Category Archives: Skyrim

How to enjoy Fallout

It’s been a while since I advised anyone on the proper way to play a game. That post made me look like a Skyrim apologist: “Skyrim might seem boring – the combat is clunky, the interface is awful, looting and managing inventory is tedious, and the quests are unrewarding – but you’re probably just playing it wrong. Just don’t do anything the game tells you to do. Yeah, all the containers are full of stuff to loot and inspect, but don’t bother looking in them because none of it is any good. What? Don’t ask me why they put it in there. Yeah, I suppose they could have spent the development time making better quests or fixing the broken AI but… just leave it alone, alright? Oh, and ignore all that dragon stuff. It’s anti-climatic. Learn to enjoy fetch quests instead, then it will be fun.”

Hey, I’m sure every blogger has posts they’re ashamed of, right?

UR PLAYIN IT WRONG!!1

UR PLAYIN IT WRONG!!1

Needless to say, my final impressions of Skyrim were not nearly as glowing as my initial ones. (“No way – I can go anywhere and do anything? What fun! Wheeeeeeeeeeee! You need me to do what? I’m the friggin’ Dragonborn! Get your own stupid thingama- ah, this sucks. I’m bored.”) From what I’ve read, this is a pretty common response to the game.

My gaming preferences have changed quite a bit since I wrote that article. I blame this on playing too much Demon’s Souls and reading too many articles about classic RPGs like Baldur’s Gate, Gothic, and Fallout.

No, not that Fallout:

A first person shooter with Fallout stuff in it.

A first person shooter with Fallout stuff in it.

I’m talking about this Fallout:

The original Fallout.

The original Fallout.

It turns out that gamers with a lot of classic RPG experience (read “hardcore” gamers) have little to nothing good to say about Bethesda’s re-imagining of Fallout. Yet many hold the original game in reverence, some even citing it as the supreme RPG. Get a load of these reviews on GOG.com:

Fallout is one of the few games that can truly be called a classic. Modern games today fare poorly to what Fallout provides… This game is a must for any RPG lover, or someone looking for an introduction to the genre.

Playing this game has been a revelation… if you ever needed an illustration of why shiny graphics should take second place to gameplay, Fallout is it. The depth of the game is incredible…

A fantastic RPG game set in a post-apocalyptic world filled with survivors, mutants and interesting locations, considered by many to be the best game in history… Fallout is a game with a rich world and countless possibilities. Personally I believe that every gamer should play it until the end at least once. I definitely recommend this game to everyone!

Or check out what critics have to say about Fallout:

[Fallout] has the best replay value of any game I’ve experienced to date.

This is one of those rare games that oozes quality from every pore.

When you start the game you’ll be treated to with one of the most chilling, well-written introductions a game has ever been blessed with.

In an age where many are predicting the death of traditional RPGs at the hands of multiplayer extravaganzas, Fallout is a glowing example of the genre, one which positively radiates quality.

You get the impression: If you haven’t played Fallout, you probably should if you want to have a better appreciation for RPGs. I’ll be the first to admit that I was initially turned off by the outdated graphics. What really got my attention, however, is the amount of praise Fallout receives from gamers who are jaded with modern RPGs like Skyrim and Mass Effect. I’m in that camp, so I should definitely enjoy Fallout, right?

Wait for it…

Yes! I totally enjoy Fallout. And you can too if you give this game a fair chance. But before you go and buy it and start playing it, I have one tiny piece of advice. I know I said I wouldn’t tell you the proper way to play a game again – Fallout doesn’t need that anyways – but hear me out.

First, don’t use a walkthrough. There are lots and lots of them around, so you’ll have to be careful in order to avoid them. At times, it will be especially tempting to just glance at a walkthrough. Don’t do it!

You see, part of what makes a game like this so great is the opportunity it gives you to discover things on your own. A walkthrough – particularly the type that tells you every step you should make, every skill point you should invest, every perk you should choose, etc. – robs you of that chance. Unlike modern RPGs that hold your hand, making it impossible for you to lose and taking away all sense of risk and reward in the process, there is no hand-holding in Fallout. Your mission is to find a water chip. “Okay, great!” you say. “I’ll head for the nearest quest marker.” Lo and behold, there is a marker, but you won’t find anything there. At this point, you could consult the nearest walkthrough, but you would be robbing yourself. Go explore! Go get killed! Learn lessons. Make mistakes. Meet people. Ask questions. Gain companions. Figure it out.

I’m willing to bet that most people who have such fond memories of Fallout didn’t have a walkthrough when they played it, since the internet was hardly a thing then.

Second, (and finally) read the manual. Fallout is an arguably complex game. This is a good thing. The manual is your friend.

The Fallout manual is also occasionally hilarious.

The Fallout manual is also occasionally hilarious.

Also, the GUI is rather counter-intuitive. So the manual is worth a read for that section alone.

That’s it. See? A pretty simple guide to having fun in the wasteland. So go give Fallout a chance. You won’t look at RPGs the same way after.

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Why is Demon’s Souls so good?

I’ve talked about Demon’s Souls here before. That was about a year and a half ago. As it was one of the main reasons I decided to purchase a PlayStation 3 instead of an Xbox 360, it was one of the first games I bought after acquiring the system in 2010. In other words, I’ve been playing this game for almost three years now, and I keep coming back to it for more. There is something about Demon’s Souls that is genuinely compelling, more-so than any other game I can remember from the last few years. In fact, Demon’s Souls is so good that it’s turned me into somewhat of a game snob. The same kind of thing happened when I became accustomed to strong ale, in particular Arrogant Bastard Ale by Stone Brewing Co. After drinking enough of that stuff, everything else kind of lost its taste. The way Stone describes its beer is intended to come off as elitist and arrogant, which is hilarious in itself, but it’s also funny how closely it describes the way I feel about Demon’s Souls (with a few tweaks):

This is an aggressive [game]. You probably won’t like it. It is quite doubtful that you have the [skill] or sophistication to be able to appreciate [a game] of this quality and depth. We would suggest that you stick to safer and more familiar territory – maybe something with a multi-million dollar ad campaign aimed at convincing you it’s [the most awesome thing ever], or one that implies that their [multiplayer and social features] will give you more [friends]. Perhaps you think multi-million dollar ad campaigns make things [more fun]. Perhaps you’re mouthing your words as you read this.

Of course, I’m kidding. But it’s kind of sad that so many people only ever drink tasteless fizzy yellow beer, and so many people only ever play games that are backed by major corporations, that lack any element of challenge or creativity, and that are purely motivated by sales numbers and review scores. Demon’s Souls is not a perfect game. There are a few things From Software could have improved. But my list of complaints is relatively short, so let’s get those out of the way first:

  1. Corpses shouldn’t be all that animated. I can understand if a body moves when you step on it, but why do they have to flail about so much?
  2. Often, the only practical way to figure things out is to read the wiki – particularly when it comes to some of the bosses (such as Flamelurker, Maneater, or even Leechmonger), unless you enjoy starting over at the beginning of a level with your health reduced to half and nothing to show for it.
  3. The interface is rather clunky, especially when comparing weapon and armor statistics. Again, your best bet for choosing the right weapon is probably to read the wiki.

It actually took a fair amount of head scratching to come up with that short list, which should speak volumes on behalf of the quality of the game. Now let’s look at what Demon’s Souls does right.

Hard but fair

Every game should balance its difficulty in such a way that it is neither too easy nor too hard. That much is obvious – and I’m sure it’s easier said than done from a development standpoint – but where most games totally fail at this, Demon’s Souls gets it just right. When I purchased Demon’s Souls, the guy behind the counter cautioned me, saying that “it was a real controller breaker” for him. I have to say that I never had the urge to crush my controller to pieces or throw it at the wall while I was playing Demon’s Souls. I have experienced that level of frustration with a number of other games. For instance, in God of War, there is a section in Hades where you have to climb these spinning columns covered with spikes that kill you in one hit. It’s nearly impossible to climb to the top. If you’ve played the game, you will definitely remember this part:

Pure evil.

Pure evil.

The reason I remember it so well is because I had never been so frustrated with a video game in my life… until I played Dead Rising 2 and I had to fight this piece of crap:

Possibly the worst boss fight ever.

Possibly the worst boss fight ever.

Actually, all of the boss fights in Dead Rising 2 are tedious and cheap. Some other rage inducing games (off the top of my head) include Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Killzone 2, Resistance 2, Psychonauts, and Assassin’s Creed. These games are generally very easy with the exception of a few segments where the difficulty is increased to such an extreme level that it requires more luck than skill to get past. To alleviate this problem, these games usually give you a checkpoint right before you are sure to fail, so you can experience the frustration of that segment over and over again until you get the timing exactly right (or whatever it is you have to do) and make it to the next checkpoint. Demon’s Souls never does this. Don’t get me wrong – you will die if you aren’t careful. But, if you are careful, chances are you will make it through most of the game alive.

Don't be like this guy - he's not being careful.

Don’t be like this guy – he’s not being careful.

Blogger Nick Burgener explains this point very eloquently:

While virtually every press release has touted the game’s challenging difficulty, and many gamers have accused it of being exceedingly cheap, tedious, and frustrating, the simple fact of the matter is that Demon’s Souls is not that hard, as long as you approach it intelligently… It can be very challenging at times, yes, but I think Demon’s Souls represents an ideal for challenging gameplay; it’s not afraid to punish you for your failures, which makes your successes that much more meaningful, and it rewards you greatly for playing well. The challenge is neither tedious nor frustrating; it’s intelligent and personal. As long as you play intelligently, it becomes a surprisingly easy game. (source)

I wouldn’t say Demon’s Souls is ever easy. Aside from that, I couldn’t have put it better.

The story takes a back seat

I’m not of the mindset that games should never have stories. Good games usually benefit from good stories. But some games are so heavy-handed with their stories that their gameplay suffers as a result. Take Dragon Age 2, for example, where the gameplay was dumbed down so badly that all that remained was a shell of an RPG – the only choices to be made in the game are superficial at best; the combat is simplistic and repetitive; the player is shoehorned into following a predetermined path. Apparently, BioWare thinks it’s more important that their game tells a mediocre story than that it implements solid RPG mechanics and interesting gameplay.

dragon-age-2-strategy-who-needs-it

We could talk about Mass Effect as well. But BioWare is not the only developer that is guilty here. The Witcher is a pretty solid RPG – there are a lot of choices to make that have interesting repercussions throughout the game; the skill tree is immense; it would take multiple playthroughs to experience everything the game has to offer. But the story, as profound as it’s supposed to be, is boring and trite. These people and the world they live in are screwed no matter what you do, because reality is grim and dark and all that. Normally I can overlook this kind of thing in games, but The Witcher beats you over the head with its story, its lore, its characters, its morality and philosophy to the point of exhaustion. I love the way Dr. Atomic puts this on his blog:

Consider Geralt’s two swords; as a monster hunter, he carries one made of steel for use against men, and one made of silver for use against monsters. Ah, but as Geralt says, “both are for monsters.” Do you get it? Humans are monsters. If you didn’t catch that, the game will ram it down your throat against and again with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Poor Geralt can’t swing a sword without hitting someone prattling on about “Hey, remember that time we raped/murdered/slaughtered that entire village? Good times, mate!” or spewing a stream of profanity that would make a sailor blush. (source)

Most of the game (aside from running fetch quests) amounts to choosing dialog options and watching cutscenes. It asks you to make some really tough decisions, but it’s hard to care about any of the characters because they all suck so bad. Geralt is no better. His personality can be summed up in one word: indifferent.

These people are all jerks, but Geralt doesn't really care and neither should you.

These people are all jerks, but Geralt doesn’t really care and neither should you.

Demon’s Souls, in contrast, doesn’t get bogged down with its story. There’s actually a great story and a heap of lore to be found in the in-game descriptions of characters, items, and locations, but the better story is the one that’s told through your actions. The gameplay is exciting! The boss fights are intense! These are things I actually want to share with other people – Did I tell you about the time I beat Maneater with a shred of health left? I was literally jumping up and down!

One of the toughest boss fights in the game.

One of the toughest boss fights in the game.

No dialog trees

There has got to be a better way to role play than choosing conversation responses. I can appreciate a game that gives you different ways to develop your character, and I realize that the dialog tree is a long established RPG tradition. But every time I see one of these I physically cringe:

Oh crap, dialog tree...

Oh crap, not another dialog tree…

This could be a matter of personal preference, but if I wanted to read a book I would pick something with a much better story than this. What do I really need to know about Moira from Fallout 3? And why is she so eager to discuss her life story with me? For all she knows, I could be role-playing a murderous psychopath. It’s either that or a wussy pushover since there’s usually not a middle ground when it comes to conversation options.

The neutral option is generally preferred.

The neutral option is generally preferred.

In contrast, what does Blacksmith Ed tell you about himself? Absolutely nothing! He’ll tell you about his profession, but only what you need to know: “If you need a blacksmith, bring me demons’ souls.” The result: less of my time wasted on boring plot and character details.

He even tells you to get lost. I love it!

He even tells you to get lost. I love it!

Deep, complex RPG mechanics

While most developers are busy stripping RPG mechanics out of their games to provide a more streamlined experience to the casual crowd (Skyrim, Dragon Age 2, Mass Effect), it’s possible to spend hours deciding how to customize your character and equipment in Demon’s Souls. Will you put all the souls you accumulate into increasing your magic power or increasing your capacity for magic spells? Will you spend all your precious upgrade stones acquiring a better spear or a more powerful bow? Chances are you won’t have enough to do both in one playthrough, so you have to decide. Will you give the Yello Demon’s Soul to Blacksmith Ed to forge an incredibly powerful catalyst, or to Sage Freke to learn an unstoppable magical attack? Of course, you could simply consume it for a ridiculous amount of souls. It sure is tempting…

You won't be getting another Yellow Demon's Souls anytime soon, so choose wisely.

You won’t be getting another Yellow Demon’s Souls anytime soon, so choose wisely.

These kinds of decisions make for a compelling meta-game that you could be playing for years to come, which is why so many people are still playing Demon’s Souls. SnapSlav summarizes my points thus far very well over at No Mutants Allowed:

Demon’s Souls immediately sets itself apart from other RPGs in its unique design. Unlike many RPGs, Demon’s Souls avoids lengthy narrative and exposition, in favor of giving the player full control of their destiny. As a whole, the distinct and creative mechanics of the game are so vast that entire Wiki articles have been dedicated to fleshing out and explaining each particular one. (source)

Not convinced yet? Check out the articles on character tendency and world tendency on the wiki, and there’s a lot more where that came from.

Creative use of multiplayer

Between Quake 3 Arena, Unreal Tournament, Battlefield, Call of Duty, the Enemy Territory games, and a plethora of Half-Life mods, I’ve sunk literally hundreds of hours into multiplayer gaming. I started to lose interest when perks became a popular feature in multiplayer games, after which it always felt like a grind to unlock the next weapon or powerup. Players that have unlocked better perks have an unfair advantage over players that haven’t, which enables them to unlock even more perks, which gives them even more of an advantage. This is by far the most popular model in multiplayer games today.

You want these, don't you?

You want these, don’t you?

There’s also a groupthink mentality that is present in multiplayer games today. I believe this is why the Xbox 360 is arguably more popular than the PlayStation 3, and why games like Halo and Call of Duty sell better than other games that are better in almost every respect. If you have an Xbox 360 and play Halo and Call of Duty, then you are part of a huge group of gamers. It means you suddenly have something to talk about with the people that play those games after school or work, even though there’s not much worth talking about in those games.

Remember that time the red guys were on the ATVs, and the blue guys were shooting at them? That was awesome.

Remember that time the red guys were on the ATVs, and the blue guys were shooting at them? That was awesome.

I won’t describe all the details about the multiplayer in Demon’s Souls, since you can read about it on the wiki. Suffice it to say that it’s totally unique. Playing a level with a blue phantom could mean the difference between life and death, and being invaded by a black phantom is an absolutely terrifying event if you aren’t prepared for it.

Victory in Demon's Souls is worth sharing.

Victory in Demon’s Souls is worth sharing.

Finally, I can’t tell you how many times I was saved by a message that warned of an imposing ambush. No other game encourages you to help other players by leaving messages for them in their worlds.

A refined experience

These days, developers are always trying to up the ante when it comes to the scope of their games. “You thought Rome was big in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood? Wait ’til you see Constantinople in Assassin’s Creed: Revelations!” “Forget Constantinople, Skyrim is so big it will take you hours to cross on foot!” (Don’t try this at home, it will literally bore you to death.) I actually gleaned a lot of enjoyment from Skyrim before I realized how irritated I had become with it. But there is an inherent design problem in games where the player can “go anywhere and do anything.” How do you quality test a piece of software like that? The only practical way is to draw a line once you feel you’ve eliminated enough bugs. And, seriously, don’t get me started on the bugs…

'nuff said.

’nuff said.

As for infinite quests, they are hardly something to be desired when they amount to nothing but fetch quests and random, meaningless encounters.

Do me a favor and tell that guard over there you never saw me. Or don't. On second thought, it really doesn't matter.

Do me a favor and tell that guard over there you never saw me. Or don’t. On second thought, it really doesn’t matter.

Demon’s Souls may not have a map the size of the Amazon Rainforest, but it also has a lot less bugs as a result. (See what I did there?!) It may not have infinite quests, but the quests it does have are worthwhile. It may not have thousands of fully voiced NPCs, but the characters it does have are memorable and charming. It’s a rock solid game with relatively few, minor bugs. The only one I can think of that ever bothered me was the corpse behavior I mentioned earlier.

Bucketlist

This post has gone on long enough, so I’ll just briefly mention some other things that make Demon’s Souls so good.

  1. The atmosphere is totally creepy, and is far scarier than games that are supposed to be scary (Dead Space, F.E.A.R., Resident Evil…). Fantasy horror might be my new favorite combination of genres.
  2. The level design is smart and unique. What other game has a level like Tower of Latria, or Shrine of Storms, or Valley of Defilement (my absolute worst nightmare)?
  3. The graphics (or aesthetics, if you prefer) are extremely polished. Lots of games that tout realism as a strong point (Skyrim, Assassin’s Creed…) look like garbage next to Demon’s Souls, even though it’s several years older.
  4. The soundtrack is subtle and beautiful. Most of the time, you don’t hear any music at all, which sets the mood appropriately given the places you find yourself in.
  5. Cutscenes are few and far between. When there are cutscenes, they’re short.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, there are not a ton of people that are willing to give a game like Demon’s Souls a fair chance, which means we will only get more shooters and dumbed down RPGs in the years ahead. I’m optimistic though that developers like From Software will always be around to provide those of us that are willing with these kinds of unique, engaging experiences. Failing that, we can try picking up a programming book or two and creating something special ourselves. PS: Despite what it may sound like, I am not at all religious about video games, and I don’t mean to offend anyone who enjoys the games that I criticize. This is just an opinion piece.

How to get the most enjoyment out of Skyrim

A dragon approaches

I consider myself a Bethesda games veteran. Between Morrowind, Oblivion, Fallout 3, and Fallout New Vegas, I’ve sunk literally hundreds of hours into these games. Many of those hours were spent bored to tears or swimming in frustration. Yet, no matter how many times I stayed up all night long pouring over loot, organizing my inventory, and vowing to myself that it would never happen again, there’s something about these games that kept me coming back for more. Even though I swore I would never play another Elder Scrolls or another Fallout, it was only a matter of time until I would cave to the pressure and pick up a copy of Skyrim.

I can’t exaggerate enough how happy I am that I did. This time, I’m forcing myself to play the game a certain way and it’s paying off tremendously. Of course, my gaming habits have changed as well, but that story will have to wait for another post. In this post, I just want to talk about how my behavior in the game has changed and how that has made this journey much more rewarding than my experiences with other Bethesda games.

I present to you Dave’s rules for getting the most enjoyment out of Skyrim (or any other Bethesda game, for that matter):

Rule no. 1: Avoid the temptation to pick up every piece of loot you can with the intention of selling it later. Instead, pick up only the items you plan on using.

In both Morrowind and Oblivion, I beefed up my characters’ strength and endurance skills right off the bat and still found that I was always being over-encumbered by the loot I carried half-way through every dungeon raid. The result was that I spent the majority of my time in those games sorting through loot, organizing my inventory, and making trips to and from the nearest town to maximize my profits. During some quests, this can be a major headache. In other quests where it’s impossible to travel, I was stuck having to make tough decisions between items that I didn’t want to leave behind.

Is it possible to make a fortune harvesting iron ore? Sure, but I’d argue it’s much more fun to make money completing quests.

Admit it, you're only going to use that staff once

Since you won’t be picking up all those useless items, you’ll also save a ton of time you would otherwise spend looking in containers. Many dungeons are filled to the brim with dressers, night stands, baskets, and sacks, but you’ll never find anything genuinely useful in these containers, so don’t even bother looking. It’s hard to resist at first, but you’ll thank me later.

Here's one legitimate use for a basket

Rule no. 2: Avoid the main story quest like the plague. Instead, pick up every side quest you can find.

You know what makes Skyrim such a special game? Some would say it’s “the graphics,” but I think most people know this isn’t true. The visual aesthetic in Skyrim can be downright sloppy at times, especially when character models start glitching out or when you get stuck behind a rock and are forced to stare at its ugly texture.

Every character in Skyrim has wet, greasy hair

I would say the most impressive aspect of “the graphics” in the game is how far you can see, but this really only points to the underlying awesomeness of the scope of the game. Skyrim is unique because you can do just about anything in it. You can go anywhere, climb any mountain, slay any foe, and pillage any dungeon. Every item in the game is rendered in detail because you can pick it up, look at it, and usually wield it. Unfortunately, you can no longer throw carrots and other miscellaneous objects you find laying around in the environment at people, which was definitely my favorite thing to do in Oblivion.

The scope of Skyrim is probably the most ambitious to be achieved yet in the realm of digital world crafting, and this is particularly evident when it comes to the side quests. Just about everyone you meet in the game will find something for you to do, whether it’s fetching something for them, delivering something for someone else, settling a dispute, planting evidence, investigating a murder, exploring an ancient ruin, aiding a squad of soldiers in combat, training in magic school, or sapping a mythical tree. These are just a few of the things I’ve accomplished so far by avoiding the main story quest entirely.

Scope

All of this scope amounts to the ultimate RPG experience. With Skyrim, Bethesda gave RPG fans what we have been clamoring for – a truly open fantasy world where we are free to do whatever and be whoever we want, to role-play in the proper sense of the term. I’m sure the main story quest is quite good. But, when you’ve got all this freedom, why follow the path? I’m having way more fun crafting my character the way I see fit than I had following the path in previous games. I think the reason is because I don’t feel any urgency to finish the game. Instead, I feel free to enjoy everything the game has to offer at my own pace. There’s no end in sight and I’m enjoying every bit of it.

That’s all the tips I have for now. Let me know how you’re enjoying your time in Skyrim and if you found my insights helpful or not!