I’ve just had two unexpected snow days, which has finally given me the time needed to finish the “main quest” of Skyrim. I thought I’d write a little bit about how video games (at least roleplaying game video games) have evolved since I was younger.
The biggest thing that exists now (at least in video games – it always existed on paper) that didn’t exist back then (late 80’s) is the “open-world” concept. The first video RPG I really played and enjoyed was Phantasy Star (the first in a series of four games from Sega). I played this on my 8-bit Sega Master System. That game included three different planets, three different kinds of transportation besides walking, a set of mythological companion characters, and a Star Wars-esque plot which involved avenging Alis’s (the main character) brother’s death against the evil empire of Lassic. That game had what felt to me at the time like a very compelling storyline. But it was compelling in two senses: you were engrossed in the story, but also could not deviate from it. Sure, you could do irrelevant things like defeat random enemies just for the sake of gaining gold, but you had to complete a finite number of quests in a precise order. There weren’t even multiple ways to achieve those same ends. Each quest led to another, in direct succession. Another distinctive quality was its mazes (dungeons, towers, caves). There was no “automapping” function – you had to map them out on paper. And you really had to because they were very symmetrical and confusing. You couldn’t just work it out in your head (at least I couldn’t). I loved that game, and played it through many times. Same with each of its successors, which were each very good games (I think Phantasy Star II is the consensus “best” game).
Anyway, fast-forward to the present. A few years ago I started playing Fallout 3. Back in the 80’s, on my friend’s Apple IIe I had played an earlier version of this (“Wasteland”). Between Fallout 3 and Skyrim, I also played Fallout: New Vegas.
All three of these games are made by the same company (more or less) and they all represent a vast improvement w/r/t graphics and sound vis-a-vis Phantasy Star. It’s no wonder: today’s computers and video game consoles have pretty much literally million of times the processing power and storage space to work with. But these games are fundamentally different from Phantasy Star in another way as well – they’re “open-world” games. There is a linear set of quests which you can complete, and thereby “win” the game, but there is a much larger, non-linear set of other stuff you can do to win smaller victories along the way. You can probably “win” each of these games and only uncover around 25% of what’s there to explore. There are also add-ons that expand the game even further, and amateur mods that tweak your in-game experience in many ways.
One thing that’s missing, that was present in the Phantasy Star experience, though: actual mazes. The games all have automapping, so you never have to remember anything. It’s all on screen, and most of the dungeons are fairly linear and straightforward, even if the plot as a whole is not. In fact, perhaps because the plots are so large and multi-faceted, those are “mapped” too, through a quest “journal.” It basically tells you what to do step by step, and remembers for you. In all three games, the journal/inventory/map apparatus bears a suspicious resemblance in functionality to a smartphone. I’ve wondered what it would be like to play them without those things. I think you can get mods that do that for you.
Perhaps as a child of the 80’s video game world, I’m still very uneasy with the whole open-world thing. I find I have a set of built-in rule-following reflexes that amount to a sort of plot-driven OCD. I find myself worried over and over again that I need to do the “right” thing, and also get a bit overwhelmed with all the side-quests and options. I am always striving for completeness, something that is probably impossible to achieve in these games. Also, I have some trouble accepting the moral ambiguity that’s built into the plots. Often, major plot points turn on your decision to be a “good guy” or a “bad guy.” That’s not how games worked back in the 80’s either. If you did the “bad” thing you ended up dead – or worse – the game literally wouldn’t let you do bad things. You’d try to attack a town guard and automatically find yourself in “jail” two seconds later. Or, the guard wouldn’t even be the sort of “person” you could attack (the Ultima games had some notable exceptions to this though). In Phantasy Star, all you could do with the guards in your home down is get them to say “You cannot pass.” In Fallout 3, you can destroy what’s basically your home down with a nuclear weapon and kill all its inhabitants if you so choose.
Of these three games, I liked Fallout 3 the most. This may be owing to my age: at this point in life, I’m much more taken in by games with interesting, creative and funny worlds than I am by games with vast technical possibilities. By these standards, Fallout 3 has an incredible world to explore. It’s set in Washington DC and environs, years after a nuclear conflict has destroyed 90% of civilization. Most people still alive live either in underground “vaults” or live a much less secure existence in the abandoned husks of towns and buildings of DC and suburbs. And Washington DC has been rendered (for the most part) through very creative and realistic revisionings of the capital and its most widely recognized landmarks, just post-bomb. Another conceit that the game’s artists really use to their advantage is the idea that the civilization in which the nuclear war happened was a ersatz-50’s paradise. So you get this very strange mixture of the 50’s and what the 50’s most feared – nuclear holocaust. That juxtaposition allows for some genuinely enthralling experiences, over and above all the shooting, looting, armoring and bartering (more or less norms for all RPG’s anyhow). There is even – dare I say – a sophisticated politics to the game, at least sophisticated by the standards of a basically thoughtless-neocon war simulation industry. I sort of want to go back and re-play this game now that I’m typing about it. I played the “good guy” most of the way through, but there are other choices I could have made, and those lead to other storylines. There are also lots of random quests I didn’t quite finish out.
Fallout: New Vegas is much of the same, except this time set in Las Vegas, not DC. In the game’s world Las Vegas and its surrounding area suffered less severe devastation than DC, and so the radioactivity/desolation thing is a bit less important. It makes some technical improvements to the game’s main engine, mostly having to do with ammunition and weapon customization. I didn’t find myself quite as drawn in by this one. It felt more limited in scope, and less creative in implementation. That said, I could probably still get a lot more out of it. At some point I decided to make a bee-line through the main quests, something I didn’t need to have done.
Both the Fallout games have incredible soundtracks that weave together the 20’s/30’s (think Boardwalk Empire) for Fallout 3 and old-west/Vegas showtunes for Fallout New Vegas. There’s a radio you can leave running that has multiple channels, or you can just listen to the silence of the wastes, which has its own charms.
Skyrim is the largest, by far, of these three games. Its world has six major cities, each with their own distinctive politics, appearance and personality. There is also a fast wilderness between all of these cities, and rather than being set in the post-apocalyptic near future, it’s set in the mythic Tolkienesque/AD&D/Game-of-Thrones past. This is a game in the “Elder Scrolls” series, and I’ve never played any of the other, so my apologies if that conflation of worlds doesn’t do justice to what’s original here. That said, I didn’t find nearly as much was original here. It felt like unreconstructed sword-and-sorcery roleplaying. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just, I never really experienced anything drastically different from what I had experienced in less open-world, less graphically enhanced role-playing in the past. The game also seemed fundamentally to lack a sense of humor (except for in-jokes about the Elder Scrolls world I didn’t really get). Where Fallout 3 had some really novel content to draw inspiration from, Skyrim really didn’t. Every character is a recognized video-game archetype – or maybe better – stereotype. Nothing unexpected ever really happens. If you tried to make the original Bard’s Tale game today, and had a whole bunch of money to hire people and make really cool graphics and had the time to make it an open-world game, this is about what you’d get.
Maybe I just like sci-fi better than fantasy. Either way, over the last five years I’ve put hundreds of hours into both of them.