Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Shifting Demographic: Because It's There on Your Silver Platter

"And when we have the kids we'll tell them to remind we
Of where we were and how so we never get lazy"

Emeli Sande - Mountains

This is a great view. Given a bit of context, it's also emblematic of the game industry's decline in quality over the past two decades. It's from Skyrim, as any player who's played Skyrim will easily tell you, and I do mean any and every player who's played Skyrim. There's the rub.

The previous two Elder Scrolls games also provided the player with sweeping fantasy-world vistas, Oblivion especially earning a great deal of praise for the views from the mountains above the town of Bruma, encompassing all of Cyrodiil. We are after all talking about video games and visuals have always been the main boundary for developers to push, whether through new technology or artistic panache or (very rarely) both. Even the first game I played, Dune, was lauded for its lavishly pixelated 2D desert sunsets.

By the late '90s Morrowind was 3D and became famous for exploiting three-dimensionality to its fullest, not only through the (for the time) lush visuals in the player's immediate vicinity but for allowing the player to choose his vicinity. The sights you saw were a function of the sites you decided to see to. Explore dwarven or demonic ruins, big cities or untamed wildernesses, uphill or downhill, caves or peaks, rooftops or sewers, it was adventure a la carte. Exploration. Remember that word?

The Elder Scrolls series made its name via its relatively freeform nature. Anyplace might be worth visiting. You followed verbal directions (reading! what a chore, amirite, Generation Facebook?) to some minor location or another which was rumored to house something interesting... and it just might. That little door in the side of a hill might lead you to a ghost story, a magic sword or the last living dwarf, or the hill itself might give you the best view of Tel Aruhn. Up to you to find out.

Several years later Oblivion played up its technological advantage pushing the world fog out past the horizon, allowing the player to view nearly the entire game map from a few choice locations, by actually sending you up into the mountains through the main quest... but that location was not the only one with a good view. Peaks rose above it, with a minor pilgrim's path connected by bridges leading to a minor Daedric quest, and arguably the best vantage point in the game was to the east, the stuff of mere rumors bandied about town, a precipice marked only by a tent and a depressing journal.

The view of Skyrim which started this post is the view of Skyrim. There's a mountain in the middle of the game and the 3D map makes it rather obvious that this is the highest vantage point available providing a 360 view of the world. Had they left it at that it may have been a laudable optional objective, an obvious challenge for any explorer, an Everest to climb simply because it's there. The pioneering spirit, however, is nowhere to be found in modern big-budget video games, either on the developer or the customer side. The mindless rabble demand their stupidity be rewarded and endorphin-pushers are only too happy to provide undeserved validation. As with the overdone introduction and slaying a dragon before you're even out of diapers, this is just one more gimmie.

You're sent up the mountain by the third quest in the main plotline, just like that. Just like that, there's even a conveniently terraced highway leading right to the top, complete with tourist markers. It's Goblin Mountain all over again. What's worse, the top of the mountain, the top of the top of the highest point in the game, is also barred by your progression through the main quest, following the operant conditioning nightmare so entrenched by WoW-clone and Steam achievement mechanics: every reward is tied into obediently following linear instructions and new rewards are constantly dangled before you, contingent on following a longer but no less linear path.

Players are now too stupid to find their own objectives, too insecure to find they've missed something, too shortsighted to make plans, too narrowminded for a sense of perspective. Choice and challenge are dirty words.

Morrowind was not actually the most freeform game out there but it did sufficiently embody the concept to serve as a point of reference for the distinction between theme park and sandbox for much of the RPG / MMO fanbase. So even though I already knew The Elder Scrolls Online was a shameless WoW-clone, it's still sad to see that even its immediate predecessor had already given up the ghost, given in to the current dogma of market control. Skyrim is bearable, but given the series' constant decline I will not be buying The Elder Scrolls 6. So where to now?

"You say we're going to move somewhere with neighbours less crazy
You know I'm going to be there 'cause I trust my baby"

Mount & Blade 2 cannot arrive quickly enough, and I hope it has mountains.

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