05 December 2011

Review: Skyrim (PC) - Style and difficulty


My other post dealt with things about Skyrim that are bad as a consequence of it being a console port, but there are things about Skyrim that bother me besides those.

Gray on gray, all day

I really don't like Skyrim. The setting, not the game. It's gray as fuck. Everything is gray to begin with- the terrain is either white snow, gray rock, bluish-grayish water reflecting a perpetually overcast white sky, or dun grass. The mountains are all grey and white. The cities I visited all seem to be made of gray stones and grayish brown wood, except Riften, which is just completely brown. The people are dressed in gray furs and gray armors. The barrows are gray. The forts are gray. The caves are gray.

It's just difficult to convey how soul-crushingly desaturated the game is. I could show you screenshots, but it really wouldn't get across the experience of seeing a million different scenes and landscapes, all drawn with dust on rock tablets. I wonder if it's possible to come up with a rendering algorithm that performs better for very sparse palettes... Maybe at least you could squeeze some extra FPS out of this nonsense that way.

I don't know why they did this. I mean, perhaps the landscape being gray is realistic. I'm not even gonna go into the silliness of ultra-realistic graphics in a game that has gypsy anthropomorphic cats killing dragons by literally yelling flames and lightning at them (yeah, the game isn't all bad). But did the trees have to be gray? Did everyone's skin have to look like cadavers in a fluorescent-lit morgue, even by torchlight? I haven't invested the time into making a Skyrim/real life tundra photograph comparison yet, but I have this uncomfortable suspicion that Skyrim will actually turn out to be less saturated!

But like I said, it's not about realism. You know how on some days, rain clouds just cover the sky and make everything look so glum that you take one look outside and immediately regret ever getting out of bed that day? That's what playing Skyrim feels like! I thought games were supposed to make you feel happy, not suicidal.

Useless Skills

On a more serious note, Skyrim shares this leveling mechanic that TES games have, where instead of leveling by killing things, you level by increasing your skills, which in turn increase through use. Enemies scale according to your level. It's a lovely system- except the way it works in Skyrim can be quite troublesome.

With my first character, what fights I had before coming to Whiterun, the first big hub city, were extremely easy (as I complained in my previous Skyrim post). As a result, I decided to improve my crafting and thievery skills a lot, and got to level 15 or so with crap combat skills. Big mistake. When I finally started to work on clearing the various nearby dungeons, encounters became extremely difficult unless I chugged potions by the dozen.

I eventually made a new character and actively tried to get to about level 15 without improving any non-combat skills, and it's a fairly easy game so far. I do occasionally die, but often due to the interface and controls more than anything else. Anyway, leveling is largely determined by your highest skills, so I should be able to safely get my "useless" crafting skills and what not to catch up now.

The thing I don't like is, it really doesn't make much sense for non-combat skills to be treated as equivalent to combat skills, especially when the game is mostly about combat. You basically end up with a game where, unless you jump through various hoops, you are penalized for not focusing on a combat related skill. This isn't exclusive to the TES leveling system- games where you get XP from killing enemies, and distribute points at each level-up, also do this: They force you to choose between skills which open up certain optional gameplay elements like crafting or extra quests through persuasion, and being effective in combat.

Balance-wise, this is nonsense. I suspect the idea of valuing non-combat skills as much as combat skills came from the same place most RPG conventions came from- pen and paper RPGs. When you are playing DnD, having a high Diplomacy score is just as useful as having a high melee attack bonus (although even DnD sees it fit to separate combat and non-combat skills, actually). This is because there is no limit on the actions you can take- when you are attacked by bandits, trying to fast talk your way out of the situation doesn't suddenly require the GM to produce 10 time as much code for this 5 minute encounter. When you need to kill a dragon in DnD, you can realistically attempt to talk a local company of mercenaries into helping you, and not have to deal with the clumsy problem of having 150 allies fighting on your side and responding to your commands in a first person RPG.

Making "wimpy" skills like persuasion, pickpocket, sneak, knowledge, and so on effective alternatives to combat exponentially increases the code you need to write, but it makes no difference for PnP games where you make everything up on the spot anyway. The way these skills are balanced for PnP play is simply not applicable to software RPGs. It is perfectly viable for me to train nothing but two-handed fighting and beat the game like that. But the very idea of beating Skyrim with 100 speech and nothing else is hilariously impossible. In fact, speech barely makes a difference in how easy the game is- there are obviously side quests where it is relevant, but the advantages are trivial. You can almost never avoid fighting tough bosses with speech, for example. And yet, increasing either skill will result in equally powerful enemies.

More practically, suppose one character has 100 in two-handed fighting and heavy armor, and whatever score he started with in all other skills. Now, suppose another one which is the same, except he also trained speech to 100. The second character will get much more difficult encounters than the first. Why? He is no more powerful than the first, because you can't persuade hostiles in this game. He will have slightly more money, because of better merchant prices, and those few extra coins from using persuade to ask for a better reward after the occasional quest. It won't really be that much money though, and money is almost always trivial to acquire in Skyrim, even without using exploits and cheap tricks.

So why even bother with Speech, if it's so useless? Well, because it opens up fun dialogue options sometimes, and if you're that type, it lets you play an eloquent or tactless character and have the world react to that, even if in an ultimately useless, purely cosmetic way. With the crafting skills it's the same- oh sure making the best armor early on would give you an advantage, but then you could just as easily steal or buy good armor. It's doing nothing for balance, but it is effectively forcing me to ignore the many different crafting ingredients and recipes it has.

I don't understand the logic behind this. Why punish me for not ignoring half of the game's features? If you didn't want me to craft, you could have saved yourselves some time and not added crafting at all, devs.

The solution is obviously very simple. Supporting skills should be weighted, and shouldn't contribute to leveling as much. Morrowind already had a system that while not perfect, worked wonderfully- if you think a skill is useless you would leave it as a misc skill, and it would not contribute to your level progress

The same for perks- combat and non-combat perks should really be bought with points from separate pools. The whole idea of competition between content and ease of play is probably coming from the same kind of thinking that brings us gems like "now finish the game using nothing except the shitty starting weapon for a bonus level!" Why is it that I have to prove myself worthy to have something I already bloody paid for? Fuck off, game. If I want a tougher challenge, I'll just up your difficulty slider!

Rubber-band difficulty

I don't like, this rubber-band business in general, either. Fundamentally, it's like running on a treadmill- no matter how much faster you run, you will still be in the same place, so why bother running at all?

It has been said that RPGs are basically games about making numbers increase. To be more precise, there should also be many numbers, and each should require distinct, bizarrely unique methods to increase. If you can come up with subtle, complicated inter-relationships between different numbers, even better! This is what makes up the heart of a fun RPG (though perhaps not, mind, an action-RPG).

Usually, these numbers are measured relative to the game world. "It used to take me 5 hits to kill a diseased goblin scout, but after leveling and getting better gear, I can kill the same goblin scout in 2 hits!" That's why these things are fun- it's the sense of progress as you successfully navigate the game's mathematical labyrinth. But when the game is designed so that it always generates a goblin with enough health for 3 of your hits, you've just taken away the thing that made it fun!

Perhaps you are thinking, "but that's stupid! If not for level scaling, you'd keep running into dungeons which are too hard for you, or too easy!". Well, for one, this happens anyway. As I said, if you decide to try some fun but useless skills like speech, pickpocket or alchemy all dungeons will be too hard, and if you make a boring barbarian axe swinger robot all of them will be too easy.

But even if we disregard that, what is the problem, exactly? So you walk in a dungeon and get your ass kicked. You just run away, do some other stuff until your skills and equipment are better, and then return for revenge. Hell, with an open-world, non-linear game like Skyrim this really works- there are so many quests that you wouldn't ever have to just grind random encounters. I mean, doing that is fun! It actually feels like you're accomplishing something, what's more, you get the nice feeling of "getting back" at the game for that "unfair" dungeon it gave you. It also naturally divides the world into areas which are associated with different stages of the game. Consequently, more of your choices matter- now doing quests in a bad order can make your life quite difficult (and short).

Note that, I said quests, not cities. It seems a lot of games without rubber-band difficulty get that wrong- they make some cities just generally higher level than others. Of course, when you have the super-power empire's capital patrolled by level 5 guards in wooden armor because you start there, while the rebel camp that supposedly stands no chance has level 80 guys with game breaking items strolling around, things get a bit silly... But whoever said all the high level areas must be geographically clustered?

I mean, it's okay if there's a level-50 dungeon right next to the starting town. I'll go in there once, get killed, and resolve to come back much later to see what's inside. Since dungeons have icons on the map anyway, you could give them a color based on how far above or below your level they are, to save the player some tedious bookkeeping. Honestly, it seems to me like that would be a much more interesting, fun game. In fact, not everything is scaled- giants and mammoths for instance have a fairly high minimum level, and after accidentally getting roughed up by a giant at some point I can't wait until I'm powerful enough to take on them. That kind of thing is fun, its dramatic, it makes for a nice adventure- and perplexingly, in Skyrim it's the exception and not the norm.

1 comment:

  1. I somewhat agree from where you're coming from, but I fucking love this game and am proud of the two hundred plus hours I have devoted. What I like about Skyrim is that you don't choose at the beginning weather you're an archer or a two-handed specialist and that's what you are for the rest of the game. In my first character I started out as a full on mage type, but now all I ever do is archery because it's fun. And that's the key word isn't it? Fun? If someone is having fun with a game then that means that said game was successful. I only play on xbox but that's because I have only recently become more involved with PC gaming, and am deciding to sell my xbox and buy a PC mainly for Skyrim pretty much haha I just love this game :)