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AlmostApollo's blog

8:44 PM on 02.24.2012


What is a game? A miserable little pile of systems. It's a dumb thing to say, certainly, but when you can truly forget this is when games are at their best. 

Immersion is a strange, fickle beast. The more immersed you are in a world, the more likely you are to spend hours upon hours inside it. The more hours you spend inside it, the more likely you are to lose that immersion entirely. 

Have you ever played a game so much that you know its animations, its mechanics, its systems inside and out? It's kind of like being Neo inside the Matrix, the code laid bare in front of you. But instead of being a god, able to bend it all to your will, you are just a casual observer. The code is laying on the floor, naked and bare, but it is also static, unchangeable. 


Just like that, the immersion snaps. It's one of the major reasons that Skyrim will never be a great game to me. Its attention to detail, its world-building, its sense of scale are all second to none when it comes to immersion, but it wears its systems on its sleeve, showing me that it really isn't anything but 1's and 0's. Static, unchangeable 1's and 0's. 

Game design comes in loops. Whether it's the combat loop, the dialogue loop, the obligatory lockpicking loop, it doesn't really matter. When you start to decompose the content in even one of these loops, things start to become a problem. As soon as you figure out how something "works," the disassembling begins. With Skyrim, this started almost immediately for me as soon as I saw that all objects are there just to be opened. Chests, barrels, crates, corpses, it doesn't matter. They all "open" the same way. They remain static in the world and a menu pops up. Immersive. 

The major question is: How can a game like Skyrim, whose major focus is seemingly immersion in an epic fantasy world fail so badly at it?

Games like Red Dead Redemption seem to understand that goal far better than any Bethesda-made RPG out there. The key to immersion isn't dense environments, highly populated towns, and lengthy, detailed dialogue trees. In fact, it's quite the opposite. 

Red Dead Redemption's sparse Western landscape is the major reason it's so successful in creating immersion. John Marston can ride anywhere he wants to, go in any building he wants to, and explore anywhere that is physically possible. That's the key to immersion. Limiting the player in plausible ways, but never limiting the player in arbitrary ways. 

In RDR, when I run up against a mountain that's too steep to climb, my horse starts to fall down it. In Skyrim, I hit an invisible wall while my animation continues and I just have to sidle and jump around a few times to get past it. 

It wouldn't be that big of an issue in Skyrim, either, if its navigation system wasn't so abhorrent. It's easier to fidget your way up the mountain than it is to actually find a good path. The compass also brings up far out of sight areas for you to explore, which your character had no reason to even know are there. Mix this with the fact that you always want to seek them out so that you can fast-travel to them just to skip the walking in the first place and it's a sign of a major problem. 

I guess this is where I mention that I never used the fast-travel system in RDR. Not once. The exploration and traveling was so well done that I always wanted to see the sights and random occurrences that would happen along the way. 

It doesn't help Skyrim's case that the player character is so utterly devoid of personality. It doesn't matter if there are three hundred thousand townsfolk in the game if I can't do anything interesting with them. Sure, I can stop and ask them if they need any questing done, but that's about it. I can ask them questions, pick their pockets, or kill them, but none of those things actually amount to an interesting interaction. If I talk to them, a menu opens up with a few mostly uninteresting dialogue choices. If I pickpocket them, a menu opens up as if they were a chest. If I kill them, nothing of worth happens and I get to open them like a chest. Maybe a guard comes and I have to answer some choices on another menu. Riveting stuff. 

In RDR, there are few NPC's compared to Skyrim and most of them have even fewer interactions. This is far preferable, though, because none of the interactions feel intrusive. None of them open menus. Maybe I kill the woman in the street. At least when I loot her, I'll actually bend over and search her pockets. There's less reason to do so, maybe, but at least it isn't relegated down to a menu. Maybe I'll just walk by. Chances are they'll have something to say and Marston will say something back. At least it's a two-sided conversation this way. At least it's not a menu. 

It's also important to give the player the right tools for the job. It's up to the designer to give the player tools that they can use to their full potential. The player should never feel like they can't do something they want to do with the tools they've been given. Maybe they don't have the right tool for what they want to do. That's fine. But when a tool they have is not programmed to do something it should be able to do, that's where the problems come in. 

If I wasn't able to use that lasso in RDR to hogtie my enemies or lead cattle on the farm, I would be disappointed and taken out of the experience. But I can. The lasso really feels and behaves like a lasso; the guns feel like guns. That's all the tools that Marston needs and they work like expected. That goes a long way. 

In Skyrim, the player is given the biggest tool of them all: magic. That should be awesome, right? It's too bad you can't do a lot of what you want with it. You can't use your magic to help you get through that mountain. You can't use it to make your enemies do what you want. The combat magic works just as intended, but the other schools have major problems. Everything you can do with them has far too much transparency. When you unlock a door with magic, you don't feel like it wiggled the latch, you feel like it changed the 1 that meant locked to a 0 that meant unlocked. When you become invisible, you don't feel invisible, you feel like the enemies saw you, but was told not to activate their combat systems. It's a weird thing to bring attention to, but it's worthwhile. 

It's a shame, too. The world and the craft is all there to make Skyrim the most immersive game imaginable, but it gets bogged down in its own systems. The systems it has are too transparent, but the systems it lacks are more-so. If immersion was truly the intent of Bethesda, they need to learn that immersion is every bit as hinged on gameplay as it is in the world itself. Every step I take towards actually playing Skyrim as a game takes me one step farther away from appreciating it as a living, breathing world. A living, breathing world they created, but ultimately destroy with their gameplay. 

Every time I play Skyrim, I can see the code. I see what's happening behind the scenes, what's triggering the circumstances. It's static. It's unchangeable. It's a damned shame.   read

9:01 PM on 02.21.2012

Character Guide: Mass Effect Series

With Mass Effect 3 coming out soon and me having just finished Mass Effect 2, I thought I would write a piece on the important characters of Mass Effect to remind people who they were. The following descriptions are my perception of the characters and may or may not be factual.

Saren Arterius:

Essentially the “big bad” of the first game, Saren is a rogue SPECTRE who is working for the Reapers. If you really dig hard enough through the codex, you’ll find out why. Which is, of course, that he’s gay for Sovereign. Saren is a well-known nihilist and is always looking for a man who can give him everything he’s ever wanted: nothing.

Kaiden Alenko:

Play KotoR? He’s Carth.

Ashley Williams:

Ashley Williams is well-known for two things: being named after Bruce Campbell’s character in the Evil Dead and being a space-racist. One makes up for the other, though, so I won’t judge. Towards the end of the first game, Shepard is forced to choose who is killed, Kaiden or Ashley. He loses either way.

Garrus Vakarian:

Ex-cop. Awesome eye-patch/DBZ-scouter. He probably knows what a TV dinner feels like. And I’ll bet he takes down people who could talk about industrialization and men’s fashion all day for breakfast. What I’m saying is that he’s John McClane: Space Edition. You should have caught that already.

Tali’Zorah nar Rayya:

She’s probably pretty hot under that uniform, huh? *blush*

Liara T’Soni:

She’s a sassy blue lady. She’s really sympathetic towards Shepard. If you know what I mean.

Urdnot Wrex:


David Anderson:

More like KEITH David Anderson.

Donnel Udina:

Donnel Udina is widely known throughout the galaxy for his “smile that pierces the galaxy.” His sheer intense joy causes love and emotion to take over for a radius of hundreds of millions of miles.

Jeff “Joker” Moreau:

Sticks and stones may break his bones, but so does everything else.


She’s pretty much the Weapon X of the Mass Effect Universe. Covered in tattoos. Hawt.


A test-tube baby, meant to be the perfect Krogan. The way he says, “Shepard,” is second to none. Except Wrex. It’s second to Wrex.

Miranda Lawson:

What an ass. *cough*

Jacob Taylor:

He had Miranda first. I’ll never forgive him for that. What an ass, in a completely different way.

Mordin Solus:

He is the very model of a scientist Salarian. Also, one of the most avid supporters of birth control in the Universe.


HK-47, but less cool. That’s right, I said it. Deal.


Samara is probably a pretty interesting character. She wouldn’t let me have space-sex with her, though, so I wouldn’t know.

Thane Krios:

Those double eye-lids are DOPE. Oh, and he’s pretty good at killing people. And he’s going to die soon. Or something.

Zaeed Massani:

A face only a mother could love and a personality that even she couldn’t. If badass facial scars are your thing, though, you could do worse.

Kelly Chambers:

Kelly feeds your fish. You can also feed her fish. Know what I’m sayin’? Eh? Eh?

The Illusive Man:

The Illusive Man is literally the only character cool enough for male Shepard to be gay with. Bioware should make it happen. Those eyes. I just want to stare into those eyes…

And that will do it! Now you know everything you know about the characters in Mass Effect! Now you can jump straight into 3 and not even worry that you’re missing out.

Those eyes…   read

7:57 PM on 02.13.2012

Diamonds in the Rough: Duke Nukem Forever

I'm going to start this off by saying the obvious: Duke Nukem Forever is not a good game. I'm not here to say it is. I'm not going to say that any of the positive things that I say about it make up for the myriad shortcomings. What I am here to say is that if you scrape back the layers of negative hyperbole surrounding the game, you might find something worthwhile underneath.

Duke Nukem Forever turns back the clock on game design, simultaneously to its credit and to its detriment. Nobody makes first-person shooters where you spend most of your time not shooting anymore. Exploration and simple puzzle-solving are a major focus, with a good amount of platform jumping in-between. I legitimately believe that this is not a bad thing. Half-Life 2 is one of my favorite games of all-time and DNF almost shamelessly cribs a lot of its exploratory gameplay from it. Hell, it even has a few physics-based puzzles of its own. I'm certainly not saying that DNF comes anywhere close to the quality of Half-Life 2, but it's nice to see that style of gameplay emerge again. The first-person platforming is almost always painless, though there are a few path-finding issues to be sure. Something about it just genuinely felt exploratory in a way that not many games this generation have. Sure, you're funneled through a very tight path with only one way out, but the levels are well-realized and give you a sense of place throughout Duke's journey to rescue his babes.

Believe it or not, it actually gave me something that Half-Life 2 did not: a strong personality from the player character. This is something that a lot of games intentionally lack, due to the player being able to more closely relate with the character the less that they speak. That's all well and good, but it seems weird to me that in these strenuous circumstances someone like Gordan Freeman or even Chell would have absolutely nothing to say. Almost all of my favorite FPS's work this way. Even a lot of games where the player character does speak, that character is either bland and forgettable or does most of their speaking in cutscenes that are no longer in first-person. Adam Jensen in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, for example, is an identifiable character with his own personality, but I know more about his personality from when the focus was on him (like any of the dialogue sequences) than I do from when the focus was through him. Say what you will about Duke's personality, misogynistic and puerile as it is, at least it's there. At least the player character is someone who actually reacts to his surroundings, whether it's with a first-person middle finger salute or some sort of grizzled retort. I'd like more games to give this a shot. Games like The Darkness were quite successful with this. Most of the memorable moments were of Jackie Estacado reacting to his surroundings in first-person with the player literally witnessing it through his eyes. Duke speaks often enough that you never forget who you are and, love it or hate it, his personality permeates the entire experience in a way that few other games manage to pull off.

The idea of fully interactive environments has seemingly been lost in the current generation, as well. I'm always looking for a games that allow me to react in small ways to the objects around me. There's a real thrill in walking up to a vending machine and watching it work or turning on all the sinks in the bathroom. One of my favorite moments in the entire game is when a little boy asks for your autograph, leaving you to control the marker and write whatever you want in his copy of your autobiography. For that moment, you are Duke. You have the power to decide what gets written in this boy's book. It has absolutely no consequence on anything later in the game and the dialogue remains the same no matter what you put in there, but that tiny bit of freedom immersed me into the game more successfully than almost anything else I can think of. I was legitimately role-playing, trying to figure out what Duke would actually say. And I loved it. This probably plays off of that sense of character I was talking about earlier. If this were like most games, I would have no idea what my character would do in that situation. Since this is Duke Nukem, though, I knew to write the most offensive, most obvious catch-phrase of yesteryear. Other interactable objects are scattered throughout, like pinball machines and air hockey tables, and you're actually blessed with maximum health increases for seeking them out and using them. Clever design, in my opinion, because some of the game's major appeal is walking up and interacting with everything you can find, and the game actually rewards you for messing around with that. I love that.

One of the best, most positive things I can say about the game is that it comes with a wide assortment of videos and screenshots of the game during it's ridiculously long development cycle. It was really informative to play through the entire game and then sit down and watch videos of early builds of the game. It's something that most game developers would keep under wraps, never wanting their fan base to see the changes and iterations that went on under the hood of their game, but here it gave a strong sense of what happened with the project and how it continuously changed over the years. The game even comes with a Duke Nukem soundboard, whose inclusion gave me one of the biggest laughs of the entire game. Just seeing that it was in there legitimately gave me a smile.

As a labor of love to the series and to its fans, Duke Nukem Forever will slap you in the face, knock you down, help you back on to your feet, and then give you a pat on the back. It somehow manages to be endearing during its abuse, much as Duke is represented as being in the game itself. He could not be more terrible to his women, but they love him anyway. Duke Nukem Forever replicates that abusive relationship with its audience perfectly by showing you that what you remember doesn't work in a modern context, but giving you enough self-knowing winks and nods that sometimes you don't even care. It gives insight into the industry that a genuine high-quality product could never give and manages to be entirely relevant in its irrelevance. As much as I can not say that DNF is a good game, I also can't say that I didn't enjoy it. For anyone who is even slightly interested in the industry and knows the context behind the game, it is 100% necessary to play through. Whether you enjoy your time with it or not, it plays out as an episode of What Not to Wear: Game Design Edition, as enjoyable for its flaws as it is for its triumphs.   read

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