Thursday, January 9, 2014

#68: Kingdoms of Amalur vs. Skyrim: The Intimidation Factor

Like many people out there in the gaming space, I like to try to play games to completion. Though I do that with fewer and fewer games as I grow older, those games that particularly interest me still fuel that urge to do everything I can before moving on. Because of this, I am all too familiar with some of the frustrations that come from such a playstyle. Open-world RPGs can be either great or horrible for people like myself. On one hand, we always have something to do, because those kinds of games will almost always have a quest or two hidden away for players to find. However, completions like me are never able to completely move on from them, because those kinds of games will almost always have a quest or two hidden away for players to find. Despite this problem, this genre can be implemented in ways that can either exacerbate this feeling or lessen it in people.

Two open-world RPGs in particular are the subjects of this weeks article: Kingdoms of Amalur, which I recently got finished playing, and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, one of the most successful games in the Elder Scrolls franchise. I want to talk about these two games in particular for a very special reason. Both games have tons of content. So much so that players could spend hundreds of hours playing either game and still never be able to complete it all. However, when I think of trying to do everything in Kingdoms of Amalur, I can't help but be intimidated by the thought. Not because any one piece of content is particularly overwhelming, but because I feel that it will take so much time, become so boring, and progress will be so slow that I just lose any desire to keep playing the game. At the same time, the thought of exploring the land of Skyrim, despite all the criticisms I have levied at that game over its lifespan, fills me with delight. Just writing about it now makes me want to go back, reload my save, and keep exploring the land to look for all the things I undoubtedly missed. At this realization, I sat down and thought for a bit as to why that might be.

The first explanation I came to for this is that Kingdoms of Amalur makes the sheer wealth of content available much more obvious than Skyrim does. When traveling through a given area in Kingdoms of Amalur, players will often come across bright yellow question marks on the map. Each of those symbols represents a quest which the players can stop to complete. This means that a player can gauge exactly how many quests are in given area by just filling out the map and counting how many yellow question marks show up. This is in fairly stark contrast to Skyrim. In the latest installment to the Elder Scrolls series, players are not explicitly told where or how to find quests. Players need to talk with people in towns or settlements in order to obtain quests. While sometimes NPCs in the game world will come up and petition the player character for assistance, the player themselves will generally be the one who has to begin interactions in order to discover new content.
Though these two systems lead to the same end, in which the player discovers quests and content to do, they accomplish different things in the mind of the player. In the case of Kingdoms of Amalur, all the content is made readily apparent to the player. In Skyrim, the exact amount of content is obfuscated. So when I go into an new area in Kingdoms of Amalur, I think to myself that this could be a potential 6-7 hours sitting right here just doing missions completely unrelated to anything else in the game. Entering a new town in Skryim, I can complete whatever errands I need to run and talk to a few villagers to find some quests I need to do. Without the constant reminder that there is a new thing to do in the city, it is easier for me to trick myself into thinking that I have “completed” all the quests in town, when in truth I have barely scratched the surface. Nonetheless, I walk away with a feeling like I accomplished much. In Kingdoms of Amalur, when I finish a quest, I feel like it is just a drop in bucket because I can see another 3-4 quests just in this one grassy plane. It is a subtle shift in the way it makes players think, but a key one that affects the perception of the whole game.

Another contributing factor to the difference in feeling of intimidation in one of these games, but not the other is that contrast in how combat works in each of them. In Kingdoms of Amalur, the combat is very visceral. There is a surprising amount of depth to it. Players need to stay aware of their surroundings in order to dodge enemy attacks, while trying to create an opening to stagger the enemy. If they are not careful, then they themselves will be knocked down and on the defensive. Each weapon type has its own combo chain, with strength and speed unique to that type of weapon. Though not difficult, timing and planning are quite important, and even enemies of equal level can wear down the unprepared (especially when there are mages in the enemy formation). On the flip side, Skyrim's combat is quite bare bones. It is quite trivial to button mash one's way through most encounters the game will throw at the player. Magic and stealth characters can use spells and backstab to change things up, but the mechanics are fairly simple and do not need much knowledge to fully grasp.
Let me preface my next statement by saying that I enjoy the combat in Kingdoms of Amalur. In fact, the combat was one of the most enjoyable parts of the game. However, that kind of combat against dozens and dozens of encounters has a way of gradually draining the player's mental stamina and enthusiasm for playing. As fun and fairly easy as it is, the sheer number of enemies the game throws at the player are not quite compatible with the type of combat. Also, the foes in Kingdoms of Amalur are quite durable, so taking them down can be fairly time consuming. While Skyrim also tends to have a lot of enemies come the player's way, the simpler mechanics lend themselves to that more readily. Enemies tend to fall fast and easy. It is not as mentally draining to play through waves of enemies in Skyrim than it in Kingdoms of Amalur, so playing through it is more bearable, despite its combat being worse overall. As a result, it is much easier to play hours and hours of Skyrim than in is to do the same in Kingdoms of Amalur. I can also play the latter for an hour or two before I feel the need to save and shut it off.

I find it interesting to compare and contrast similar games, because there is much to learn from such analysis. Both games are likely in many ways, but the way they implement their systems can leave completely different impressions of the audience. What is even more interesting is that I know there will be people who disagree for many different reasons. I am sad that Kingdoms of Amalur did not do so well, because I think they could do so much better if given a second chance. Hopefully, people will be able to learn from what went wrong with the game in time. Until then, there will be guys like me out there to over-analyze games like it in the vain hopes that others will listen.


Aldowyn said...

I know we talked about this on twitter, but I feel like I'm missing something. I swear I did almost all of the nonsense sidequests, and I'm 99% sure I explored everywhere so I would have seen any I missed. I'm pretty sure it took less than 100 hours, too. Skyrim, on the other hand... I can't imagine doing all of that.

Anonymous said...

The first time i played skyrim i went for a serious roleplaying approach, where choices do matter and you need to carefully plan every move you do in and out of combat to not screw skills and fulfill your roleplay as a complete class. Got bored in one week after i have found a strange infinite pattern. A pattern where everything feels dead and you can almost predict how NPCs will react. That’s how skyrim has so many memorable quotes, it’s not because they’re impactating or “epic”, it’s because you will hear the same lines over and over and over and over, until it finally gets stuck in your subconscious. Skyrim is a game for compulsive people which have absolutely low standards or no attention span whatsoever. People who hop in at every bandwagon or listen to popular shitty songs not because they’re cool, but because they’re cool now. Notice the word “now”.

I realized i was playing skyrim the wrong way. I thought: “What if i imagine i was 12 again?! Let’s give it a try.” I then proceeded to created a new character, which i don’t even know which race it was, some cool cat or was it a lizard or a beaded viking? ah whatever!! I rushed through every dungeon, never stopping to read any books (except the most valuable ones, the skill ones of course!) or looting any chests,urns,boxes,etc. I don’t know how many points i have spent and what skills i have got, i rushed throught every dialogue and payed no attention whatsoever to any conversation, always fast travelling. Many, many dragons have easily fallen to my two-handed sword, or was it an axe?! I don’t remember.

But sadly, although it did work when i was acting like a little teen, i realized something very important which made me come to a decision: i will never buy a bethesda elder scrolls game again.

Why? Because bethesda’s skyrim target audience is actually 12 years old or people who act like them. We are already too old for them, shame on us.

Anonymous said...

You, sir, are my new hero. You pinned down the exact reason why I quit Fallout 3 and every other Bethesda game since. Next time somebody asks me why I don't give Skyrim or the ES Online a second thought, I'll be sure to quote from you.