By Kierkegaard 0 Comments
Just wrote a review of a game from 2011 that I still have not finished, and I found myself comparing its systems and approach to that of Demon's Souls, a game I have played some since it was given to me by Playstation Plus.
I've excerpted that section here, not because I think it is necessarily a new thought, but because it interested me and I'm wondering what others think. Bashing on popular games and praising cult ones is common. Sorry for following a trend.
Skyrim exists as an open-world, systemic adventure because we want immersion. We want to travel across the land to reach a hut rather than cutscening over there. We want to own a house and adorn its walls. We want to come upon random little stories and feel special for doing so. We want to choose.
But I wonder if choice is worth the discomfort. Because of choice, every item can be moved and must be saved in its current state upon every entrance and exit of a location. Because of choice, NPCs must have complex and often comical stage directions, which they hop to if one waits from night into morning. Because of choice, there is waiting, wandering, confusion.
I enjoyed coming upon a former imperial prison now haunted by ghosts after a great flood had forced the imperials to leave, choosing to leave the stormcloak prisoners to die as well. I like starting a random drinking game only to have to follow my steps in a Hangover homage. I like having a dragon randomly appear and help me kill an assassination target. Randomness and chance and choice can sometimes lead to serendipity.
In Demon's Souls, the world is mostly kept stagnant, with any player influence being major and game changing. Enemies spawn in the same space. Every table is reset. Bridges remain down across games, though, and dragons remain driven away. Progression is so remarkable because it is uncommon. Opening that gate and killing that boss mattered because of course it did. Destroying that pot is undone because of course it is.
In Skyrim, I have spent hours spinning dragon statues so that I can enter an Inn. Hours selling and buying materials. Hours without need.
The Bethesda model has drawn me along for many hours. I have fallen into it. But I am not convinced I like it. There is little precision here, only elimination of failure. Skills improve in power, making me invisible when I crouch, my arrows hit harder, my armor take less damage, my spells require less magicka, but do I improve in skill? Improvement is essentially a stat adjustment to make things easier. It comes with time, not improvement in skill.
Consider Demon's Souls again. While vitality can increase, while weapons can become stronger, the game becomes easier due to skill and knowledge acquisition. I can avoid death in the first stage with a horrible sword now, because I have learned to effectively roll and block and swipe. That I use a great curved sword and a strong shield simply allows me to kill things faster, not better.
To level up in Skyrim, one must strike an enemy, block his attacks, sneak around near him, use a spell on him. The reward is instant, a minor boost for every action, a major boost for the combination. In From Software's series, leveling up requires that one defeats multiple enemies and lives to tell about it, actively bringing their souls back to the hub area. Skyrim rewards for doing, assuming improvement comes with time; Demon's Souls rewards for achievement, knowing that improvement comes with success.
I am a teacher. I know how hard it is for students to learn. But I also know that if I accept a poor paper and have them move on to the next idea, I have not helped them learn. Real success comes with hard work and step-by-step instruction, making the task achievable and relevant to the student. In some ways, both of these games are terrible teachers, with Skyrim assuming students grow with repetition and Demon's Souls forcing them to grow through neglect and pain. Yet the logos of students needing to succeed at a task to progress fits my understanding of teaching best.
I have found Skyrim enjoyable and ultimately worth while. It tells the story of people I like getting to know and interacting with. It's approach to world building and player progression ultimately feel a waste to me, though, a time sink for rewards either not worth the time or better achieved through other means. To build such a comprehensive, adorned world is a horrible task. To make that world something I want to live in rather than rush through is still a challenge Bethesda has not achieved.
Demon's Souls is harsh and cruel and unexplained without outside help. Yet I come back to it because it is fair. If I die, it is not because I have not spent enough time having my armor hit by large monsters. It is because I have not figured out how best to beat that enemy yet. The same tactics 10 hours into Skyrim will create a less fruitful result than 100 hours into Skyrim. In Demon's Souls, a tactic that leads to my death should never be repeated. It is harsh, but it teaches me. Skyrim wants me to become a god, able to fell a giant in three swipes. Demon's Souls maligns hubris in its story and discourages it in its gameplay.