Archive for May, 2012
World-building and game design – two conflicting forces?
Sometimes all the elegant solutions in the world, all the polish and smoothed down corners of triple A gaming only serve to remind us how artificial, how fake, the experience relayed to us really is.
The thought struck me while finally catching up on Assassins Creed II last week. Its rendering of 15th century Florence and Venice is nothing if not impressive, and I had a lot of fun playing on the rooftops. But for all the care that went into this detailed recreation, I was having a hard time losing myself in it. In its eagerness to provide an enthralling experience, Assassins Creed II imposes the logic of game design on the vibrant chaos of a renaissance metropolis. It’s clear that a lot of care has gone into hiding them, but for what it’s worth, the seams still show.
Why, for instance, do city officials place posters bearing my likeness on balconies and ledges high above the street, where nobody will ever see them? Why does the Assassin Order go through the trouble of designing elaborate trials for unlocking an ancient set of armor, but loses the Codex pages essential to figuring out the current conspiracy? Why are these then conveniently located in virtually undefended Templar dens spread across the nearby countryside? Why does Ezio go back and forth between killing dozens of Templars in a days work and spending two years brooding on a bench?
These things make sense from a game perspective. The elevated positioning of wanted posters works well for a character that spends most of his time somewhere in between the rooftops and the streets anyway, and it makes tearing them down slightly more conspicuous.
It’s reasonable to make unlocking an entirely optional set of armor more challenging than actually progressing through the plot. That’s not how the world works though. The uncanny realization that everything was so obviously geared to me destroyed any sense budding sense of immersion.
For a world to have its own idiosyncrasies, its rough corners and nooks and crannies, is crucial to its believability. The very first step to accepting it as anything other than a Truman Show experience is for it to convince me that I am but a part of this world, not its center. Not an expendable, ordinary part, mind, but not the end all, be all center of the universe either.
This is exactly why I love Gothic II and its spiritual successor Risen, though my reasoning must seem absolutely bizarre: Those games give you nothing for free. They are tight-lipped about the fine details of combat and character progression, they let you wander around freely only to be slaughtered by creatures far past your reach. They don’t even give you a map. They make you buy one. The feeling of adversity that pervades these RPGs makes progress all the more satisfying.
Or, you could say it’s lazy, inelegant or straight out bad design. I hear these complaints frequently when discussing the titles. They are broken. They are too difficult. The skewed difficulty leads to a sense of inadequacy and incompetence. It’s possible to mess up your build in a way that will render the game nigh unbeatable. Swords are too prevalent, while other weapon types are scarce. Quests don’t give you proper instructions or directions. Some missions even require bribery, tricks and rule bending to solve.
All of these are valid complaints to make. Taste can never be invalid. However, not only do these seemingly glaring flaws not bother me in the least, they are actually what draws me to Risen.
How do you feel about this? Can a game be too smooth? Has elegant design ever thrown you out of the experience, and poor design pulled you in? Am I just cynical in claiming that a game only feels real if it treats me with disdain? Or is nothing I said true, and everything I dislike actually permitted?
Games, and RPGs in particular, have always been eager to push technology to the limit to give us bigger playgrounds. They let us explore vast kingdoms, entire continents. Some have done away with borders altogether to offer endless worlds, procedurally generated just beyond the player’s horizon. More, more, more: In this industry, big is beautiful.
In a way, the Gothic series has always been a counterpoint to this trend, focusing on small but intricately detailed locales. The games are not sandboxes, but snowglobes: Limited in size, but very reactive. Gothic I & II, set in and around the penal mining colony of Khorinis, offered one of the most lively and rich, albeit tiny, game worlds the RPG genre had ever seen. When developer Piranha Bytes decided to expand to a larger, open world for the third installment, they ended up spreading content too thin while struggling to properly test, let alone balance, the sheer mass of new quests, skills, enemies and NPCs. The result was a bug-ridden, unplayable mess. Piranha Bytes lost the rights to the series during the break-up with ailing publisher JoWood, and nearly went out of business themselves.
So it was with some trepidation I took the news that after the reasonably sized and largely bug-free Risen, Piranha Bytes intended to return to its open-world ambitions with the follow-up Risen 2: Dark Waters. What’s more, the game abandons traditional sword and sorcery for a swashbuckling pirate theme, complete with flintlock pistols and voodoo magic. Not only does Risen 2 part with established settings, it also returns to the broad scope that almost destroyed Piranha Bytes not so long ago: For a project as daring as this, the mere fact that it doesn’t collapse under its own weight is kind of impressive. Sadly, not a lot more can be said for the game.
Despite his victory over Ursegor at the end of the first game (achieved at the price of an eyeball), the world of Risen continues to be ravaged by titans and, with no means to fight back, the nameless hero now spends his days guzzling rum. Having the first two steps of the pirate lifestyle down, when news arrive that a group of buccaneers has found a way to defeat the sea titan Mara, he is sent out to join them in search of the necessary magical artifacts.
While the first Risen focused entirely on the island of Faranga, Risen 2 has you sailing to about half a dozen islands of comparable size, at least, once you earn a ship of your own. The first half of the game, some rough 12 hours, are spent earning the pirates’ trust by taking part in all the necessary social rituals: fighting, looting, drinking and digging up treasures. During this phase, your travel options are limited to wherever your captain plans on going. It’s only once you acquire the first magical weapon that you’re given command of a ship, and are free to go wherever you please.
Risen 2 is definitely a lot bigger than its predecessor, but it doesn’t fall into the same trap as Gothic III by mindlessly trying to expand everything. The increase in size is offset by a simplified system of character progression. There are more sidequests, but less care has been afforded to each individual mission. There are more islands, but they are less detailed and contain larger sections of filler material. While I doubt that these decisions are wise, seeing how the series was originally known for its meticulously crafted settings, they aren’t technically wrong. The combat system is a definite step back, with the ability to block animal attacks now sadly a thing of the past for want of shields, but for the most part Risen 2 is on par with the original Risen in terms of quality. Content isn’t the problem, structure is.
The first few hours of Piranha Bytes‘ pirate adventure feel fairly focused, offering a small number of challenges and leaving it up to you to work out which to tackle first. This Gothic as Gothic does, and there few things as enjoyable as figuring out that the reward for fighting some harmless creatures is enough to buy you into the drinking contest, which will help you win a map to some buried treasure, which will pay for the combat lessons necessary to take on the next fight. The first half of the game offers a wonderful sense of challenge as you puzzle out what will kill and what won’t. It all leads up to a surprisingly decent boss fight and early climax halfway through the game, but after Risen 2 finally opens up the difficulty curve starts to fall apart.
Once you earn a ship and crew of your own, you’re free to go after either of the remaining McGuffins first, and Risen 2 seems to be crafted in such a way that any order is feasible. Unfortunately, this means there’s no difficulty progression throughout the entire second half of the game. In fact, since you continue to level up while fighting the same weak enemies, the game keeps growing easier. The final showdown in particular is obscenely short and disappointing, and it’s hard to feel accomplished after 30 seconds of fighting.
Now, this may sound like the first half of the game is brilliant, and the second half terrible, but in truth, the entirety of Risen 2 is something of a mixed blessing: The first half offers more of a challenge, but this also makes the dodgy combat more glaringly apparent. The second half can end up feeling needlessly long for want of challenge, but still spins a rather interesting tale.
All in all, I’m not entirely sure if I can recommend Risen 2: Dark Waters. On the one hand the first Risen, or even its spiritual predecessor Gothic II, offer more lively game worlds and wonderfully unforgiving RPG design. On the other hand, with its quest markers, autosaves, fast travel system and lower difficulty, Risen 2 is probably the closest this (extended) series has ever been to being approachable. The game might not prove entirely satisfying, but it’s certainly worth a look for the pirate motif, if nothing else.