In early 2012, during a conversation about Bethesda games, a friend felt the need to link me to one of those many videos talking about why Skyrim is a bad RPG. At the time, I was having a great deal of fun with Skyrim, and this response surprised me, though I could agree with it just enough that I found myself thinking about it a lot. The more I thought, the more I came to a perspective I’m not sure I share with anyone else.
Prior to Skyrim, I spent a great deal of time with Fallout: New Vegas, and I’ve gotta be honest: I didn’t like it all that much, but I couldn’t figure out why. Intellectually, I can tell you that it’s straight-up the best Bethesda-style RPG there is, but emotionally, it just didn’t connect with me. Obsidian’s entry into Bethesda’s style of game development just didn’t work very well. Eventually, I found a partial answer, but it still didn’t quite solve everything. I dug a little deeper.
Why do I feel the way I do about these two games? Why, despite the superficial similarities—Skyrim, after all, is said to be merely Fallout without guns—do these games elicit such a massive disparity in response?
When we talked about how an FPS might be the most important video game ever made, I suggested that part of the reason that the FPS is so appealing is because of the way in which the perspective enhances immersion. This is an idea that was explored in-depth by the folks at Looking Glass Studios back in the 1990s; their first game, Ultima Underworld, merged the simulation elements and first-person perspective with traditional role-playing mechanics of the Ultima series. Bethesda seems to have been pretty eager to borrow those ideas with their release of The Elder Scrolls: Arena.
Obsidian, on the other hand, is rooted deeply in a very different kind of game: the classical isometric CRPG. Where Looking Glass, and later Bethesda, focused on the first-person role-playing game, Obsidian’s predecessors—the folks at studios like Black Isle—were busy developing games like Fallout and Planescape: Torment.
What’s the difference between these two types of game?
The traditional role-playing game is a very rules-driven, character-focused experience. That is, players create their characters, then they interact with other characters. It’s one of the reasons Fallout’s got ‘dumb options’ based on the stats you have, or Planescape: Torment lets you talk your way through something a different character might fight their way through. When it comes to combat, it’s all based on your character’s skill, rather than yours.
The immersive simulation approach to role-playing is a bit different: the world itself is a living, breathing space. You are now in this world. You can interact with it how you’d like. Develop your skills—maybe you want to walk around being a hunter, just doing hunter things. Notice how Skyrim’s players often proudly tout the fact that they haven’t played the story—that they’re just running around doing whatever it is they want to do: being explorers, being hunters, being crafters, being murderers, being vampires, whatever.
In other words, one is more focused on story and roleplaying within that story, the other is focused more on being who you want to be within a living world. And they’re both valid, interesting approaches; each side has its fans.
Another topic we explored in the FPS piece was the idea that people just tend to find that immersive experiences resonate a bit more. Grand Theft Auto resonates with so many people because it’s a series that lets people be in a world. You can go read articles about people who’ve modded their games so they can just amble around the city, watching people go about their lives, or read about people going completely off-the-rails and murdering everything they see. There’s a big breadth and depth of “what can I do?” People love that. They love doing An Action and getting A Response. If you shoot That Guy, what happens? If you pull That Woman out of Her Car, what will The Cop do?
If you’re someone who enjoys more traditional RPGs, the fact that this approach to design is so popular might bug you, especially if you’re less interested in role-playing as a more broad, general concept of “defining your role within a world,” and more interested in it as the virtual version of tabletop gaming. What you like is still valid, but not necessarily the most popular thing—I love city building, but it’s one of the least-loved genres out there (in part because it’s essentially a PC-exclusive genre); even people who argue that games are too violent seem to ignore the existence of city building games.
More people tend to buy these living, breathing worlds of Skyrim and GTA than those who buy more designed, game-like experiences in traditional RPGs. We can infer from this that people probably like them a bit more too.
Now, let’s be clear: Skyrim is kinda crap at what it does. Dishonored, Shadow Warrior, and Dark Messiah of Might & Magic have better first-person swordfighting and magic. Zeno Clash has better first-person brawling. Skyrim’s user interface is pretty bad, its story is boring, its characters not worth interacting with, its AI simplistic… I could go on and on and on. The more focused experiences found in games like Deus Ex, STALKER, or Dishonored absolutely blow Skyrim away. Its world feels shallow and generic.
But… it feels alive.
New Vegas, on the other hand, is a really, really good RPG wearing the mask of a more immersive experience. It’s not really comfortable in its skin. It has 3D space, but it doesn’t treat it like it’s alive. In Bethesda’s games, players can walk around, meeting all sorts of enemy types all around the world, sometimes at random. People have their own journeys, doing their own things. In Obsidian’s game, it’s… well, more structured, more gamelike. Players have to artificially walk around the map to get to New Vegas. Go to a certain area, and you’re always going to have a specific enemy spawn at a certain level. It feels… artificial. Unreal.
A highly-experienced modder I know, who worked on one of Fallout 3’s biggest mods, explained that New Vegas’ map had huge swathes of areas that weren’t edited at all, and others that were apparently randomly generated, then blocked off with invisible walls, and I’m inclined to agree. Much of the world space is completely flat, and the game’s very empty. You might feel the need to point out that Nevada is a flat space, but so what? Washington, DC is a pretty flat place too. Real-world accuracy isn’t important when you’re trying to create an engaging worldspace. It’d be like creating a really slow, normal human walk speed in a big, open world—boring and… oh. New Vegas does that.
The world just isn’t very well designed. Fallout 3 and Skyrim always have at least three map markers on your HUD, so there’s always something to go visit, and countless little things to find, like sunken ships with treasure in them. Creatures and enemies randomly roam the world, though some keep to specific habitats—zombies to irradiated areas, etc. New Vegas has… an area of the map where you can hit the auto-walk button, step away, go get a glass of water, and come back to find yourself still walking across a completely flat, not-at-all engaging space. Its spaces are generally vast, open, and devoid of anyone to encounter, or very specific locations with a small handful of enemies. The world just doesn’t feel quite as alive.
In other words, it’s not really a world you can be a part of. On the one hand, it’s structured, using enemies as barriers. On the other hand, it’s relatively barren. If the kind of people buying these games like abandoning the story and just doing their own thing, as they do in Bethesda’s games, the GTA series, and a bunch of other sandbox stuff… why would they find that appealing?
New Vegas is at its best when you’re talking with people, and at that point, you’ve got to deal with Obsidian’s inconsistent writing chops. Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s review of New Vegas included an image of some dialog that goes like this: “Their very existence is a blight on the common good. Even worse are the Profligates, the subtype of Dissolute one finds on this side of the river.”
So the thing Obsidian tries to do—interacting with characters and having lots of potential outcomes—they don’t even do that well all the time. They get choice and consequences right, and the actual role-play element of the game is spectacular, but when it boils down to things… you’re in a really bland world. The camera perspective and genre implies a certain kind of gameplay experience, but Obsidian fails to deliver on that experience in any serious or meaningful way.
Fallout: New Vegas would have been better as an isometric RPG, because it really is, despite the inconsistent writing, a great RPG with a huge variety of ways to do things. I could spend hours and hours just talking to people and making things happen. But… well, people just don’t value that quite as much, for better or worse. Maybe they would if the games could deliver their stories in a more innovative way than simple query/response at a static NPC lore dump.
Skyrim—and all of Bethesda’s RPGs, really—let players be who they want to in a living, breathing world. What players choose to do in the world defines who they are. It’s not the greatest simulation on the planet, but it does the job. New Vegas, on the other hand, is a more traditional, tabletop-like RPG that wears the skin of the Bethesda-style experience but never really feels comfortable in it.
They’re both neat experiences, both good RPGs in their own ways, but ultimately, they have different appeals to different crowds.
Now imagine a world where our character interactions were as deep as New Vegas’, but our world interactions were as varied as Skyrim’s. Imagine a world where both of these games benefited from better story presentation, combat, object interaction, camera control, and all sorts of other things. Wouldn’t that be awesome? Something for everyone.
I feel like crap today, but I haven’t written anything this week, so I’m going to get something out. As usual, you can find me on Tumblr or Twitter. I’ve also begun adding the tag DocTalk to all my Kotaku posts, for easy findability.