD 1st and 2nd edition - I later tried 3.5 and my head exploded. I lived for stat-based combat and skill checks. Then I found Ice Wind Dale, Baldurs Gate, Neverwinter Nights. I'd always played through the locations in the Forgotten Realms as text-based adventures in chat rooms, so being able to guide a party entirely of my making through visual representations of these worlds was a dream come true. The amount of customisation these classic RPGs offer is immense; change your character's gender, hair, skin, clothes, colours, skills, stats, traits - everything. Micro-manage when they attack, what they attack, how they attack.

You can imagine my disappointment that so many games released these days fall WAY short of what used to be. I have one character, very often male. I get no say in how he looks or sounds, his preferred method of fighting is predetermined (if I'm lucky, I can choose between stealth or head-on combat), I can only talk to story-specific NPCs, my gear comes in full sets. As a player, I'm no longer playing an active part in the telling of a story, I'm not living the adventure - I'm a bystander watching events unfold. I'm reading a book or watching a movie, clicking a button to pull the trigger of a predesignated weapon at a predesignated moment.

On the one hand, this is okay for games that are telling a very specific, liner story where things happen just-so and never change from playthrough to playthrough. On the other hand, I have different fingers. From my perspective it seems that more and more games are adopting this approach with consistently less games offering customisation of character, choice of gameplay style and ability to micro-manage.

Flemeth01 copy.jpg

Remember what happened when Dragon Age: Origins was received by us gamers as OMG THE BEST THING EVER CAN'T WAIT FOR DA2 PLEASE MAKE IT HAPPEN SOON I NEED IT NAO!!! And then DA2 came out and it was like 'Eh... what? What did you do? Where did Dragon Age go? What happened?' Here's what happened - they took our control away (RPS did a good article on What Went Wrong). Instead of having a big world to travel through with an (albeit somewhat limited) choice in where to go and when, we were given a very linear path that hopped systematically from 'talky talky story bits' to 'fighty fighty poke wif mah sword' bits. It went from an immersive, enthralling new world to a boring generic hack-n-slash and the overall concensus was that it fell way, WAY short of the first game's magnificence.

Oblivion regressed further from Morrowind with the release of Skyrim. Horrible, horrible menu if you've played it on PC. Just horrible. Armour even more set-ified, restrictions on what enchants you can use on what items and even some items you can't enchant at all. Chains and barriers and invisible walls painted with 'sorry, that's not in your best interests so we've decided you can't do it'. Hey, devs, is this a game or a monologue? If I want to kill the quest NPC then by jove I should be able to kill the ruddy quest NPC. Maybe he looked at me funny. Maybe I decided he just didn't get to live any more. But that's MY choice. I'm a grown-up, I'm perfectly capable of deciding when I want to stick with the main plot and when I want to deviate off on a wild sidequest of my own making to see if I can find a path over that unpathable mountain and where it will take me.

TESV 2011-11-14 13-15-11-02.jpg
Skyrim's Epic Fail UI

I like micro-management. I like tweaking the bejesus out of my characters. I like big huge text boxes with tonnes and tonnes of writing in that I can read if I feel like it or skip if I don't. I like feeling like I'm an active participant in a world, and not that I'm controlling a dummy through a routine sequence.

So why, I hear you ask, don't I just play those kinds of games instead?

Aye, there's the rub - for in for in that sleep of death, what dreams may come when we have - oops, I accidentally Shakespeare.

There's the rub - publishers just aren't publishing those games. The dev studios who like making them are turning to crowdfunding because they can't get interest from big publishers. Which is weird, because the studios crowdfunding these games have been hugely successful (Project Eternity from Obsidian, HareBrained Schemes with Shadowrun Returns, InXile with Wasteland 2, Larian Studios and Divinity Original Sin, Torment:Tides of Numenera from InXile again) - so successful that a few of them broke Kickstarter records.

Every single game I'm excited about right now is a Kickstarter. All of those games are bringing control back to the player. Giving us back our choices, our freedom to explore, our ability to kill the bleedin' quest NPCs if we want to. We're not being guided with kid gloves through an extravagently detailed and lovingly presented museum exhibit where we can look but can't touch - we're being given our playgrounds back where we can run riot and throw sand in the NPCs eyes.

Divinity: Original Sin

It's my hope that the blatant successes of these kickstarters will change the minds of marketers with regards to 'what sells' and 'what players want'. If developers can make more player-driven games with the confidence that they won't struggle for funding or publishing, we'll be in for a fantastic gaming future.

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