Armagideon Time

The Long Game: Open world blues

January 14th, 2012

Like nearly everyone else on my Xbox Live friends list, purchase I’ve spent the better part of the last two months traversing the beautiful yet deadly fantasy realm of Skyrim. The first person role-playing epic from Bethesda has already sewn up the top spots on multiple “Game of the Year” lists, site and not without reason.

The game offers a huge, incredibly detailed sandbox in which players are set free to pursue their own destinies (or whims) as they see fit. While the narrative framework for the main plotlines is fairly uninspired, it is more than offset by the staggering number of available things to do — side quests, faction quests, crafting, hunting, thieving or simply wandering around looking for incidental shit in need of stirring.

At its best, Skyrim prefectly captures the feel of a beginner’s Dungeons & Dragons run — not the rumpus room politics and other social aspects, but the thrill of delving into dangerous territory and pitting one’s heroic avatar against an array of hazards in search of something (bet it loot or an experience boost) that will provide one with a marginal edge for handling the next set of exploratory challenges.

The high point of the embarrassing number of hours I’ve so far put into playing Skyrim came relatively early in the game, when I tooling around on the banks of a river and stumbled across an abandoned prison carved into a cliff face overlooking a titanic waterfall. The ghostly denizens of the dungeon were no great shakes and the haul of loot was on the anemic side, but the atmosphere and sense of place struck a nerve had been deadened by twenty-five years of jaded cynicism. As I tumbled through a secret passageway and exited though a drainage tunnel at the foot of the falls, I felt like I was fifteen again and plotting party strategy with my junior high pals around a coffee table covered in cardboard screens and graph paper,

Much to my disappointment, my experience with the game went all downhill from there. It wasn’t that I had a problem with Skyrim in particular (though it does have it’s problematic parts); I simply succumbed to a specific form of ennui associated with the open-ended “sandbox” model of game design.

A decade has passed since Grand Theft Auto III consolidated a number of emerging trends into a highly entertaining and polished package. It’s difficult to express the sense of sheer awe I felt back in 2001 when 8-Ball turned the wheel over to GTA III’s then-nameless protagonist and an entire freaking city was laid open to explore. The same goes for Xbox port of Morrowind (one of Skyrim’s predecessors in the Elder Scrolls franchise), when the my character stepped outside the custom house with a handful of leads and a massive world in which to roam.

The wonderment of those days — when I would park a stolen sports car on the Atlantic Quays and watch the virtual sun rise — has long since faded, however. As the open world formula has become codifed across a slew of sequels and copycat offerings, so has my awareness of the genre’s ubiquitous conventions. Arkham City was a great game, but there was little besides the licensing to set it apart from either inFamous or Prototype in terms of structure or content — all three have similar side missions, similar challenges, similar development trees.

The course of my engagement with open-world titles can be charted as follows:

1. I am overwhelmed by the scope of the environs.
2. I fiddle with side quests and random exploration in order to savor the experience.
3. I get bored as shit around the halfway mark and speedrun my way to the endgame.
4. I put the game aside and never go back to it.

There are exceptions to this process, namely Red Dead Redemption and Fallout 3. The former broke the pattern thanks to a robust series of player challenges/rewards and its multiplayer free roam component, the latter because I’m a sucker for the Atom Age subject matter and the fact that I’m still finding previously undiscovered locales and Easter eggs three years and hundreds of game hours after originally popping the disc into my 360 console.

Skyrim‘s medieval fantasy Norse aesthetic appeals to the inner atavistic squarehead in me, but the beauty of the in-game environs and my interest in the gameplay inexorably plateau about twelve hours into the game — just about the time when my characters master the skills which make random exploration and loot drops pointless exercises. It’s hard to get worked up about small money bounties on ill-equipped bandit gangs (or even dragons, for that matter) when you’re wielding a custom-enchanted, master-crafted ebony war axe and carrying pcoket change which would make Scrooge McDuck look like a pauper by comparison.

In a pen-and-paper game, that level of power typically marks a paradigm shfit in the types of challenges the dungeon master throws at the players — shifting away from simple dungeon raids to political intrigue or cosmic hijinx. Apart from a couple of (boring) story missions, there’s no equivalent leap in Skyrim…and so you’re left with a metamaxed demigod being sent off to whack some rats infesting a barn.

For these reasons (and for the sake of my lower back, which is no longer up to marathon gaming sessions), I decided to take a break from Skyrim — at least until the full set of DLC additions hit and I can do the entire game in one definitive playthru…and be done with it’s amazingness once and for all.

Related posts:

  1. The Long Game: Open-world sandbox blues
  2. The Long Game: Sandbox syndrome
  3. The Long Game: The longest game

3 Responses to “The Long Game: Open world blues”

  1. Steve Lewis

    my wife and oldest son are the gamers of the family, and are still grateful for the review i found them here on your site about fallout3.Bonnie is currently wandering the DC Wastelands as i type.
    this is a PS3 family and the skyrim for it has some serious glitches in need of fixing. hence the return to fallout 3.

  2. Wriphe

    GTA Vice City was, for me, the apex of the sandbox. I still don’t get tired of that game. I think it’s the more realistic elements that have been injected over the years that make the genre drag a bit. I don’t want something as nutty as Saints Row III, but having to keep my girlfriends happy or drag my loot from store to store until I find a buyer detract a bit from the “wow” experience of exploration and conquest. I want to play a game, not sim the boring elements that already exist in my life.

    That said, Skyrim has made me very, very happy for very, very many hours, warts and all. Being stalked by a dragon across a stark mountain ridge as a snowstorm blows in… oh, that’s good gaming. That’s definitely not likely to happen to me between my house and the local Wal-Mart.

  3. GE

    Thanks for this, Andrew. Nicely gels with my take on almost every new “hit” game: “Wow, that’s beautiful…okay, bored now.” (Not an attention span deal; as my wife will attest, I’ll happily watch the same favorite shows I’ve seen a dozen times for hours and hours.)

    I’m tired of D&D tone-clones, no matter how pretty they look. Same old, same old. Couldn’t even get into WoW when my niece started playing, beyond an interest in the 3D and the game engine – the game itself was just too cliche. Other genres exist beyond fantasy, supeheroes, and hard-core sci-fi; and, more importantly, genres are a remarkably limiting thing anyway.

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