Thursday, October 8, 2009

Oblivion, on system over story

"Blorple cube" is from the game Spellbreaker, by Infocom. It's the first game that left a real impression on me, though I'd played games on Atari and Commodore 64 before that. I took a short break during the college years, skipped the Nintendo and Sony consoles in favor of a Dreamcast, and then squeaked by on Mac ports and World of Warcraft. I've recently purchased the necessary hardware to get back into gaming mainstream, and am still trying to catch up on those lost, dark years. As such, I try to split my time playing modern games and classics that I missed.

Currently I'm making my way through Oblivion for the first time. I spent most of the night doing the Glarthir quests in Skingrad. So this dude Glarthir suspects a series of people are spying on him, and you're tasked with following them as they leave their houses each morning, and reporting back to Glarthir every night. So there's a lot of doing things at certain times of the day.

I'm fascinated by open-world sandbox games because of the systems behind them and how they make the game compelling, or fail to. Time-oriented quests are interesting in that it's very boring to have to wait until a certain time to do something, but very easy when there is a "wait for x hours" command. The mechanic of having to wait seems superfluous with such a feature, but what it really draws attention to is that the world looks different at different times, from cosmetics such as the color of the sky to the number of NPC's present on the streets. While it risks boring the player by having him stare at a closed door for long minutes in real time, it shows the player that the game makes different things happen at different times.

While following people around Skingard, I watched them pass each other in the street and stop to exchange a few words before moving on. Sarah commented on how ridiculous it seemed compared to actual written narrative: generic greeting, generic response, comment on subject X, comment on subject X, farewell, farewell. Most of the time the exchanges don't make sense: "Enough talking!" "You, too." The mistranslated dialog of Final Fantasy VII was more compelling through sheer quirkiness, but I like being able to perceive, through the flaws, that these interactions are more programmatical than scripted. It makes me feel like the game exists on a level independent of a designer's intention, making it more real to me. I wonder if the difference between the American RPG player and the Japanese RPG player is the appreciation of system rather than story, and that there is value in creating systems that are just flawed enough. Fable 2 tried harder and was a little more successful, I think, but when it failed, man, did it fail. Oblivion, so far, seems a little more honest about its abilities.

However, at the end of the day, do I want to feel as though I've played a system or enjoyed a narrative? Ultimately I like hanging out with designers more than programmers, so we'll see.

Although I didn't enjoy the Glarthir quest line so much, I enjoy reading stuff like this in the walkthrough: "If you tell Glarthir to to take care of his problem, and you pickpocket his lockpicks, he will be unable to break into their houses and will be forced to stand outside their doors all night." Now that's some emergent narrative.

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