“Domestication”, Bethesda, and the Elder Scrolls

Just to flip things around from that critical link I did to Nightmare Mode earlier, here’s a really good piece by Fernando Cordeiro about how games have become “domesticated”.

Now, games are domesticated. Not only have we grown familiar to their bizarre lexicon (cracked walls were meant to be exploded) but we always have the information of what to do and where to go directly at our fingertips, sometimes even before we have any real use for such information.  As a result, games have become to-do lists. The contemporary quintessential videogame is nothing but a laundry list of things to do in order to get the 100% complete rate. What used to be surprises to be found became mere tasks to be fulfilled: “Defeat Riddler”; “Stop the bomb”; “Find 35 pieces of arrows”; “Help the villagers”; “Become the master of fighter’s guild”.

The more domesticated games are even worse. These games not only list what you have to do, but also how you should do it. The block you need to ground pound has the “ground pound” symbol on it. After pounding it, the game camera zooms in on whatever change that last action created so you know exactly where to go next. More “complex” puzzles will merely increase the string of activities you must complete before reaching that treasure chest. In which probably lies the exact thing your goal statement said you needed! Aren’t you lucky? Don’t you feel happy, boy? Now you can beat the level’s boss in a fashion almost exactly like the one we will now explain via this super tutorial sequence! Isn’t that nice, boy? Who’s a good boy? WHOSAGOODBOY?? You are!

We now take this for granted. We expect our games to have mini-maps to pin point exactly where we should be heading next, as if my medieval hero had a smartphone with him. It’s either that of that looming golden arrow that acts like Jack Sparrow’s magical compass on the top of the screen. After getting the treasure, we expect to see our progress rate increase in 1%. That way we can measure exactly where we are and have a notion of how much I need before completing the game.

In the world I’m from, this is called a project management tool.

(Not that the other piece wasn’t good…I just disagreed. Utterly different thing.) 

I absolutely agree with Cordeiro on this change. It’s not something that you need to go back to Mario or Zelda for, though. I’m seeing it right now with my Elder Scrolls playthroughs. Both Arena and Daggerfall are unforgiving right off the bat. Arena’s the older game, but Daggerfall is arguably even worse; that first dungeon is an absolute killer, and there’s little opportunity to level up against easy rats in Daggerfall like there is in Arena. The dungeon design in Daggerfall arguably makes it even worse; levels are big, three-dimensional, and impossible to keep track of with the mapping system provided.

All that’s assuming you can even get past the character creator, though. There’s no guarantee of that. Daggerfall’s character creation process is immensely complex. You aren’t just creating characters; in order to be optimal, you’re creating a class, and class creation in Daggerfall involves blizzards of statistics and floods of abilities. Worse yet, you don’t know which of the abilities are any good; a lot of them are really marginal, and some are outright useless.

If you DO get through all this? If you DO get out of that first dungeon in Daggerfall? Guess what? You’re out in the world! You don’t know what’s going on. You barely know where to go. You’re beyond intimidated by a landmass that’s the size of Great Britain. (No. Really. Daggerfall’s the largest gameworld ever made.) The only thing you know to do is go to Daggerfall. But if you do that, the ghosts haunting its streets will likely straight-up kill you.

Compare that to Skyrim. It starts without any character creation whatsoever, with a cart ride that deliberately obscures your identity and looks in order to ease players in. Character creation happens at a logical place in the game, and basically comes down to aesthetics (with ample presets) and race selection. The stats and skills are whittled down to a few key choices, and you have no way of changing them at character creation. They will change, but only through your actions during the game; it’s about building a class through revealed preferences, instead of making players declare their preferences.

That first part of Skyrim? Instead of a grueling struggle to get out of dungeon, like in Arena or Daggerfall, you’re taken through the sort of roller-coaster ride that you get in pretty much all modern games, where you SEEM like you’re in deadly danger, but you really aren’t. Once you get to the tunnels out of the city, it’s a bit more like Daggerfall, but you aren’t alone, the opponents aren’t difficult, and the caverns’ organization is easy to follow—and once you get out, you’re immediately taken to a nearby village, easing you into the gameworld by giving you a small area to call “home” until you’re ready to venture forth.

Skyrim’s even got those little directional pointers.

So, yeah. Fernando’s right. Things have changed. Wild imagery aside, the Elder Scrolls are domesticated. In the case of Skyrim vs. Daggerfall, I’m not yet convinced that it isn’t a bad thing. Daggerfall’s a hard one to get into, far more intimidating and punishing than Arena was. But there is a part of me that is a little sad that that sense of “oh, God, what do I do now?” is lost.

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