Monday, November 14, 2016

A Werwolfe Curled up on the Fireplace Rug

I can't hate Skyrim. It did some things amazingly well like the landscape, beautifully modeled with both secretive nooks and glorious vistas. However, after seeing Oblivion's alarming decrease in nerdiness, I did give Skyrim a pass in favor of artsier fare until just last year, when my fears and suspicions were more or less confirmed. It's a game marketed to idiots, oversimplified and handing the player undeserved pats on the back at every turn, lacking any sense of scale or proportion but riddled with idiotic Hollywood envy like the bullet-time kill camera. It whipped you onwards with giant map markers so as not to overtax your presumed low gamer IQ with demands of planning or foresight. More so than Oblivion it crammed the repetitive MMO grind down your throat with every area respawning mobs almost as soon as you leave it. It pretty much removed any meaningful resource management, with so many freebies lying around that your only worry is being able to carry everything you find. Every single NPC and faction in Skyrim will gladly let you rob them blind as soon as you declare yourself their friend.

Still, I can't entirely hate Skyrim. Despite its deliberate simplicity and redundancy, that insane pile of money thrown into its development yielded a great many serene, captivating hours wandering the snowy slopes of here and there, picking berries and catching fireflies. Paradoxically, a much better designed game recently drove me to fire up my old Argonian character in Skyrim. For all I enjoyed Pillars of Eternity, it did suffer from some glaring half-implemented features cut short during development and though the spell / ability system's shortcomings had a more negative impact on actual gameplay, I can't help but shed a tear for Caed Nua, PoE's woefully lackluster attempt at a home base. You build one-click simplistic upgrades which serve no purpose and offer little to no eye-candy either: dining rooms in which you never dine, libraries which hold no books, defensive walls awaiting raids which never arrive. Caed Nua never feels like home.

(The Endless Paths of Od Nua on the other hand were freaking brilliant but that's a topic for another day.)

So PoE inadvertently made me fire up Skyrim again, not for the game itself but for its Hearthfire expansion. Welcome home.
After a hard day's looting, a lycanthropic lizardman accompanied by his vampiric witch sidekick and trusty divine hound climb into the southwestern foothills of The Pale to a stately mansion still bearing the signs of ongoing construction. Welcome to Heljarchen Hall. Come in, come in (wipe your feet) and lemme introduce ya to tha missus.
If she minds me adventuring all over the map with a smokin' hot vamp in tow she's never complained. Good sport, old Brelyna, and hey, it's not like I ask what she gets up to with my stout gravely-voiced male servants while I'm gone. Why, yes, of course we have kids - two orphans adopted and spoiled rotten with sweets and dollies and expensive clothes and their own allowance and, errr... and blood-soaked ceremonial sacrifice daggers, which apparently count as children's presents for some strange reason.
Then again daddy's a snarling moon-beast so y'know what, go nuts kid, go sacrifice your pet bunny to a demon prince or something. But hey, the aesthetics alone wouldn't have made me love this place so much. It's rather bland for my tastes. I would've rather dug a rotting dank lair into the ground and filled it with zombies and wild beasts if I'd had the choice, but the most you can get out of Skyrim's options seems to be generic Sims-ish homeyness. Well, okay, my tendencies nonetheless assert themselves - I refuse to put in any lighting in my basement aside from the pale red glow from my forge, though unfortunately I've yet to find a way to fill it with cadavers.

The best part is that you actually build the damn place. You buy a plot of land and buy lumber and have it shipped there and dig for clay and collect all sorts of resources like glass and straw to build each upgrade. Simpleminded and linear it may be, like the rest of Skyrim, but the Hearthfire expansion makes you work for it and that's very important to build a player's sense of attachment to one's base of operations. Even more important, it's functional.
That's my greenhouse. I mostly grow poison and wheat (I'd combine the two but ergotism never made it into the alchemical system) and as the stuff grows it attracts butterflies and bees as well. Whoever masterminded the Hearthfire expansion had an excellent mind for detail and went just one step further with every facet of the place. If you build a kitchen it comes with a functional oven for cooking. You decorate the walls with trophies from the battlefield. Your family sits down for breakfast at the big table in the central room. Your servants defend your home from attacks by wild creatures. Last but not least, these homes are... let's say "situated" - no mere "third house on the left" they occupy distinctive locations, carefully landscaped in keeping with the Elder Scrolls series' brilliant mapmaking in general.
You can spot the hill with your house from half a map away. Your eyes turn homewards from distant mountain peaks. It's "on your way" to here and there, and always so tempting to stop off for a homecooked meal and a little bricolage, maybe pursue your alchemical research in the peace and comfort of your own abode built with your own two hands. Skyrim bores me. I hate all the myriad quest markers ordering me mindlessly in some direction or another. The Hearthfire expansion, however, has beckoned me back several times. Banal and mostly linear, still a functional, self-built home lends a center and a sense of purpose and progression to your wanderings which the idiotic level-grind utterly lacks. I'm always going to dungeons from my house and returning to my house with presents and dreams of renovation and expansion.

Don't underestimate the importance of making the player work for and be rewarded by a base of operations. Hearthfire by itself has more than doubled my Skyrim play-time.

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