Monday, November 26, 2012

Skyrim: Does size matter . . . or perception?

When I reviewed the original Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic about a year ago, I described it as a game that relied on the player's either willingness or ability to suspend disbelief. I didn't really elaborate on that point, but I think it touched upon something worth thinking about. To me, the visual environments of KOTOR offered a poor abstraction of the Star Wars universe. Hence, they did a poor job conveying the sense of intergalactic, space-opera adventure they were intended to convey.

Part of the problem, I think, had to do with the Star Wars universe itself, too much a product of 1970s visual effects technology—awesome for its time, no doubt, but stifling perhaps as an aesthetic influence decades later. Drab spaceship corridors and flat desert expanses don't necessarily make for very engaging experiences when translated to the interactive medium of video game level design. The other part of the problem, of course, was the limited graphical rendering capabilities of 2003 game console hardware. It just never felt like I was exploring a living, breathing planet or space station when I moved around the 3D space. I was too fully aware of the environments as individual maps, separated not by geography but by programmed loading screens.

If The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is any indication, we've come a long way baby. I don't mean to compare apples to oranges here. I'm actually not trying to compare the two games at all. What I am saying, however, is that since first playing this game a couple weeks ago (a bit late, I know), I've never encountered a virtual environment so visually and technologically ambitious.

For those not versed in video game culture, the aesthetic style of The Elder Scrolls series is of the high fantasy variety that regards elves, trolls, and magic swords as the stuff of commonplace. If first we had J.R.R. Tolkein literature, compounded by Dungeons & Dragons role-playing, further compounded by The Legend of Zelda plus two-and-a-half decades of technological innovation, then today we have Skyrim. It's an open-world game in the truest sense of the word. In other words, there is no distinction between background art and foreground art, only a matter of simulated distance and perspective. Those distant mountains aren't just two-dimensional decorations. They represent a physical geography that you as a player are free to explore and traverse, provided you can find a path that isn't too steep for your character to climb.

The name Skyrim actually refers to the fictional region in which the game is set. Bounded by ocean and mountains, the interior landscape encompasses all manner of open valleys, craggy peaks, forests, swamps, and rivers. Skyrim is not the first open-world game. It's not the first and probably will not be the last game to wow me with its incredible scope and detail. That said, the detail in these environments astounds me. It's not just the millions of polygons that comprise both the macro and micro landscape. It's not just the beautiful HD textures that adorn those polygonal surfaces. It's in the sculpting of the geography itself, with its convincing shifts in elevation and assorted placement of boulders and vegetation. Never has a fantasy universe, in and of itself, felt so convincing. Never have I succumbed to such a grand illusion.

An Epic of Ant-Sized Proportions

Out of curiosity, I tried Google searching for an answer to how large is—in relative scale—the over world map of Skyrim. I couldn't find any kind of definitive answer, but some people were saying that the game world was roughly equivalent to the size of the game's predecessor Oblivion, and that game world was supposedly about 16 square miles. Unfortunately, I don't have any data or confirmation to really back that up, but it strikes me as a believable guesstimate. And all in all, I'd say that's a pretty impressive accomplishment, to be able to create such a enormous environment of such detail and inherent authenticity.

Oddly enough, however, I get the feeling that the game is intending to convey a world much larger than it realistically appears. How big is Skyrim supposed to feel? The size of England? The size of France? The size of Rhode Island? I really don't know. But the sheer amount of lore embedded throughout the world and its own implied grandeur—I'm talking annuls of wars and conquests—would seem laughably constricted to a mere 16 square miles. At one point while playing I ran down from an isolated monastery near the top of one of the game's tallest “mountains,” and it took me little more than a minute to get to its base, across a valley, and through the gates of a village called Whiterun. One of the reasons this Olympic-style feat was possible is due to how fast your character can sprint—straight down the side of a sheer mountain, no less. It's almost as if there's an invisible treadmill underneath my feet. But I think it's also because the game world is really not as epic in scale as it leads me to believe. In fact, I think very few game environments are actually as large as implied (Hyrule, Liberty City, etc.).

This isn't in any way a criticism. If anything, it's a testament to a game's capable art direction. The view from a 32-inch widescreen television screen is just not the same as observing the world with full peripheral advantage, and I get the impression my brain is blowing up all that virtual space to a magnified scope. What would this environment actually look like if I were able to inhabit it as a real space, I wonder?

Let's Make This Real

The first time I saw The Legend of Zelda—though it would be a long time before I played it myself—I looked on with a sense of wonder. Those simple graphics (combined with that iconic chip-tune melody) evoked a sense of adventure much larger in spirit and meaning than was contained in the individual parts themselves. I haven't played a new Zelda game since a little bit of Twilight Princess on the Wii, but it's interesting to see how Nintendo has reinterpreted the essence of that series using present-day hardware and technology. It's almost like they took those early abstractions as the real deal, and they've maintained the series as more of a brand than anything else. I do think that Ocarina of Time took the series an incredible step into the third dimension (I'm probably in the camp that ranks it as one of the greatest games of all time), and I'm sure the newest Zelda adventures make for great games as well.

But to me, it's almost as if Skyrim is a more authentic spiritual successor than anything Nintendo will probably ever put out again. It's a game more in keeping with the promises that the original Zelda made to video games as an expressive medium. While I find it hard to evaluate Skyrim for the actual game that it is (there's a lot more to talk about), as an experiment of pure immersion, it's like entering a whole new Hyrule—a vast over world with unlimited secrets and dungeons to explore. At the very least, it's as if someone took the original Zelda (itself a bit of a high fantasy adventure, by way of Japan) and decided to evolve the game's core aesthetic in the direction of photorealism (and now I realize that the first time I talked about Skyrim it had to do with photorealistic violence).

For good, bad, or for neutral, the need for suspending disbelief is becoming continually less of an issue.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

State of the Blog Address

I started this blog a year ago as an outlet for writing, a way to justify my time spent playing video games. I didn't know exactly what topics I would cover—old games, new games, game topics—or what form the writing would take. So far there have been some game “reviews” (although I use the term very loosely), some game-related “essays” (again), and even some attempts at creative nonfiction (emphasis on the “creative”). I guess I've laid out a few ideas that I'm happy about. Maybe.

Overall, I still feel very far from my goal, a bit like Socrates via Plato: “I know one thing, that I know nothing.” Games are an interesting beast, and there are so many ways to approach thinking about them that it can be difficult sometimes to know where to start.

One way to start would be to examine the unique experience of play. And when I say “unique” I don't mean different or unusual, which is not what the word means (seriously, “unique” is one of the most abused words in modern writing). I mean it in the truest sense of the word—as in literally one-of-a-kind. All games rely on a certain amount of variable input and internal randomness as part of their very design. It's part of what makes a game a game. An easy example of this would be an Elder Scrolls game, in which each individual's playing experience is going to be determined by their own meandering path through the sprawling virtual world. More importantly, different people can have different reactions to the same games, partly because of the game's own built-in variability, but also because folks are just plain wired differently and will react to virtually anything uniquely. Needless to say, there can be value in documenting one's personal experience with a game—the emotions invoked or memories recalled. It just takes a skilled writer to make it worth reading.

The second fundamental way to approach a game is through an examination of the game itself—its systems, mechanics, and overall design. How do a game's rules make for an interesting, provocative, or otherwise worthwhile playing experience? This kind of writing requires a perceptive mind, probably some familiarity with games, as well as writing skill.

Now that I've said all of that, you can probably forget everything I've just said. It's not like I really think about these things when I'm choosing something to write about. As much as I would like to be able to find my niche or area of expertise in this wide world of critical discussion, I simply don't have one. My approach is more of the shotgun variety—scattered, frantic, reactionary, imprecise.

I find it's still much easier to play games than it is to write about them. In fact, it's not so much that there is too much to write—because there is—but there is absolutely too much to play! Just offhand I can think of about 15 games I've played over the course of the last year that I haven't gotten around to posting about (a couple of those games I have tried to write about (frantically, imprecisely, etc.) but gave up on them when nothing was working). It pains me to leave them behind, because I genuinely feel that they all merit discussion. It's just a matter of finding the right angle, also a matter of finding the energy and inspiration.

This has got to be the most fascinating time to be player of games, and I'm not sure if I was aware of it a year ago. We have a multibillion dollar industry that is simultaneously dying and flourishing. Even as games make a shitload of money, that revenue is problematically concentrated in sequels and mega-popular franchises (the “blockbusters” of video games). Is there any room for risk or experimentation when, for each game, there are millions of investment dollars—not to mention jobs and livelihoods—at stake? There are untold fortunes to be made through mobile and social gaming, but has it become too saturated of a market for newcomers to make their mark, let alone an income?

Gaming platforms are changing. Games distribution methods are changing. Even the funding models for games are changing. Developers are developing on console platforms that are almost seven years old—a technological eternity!—precisely because there is so much uncertainty and so many unanswered questions. What will happen to Nintendo with the launch of this bizarre new console of theirs?

And just as the major publishers may be on the brink of implosion, more people are making video games than ever before (I don't have empirical proof of this on hand, but I suspect it to be true). The realm of independent game development is becoming just as vibrant and exciting as in the film and music industries. Go check out the Independent Games Festival website and just pore through the  titles that have been developed over the last decade. See how polished they have become. You might be amazed. People who grew up playing video games are gravitating to the medium to make their own games. Why? Because it's still fertile ground! It's become a much more accessible thing to do. There are so many different ideas that have yet to be tested, so many subtle variations of ideas that have the potential to change the entire landscape of games. Through small, independent games, developers have a better chance of making an actual authorial statement.

Unfortunately, I know more about the current games industry through gaming blogs and proverbial window shopping than through actual play. I have a stupidly hard time bringing myself to start new games. I think I take games too seriously. I don't want to go into things half-assed. I want to be sure that when I begin something I can give it my full attention.

It's my own fault, but I think it's partially a reaction I have to the way I see media being consumed in today's day and age. We live in such a hyperactive culture, in which our collective attention span has been reduced to the click of a hyperlink. Exposition has been reduced to an infinite stream of 140-character sound bytes. Games, music, media, and technology—it flows by on a high-speed, one-way conveyor belt. As soon as we pick something up new we're distracted by the next shiny thing whizzing by. I don't want to give anything up. And so it collects and builds up, all these forgotten treasures and junk. Try as I might to inventory it, I know it will never all get done.

Thus far I've really only given myself one rule for this blog, and that is to post something at least once every month. On more than one occasion, it's come down to the last day to get something out the door. It's not my favorite work, but it at least keeps things moving. Tonight I'm giving myself a deadline to post on the anniversary date of my first post, so I can look back evaluate my first year, generate new goals for the future. I can't say for sure how long I'll end up maintaining this particular blog, or whether or not I will continue my minimum monthly quota. But I'll try.