Thursday, 5 January 2012

Musings on 2011 and the years action RPGs

What an incredible year for games 2011 was. It will take me some time to catch up with all the great games that were released, I still haven't even played L.A. Noire, Skyward Sword, and Arkham City. However for many folks 2011 will be most notable for the latest release in Bethesda Softworks long running RPG series, The Elder Scrolls. Skyrim was without a doubt one of the finest releases of the year, however It was not the only sprawling action RPG released this year. Early in the year we were treated to the stunning Witcher 2, unforgiving in it's game design and refreshingly mature in it's writing, and Dark Souls, an even more unforgiving beast, which told a story through it's envoronments and atmosphere rather than through dialogue. It's atmosphere so filled with dread and death that it can begin to encroach on your mental wellbeing. Just thinking of the catacombs and the tomb of giants fills me with genuine dread even now. Three very different approaches to action RPGs to be sure.

Skyrim itself was a technical triumph. At first it seems to do everything that Oblivion did, but better. Dungeons each had something of interest, sometimes a quest, sometimes a story, and were far more interesting than oblivion's bland caves and ruins. Characters seemed more lifelike and diverse, and magic effects ranged from simple blasts of fire to giant beams of lightning that make short work of the games giants. However these advances came at a cost. In order to make the sprawling world of Skyrim more accessible to those uninitiated in role playing games, Bethesda removed much of the complexity and depth which has characterised the Elder Scrolls series. So character stats are gone, as are spellmaking and a number of different effects the player can cast or mix into their potions. While Oblivion and Morrowinds system of levelling might have been complex and baffling at first, they each rewarded time and investment with a character that the player could feel they had crafted themselves. In Skyrim, the players character simply progresses along a set path, and the player has only very limited input on which perks to choose, and which attributes to increase. While no doubt many players will rejoice in this, I cant help but feel that something has been lost here. Being able to spend hours thinking about how to build my character, which build to use, which combination of skills to and slowly deciphering a complex system is one of my favorite ways to waste my time, and having more of this control taken away from me saddens me a little. These kinds of RPG's have always been complex, and having the complexity replaced with accessibility takes away some of the thrill of forging my own path through the game.

This stands in stark contrast to Dark Souls and The Witcher 2. While they are both radically different in their style and approach, both have one thing in common, which is that they will not hold the players hand and spoon feed them information on how to play. Once you progress past their breif tutorials you are on your own. In Dark Souls, players have practially limitless options at to how they will level their character, and what kinds of weapons, armour, and spells they will use. Character concepts and archetypes are much stronger and more diverse then the bland warrior/mage/theif characters of Skyrim. And even though players can make mistakes with character progression, the fact that we are even allowed to make these mistakes and learn from them, shows a respect and faith in the player to figure things out for themselves, which Skyrim seems to lack. Although Skyrim allows the player to forge their own path through the world and define the pace of the adventure for themselves, it rarely throws anything truly challenging the players way. It is all about soaking up the experience and the adventure, but lacks the sense of danger that a more challenging game has.

It's not my intention to bash Skyrim. Quite the opposite in fact, I think it is a huge improvememnt over previous elder scrolls titles. I have sunk over 100 hours into the game, and any game that can keep me hooked for that long is surely worth the £30 I paid for it, and more. But for the reasons I've mentioned here, it does not feel quite as memorable or as engrossing as either the Witcher 2 or Dark Souls. The argument of complexity versus accesibility is a difficult and subjective issue, but in a time where games seem to be more simplified every year, Dark Souls and The Witcher 2 were refreshing reminders that not every game has to treat the player as if they have the attention span of a goldfish.