Attention To Detail
It has been almost exactly a year since Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was released. As of the writing of this article, I have invested 1,760 hours of my life playing that game. It is without question the single most-played game of my long gaming life. Have I been playing it so much because it is a GREAT game? I used to think so, but as with most things, “familiarity breeds contempt”. My excessive exposure to the game has revealed to me its true face, “warts and all”. It’s a good game, for sure. Otherwise I wouldn’t still be playing it so much one year later. But it could be so much, much better.
In thinking about how to improve the game, I have come to realize that I wasn’t thinking of just how to improve Skyrim, but computer RPGs in general. In short, how to take a Good computer RPG and improve it. And mostly along the lines of NOT making any major Earth-shaking overhauls, but rather tweaks to foundation details in the building of the game. Thinking along those lines, I’ve come to realize that there is a LOT of little changes that the developers frequently overlook. More than I could comfortably address in a single article anyway. So this will be the first installment of, WHAT THE WALRUS SAID. As in, “The time has come,” the Walrus said, “to speak of many things. Of sailing ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings.” First up on the agenda:
Of Men, Demigods, and Gods
There have been innumerable articles about just what a RPG really is. Most of them are about how to play a RPG “properly”. Forget about all that for a moment and consider just what it is that happens in 9 out of 10 computer RPGs: You start out with a low-level (usually 1st level) player character or team of characters. Just WHY is that? Why the low-level start? I believe it is so that it is easier for the player to identify with his character better on a one-to-one basis. This is ME that I am going to be maneuvering through the game world. It may not look like me, it may not move like me, but it is certainly going to think like me. And certainly most of what makes you identify yourself as “me” is what is going on between your ears. So, for all intents and purposes, in that game world, your character is YOU. Now take a look at your own life and your place in it. I surmise that there are damn few national Presidents, major movie stars, major league athletes, corporate CEOs, etc. playing that particular CRPG. Most of us are just “cogs in the machinery”, “little people”, “bit players ‘pon the stage of Life”, etc. But, oh how we yearn to be more! But Real Life isn’t very cooperative along those lines, and so we must seek our self-fulfillment along other lines – such as in the confines of a computer game. It is there that you can and will take a pitiful wretched minor personage and elevate him in status, wealth, and achievement. And it’s YOUR intellect coupled with his Attributes and Skills that will get you to the pinnacle of success. Which is pretty much where the developers want to put you by THE END.
Which is where they generally have got it wrong.
Unlike the Real World which simply is there, all around you, with a myriad of things happening all over the place regardless of whether you see them happening or not, game worlds MUST have absolutely every single detail deliberately put into place. Can we say, “a LOT of work”, just to fill up that world? Why use it all up in just one go? Many computer RPGs are victims of what I refer to as the “James Bond Effect”: After you’ve saved the world from total annihilation once or a half-dozen times, what do you do for an encore? Having started with an Earth-shattering threat, anything less than an even BIGGER threat feels entirely anticlimactic. Especially considering that in order to overcome the initial threat, the character has been built up to more than a giant-amongst-men. He has become soooo extraordinary, that there is literally NO ONE more powerful in the world. The proof in that pudding is that if they exist, then where are they? This, of course, makes the player feel incredibly –awesome- and the needle on the hubris meter has buried itself as far off the end of the meter as it can go. But now that the final Big Boss fight has ended and you and your character have accomplished what you set out to do, what comes next?
For all intents and purposes, it really is THE END, except for some very mundane going-through-the-motions activities that rapidly feel like they are no longer worth the effort. The usual player choice is to simply say “To hell with it” and just start a new character and start over fresh. But it actually isn’t entirely fresh. It’s like going to see a movie for the first time and having someone sitting next to you that frequently nudges you in the ribs and says, “You’re going to enjoy this next part. This is where…” And there’s nothing you can do to shut him up. Even worse from the manufacturers’ perspective, the player often chooses to completely leave the game and move on to the next latest-and-greatest game. Given how that first game ends and the character status there at THE END, it’s actually no real surprise that most RPG franchises have a difficult time maintaining player interest beyond Roman numeral III. The developer format of most long-lived CRPGs is to deliberately choose to NOT continue the character from the previous game. It may technically be the same game world that the player has become familiar with, but he will have to once again start a character from scratch. All because the developers chose to have the player’s character Save The World (or a damn good facsimile thereof), and evolve that character into a for-all-intents-and-purposes godlike being that others must climb mountains just to kiss his feet.