To trace the place that is space like an ace.
So LAST TIME, I spent about a thousand words or so explaining stuff before getting to the danged point. But at least I was thorough, and ended up making a major point pretty early on in that intro, and it’s what we’re going delving into this time around: the space a game is set in defines it.
This is a universal truth of game design so obvious that it borders on banal. Kind of like “Fire is hot”, or “Utah is boring” or “Picard is better than Kirk”.
So yeah, that’s what we’re getting into. The big, obvious, meaning of “space”, that of place and/or setting. The macro version of space, where last we looked at the micro, and without nearly as much of a lead-in, as it’s ending . . . NOW!
It’s not the Size, but what you do with it (or so the ladies keep telling me).
First and foremost, the biggest difference between the settings of Dark Souls and Skyrim is the same as it is between most great pairings, whether it’s Laurel and Hardy, Jake and Elwood, or Master and Blaster: size. Dark Souls‘s Lordran is a world that while not tiny by any means, simply cannot compare in scale to Skyrim‘s well, Skyrim, in the amount of space the player will be exploring. We’re talking an order of magnitude in difference here.
What’s really impressive about Skyrim is that even though there’s much, much more space to tromp around than in Lordran, it doesn’t suffer from the standard downside: lack of detail. No, every room you find in every draugr filled tomb is purposely designed and filled with unique objects that move a quest along or give you some cool new weapon. Often, the designers manage to imply a sense background narrative and tell a story just by how the items in a room are arranged. It’s a rather impressive achievement for Bethesda, actually.
It’s not entirely perfect though. While there’s a definite effort made to ensure diversity of all of Skyrim’s locations, quite a few still end up reusing design elements, especially the draugr barrows and “Dwarven” (in quotes as in Skyrim, Dwarves are really a lost race of Elves) ruins. There are about forty of these two places in the game and most follow very similar architectural layouts, reuse the same enemy types, and recycle textures from one place to the next like their interior decorator was Kermit the Frog on Earth day – because he’s a proponent of going green you see.
So while it’s definitely Earth friendly to recycle this much, enough exploration in Skyrim begins to leave the player with a strong sense of deja vu as they wander ancient halls without a sense of novelty. Not that it’s as bad as what happened in Dragon Age 2, and there is some narrative justification since its all in the same general locale, but it is a concern when comparing the two games as its a problem Lordran doesn’t have – each location in Dark Souls is quite different from the last and all feel distinct.
Yet this repetition is just something that’s bound to happen in a world as dense as Skyrim’s considering it is was made by a team of humans with limited time; unless you’re Ayn Rand, you should have enough empathy to forgive folks for not being absolutely perfect.
Besides, the issue with having such density in a game really isn’t that it’s repetitive. Especially compared to Dark Souls, which sends you through its distinct environments over and over again due to player deaths and it’s focus on grinding to get past the enemies that kill you. No the real question, the thing that will lead us to the core difference of design philosophy between the two games is the following: What does including such density in such a large environment actually accomplish?
Free Space is also Dense Space (unless it’s Freespace, then it’s Descent-space).
As I’ve stated earlier in this series (and if I didn’t I’m saying it now), the primary purpose of Skyrim, as it is with any Elder Scrolls game, is to create a fully realized world filled with endless possibility and numerous adventures. This is in stark contrast to Dark Souls, which seeks to create a much smaller place with only a single quest to accomplish. So it stands to reason that including a large landmass filled with tons of different things to find and do and see aids in the illusion that Skyrim is a living, breathing world.
Such density also does something else that’s far more important as it’s Bethesda’s focus; it allows for the player to have a great degree of freedom. In Skyrim, once you escape the burning wreckage that was the city of Helgen you can literally wander in any direction and are beholden to no directives other than those you choose to follow. While there is direction in the form of objectives – which can become domineering to some – the ample space and fact that no matter which way you turn, you’ll probably run into something interesting if you don’t want to do something right away (or at all).
In many ways, this is true of Dark Souls as well. With the exception of two distinct locations, you’re only restricted from wandering around all of Lordran by some really tough enemies that can and will murder you if you go a different path than the optimal one. Plus the limited scope of the world itself can also create a sense of restriction. If you see a hill in the distance in Dark Souls, more often than not there’s a pit (and twelve foes) preventing you from reaching it; in Skyrim, you’ll find a path that leads to the top, and probably six other places along the way that you didn’t even realize were there.
Basically, if Dark Souls is like Mel Gibson in Payback, performing brutal revenge on those who get out of line and try to wander off, then Skyrim is like Mel Gibson in Braveheart, crying freedom till its dying breath.
The density of the environment is one of the key methods of ensuring true freedom in a game, as it’s the only way the developers can remove the sense of restriction brought on by the player’s knowledge that the environment is limited.
However, this density does have a dark side: after a short period of time acclimating to a world that acts like Good Guy Greg and always has your bases covered, you can come to rely on it.
Which I already hear some folks saying,”Huh? How is the fact that you can rely on Skyrim to always have something to do a bad thing? In any possible way?”
Well . . .
The Secret to World mastery is in fact, the Secret.
Considering all space in a video game is virtual and doesn’t actually exist, building a sense of continuity – a sense of trust – can be a good thing when it comes to world design. I’d say that aside from making a level actually fun to navigate and not have any map-holes to fall through, a sense of continuity is the MOST important thing to create. When the player moves from one place to the next, they need to understand without consideration that the two locations are part of a whole, that one action will lead to an obvious reaction. The designers are sort of like George Micheal telling the player they gotta have faith, but in their world, not in getting into a relationship with George Micheal.
This trust, between the player and the designer, is a sacred bond which should hopefully never get abused. This is why I think bugs in games are so frustrating; they break a small degree of trust between the player and the game. After all, if you can’t trust that a floor or a wall will act like a solid surface, then how can you trust anything else in the game? The sky could turn purple, the rocks can start insulting your mom, and tomatoes can become cantaloupes!
There is an area of world design though that actually relies on deception and misdirection though, and it highlights my problem with Skyrim’s dense world in comparison to Lordran’s sparse one: secrets. By secrets I’m talking about all of the hidden paths, the invisible walls and blocks that are intended to be run into, the bonus levels and warp zones that end up as rewards for an avid fan of searching and exploration.
Dark Souls tosses in secret paths like many older games; they exist, but are quite devious to discover, while the rewards for finding them are substantial. Perhaps the game’s most obvious example being several illusory walls hidden throughout, and several of which hide new areas to explore. These walls disappear once you strike them with any weapon, but unless you know where to attack, you’ll never see any of them.
Once you stumble upon one (most likely due to another player’s note), you’ll start paying attention to (if not attacking) EVERY wall, in the hopes that perhaps it might not be the solid surface it seemed to be in order to gain whatever rewards lie behind. You enter each location with a sense of wonder, a sense of curiosity, a sense of anticipation as a result of this. Considering the game already promotes taking your time and carefully exploring due to the aggressively placed enemies, Lordran becomes a place you’re constantly paying attention to, and actively engaged in, even when you’re simply walking into an empty room.
Skyrim also has lots of side paths and secrets to find for the player who enjoys exploration. In fact, there are a great many more of them to find than in Dark Souls, which fits with the overall density of the game world. However, they are also easier to spot, more obvious to get to, and individually less valuable once you actually get there. A side path in Skyrim might hide a chest containing some gold and some potions, a side path in Dark Souls hides completely unique enemies, areas and equipment to discover and can even have a bonus boss to fight.
Fundamentally, the secrets in Skyrim want to be found, while the secrets in Dark Souls must be earned.
Does that sound familiar yet? Because it’s the obvious difference in design philosophy for the two games in general, it’s just one more way in which it’s apparent.
ANTICIPATION VERSUS EXPECTATION
Now again, there’s nothing really wrong with Bethesda’s approach to building a dense world filled with lots of places to go (even if they repeat) and lots of secrets to find (even if they’re trivial). For the average gamer, the freedom gained through density is just another way of further customizing their individual story and enjoyable enough as is. The majority of the people playing will be happy relying on the knowledge that they will find a bonus chest, that they will defeat the nearby boss, and that they will succeed at everything they do.
They gain faith in their ability to experience new content and find secrets based on their reliance that the game world will cater to these desires. It’s a faith that’s completely deserved – it’s rewarded often.
Though I know I’m being a bit harsh with it, it’s not really a bad way to design a game. In fact, I quite enjoyed constantly running into new sights and sounds as I traipsed around Skyrim with my Nordic barbarian, even if after a rather short amount of time, I came to expect them. So I suppose there’s really nothing wrong with this design philosophy after all.
Except . . .
Well, I know it’s just my opinion and all, but when you think of any new experience, which is better? Expectation or anticipation? Do you want reliability over novelty? Or does the nervousness of wondering what’s behind the next corner matter more than the foreknowledge of success?
Of course, they’re both necessary aspects of a game world and both happen naturally. You expect walls to act as walls. You anticipate what’s behind a corner before you see it. Most games have some mix of both emotional states as a result of both their level and enemy design.
But I can’t help but shake the feeling that the only downside to a game that actively encourages you to anticipate more than expect is anxiety, but if that’s something it’s trying to make part of it’s main theme (as is obviously the case with Dark Souls and it’s “prepare to die” campaign) it’s only achieving success in its aims. The downside of a game that engenders expectation over anticipation, even if it succeeds in truly making a freeing game experience, isn’t just limited to boredom but could be far worse: entitlement.
The game makes it easy to find secrets, so why not make it easy to beat a boss? The game has thousands of locations to discover, so why not have just as many spells? The game let’s you do X, so why not Y? If you play enough games that completely cater to exactly what you want, how could a sense of entitlement not flourish?
But though gamer entitlement is something that seems ever on the rise, it does seem a stretch to claim that the games themselves are causing it, doesn’t it?
Besides, Skyrim‘s fans haven’t really been that whiny compared to many other franchises *cough*Nomutantsallowed*cough*. Maybe it’s because unlike me, they value reliability over novelty. Or perhaps it’s because they’ve taken a decidedly DIY approach to addressing their complaints, so they don’t have as many. Hard to tell, actually.
Either way, where your needs fall on the expectation/anticipation line when it comes to world design seems like a very personal choice. Whether you like chocolate or vanilla here, you aren’t wrong. It’s just a preference. A personal matter based on minute chemical reactions in your brain, which . . .
Well that’s what I’m going to delve into next week: the matters of the MIND! For playing Skyrim, I realized a few things about exactly what it is that counts when it comes down to AI in video games. It should be rather enlightening, so won’t you join me as we journey deep into the center of thought on making our NPC’s think?
Until then though, sweet dream within your dreams!