GWJ Conference Call Episode 267

Conference Call

Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Super Mario 3D Land, Assassin's Creed: Revelations, Civilization World, Take on Helicopters, More Skyrim, Skyrim Mods, Why Should We Care About Your Quest, Your Emails and more!

This week Allen and Rob Zacny join Shawn to talk a bunch of new games and where Skyrim falls short. Karla also hops in for a segment to talk about Zelda: Skyward Sword!

To contact us, email [email protected]! Send us your thoughts on the show, pressing issues you want to talk about or whatever else is on your mind. You can even send a 30 second audio question or comment (MP3 format please) if you're so inclined.

Sponsor

Tech Thing Daily
Game Thing Daily
Good Old Games

Zelda: Skyward Sword
Super Mario 3D Land
Assassin's Creed: Revelations
The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim
Skyrim Mod Thread
Civ World
Take on Helicopters

  • Subscribe with iTunes
  • Subscribe with RSS
  • Subscribe with Yahoo!
Download the official apps
  • Download the GWJ Conference Call app for Android
  • Download the GWJ Conference Call app for Android

Show credits

Music credits: 

Intro/Outtro Music - Ian Dorsch, Willowtree Audioworks

Menu Theme - The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword - http://zelda.com/skywardsword/ - 35:30

Explore Day 2 - The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - http://www.elderscrolls.com/skyrim/ - 47:46

Comments

psu_13 wrote:

Oh, so they put in the pointless main plot to make the game sell better even though everyone knows you don't buy a Bethesda game for the pointless main plot?

I could buy that.

Or more to the point that some of the things that aren't done quite right could be done better if they didn't feel restricted by having to put in a main plot. i.e. The mere existence of a main plot creates some AI and system issues. I think that's what Wordsmythe was saying.

Just listening to this episode now, and I wanted to clarify that bandits to go raiding. I have encountered bandits attacking people, wolves and even once they were fighting a dragon when I showed up along the trail.

DSGamer wrote:

(pun intended)

Good. Goooood.

DSGamer wrote:
psu_13 wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:

Limitations are understandable when we look at a game as a product. Limitations of production don't really enter into looking at a game as a creative work.

I don't understand what this statement means. Is there really a class of creative work that is not subject to any sort of limiting constraint whatsoever?

I *think* what wordsmythe is saying is that there is a difference between what can be accomplished in a product vs. a creative work. That Bethesda wouldn't be encumbered (pun intended) by these limitations if they simply tried to create something interesting as opposed to something that would sell. Imagine a Skyrim with hundreds of random things to do in a world, systems interacting and no main storyline. I think that's a game I'd be more interested in playing.

That's not exactly what I was getting at. If we're looking at Skyrim as a commercial product of a commercial entity, then it may be worth talking about the restrictions inherent in the production of the product. Even academically, there's merit in looking at how a medieval document was restrained by the limited methods of duplication and the relative expense of material to write on. I find platform studies to be a useful contribution to the games studies conversation in a similar way. It's useful context, but it can ultimately fail to address the work in question, relegating it to status as an artifact, meaningful only in terms of that context.

But if we're talking about Skyrim as a creative work, then talking about the ways that the creation was hindered isn't germaine. It's interesting to think about how Paradise Lost was entirely dictated and edited from memory, or how Renaissance painters were restricted in that they didn't have access to artificial pigments we use today, but if we're talking about the work itself, then I would much rather talk about the book, the painting, or the game itself.

wordsmythe wrote:

Limitations are understandable when we look at a game as a product. Limitations of production don't really enter into looking at a game as a creative work.

First off let me say I very much enjoy this discussion. The concerns brought up on the podcast (and this discussion) are certainly valid, and I think it's interesting and healthy to further discuss them. This is not a case of "you were wrong" or "that game is bad/good" etc.

I appreciate the intent behind the above quote, but I think it might be a tad too optomistic. I mean, looking at paintings done in oil on canvas, certainly "creative work", one can complain that they don't look photo-realistic and that is a limitation of the product. This is a very crude analogy, but I think the point gets across, one can't simply cherry pick the limitations that are allowed to be taken under considerations and those that aren't. I think one could make the argument, that true creativity is how one adapts to those limiations and tries to work within them, but that really isn't what we are talking about here(?).

The criticisms of Skyrim are fair, I just personally see how they may be very difficult to avoid. And as such have to be taken as an intrinsic part of the experience, and then if they are personally too unpleasant to deal with, then it comes up to a difference in taste. That's not a defense of the game, no defense is needed, it is what it is.

Specifically, one thing I see is: The main quest in Skyrim is designed as such that it MUST be able to be put on hold. A core design principle is player freedom. But true player freedom to do anything, automatically weakens the narrative. How do you design a story, with urgency, that the player can then put on hold for months. How can you possible acknowledge any of the seeminly infinite things that might have happened in between. The complexities of such a poduction quickly grow out of control. So some concessions must be made.

That isn't to say they do nothing. Just not enough. Case in point: I found a dragonstone on my own, way before I ever started the questline that involved it. When I did eventually stumble upon the quest, there was a snarky dialogue remark acknowledging such a thing, and the "incredulity" of such a "coincidence". It was nice, it made me smile, and it lets me know that the designers are not unaware of this concept. Only that they can't hope to put things like that everywhere, to deliver a completely cohesive, water tight narrative experience.

I will fully admit that if you aren't willing to explore the world, and just want a compelling narrative driven experience, then this likely isn't the game for you. I see it less as a failing of the game, and more of an issue of taste. Ie. some people don't like 2d fighters, and so don't play them. Due to the nature of the design and the unfortunate constrainsts of modern development, I see these sorts of "ideals" as largely mutually exclusive. And so I can't fault the game of that. There is no fault really, not with the game nor the player.

It again comes down to the idea that: it's ok to not like a game, it doesn't mean it's not good. (Again, that's not to say bad games don't exist, heh). I would enjoy crime thriller novels much more if they were funnier, and had more romance in them. But I realize that isn't what they are about, and would make them into something different (romantic comedy?), and so I recognize that it's my personal taste being a factor. Games obviously are inherently more complicated entities, it's not so cut and dry as that distinction, but we should at least open ourselves up to the idea.

I spent close to 200hrs in Oblivion, with many playthroughs, never getting more than a handful of legs into the "main quest". I didn't miss it, the myriad of other experiences I had were totally satisfying.

I dunno, maybe it's that games like this, become very obvious they are games. When trying to "simulate" reality, the differences and shortcomings become very apparent. I recognize the difficult and try to enjoy the successes they reach, maybe others see it only as how far short we fall each time. I play it as a game, aware of the complex systems and how they will always fall short, trying to enjoy the entertainment provided within. If it was something they could "easily fix", then fine, personally I see it as an inherent challenge to the type of game, and until there are major breakthroughs in production techniques, will largely remain.

aggies11 wrote:

This is not a case of "you were wrong" or "that game is bad/good" etc.

I'm not a big fan of that sort of talk anyway.

The issue I take with story in Bethesda's games (and it's discussed in the conference call after this one and its comments) is that the main quest and guild quests seem to hang in the air, isolated from the world and the game in a strange way. It messes with the way we've been trained to see our volition as having far-reaching effects. Every act me make as players in these games is strangely limited in scope, even if we're bringing down a dragon or closing a dimensional gate.

wordsmythe wrote:
aggies11 wrote:

This is not a case of "you were wrong" or "that game is bad/good" etc.

I'm not a big fan of that sort of talk anyway.

The issue I take with story in Bethesda's games (and it's discussed in the conference call after this one and its comments) is that the main quest and guild quests seem to hang in the air, isolated from the world and the game in a strange way. It messes with the way we've been trained to see our volition as having far-reaching effects. Every act me make as players in these games is strangely limited in scope, even if we're bringing down a dragon or closing a dimensional gate.

I see that as unavoidable though, no? Otherwise there would be events in some quests that could conflict with others. There are concessions in order to make it a fun/enjoyable game. Ie. if you get caught stealing in the thieves quest, the main quest doesn't just end because no Jarl wants anything to do with you.

If you are convicted of murder, the game doesn't end because you are hung. There is a consequence, pay some gold, but after you pay the fine things usually go back to normal. Because if they didn't then the consequences would mostly be too severe, that no one would ever bother, and then what is the point of having something in a game that no one things is fun enough to do?

It's not impossible, it's just incredibly tricky to make a completely context consistent game that doesn't follow a limited/narrow narrative. Even GTA games, which don't come close to the player freedom of Bethesda games, still have the strange contradiction of the "remorseful murder cutscene" that happens right after running down a dozen pedestrians on the road to get there, and it already being the 150th murder during the missions of the game.

So since it's largely unnavoidable, we have to take it as a given for this style of game, and so the idea of whether or not you enjoy this (and it's completely reasonable to not enjoy it) becomes an issue of taste, and not game quality.

It's easy to say "You can't fault tetris for not having a story. If you don't like puzzle games for there lack of story, that is fine, but you can't say that the genre is "bad" because of it". That example is very obvious and easy. But I *wonder* if the same isn't true for these style of games (Skyrim), that a contextually isolated story is part of the "genre", enough so that you can't criticize it.

Anyway, just my ideas. I'm not sure if you can do it any other way, and if so, then it not longer becomes an appropriate avenue for critique, outside of the issue of personal taste.

aggies11 wrote:

If you are convicted of murder, the game doesn't end because you are hung. There is a consequence, pay some gold, but after you pay the fine things usually go back to normal. Because if they didn't then the consequences would mostly be too severe, that no one would ever bother, and then what is the point of having something in a game that no one things is fun enough to do?

Because having a tangible, relevant in-game consequence for such an action might actually make the game's world seem more real?

aggies11 wrote:

It's not impossible, it's just incredibly tricky to make a completely context consistent game that doesn't follow a limited/narrow narrative. Even GTA games, which don't come close to the player freedom of Bethesda games, still have the strange contradiction of the "remorseful murder cutscene" that happens right after running down a dozen pedestrians on the road to get there, and it already being the 150th murder during the missions of the game.

I strongly disagree with this. This isn't some inescapable limitation of the open-world "genre," however we decide to arbitrarily define it.

Fallout: New Vegas had no problem at all with building an interesting, well-written main quest line that wasn't so fragile that it immediately became less impactful the very second the player decided not to pursue it. You were a courier for the Mojave Express that was robbed, shot in the head, and left for the vultures. If you wanted revenge, you could seek it...but, if you weren't interested in it, you had the whole world at your disposal, a world of fascinating characters and dangerous factions that were constantly in conflict with each other.

Since you mentioned the GTA series, you can even look at Grand Theft Auto III as a great example of how to frame a game around non-urgent storyline. In GTA III, there are no such "contradictions" because your character is a bad guy from the very start of it; the entire game is framed around your accumulation of power to pursue of getting back at the girlfriend that betrayed him at the start of the game. It's not elaborate, but it's consistent throughout the game.

It doesn't even have to be limited to revenge. Sid Meier's Pirates!, one of the oldest "open-world" games, does offer a thread of narrative in the character's search for lost family members who were lost/separated at the beginning of the game, when the character becomes an indentured servant. Again, it's not elaborate, but it's still structured in a way that it can be driven exclusively by player choice, take it or leave it.

I just don't buy it. And hand-waving away Skyrim's deficiencies as though they're somehow intrinsic to the type of world that the game is trying to create (even though they aren't) seems awfully convenient. If it's a part of the experience, then it warrants some critical analysis, whether it's a trope of the form or not.

Is it really that New Vegas is that different, though. I agree that I had none of these problems with New Vegas. Put 130 hours into it and loves it. But I sometimes wonder if that was just because Obsidian's writing is great or because I was in the mood for that game and overlooked narrative disconnects at the time.

The lack of impact in the narrative of Skyrim has many sources, IMHO, none of which are easy to escape.

1. *All* narratives in fantasy sword and sorcery settings are weighed down by the baggage of Tolkien and are inherently cliched even before they get out of the gate. Even the LOTR movies have this problem.

2. Any plot that you can just ignore at any point is, IMHO, less interesting than a plot that you can't ignore because if it were that much more interesting why would you ignore it?

3. Narrative tension in video games is a delicate thing that is hard to maintain. This is because no matter what "consequences" you put on the player as a result of his action or inaction all the player has to do to undo that consequence is reload. Recall the dozens of games that have the "you must find and hit the red button to keep the whole world from exploding" bit in them. Even a game whose narrative is as universally loved as Bioshock had an area like this.

The truth is that I really I don't need to do anything. I can just stand here and either the game will do nothing or the game will force me to reload. Either way, the call to action is easy to ignore.

What makes the Bethesda games strong is the extent to which they fill their worlds with interesting short plots to run through as you wander around. You find some small area, town, dungeon, or whatever. Learn its small secrets and do whatever tasks are available to you and then you save the game and come back for the next session. It's a great structure for a video game. And, it leads to people being engaged with the *world*, though not necessarily the "main plot", for weeks on end. If the price to pay for this is a weaker main story, then I'm not all that concerned. There are not that many good video game stories anyway.

OzymandiasAV:

Well, since you mentioned them, I've played some of GTA III and played (and am still playing!) the heck out of Sid Meier's Pirates! I don't fnd any particular narrative experience in either game particularly good - or even passable, except for the emergent one I was making by acting in the open world environment. As narrative games, they both sucked big time, IMO.

So pointing them out as examples to live up to, IMO, doesn't make sense. It's not lack of narrative power or inherent pacing or a strong single storyline that makes Skyrim sterile compared to these games, because these games were so bad at those that it couldn't possibly get worse.

Sid Meier's Pirates! I have a LOT of experience in, and I can say with absolute certainty, and all seriousness, that the narrativer power and punch of a Pirates! game is structurally and procedurally similar to the drama that occurs in a Street Fighter game. I can elaborate further if you want.

DSGamer wrote:

Is it really that New Vegas is that different, though. I agree that I had none of these problems with New Vegas. Put 130 hours into it and loves it. But I sometimes wonder if that was just because Obsidian's writing is great or because I was in the mood for that game and overlooked narrative disconnects at the time.

Personally, I think it's the writing. Between the zillions of hours I've dumped into the Fallouts, the Shin Megami Tenseis, and the Shadowruns, I don't exactly savor the idea of jumping into another post-apocalyptic or alternate-future game. Coming out of Fallout 3, I'm not sure you could have tied me down and made me play New Vegas if it wasn't created by some of the same folks that made the original Fallout.

Nor am I especially fond of open-world RPG games. I think many of them compensate for the lack of a concisely authored narrative by throwing the player into an ocean full of lore and asking them to have a nice swim. (Plus, to apply a more scientific description, the mechanics and low-level interactions of open-world RPGs tend to suck something fierce!)

And despite all of those negative pre-conceptions, it won me over. Maybe I'm just an Obsidian fanboy. (Nope, strike that - I thought Alpha Protocol was terrible, carry on.)

LarryC wrote:

Well, since you mentioned them, I've played some of GTA III and played (and am still playing!) the heck out of Sid Meier's Pirates! I don't fnd any particular narrative experience in either game particularly good - or even passable, except for the emergent one I was making by acting in the open world environment. As narrative games, they both sucked big time, IMO.

I wasn't putting those games forward as "narrative games" or any similarly limiting label - I was putting those games forward as examples of open-world games that could build a narrative that not only remained consistent with the actions you could take in the world, but also allowed many of those actions to have some bearing on that narrative if you chose to buy into it.

I'm not even saying that those games did a particularly good job in elaborating upon that narrative, though GTAIII's in-engine cutscene work and voice acting aren't exactly chopped liver. The point wasn't that the narrative that ran through these games was especially complex.

My point was that these games offer an example of how the structure, the underlying form that supports the rules that drive the experience, can allow for a consistent narrative experience.

And the common thread between all of those games is that they presented a non-urgent storyline that was more immediate in scope to the player. All of these games offer stories that let the player breathe and, by "descoping" these stories down to the personal level (rather than the regional, national, or global level as RPGs often do), they allow the myriad actions that the player can make in these worlds seem more impactful within that story.

Nobody's making an argument for Tetris or Street Fighter here because those games don't have an explicit story. (Though I would argue that their mechanics and the tension/release that emerges from the resulting dynamics allow for a ludic arc that's just as satisfying as "blunt force narrative," so to speak.)

The argument against Skyrim is that, when its lusciously designed world isn't enticing you to drink the scenery, it does have an explicit story. And that explicit story just isn't as engaging for a number of reasons, none of which have to do with the fact that it's an open-world RPG or that it's not a competitive fighting game.