Monday, June 19, 2006

The Invisible Wall

My time during waking hours is pretty limited... so my Oblivion binges are largely limited to the twilight hours. That usually works, until my addiction becomes so ravenous I go on all-night benders that would even rival Gabe's WoW vices.

As my time has become more precious, I've started to judge titles more and more harshly. If I'm going to throw hours of my life out the window, it had better be for a damn entertaining game.

As my past... months of posts no doubt indicate, my current ball-and-chain is Oblivion. I'm a big fan of the American-style RPG, with it's roots in the good ol' pencil-and-paper heritage of the original tabletop role playing games. The emphasis on character building and non-linear storylines is what's appealing; American RPG's offered "sandbox" environments before the term became pop culture with the rampant consumption of the GTA titles.

Japanese RPG's, by contrast, are much more linear and story-focused. Their roots are more cinematic, or perhaps more art-as-narrative driven. There everything fits together as a seamless whole, to be consumed instead like a good graphic novel.

Of course, I'm being pretty stereotypical. There are plenty examples of titles from each locale crossing these boundaries, but I'm not speaking geographically, I'm speaking about the genre

The reason I bring this up is because with the Japanese RPG's, one becomes accustomed to limitations being put on your actions. You can't walk offscreen. You can't kill off NPC's that are staples of the theme. But that's okay because you're playing on behalf of the protagonist, not your character.

Conversely the American RPG makes you take ownership of your character. It's the embodiment of the ideal PC. And his options are supposed to be limitless. Of course, for all practical intents and purposes you can't have a game with the landmass of the whole Earth, where it takes months to circumnavigate the entire unique space. There has to be some limitation - but it must feel like a natural limitation.

I'm going back to Morrowind (sorry Rocky) for examples. Here you have the general cop-out of surrounding the entire navigable area with water. That's a natural boundary - normally one can't swim across a lake (my lazy butt can't at least). Mountains are good too - you just make mountains so steep they're naturally insurmountable, then voila! a natural barrier. Morrowind did that perfectly... only naturally-borne obstacles stood in my way; never did I encounter some "invisible wall" which prohibited me from progressing further.

Let's look at the diametric opposite of this design decision. Ever play a snowboarding, skiing or skating game (such as the infamous Tux Racer) where you fault skywards, cut to the extreme left or right, but only get stopped by some unseen, invisible, frictionless wall that stops you from going any further? The level designers stopped at this boundary - and so your avatar simply can't go past it. You may be able to see past it... it may appear to go on forever... but damned if you can actually go there.

Oblivion, much to my chagrin, does both. I was just strolling happily along when I decided to fill up my alchemist's bag with St. John's wart or Slim Jims or something akin to that when suddenly I hit the infamous "invisible wall." A message pops up onscreen (I hate those messages) that informs me "you cannot go any further." What? Of course I can... I can see the damn hills beyond! Why not?

I mean, just have some sort of archangel swoop by and cut me down. Or may some impassable gulch. Or flying monkeys. Whatever. But don't invent an invisible wall and say "you cannot go any further." I'm supposed to "live" in your world. Livable worlds don't have infinitely tall glass walls with warning messages on a console.

While I'm on my rant, I also have to rail against Oblivion's "automatic leveling system." You see, in Morrowind everyone is basically "born" with the stats they have. When the world is generated, people have a given strength, HP, ability, weapons and they stay with them. Cliff racers, annoying tho they be, always do the same damage and can take the same amount back. The populous at large, both bandits in caves and passers-by selling hot cross buns, all retain their same level of fortitude and ability. Just like in real life. While this sucks for the character just starting out, later characters can clean house. At beginning levels you may accidentally meander into the wrong cave and be instantly mutilated, but two years later you may go past that very same cave and clear out all inhabitants with a mere twitch of the wrist. It makes those of us who were once tossed head-first into trash cans feel empowered.

But with Oblivion, Bethesda had the idea to make the game more "accessible" to entry-level characters. The difficulty of your combat is in direct proportion to your current skill level. That way you could just stick to the main quest, hammer through it quickly and still take people down before you leveled up to double-digits. The downside to this, however, is the meager wolves that try to eat your horse's shins go from acquiescing after a quick rap on the nose to being able to survive past strikes of lighting directly up their posterior. Once just moderate wildlife, the become elevated to the status of uber-wolves wandering the wilderness. So now the random furry four-legged creatures still take a good four direct hits, no matter if you're level 1 or 100. Call me crazy, but if I can dole out 110 points of damage through my fingertips then I should be eating mountain lion flambe in no time flat. If I can survive a warhammer to the head I should be able to sustain a bear gnawing on my toes.

Minor quibbles... I'm still addicted enough to forgo sleep just to save Bruma from the random Gallagher attack. But those two anti-reality mechanics are enough to pull me away from the current universe I'm engrossed in and actually glance up at the clock.

1 comment:

  1. You know, I have to agree about the invisible wall issue. Maybe they think the world is so big, you won't bother trying to reach the edge of it. Again, I agree about the auto-level system. It is annoying on some levels. But, also it keeps the game challenging. So, I understand why they did it. If you get too powerful, then the game could become boring. So, I understand their point. It also perhaps alleviates the need to grinding for hours to be able to continue your quest, because you weren't a high enough level.

    I am able to pull myself away, but when I think about gaming, it is the only thing I want to play right now.

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