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Dark Souls VS. Skyrim – Part 3 – Space is the Place

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January 8th, 2012 at 3:54 am

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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”.

Picard's internet contribution

Just look at their respective contributions to internet fandom: Kirk is responsible for slash fiction. Picard mastered the facepalm; the only sane response TO Slash Fiction.

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.

YouTube Preview Image

At least Skyrim’s level designers are making Recycle Rex proud! Good luck getting THAT out of your head.

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?

Skyrim filled with points of interest

Aside from the fact that when walking a straight line in Skyrim you’ll stumble across fifteen unique locations within as many minutes?

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.

Crying Freeman Cover

No, I said Crying FreeDOM. But close.

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!

Ghostbusters Mass Hysteria

. . .dogs and cats, living together . . . MASS HYSTERIA!

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.

Whispering Secrets

The power of the secret is that it makes even boring things more interesting. These two were talking about the weather, but secretly, so now you want to know WHY?!

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.

Jesus Toast

Why rely on faith based miracles like your savior appearing in your toast, when you can do it yourself? It’s kind of like that.

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?

Catherine Marriage question

For some reason I’m reminded of Vincent’s journey in Catherine right now.

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?

South PArk Cartman whining

It hardly seems fair to blame a spoiled child like Cartman on the toys he gets rather than the mom who buys them for him.

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?

Inception sleep

It’ll be just like Inception! As in I’ll probably put everyone to sleep!

Until then though, sweet dream within your dreams!

  • Corakus

    This seems at least to be a little more fairer to both parties than the first two articles, which seemed to be leaning towards the side of Dark Souls.In that case, I’ll be fairer to Dark Souls as well (which I wasn’t in my comment on the first article).One thing I like about Dark Souls is that you always seem to be fighting horrific, monstrous enemies.In Skyrim, I always feel as if I’m fighting bandits or wolves or bears, even when I do fight something like a dragon, it ends up not being nearly as entertaining as I hoped simply because dragons are usually too easy to take down in Skyrim.It’s very easy to get some elemental resistant gear that will allow you to shrug off their breath attacks and you can usually stagger them with bashes and melee attacks up close, so they’re not nearly as difficult as Bethesda hyped them up to be when they were marketing Skyrim.This is something I hope that will eventually be patched.

  • Cotten

    Raise the difficulty to master and then lets talk about how easy the dragons are.

  • Anand

    Nice article again. However, you may have already moved out of the discussion of space and into matters of the mind in this one – not AI, but the player’s mind.

    The question of reliability vs. anticipation is a good one, but, IMHO, it is a different one from the one on space and space creation and utilization. Using secret paths or illusory walls is just one way of building and maintaining anticipation; a way that Dark Souls does really well. Another way it does this well is through the heightened sense of difficulty – the anticipation of getting mauled by what’s around the corner makes you look for the unexpected at every turn or entrance (Capra Demon, anybody?).

    One issue with using difficulty to heighten anticipation the way DS does it is that it can (and does) have the opposite effect after a while – NOTHING surprises you any more. I EXPECT to get decapitated by non-descript enemies, and I do. I EXPECT every large creature to require a tediously long and repetitive battle (until I learn the strategy to beat it), and it does. There are no exceptions.

    Skyrim’s route to anticipation, as you pointed out, can have the same effect – at first, the denseness of stuff to be discovered can is fresh, and then you begin to expect it, and take it as a matter of course. The real anticipation, or unpredictability, for me in Skyrim comes from the enemies and their extremely varied difficulty. You think dragons will always be the hardest to kill, and begin to relax around humanoids, until Morokei rips you to shreds. You think Dragon Priests are the only exception, and saunter into Shimmermist Cave on a piddling miscellaneous quest, and develop a deep, feral loathing for all things Falmer or Chaurus. You make it out and swear never to take anything for granted again, but of course, didn’t think that a raving homicidal Boethiah cultist would jump on you when you’re perched (seemingly inviolate) on a mountainside picking off bandits with your bow. It is positively brilliant.

    The real difference between the two games (since you use the comparison as a medium to explore these game development concepts) is in two areas: whose game are you playing, and what you are supposed to be. Skyrim makes you play your own game, as much in your head as on the screen – only constraint is that the world revolves around you as the “chosen one”. Dark Souls leaves you in no doubt that you are playing through Miyazaki’s game, with him and his team grinning in the background. You just happen to be one of many.

  • http://gplus.to/Madhi madhi19

    Bethesda big mistake both with Skyrim and Oblivion when it come to space is fast travel. While it optional most players after a while will get lazy and stop really exploring in favour of fast travelling to the nearest discovered sight. Morrowind did have fast travel but you had to reach it and it only went to a few spots on the maps.
    Dark Souls does not have that problem mainly because it more of a linear experience halfway into the game you can warp from a few bonfires but that about it.

    Dark Souls is also brilliantly crafted in overlapping levels from Firelink shrine you can get almost anywhere in the game in a matters of minutes. Provided you opened or figured out the shortcuts and that both a strength and a weakness of Dark Souls because once you figure something out it may look downright easy to go anywhere except maybe Blithtown loll! Dark Souls long term playability is not tied to size, quantity and space like Skyrim but on increasing difficulty and on the PvP, PvE community.

  • Jake

    Guys, maybe you didnt know, but…

    DARK SOUL PLAYERS ARE BRUCE WILLIS!

    ..now, let me explain that preposterous idea:

    In Dark Souls, space is a scarce resource. Rooms are often small or full of obstacles. Bridges, ledges and corridors narrow space. Chasms with deadly falls may be right next to your fight. There IS no room! (spoon)

    So you, the Dark Souls player, you are like on the 35th floor of Nakatomi Plaza, threatened, cramped, trapped, nowhere to go. “Think, g’dammit, think!” This isnt a good place to fight that Alan Rickman look-alike undead?? Where can I hold back my opponent or dodge his devastating attacks? Am I confident I can dodge roll right next to this chasm? Can I wield my beloved Zweihander on this small staircase? Should I retreat to an open courtyard? Will I get cornered here? Can I take out that bad boy golem without alerting the other so I wont get surrounded in this cramped hellhole? GET ME OUT OF HERE!!!

    Space is an evil advesary you must beat. Mostly, space means something and forces you to think and make choices (obviously enhanced greatly by the imminent threat of strong opponents and the very real fear and agony of loss – of your precious souls). The layers of atmosphere and emotion this lack of space lays on you is wonderfully menacing. Great game world design!

    And thanks for a good article. Was looking forward to it since your part two.

  • Jake

    Ahhh a quick comment on Dark Souls AI, too. (havent played Skyrim)

    I’m gonna go ahead and blurt out that Dark Souls has no AI. Yes, thats probably unfair and you may want to kill me now but I’m used to that playing Dark Souls so Im taking my chances.

    Enemies act like zombies (funny huh), abiding by simple rules. They have a bunch of moves and that’s it. Monsters run after you, then at a certain point which is often the same point if you battle that monster repeatedly, then walk back like nothing happened and stand in the exact same point they began in.

    Now if I told you this is my favorite game for a long time and I’m utterly absorbed in its bleak, static world and the emotions of frustration, anger, elation and glorious victory it provides…would you believe me? Because it’s true. AI or not, the combat system and the moves of your enemies are great. Swift, stinging, heavy or evasive, they really keep you on your toes.

    It’s still mechanical, though. Is that bad? No, not to me.

    It’s like a set game board, waiting for you to play, learn and show your mastery of the rules.

    Because of the trial and error concept of the game (die you shall), every run from one bonfire to the next becomes tactical as much as anything. Pick the right weapon, know what approaches work, find the right spot for your fight. Stay focused, or fail.

    It reminds me of running an obstacle course. A really great, nasty one.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kirk.hamilton.927 Kirk Hamilton

    Adam, game developer and publisher entitlement is by far a much damaging and disturbing trend. The term entitlement, when applied to every unhappy game consumer becomes meaningless and in some cases even insulting. As a game consumer I have high standards and will refuse to support a game developer that tries to accuse their own fans of gamer entitlement to hide the fact that they are selling a flawed non-refundable product.

    Keep that in mind before jumping on the entitlement bandwagon.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Adam-Thomas/100001441833000 Adam Thomas

    I didn’t actually. Rather, I toyed with the idea as being a cause before rejecting it on the grounds of personal preference and taste.

    As a supporter of the Retake Mass Effect movement, I’m a strong believer that gamers SHOULD speak truth to power to the developers of games, for it’s the only way get them to make better games. On the other hand though, I do see the focus on catering to too much personal expectation spread over a large body of individuals, and thus trumping creative risk as being a threat. It’s why though I toy with the thought here, and reference a blog post that gives a frankly solid example of unreasonable expectation on a developer, I don’t agree with the idea in this case.

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