Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Elder Scrolls V: Dragon-Out Effect: What Bethesda and BioWare Can Learn From Each Other

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was my first experience playing an RPG. I saw the box at Gamestop and was intrigued. I liked what I saw on the back and thought it was worth a try. Then I played the beginning (keep in mind this is the first time I'm coming to an RPG after years of nothing but big name action titles) and was bored to death. I gave up after the first hour, and then I gave up again after a second attempt one year later. The graphics and combat just seemed so stale and uninteresting to me and it felt more like playing an interactive Powerpoint Presentation than a video game.

Then some more time went by and the summer laze kicked in and I decided to give it another try. I'm very thankful I made that decision. Doing so opened up a new world to me, and not just the one constructed so beautifully by Bethesda, but also the world of Role Playing Games and their various modern iterations.

The two publishers that seem to be releasing the best RPGs in video games right now are Bethesda and BioWare. Having played Morrowind, Oblivion, Fallout, KOTOR, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age I can easily say that I prefer Bethesda. Bethesda brings a level of immersion and depth to their games that I feel is lacking in BioWare's. The two companies offer different experiences and have different goals, obviously, and BioWare certainly beats Bethesda in a number of areas, but I haven't experienced quite the level of awe I have while playing one of Bethesda's adventures. Nor, on a more practical note, have I felt limited in any way or felt forced to endure an unnecessary load time or that the game world lacked life. The basic functionality, the smoothness of gameplay has always been better with Bethesda's efforts. While both companies have created worlds that stole my consciousness away for hours on end, nothing can compare with the ability to freely explore the Wasteland of Fallout and the myriad of quests available to me in Morrowind or Cyrodill and the like. These open environments and the secrets they contain and the tales they tell truly make one feel as though they are visiting another living, breathing world for a few hours, where as BioWare's recent efforts are much more contained if not contrived, environments nothing more than options in a quick-travel menu (Mass Effect 2 being the best example of this). I would much rather see a smoke stack in the distance, a mountain, or a shine and think I want to go there and then go there with no interruption in the process, except perhaps some battles that earn me my much-desired XP along the way. Bethesda's also have better inventory screens...or at least they have inventory screens.

I cannot comprehend why the omitted inventory in Mass Effect 2 is being hailed as a blessing, as playing around with my ammo type and armor is something I love in RPGs and always want access to at all times. To not have that reduces the game to a shooter with RPG elements, rather than an RPG with shooter elements. It seems to me that the BioWare team behind Mass Effect decided that the way to fix problems with the stale and repetitive planet exploration missions and the convoluted inventory of the first game was not to actually fix these issues, make cooler planets, make a better inventory, but was just to get rid of these options altogether. I suppose that does solve the problem. But is that what we actually want. Don't we want to just be able to travel to awesome planets and have them each be unique and detailed? Don't we want to be able to choose what goddamn guns we wield on the fly? Wouldn't that be a better game?

Now, one can argue, "Well that's just the way the game is" and even though that's actually not an argument, there's some truth in that. Perhaps I do just "want to play a different game and shouldn't complain", but I think anyone who played the first Mass Effect and liked it, has the right to feel a little irked when the rug they thought really tied the room together gets pulled out from under their feet. It's like giving someone vanilla ice cream when you go over to visit their house and it's the best vanilla ice cream you've ever had. So you go over their house again the next week and they tell you that they're gonna get you a bowl of the same vanilla ice cream and you get all excited. And it looks the same, until you eat it. And it's banana-flavored ice-cream. Now it may be great banana-flavored ice-cream. It may be the best damn ice-cream ever invented. But you wanted vanilla. And you were expecting vanilla because you had every right to. But now you've got a lump of banana nonsense in your mouth and you're not quite sure why. That's Mass Effect 2 for me, with it's menu screens, incessant load times, combat-heavy, inventoryless banana flavored whatnot. It's not bad. It's good...very good. It's still a helluva lot fun to talk in Mass Effect 2...more fun to do that than anything else in the game. But it doesn't let me have an inventory. So if that's something I love, if that's something I need, how can I think it's better than the first?

My preference aside, BioWare does something far better than Bethesda, and that's create compelling characters and truly emotional plot points that make a player really feel as though they are inhabiting a character and a story. I truly felt like a human ambassador on a mission to save the galaxy in Mass Effect and never, while playing any of Bethesda's game, did I ever feel that sense of importance or accomplishment. In Bethesda's world people talk to you in that somewhat stiff manner, their heads bob back and forth, and pivotal moments occur, but the character you've created and the NPCs around him always feel so very unemotional, inhuman, lacking any real importance with the actual events, and as though you are exactly what you are...a user-created XP gathering machine, nothing more. You are but an Avatar for a code created by designers and created by you, the player. You are like a sponge, sucking in data. And while some of that data is beautiful, and the lack of any real emotional connection to the actual character you play may be the thing that allows the gamer to get that much more immersed in the world itself, I can't help but feel Bethesda's sorely lacking in the way of actual emotional connection and could learn from BioWare on this particular topic.

Bethesda's strength is the world itself and the gameplay and the history of that world as well as the quests it offers. Any emotionality experienced is often not resultant from quests so much as its resultant from standing on a rock and watching the sunrise. Fallout is leaps and bounds more emotional and powerful and humane than any of their previous efforts.

But not even Liam Neeson's voice acting struck as deep a chord with me as the opening damsel in distress in Dragon Age. BioWare's strength is the emotionality of its narratives and the believability and humanity of the player's interactions with the other characters, Dragon Age being the very best example of this.

So both companies can learn a lot from each other. All Bethesda needs to do is incorporate some more convincing NPC animations, better voice-syncing, and harder-hitting emotional situations that impact the create-a-character. I do not want to play a pre-designed Shepard-like protagonist because that limits my freedom. I truly want to feel as though I'm in the world, I'm inhabiting a heroic or demonic role, and the only way to do that is to subtlety have my interactions with NPCs as detailed and real as they possibly can be, as well as presenting choices that flesh out my skill tree and make me feel as though I'm more than just a floating first person camera collecting points. Project Natal could actually help Bethesda in this way, providing a voice to the protagonist by way of the actual gamer.

BioWare, while they're able to make experiences so compelling I can often look passed dated graphics, stale environments, and frustrating invisible walls, should seriously reconsider these aspects of their games and create a completely new engine that 1) Doesn't require so many load times and 2) Provides us a game world that's as detailed and inviting to gamers as the ones Bethesda creates.

Ultimately I thank both companies for always giving us good games and hours upon hours of fun.