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12:09 AM on 07.05.2012

Today, Skyrim Made Me Smile

Today, on the fourth of July, I came across what is probably my favorite quest in Skyrim. I had received a random tip from a local bartender, suggesting that I journey to a local Dwarven ruin. Having no other pending quests, I decide to check it out. After a long walk to the ruin, I stepped through a pair of giant bronze doors. Upon entry, I begin moving slowly through a dark tunnel, seeing natural light at the end. Suddenly, I hear voice. "Turn back," it says. Not sure where this disembodied voice was issuing from, I continue on. The tunnel empties into a large and expansive open-air cave. After walking around for a bit, I hear a frustrated sigh behind me. I turn around to see the ghost of a female Nord, seemingly not hostile. From here, the ghost explains the back story of one of the biggest side quests in Skyrim.

She explains that she was searching for an ancient Dwarven forge, seemingly long lost. When she was among the living, she ventured into the very same ruin that I so recently waltzed into. She tells me how she died and what she needs to do in order to rest peacefully. She asks if she can tag along with me through the rest of this ruin. I say yes, and we venture forth.

After a little bit of walking, we come across the body of a Nord female. With true regret and sadness, she says, "This was where I died." Easily one of the best voice acting performances in the game. I really felt the emotion and despair behind those words. She tells me to grab her journal off of her corpse, which I oblige. Looking through the notes and scribbles, I find a map with multiple locations circled in red. I also find a diagram which I assume will help me with a later puzzle. We journey through the rest of the ruin, taking down Falmer and ancient Dwarven automatons together. We reach the end of the ruin, where I have to reference her journal to solve a puzzle. Upon solving, several doors open, revealing a large treasure room, in which I find the first piece of a much larger puzzle. From there, she explains the rest of the quest line to me. To summarize, she wants us to find four pieces of an ancient Dwarven key, and then from there, us them to find the long lost forge.

From here, she instructs me find three lost Dwarven ruins in order to find the other pieces. She then says she has to leave, and disappears in a puff of blue smoke. I plunder the rest of the treasure room, and make my way back outside. Once in the sunlight again, I open my map to see where I have to fast-travel to. I see no arrows or hints on where to go next. I double-check to see if the quest is active. It is. At this point, I realize that I actually have to figure out where these hidden locations are without the help of a quest arrow, a feeling that has become increasingly unfamiliar.

Having a quest arrow, dot or some kind of bread trail to lead us to the next objective has become so embedded in gaming culture, many of us probably have a hard time adjusting to not having one. Games like Call of Duty have made the implementation of a quest arrow so widespread, finding a mainstream game without one may be a challenge. Gamers may forget that having a quest arrow is a relatively new "invention." Pre-Call of Duty, you had to figure out where you were going via trial, error, and just a little bit of luck. To be honest, I have missed that challenge. So, it was with this knowledge that I decided that I needed to figure this out without the help of any kind of internet FAQ or guide. This next part is what made me smile.

Upon realizing that I had no guiding light to follow, I opened the journal I had acquired from the ghost's corpse. I find a rough sketch of Skyrim, with several locations around the continent circled in red ink. Each circle is accompanied by a number, each of which has a respective descriptor on the following page. Upon studying the sketch, I determine that the mine I had just explored was circle number one. I now have to figure out where circle number two is. I open my in-game map to try and determine where the next ruin is. Since the in-game map appears to have fairly thick cloud cover, I have a hard time determining the exact location of the ruin, since there is no icon representing it, yet.

I then have the idea to open up the cloth map that I received when I initially bought the game. I discover it to be much easier to compare the ghost's sketch with my physical map. At this point, I notice something interesting. (To preface this, I had never even looked at the map in the case, so I had no idea what it looked like). I compared the location of circle number two to a particular spot on my cloth map. On the map, there is a very small red "x." I get curious and try to find the third, fourth and fifth circles on the cloth map. Each of these spots are also represented by very small "x's."

This discovery made me so happy, I had to write an overly wordy and descriptive blog about it. I was comparing an in-game journal with a real-life game map in order to figure out where to go next. I was holding up the map next to my TV to try and get a 1:1 comparison so I didn't get lost. From there, I had to fast-travel and explore in order to find the next location. I did this several times to find each hidden location. I had to fast travel to an already discovered area near the red circles, and try to find the Dwarven ruins from there. It was the most fun I've had in a game for some time.

If you've read this far, I really appreciate it. I know this was long and probably a bit too wordy, but I had to share my experience with other people. It's not very often a game makes me smile from figuring something out nowadays. So many parts of today's games are delivered to gamers on a silver platter. Exploration, trial, error, and just plain critical thinking are ideas that are waning in favor of a more "scripted" and "cinematic" experience. Those games definitely have their place, but I would like more small revelations like this. I want to figure it out all by myself and feel great about it. That's why we play games, isn't it?   read

8:58 AM on 06.10.2012

E3: Identity Theft

Fifteen years ago, games were still coming into their own. They were still a newer entertainment medium, but they were gaining mainstream traction. Back then, there was a large variety of games that looked and felt entirely different from each other. Games like Crash Bandicoot, Tomba!, and Final Fantasy all looked and played entirely different. The lines between genres and artistic styles were much more solid. Today, those lines are beginning to blur.

Upon watching the E3 2012 press conferences, I started noting some startling patterns. Franchises that I have known and loved for many years are all starting to melt into an indistinguishable soup of Call of Duty-style action games. Games like Tomb Raider, Dead Space 3, Resident Evil 6 and Splinter Cell: Blacklist are all prime examples. If you were to compare the original incarnations of all four of these celebrated franchises, telling the difference between them, in terms of gameplay was easily done. These new versions, due out this and next year, are starting to blend together.

Of course, there are strong stylistic differences; you won't see Lara Croft running around in a glowing space-suit and you won't see Leon Kennedy marking and executing terrorists, though I wouldn't be surprised at this point. It seems that these "new" games, sequels all, are trying to fit into the cookie-cutter patterns of two of this generation's must successful franchises, Gears of War and Call of Duty. The best example of this is Resident Evil 6. Long time RE fans will note that the franchise has been changing significantly ever since 2005's Resident Evil 4. Admittedly, that was actually the first RE game I had ever played. I have seen the previous incarnations played, but never interacted with them myself. The evolution from RE 4 to RE 5 was mainly a location and character change. Sure, there were bigger and more bombastic cutscenes, Chris was a steroid-laden jarhead and you fought many more enemies than ever before seen in the franchise. Also, playing a large portion of the game in the sunlight was a jarring switch. But RE 6 seems to be changing a lot more than that. Now that you can move and shoot, take cover, and dive roll onto the ground, it seems that the line between survival horror and 3rd person shooter is getting even more blurred. Originally, I was quite excited about Resident Evil 6, but the trailers and gameplay presented at E3 quickly changed my opinion for the worse. I felt like I was watching some strange off-shoot of Gears of War. The world looks the same, the shooting and action looks the same, and even some of the enemies looks similar. I don't want to play Gears of War with zombies. I want to play Resident Evil 6.

These complaints and observations can be leveled at the other franchises displayed proudly at E3. Dead Space 3 now has drop-in co-op, which has the potential to entirely ruin the atmosphere that was so important and well done in the previous games. Splinter Cell: Blacklist and the latest incarnation of Ghost Recon, Future Soldier, are becoming almost indistinguishable. The least of the offenders, though, is Tomb Raider. I am happy that they are making huge, sweeping changes to a series that has sat stagnating for nearly a decade. All I would like to see is more color and variety in environments. Not everything has to be brown and grey.

Lastly, I would like to clarify that I love these franchises a lot. The reason I'm ranting about them is because I care about their future so damn much. I want to see them succeed and watch their continued evolution into the next generation. I simply just don't want them to all become Gears of War or Call of Duty clones. Those games have their many merits, but that is no reason for other unique franchises to model their sequels and new ideas around them.   read

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