Friday, August 28, 2009

Not-so-open worlds, and the Uncanny Valley

If I were to make a top 10 list of my favorite video games (which I may do in the future), The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind would easily have the top slot. The sheer amount of time I put into the game guarantees its position, but the game is nothing if not deserving.

A friend of mine described Morrowind as a "single-player MMORPG," and this is not entirely inaccurate. In fact, the game shares many similarities with MMO's, from the unrefined combat system, to the massive set of skills, to the quest-oriented gameplay, to the natural barriers. In fact, the biggest difference is the lack of other idiots. Pic related.

Few other games boast the scale and pure ambition that Morrowind represents. The world is alien, with strange creatures, buildings that are grown, not built, and giant insects used as transportation. The world had its own history and legends, if you cared to know them, and more than enough to do if you didn't. There were 3 joinable great houses, 8 joinable Imperial guilds, 3 joinable Morrowind guilds, 3 vampire factions, and a massive array of side-quests. If you wanted to do the main quest, you could, and if you didn't, no big deal.

The reason Morrowind trumps modern open-world games, is that it is truly, truly open. No other game allows the same measure of freedom. Exploration is encouraged and rewarded. You can open any door if you have the skill to do so. You can levitate over obstacles, if you have the spells or potions. You can go anywhere, and the only limiting factor is if you can survive it. You are even free to mess up and make the main quest impossible.

Ok, enough of me praising Morrowind, let's tear into some other games, namely The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Fallout 3.

Now, I'm mostly a PC gamer. I'll use consoles on occasion, but for the most part, my favorite games and my favorite kinds of games work best on the PC. PC aficionados often refer to Oblivion and Fallout 3 as being "dumbed down for the console idiots." I'm guilty of having said this. However, it's not true. May I remind everyone that Morrowind was released for the Xbox and PC, and although the interface was better on the PC, the game was the same. Oblivion and Fallout 3 were not "dumbed down for the console idiots," they were just dumbed down for idiots.

I won't attempt to identify the source of this unfortunate phenomenon, but I will point out some of its effects. The decline of adventure/puzzle games like Myst, the addition of compasses or arrows pointing to your next objective, the addition of journals and hand-holding in-game tutorials, these are just a few symptoms of this strange blight on modern gaming. And along with them comes the shredding of my beloved freedom.

It's story time. I was exploring (well, graverobbing) in the Ashlands, when I found a tomb with a 100pt. locked door. I marked the location, and ran back to Ald-ruhn and got an Open Lock 100 points spell made at the mage's guild. I had a 3% chance to succeed in casting this, because my Alteration skill was so low. Then I recalled to the tomb. After trying about 20 times, I succeeded in opening the lock, and inside, I nearly died to a clanfear and daedroth. There were some dead bodies, and another 100pt. door. Inside the door were a few more daedra, and finally, behind the last door, I found a dead guy with a note on him.

The note was to the dead man's brother, and it detailed the last hours of the man's life. The man, named Tyronius, had been a smuggler, who had been double-crossed by a necromancer, who decided he would like the payment he'd given them back. The 3 bodies I found earlier had been Tyronius' friends, and all had died to the undead creatures the necromancer called Goris had sent. The note ended with a plea for vengeance. I took the key from his lifeless body, and headed for Tel Mora, the city mentioned in the note.

After a few Silt Strider rides, I arrived in Tel Mora. I searched 3 tombs before I found the one my key fit. I drew my axe and went inside. There I found Goris the Maggot King, and Luven, one of Tyronius' dead friends, now raised and standing alongside Goris. The fight was brief and brutal. Goris began summoning bonewalkers, which I ignored. Striding past them, I smote him down with three hits from my axe. Then I turned and put Luven out of his misery. I took my prize, the Bow of Shadows from its resting place, and stepped outside, feeling accomplished.

It's important to note that Morrowind has a journal, which logs quest information so you can refer to it if you forget where you're going. Not once during this story was my journal updated with any information, and yet, it was something I felt needed to be done. When it was over, I felt that I had avenged Tyronius' death, even though I had not known him in life.

Here's the problem. I have no stories like that for Oblivion. I could rage for hours over the smaller skill set, fewer factions, etc, but the biggest problem is, in Oblivion, simple exploration is meaningless. It's nothing but grinding, pure and simple. There are no unique items, no mysteries to unravel, no lore to learn. In Oblivion, bandits are nameless bandits, necromancers are nameless necromancers, and vampires are nameless vampires. There is never a feeling that there might be a story here.

Ok, on to the Uncanny Valley. If you're not familiar with the term, it was introduced in 1970 by a Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, who hypothisized that as a robot becomes closer and closer to the likeness of a human, an almost human appearance causes a reaction of revulsion from an observer. Have a graph, lifted from Wikipedia.

Morrowind's NPC's had a few things they could say when you were near them, but all of their dialogue was in text-form. You could ask them who they were, about rumors, or local services. You could ask their opinions on factions, or other people of note. For those who can't read anything longer than the back of a cereal box, this was tedious. For the people who matter, it was great.

When I heard that Oblivion was going to be fully voiced, and that some high-profile voice actors had been hired, I thought it was fantastic. Surely this would make the world more vibrant and alive. Conversations between NPC's also sounds great on paper. Supposedly, you were supposed to pick up quest information by listening to people converse.

In practice, however, neither of these things work. At all. It seems that Bethesda hired one voice actor per race, and each character responds exactly the same way to any given question, so that a beggar and a noble have the same thing to say, in the same voice, about the same topic. Furthermore, the characters don't...move. They stand stiffly upright, look you dead in the eye, and refuse to gesticulate any sort of emotion. It's creepy. Here's an example. The first video is one I just made, of a beggar in the Imperial city. The second is from a game called Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, released almost 2 years before Oblivion. The difference is astounding.

On to Fallout 3. It was an improvement in many ways. I enjoyed it immensely, and still do. The weird thing is, It uses the same engine as Oblivion, and suffers from many of the same problems. Animations are unnatural, the pathing is terrible, and the nameless raiders and mercs still evoke no emotion.

What Bethesda managed to do is put some of the fun back into exploring. Finding out that the raiders in Springvale school were trying to tunnel into vault 101, or that one of the vault's experiments was trying to make artists and musicians into killers, actually makes you want to look around, to just wander the wastelands.

But the biggest thing that made exploring fun was the connection the player feels to the world, and this was something completely absent in Oblivion. The connection is apparent as soon as the player exits the vault where he grew up, and can see a destroyed world, with the spire of the Washington monument in the distance. But it's not just a destroyed world, it's your destroyed world. The sight of the Washington monument, this instantly recognizable landmark, instantly establishes a bond with the ravaged landscape.

But of course, both of them suffer from "Oh, sorry, even though you have maxed out your lockpick skill, you can't go in here because this is a magical quest door!" syndrome. Oh well.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Summer Reading (and Listening, and Watching)

Hi any and all, welcome to The Mark Story. Many years ago, in high school German class, a fine gentleman by the name of Adam Schreiber suggested that title for my autobiography. It will work for a blog, though.

Right then. Summer reading.

1. World War Z by Max Brooks

Most recently and most highly recommended is World War Z. I've never seen zombies approached in such a well-thought out, literate, and fascinating manner.

The book is narrated by a UN inspector, charged to write a report on the Zombie Wars. After having his report mercilessly cut down to the cold, hard facts, he protests to his boss, arguing that the human elements of the story are the most important. His boss responds, "Write a book."

The book is told through interviews, although the narrator has hardly any lines. Interviews with a Chinese doctor in the earliest identification of the zombie virus, a US soldier about the military's first and unsuccessful stand against the zombies at Yonkers, a refugee from India during the Great Panic, are just a few of the stories told in this book.

Read it, it's excellent. There's an audio-book, and the production is good, but it's abridged.

2. Fevre Dream by George R. R. Martin

While I'm not a big fan of Martin's Song of Ice and Fire books, this book scratched an itch for me. What itch, you ask? I'm glad you asked. Warning: Incoming Rant.

Twilight is a blight on American culture. I haven't read the books or seen the movie, but I've seen their impact. As a result of Twilight, the image of the vampire has been wimpified. Yeah, I can make up words. If I remember correctly, vampires are supposed to be creatures of darkness and violence. Vampire stories should be bloody and frightening, not sparkly versions of the latest teen drama.

That's where this book comes in. It's about vampires, humans, and a steam boat. It's bloody, full of suspense, and a fantastic story of friendship. It's a great antidote to the poison that is Twilight, and worth a read.

3. The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher

Beginning with Storm Front, The Dresden Files tell the story of Harry Dresden, Chicago's only professional Wizard. Thus far there are 11 books in the series, and I've only read 4 of them. Those 4 have been fantastic, and I look forward to the rest of them.

The first, Storm Front, begins with a mysterious, gruesome, and obviously magic-related death. Dresden is hired by the police as a consultant. The second, Fool Moon, is about werewolves. The third, Grave Peril, is about ghosts and vampires. The fourth, Summer Knight, is about Fairies. These are gross simplifications. Read them, they're very enjoyable.

Perhaps I'll write more on these later. They're a lot of books, and I haven't read them all, but I most definitely want to. Give them a shot, I doubt you'll be disappointed.

Right then, on to Music.

1. The Killers - Day & Age

Not a bad album, but I could listen to Spaceman on loop for a very long time.

The Killers haven't always been a band I'd recommend. They've had the odd good song here and there, but the majority of their previous music just isn't all that great in my humble opinion. Well, that's not entirely accurate. It's more accurate to say I haven't liked their previous singles. I dislike the entire concept of singles. It annoys me that a band will work hard on an album, and the radio will play one song from it.

One of the things I miss was a few years ago when a local radio station, Q101, went "on shuffle." They played a very wide range of Alternative, and it was rare that you'd hear the same song repeat itself during a day. Unfortunately, that's no longer the case. Oh well.

2. Mahler

Gustav Mahler is my Dad's favorite composer, and he's my favorite too. He wrote 9 completed symphonies, and there is not a one of them that does not stand the test of time and repeated listens.

A few years ago, a friend and I went to see Symphony no. 2 in C minor, also known as the Resurrection, performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Before this point, while I was fine with symphonic music in theory, in reality, I didn't have the patience or the desire to sit still for an extended period of time and just listen. It was Mahler that ended up changing that.

If there's one word I would use to describe Symphony no. 2, it would be "glorious," or maybe "majestic." I remember turning to my friend after the show and saying, "If I went deaf now, that'd be ok."

I recently listened to Symphony no. 9, which is quite different than no. 2. My father describes it as "a peaceful death." I don't know if I would have come up with that on my own, but you never know. The sense of longing at the end is nearly overpowering. Good stuff.

There's more music that I've listened to, but nothing that really sticks out right now. On to movies and stuff. Well, one show, really. I watched quite a few movies this summer, but they all pale in comparison to...

Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann

Gurren Lagann is, without exaggeration, one of the best things I have seen in years. I don't know how I missed this when it was coming out, but I've been kicking myself for not finding it sooner. Words that describe it include awesome, manly, epic, and many others.

It's far from your typical giant robot anime. Yes, there are giant robots, and yes, giant robots are cool, but the show isn't about robots. The show is about people reaching for the impossible. Living their entire lives underground, they reach for the surface. Finding the surface an inhospitable place filled with giant robots driven by beast-men bent on their extermination, they don't just reach for safety or a hiding place, they reach for a world where they don't need to hide, smashing through obstacles with pure willpower.

The thing that makes Gurren Lagann so enjoyable is its charm. This is a hard thing to define, but I'll try. All of the characters are likable, even when they logically should not be. If I put a name to it, I'd call it "Isaac and Miria syndrome," after the two characters in Baccano! who by all rights should be terribly annoying, but end up being one of the most fun and memorable duo's I can remember. The characters are all over the top, all with exaggerated quirks and what should be almost obnoxious personalities, but they all have a sort of charm to them that manages to resonate with the viewer. Combine this with very stylized artwork, the joy of battle, and the raw ambition of the show, and you have an end product that I don't mind calling my favorite show of all time.