LAST TIME we were here, I said I wanted to keep talking about Skyrim, and so I will. But in lieu of a neat conversation I had, I think how I’m going to talk about it is going to change a bit from my original intentions.
There were two big fantasy games that came out over the past couple of months that I’ve been able to play to some fuller measure of understanding: Dark Souls and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Unfortunately the latter of these two games has prevented me from playing the third ginormous fantasy epic of the season to completion. For now.
Anyway, comparing these two games is intriguing. At a glance, and to those with seriously low Perception stats, they both ostensibly cover very similar ground (Medieval European Fantasy). But they both go about it in completely opposite fashions due to fundamentally different design focuses. So what I’m going to do is a small series looking at how these two games compare and contrast.
However, I’m not going to turn this into a fratastic “which game would win in an arm-wrestling contest” article based on financially motivated bias, because I have both a functioning brain, and don’t have to worry about my bosses detonating an explosive neck collar if I ever show a mere hint at not feeding you the latest line from some game company’s marketing department.
Why? Well, mostly because these are the two biggest games to have eaten up most of my time over the last months, and I need to purge them from my conscious mind lest they start invading my dreams like mongol hordes with a quota to fill. Also, looking at the ways in which they differ could offer some insight onto the effects of particular game design choices, and why some work better than others, and some of them are simply bad ideas. You know, possibly useful insights to glean?
There won’t be a “winner” and there won’t be a “loser” in this. But for the sake of fairness, I will freely admit that I have some bias in favor of Dark Souls over Skyrim. This doesn’t mean that I can’t be even handed though, it simply means that I preferred Hidetaka’s monstrous player killing simulator a bit more than Todd Howard’s free-roaming questathon, even though I enjoyed both games immensely (hence why I’m bothering to delve deeper).
So with that out of the way, onward! It’s time for ROUND ONE!
IT’S ALL IN THE TIMING, OR AT LEAST THE TIME DILATION
One of the funny little things about you humans, er, I mean, humanity as a whole – of which I am totally a member of – is our innate perception of time. Unless you’re Dr. Manhattan or on some of the better psychoactive drugs, you probably imagine time linearly; going from one event to the next in a succession of events that are stored into the elaborate chemical hard drives we call brains.
But just because we (usually) perceive time as simply going forward doesn’t mean there aren’t fascinating things that occur in our experience with Chronos’ domain. Consider our ability to observe time happening at wildly variable rates of speed for instance. Everyone’s had the sensation of time moving more quickly when you’re busy or having fun, and often most of us know how when things really don’t seem to be going your way or adrenaline kicks in (getting hit by a car works for both instances) time seems to slow down, allowing us to absorb every detail of the impending trauma, both physical and emotional! It’s a rather perverse marvel of biology, truth be told. The terrible parts take forever and end up imprinted on your psyche for just as long, and the the best parts whizz by so fast that you can forget they even happened! Thanks human brain!
What’s really funny though, is how we’ve portrayed this ability of our minds in media. In film, “slow motion” can be used to show horrible trauma, but is just as often used to highlight something “totally flippin’ sweet bro!” I don’t have any statistics, but it seems to me that you’re more likely to see slo-mo when the hero’s Chevy pulls a corkscrew flip off a ramp made of debris while a robot explodes in the background than in most scenes of heartbreak or supreme social awkwardness. This “intensity highlighting” with the use of slo-mo seems to be a basic way of emulating the effect of adrenaline on an audience, and it’s this specific usage of time control that’s most prevalent in video games.
Though there were moments in older games where the screen would slow down due to too many lasers and bullets filling the air creating a “bullet time” effect in moments of heightened reaction speed rather accidentally, the first game (that I’m aware of) to use this technique purposefully was the Remedy shooter Max Payne. Since then it’s been a common technique in a plethora of titles. So much so, that as with the film industry post-The Matrix, there was a brief period where it seemed that every game released had to have bullet time as one of the bullet points on the back of the box, in a period of annoying bullet redundancy.
Even though it’s not really accurate, the term I like to use for controlling the flow of events in gaming is “time dilation“. It’s more all encompassing, and in the digital world of a video game, you’re not just controlling your perception of time, but time itself. Especially if the level of time control goes beyond merely slowing down the action.
Skyrim is one of these games that allows for heightened control over the flow of time. Playing Skyrim you’ll find that you can speed up time and move forward up to 24 hours by either using a “wait” command or sleeping, you can get slow motion effects on specific perk abilities or spells, and the game will automatically slow down time at points to highlight flashy animations. But more than anything, the most common method of using (and abusing) time in Skyrim is due to its rather powerful pause functionality.
Most games allow you to pause, because hey, when you gotta go, you gotta go. It’s definitely a boon to be able to stop what you’re doing for a few minutes, but often what you can actually do when paused is quite limited; you can usually adjust a couple of options in the menus, save or exit or check your status. Rare is a game that gives the player so much absolute power by pausing as Skyrim.
Let’s say you’re in the middle of a fight with a wizard and his skeleton cronies. You charge into the fray and swing your warhammer like the barbarian you are, scattering skeleton bones like you were playing 52 pickup, but then you notice that the wizard has lobbed a fireball right at your very flammable body! But no worries, you can press your main inventory button and pull a Zack Morris “Time Out!” at this point; allowing you to completely change your armor and apparel to gear that reduces fire damage, drink a few potions to recover the health lost from the skeletons, switch your weapon to a shield of magic blocking and a sword of wizard screwing, and take a moment to look at your positioning to see if you can move out of the way of the exploding orb entirely. When you unpause, you might as well have written “I eat fireballs for brunch” on your forehead, because that flimsy little spell-slinger won’t stand a chance.
Meanwhile, in Dark Souls:
“PAUSE THE GAME? HAH! I SURE HOPE YOU LIKE BEING GNAWED ON BY CAT-BEARS BEFORE BEING THROWN INTO SPIKES MADE OF LAVA! PAUSE? WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? ZACK MORRIS? YOU KNOW WHAT WE DID TO THAT GUY? WE SHOT HIM FULL OF EXPLODING ARROWS MADE OUT OF HIS BROKEN DREAMS! PAUSE! OH YOU KILL ME. NO WAIT, I KILLED YOU – FOR THINKING YOU CAN PAUSE.”
Yes, Dark Souls takes the exact opposite approach to letting the player control time, that is they can’t do it. When you go into your inventory to change weapons or armor or switch potions, the game keeps running on in the background. If you took too long or decided to take a break, you’ll usually find that some other player decided to walk into your world and murder you with your own sword.
Actually it goes a bit beyond that too. Whereas the world of Skyrim has a day and night cycle that flows constantly while you run around it, the Kingdom of Lordran is always eternally set in its time of day, which seems a permanent 3:35 PM. Unless you murder the sun goddess, which actually kills the sun (NOTE: This something you can actually do in Dark Souls).
Both the “static time of day” while “constantly in the present” aspects of the game are quite effective choices though. The kingdom of Lordran is a dead place and home to divinity, so the frozen timescape ends up creating a sense of an otherworldly purgatory. The lack of pausing is a technique that’s been used in a few other games (notably Dead Space) that is meant to increase tension and anxiety, and also to force the player to consider what they’ve got equipped very carefully before venturing forward while adding a heaping helping of naturalism to the whole affair (since you can’t pause real life).
But this isn’t to say that Skyrim‘s heaping helpings of time-glue are a bad thing either. In fact, giving the player such power over the 4th dimension fits quite readily into the main point of the game: giving the player the freedom to control their own destiny. Bethesda’s mission statement in these games is to craft a huge park for you to run around in, one where you can do anything you want, and if what you want to do is command time itself to be your personal slave, well, there’s a Shout for that (NOTE: Literally. One of the dragon words has you shout at time until it stops.)
Also the day and night cycle and the fact that an in-game week can pass by over the course of a few hours can really screw up the player’s actual sense of time. Probably one of the reasons it can be so hard to stop playing.
BUT THERE ARE SOME PROBLEMS
Obviously, the biggest problem with Dark Souls bladder of steel non-pause system is just that: real world distractions like bathroom breaks can become deadly, and as the deaths pile up you can easily come to hate the “feature”. But I still think that’s more preferable than the level of time stoppage in Skyrim, which is frankly ludicrous.
I mean, the start & stop gameplay that occurs from going into the inventory menu isn’t the issue, as it’s how the Elder Scrolls games have always worked. The games are balanced around the fact that you’ll drain potions in between sword swings like you’re Takeru Kobayashi, it’s why these items have weight and cost, and you have to manage them carefully. Even if you may not want to know exactly where you store your items, considering you carry no satchel or backpack.
No, it’s just that when you add on the inventory pause to some of the other ways you can control time, it becomes just like bullet-time effects in gaming were after Max Payne: unnecessary and redundant. Especially since one of the other methods is completely exploitable and hurts the game’s melee combat flow.
It’s not the shout, which has a rather mean cooldown to balance out its power, but one of the perks for the “Block” skill tree:
Quick reflexes is a perk that slows down time when an enemy tries to use a power attack against you and your character is blocking. In theory, this isn’t a bad concept as power attacks can be quite nasty, and you may want an edge over enemies that use them. It’s just that the effect on the perk is rather extreme. The slow down itself isn’t a minor rate – the world almost stands still – and it lasts the entire duration of their attack animation, and it stacks if multiple enemies power attack in succession, and unlike the time shout, it COSTS NOTHING TO ACTIVATE. Not only does this slow down the already stop & go combat, but it also makes one of the game’s combat moves, bash, broken.
Bashing enemies is already a really good move. It causes them to stagger back, and cancels a lot of their actions, allowing you to stun lock particularly threatening foes, but using it repeatedly drains your stamina rather quickly so, a fair trade off.
However with quick reflexes, you no longer need to mash bashes to keep a melee enemy neutered, just hold block until the world slows down, bash, slice, lather and repeat while your stamina keeps recharging between bashes. If you then get the perk that allows you to move at full speed with your shield raised, it gets even more insane: hold block, time slows down, move behind enemies with impunity, attack, repeat until dead. Melee combat ends up becoming like that time Fry drank his hundredth cup of coffee.
Even this wouldn’t have been so bad if it weren’t for the fact that it then becomes the norm. Bullet Time is something that the player should never gain for free or come to use all the time as it’s not only very powerful, but can get old fast if you constantly expose the player to it. Considering the super-pause is already there, these extra effects that allow further control do little to enhance the experience, and just drain most of the excitement out of what would otherwise be visceral entertainment and many fights become boring, tedious affairs that drag on and on.
Speaking of getting boring and dragging on; this article’s gone on way too long! I personally blame the intro. Well it won’t happen in our next installment, where I want to cover the other side of the continuum opposite time: SPACE! Especially how philosophical choices vis a vis space apply to combat, movement, and exploration!