Sunday, April 09, 2006


So, I got Oblivion on Friday. I spent literally all of Saturday playing it. I'll write a beautiful dissection if I ever beat it, but for the moment, I'm going to write a long essay instead. It's like a dissection, but I haven't finished the game.

I noticed a lot of details about Oblivion. Let's start with the small stuff:

There's no "Save My Ass" in "Team"

The most fascinatingly idiotic choice the Oblivion team made was to make it so you can't give your team mates stuff.

I can understand not implementing a complex team AI thing. But giving your team mates stuff isn't exactly a hard thing to implement!

I play an alchemist. I get a warrior team mate. Awesome! Yeah! Just what I need to support my archer-like lifestyle! Plus, I've got a comedic surplus of healing potions, so this guy can just be my meat shield!

Except... I can't give him the potions. What the fuck were they thinking?

A Horse with no Name

Oblivion has a remarkably detailed face-morphing engine. A bit too detailed, actually: there's a million little toggles to tweak. Despite this, most of their NPC faces end up looking like one of about eight basic types. I think this is mostly because they apparently only have four voice actors, and when you hear the same voice, you tend to drop the difference in faces.

Their emotional visualization is, as I expected, pathetic. First, their faces are apparently limited to two expressions: neutral and pissy. When you're "talking" with them, you get four more expressions, but these expressions have nothing to do with the actual emotion the NPC is feeling. They are simply cues to allow you to play a rather fun but totally immersion-breaking minigame.

Moreover, there's no body language. Their eyes do some neat dancing, but I'm under the impression that the people who made this game have never talked to anyone in their life. People do not stand with their face locked straight ahead, and they certainly don't keep the same expression throughout an exchange.

People tilt their heads. Shrug their shoulders. Lean forward or back. People's expressions move across their face. When they smile, their smile marches between a grin and a little, quirky smirk. Their eyebrows dance. Oh, and people blink.

This is body posture and gesturing aside.

These things aren't tremendously hard to implement. I've implemented them myself.

However, their faces are pretty humanlike. This is the most unfortunate success ever to grace a video game. Why? Because humanlike faces lead us to expect humanlike people. And these people have about as much difference between them as M&Ms.

For Love of Love

Let me take a moment to piss about the culture.

I don't know why, but Morrowind and Oblivion have no sexuality in them. At all. This is bizarre, because until that time, their games had blatant sexuality and, in fact, often had nudity.

Now, I'm not saying that all games should have sexuality in them. But Oblivion is functionally a world. It has a cast of thousands. Many of these people have a history, even a spouse.

Okay. Now I'm going to count the number of children. One, two... zero. There are zero children. I guess that's what you get when there's no sexuality in a world.

The number of (mortal) people wearing attractive garments? Zero. The number of attractive garments? Zero. They go out of their way to make every piece of clothing as boring as possible. There's a million different clothes you can wear, but all of them are boring as hell and nearly identical. Where are my pumpkin shorts? Where are my frilly capes? Where is my "Evil Dead" shirt? Nowhere.

It's not just garments. Nobody thinks about these things. There's no talk of sex. No talk of romance. There's barely even any commentary about people being of the opposite sex. The closest I've seen to talking about sex or romance is people saying that a specific girl is beautiful... but it's always another girl saying it, and it's never realistic.

Oh, and one little exchange with a drow about what the fine for necrophilia might be. I have a feeling that slipped by because the editor thought "necrophilia" meant "necromancy".

Let me hit that again:

There's no romance.

One of the driving forces in every fairy tale, every legend, every myth, is romance. But in this game, not only do you not have a love interest, neither does anyone else. There's a pair of elves that are married, but if you hear them talk to each other, it's "hi!" "Hi." "They charged me five gold for littering! Littering!" "Well, safe travels." "Thanks. You too."

I'm not sure what the developers were thinking, but the lack of romance means that everyone has only two bases for relationships. Only two kinds of tension. Friend-based and power-based. People can be friendly or unfriendly. People can be respect or disrespect the power of another person. That's it. That leads to eight kinds of relationship, nine if you decide "completely neutral" is a valid option. Thousands of people with only eight relationship types? Pretty shallow world!

This means that a network of relationships can't realistically be more than four or five people. IE, she respects him, he dislikes her, it disrespects but likes him... the web which you can walk into when you saunter up and talk to these people is extremely limited and very repetitive.

Adding in romance leads to around 30 kinds of relationships. Now your network of relationships can be significantly more complex. This is especially useful because, unlike respecting or being friends with someone, romantic tension leads to a kind of ownership. Two people who are friends with the same person are probably friends, as well. Two people who are (or wish they were) romantically entangled with the same person are nearly always enemies (or, at least, their friendship is in danger).

Leaving romance out of a fairy tale is nearly inconceivable. I'm flabbergasted. I'm stunned. I'm agog. It's like going skydiving... while the plane is on the ground.

Puddle Jumping!

On that same topic, the whole game is puddle jumping. Every time you get somewhere, there's a wide variety of tasks and quests available. Some of them are rather entertaining, although the dialogue trees frequently don't give me the options I wish I had.

They are all puddles.

None of these things has any effect on the rest of the game. None of these things can get you allies or friends. None of these things is connected to anything. This means that each time you jump into a new town, they discard all the emotional investment you built up from your previous towns and start over. Seems pretty brutally inefficient to me.

I suppose I can forgive the lack of adaptativity. I would have preferred being able to, say, introduce people to each other. Or convince anyone to join my team. Or convince people to move out of their house. Or any number of other long-term effects aside from "kill". I can understand that would have been difficult, so I don't mind that it's not there. Much.

What I do mind is that nothing else is there. Why am I playing this game, if it doesn't matter what I do? I know why I am playing this game: I want to get into the academy of magic and build my own spells and magic items. Too bad all their wearables are so boring boring boring!

It seems sad to me that the primary reason I'm playing this game has nothing to do with the huge world they've built, nothing to do with the thousands of man-hours of NPC work they put in, nothing to do with their dungeons.

To me, that stinks of failure.

Dominant Strategies!

So, they tweaked the game such that alchemy was less broken than last time. Largely by making it so that you can't drink more than four potions.

But alchemy is still hideously broken! Absurdly broken!

You walk up to someone - anyone - and buy all their random ingredients. Bread. Apples. Turn it into the completely worthless (for this character) "restore fatigue" potions. What was $4 of stuff is now a $13 potion. That's the sell price, at the beginning of the game. I haven't had less than $10,000 for the past few hours.

Okay, so money is worthless. Good to know.

But that's not all that alchemy does. I walked into Oblivion as level five. The only attack magic I had was fire based. The only weapon I had was a bow. Literally the only one: I had fists, otherwise. Wearing light armor.

But I brought my secret weapon: 105 "cause health damage" potions.

My bow barely scratched the enemies. But soaking every arrow in a "cause health damage" potion was enough to kill just about everything. Even the stupidly overpowered bad guys only took two arrows and a bit of running away to kill.

The cost to build those potions? Zero. Everything I used to make them I either stole or harvested. And it's not like I've spent a significant amount of game time stealing or harvesting, either.

(Actually, it turns out that there are fire daedra in the city, and they are completely immune to potions. So... I had to go off and level up somewhere else. I haven't gone back to finish the mission, yet.)

Maybe this isn't a dominant strategy. Maybe all the strategies are equally game-breaking. But it sure seems pretty hideous.

The only reason I'm really harping on this is because they had the same problem in their last game. Now, honestly! You went through this once already, and you still failed to fix it?

Last Thoughts

Okay, bitching aside, the game actually is fun. The outdoors are beautiful! The dungeons are repetitive, but the cities are unique.

The reason I'm complaining is because the things that would have made this game awesome are so simple! A few extra meshes or skins for interesting clothes. A writer with some romance in his heart. A simple bit of semi-random animation for the heads and faces. A writer who connects the dots, rather than just putting them down.

I guess hindsight is 20/20, but these are all the same things I hated about Morrowind. Am I the only one who notices?


Patrick Dugan said...

You're probably one of the few people who noticed, but very good observations overall.

I think the majority of these problems, aside from the dominant strategies, stem from the design's basis in spatial simulation, with characters and social dynamics (of which there are apparently two, distributed across lots and lots of bots) being added as a secondary layer.

Darius was telling me about the faces and verbal interface, and I was a bit worried that Bethesda had beaten everyone to the punch with the whole dramatic gameplay thing. Glad to hear they've largely failed in that regard.

As to its pure fun, I'd really like to play Oblivion, but I suspect I wouldn't get anything done for a while. I'd prefer a tightly self-organized dramatic game which required 20 to 30 minutes of play in order to garner a satisfaction.

Textual Harassment said...

I'm glad to see my suspicions were correct, in that Oblivion is as sterile as Morrowind. I only played it for a few seconds in the store, enough to talk to one guy and jump off a bridge--because who wants to start playing a long involved RPG while standing around in the mall? I also watched some guys playing with the face customization engine, which amazed me.

Corvus said...

This is why I won't buy it at the current price point. Morrowwind didn't just bore me, it actively offended my concept of what a 'good' RPG should be. Sure, Oblivian is a step up in realism, but I had my doubts that it would be a step up in game play.

kestrel404 said...

I enjoyed Elder scrolls. I greatly enjoyed Daggerfall (even if I never managed to beat it). I absolutely adored Morrowind. And from what I've seen, Oblivion is going to be 'Morrowind, but prettier'. I will eventually get around to buying it, after I've gotten a video card that can handle it.

All this having been said: Of course they dropped the ball on human emotion. It's never been a priority for them, and it never will be. The Elder Scrolls series has always been about huge, open-ended worlds and automatically generated content. Almost everything in Oblivion except the main quest and the intros to the important factions are permutationally generated. That's the thing they work on the hardest (that and the graphics, apparrently), and everything else takes second place.

Let's look at the stuff you asked for in that respect:
Giving stuff to people - Aside from making sure the AI could handle accepting items and using them with some very simple level of intelligence, yeah, you're right, Bethesda completely dropped the ball here. Of course, I could actually understand the hesitation of having their bots accept magic of any kind - they use the same AI (I believe) for friendlies and enemies, so if you can give your friendly guard a potion of 'heal 1 damage, then take 100 points of fire damage a round forever', you can give the same potion to j-random-bandit just as easily (between sword thrusts, of course). Still, they should have let you do something for your friends other than directed magic. (Can you add healing potions to your arrows, then shoot your friends with them? That could work.)

Facial blandness - This is a hard problem. Crossing the uncanny valley is probably going to take another 5 years at least. Until then, boring is better than 'Good god, look at the zombie hordes surrounding me!'. Plus, how much processor time do you really want to spend on the guy across the room blinking?

Romance, lack thereof: Eh, it's been like that for a while. I think it's corporate oversight syndrome. The parent company doesn't want to get sued for accidentally offensive permutatively generated content. A shame, but not likely to change without the franchise changing hands.

Puddle jumping: OK, this might have been handled better. Except the stuff you're asking about is very, very hard if you're not developing a world JUST FOR THESE THINGS. Oblivion, at it's heart, is a hack-and-slash RPG, not The Sims. The fact that you want/expect it to act like The Sims means that Bethesda did a good job on the background fluff. It's just a shame that there isn't a game out there that CAN do what you want, 'cause it wouldn't be any harder than Oblivion itself to make.

Dominant Strategies: The entire magic system is broken. Always has been, always will be. Because Bethesda doesn't know how to handle user-generated content, and that's exactly what the magic system is. That's my favorite part of the game too.

So, basically, you're asking for a different game. Good, go build it. Do a good job and I'll buy that instead of Oblivion. ;P

Craig Perko said...

Glenn: The AI already knows how to handle using potions - the meat shield in question had two healing potions in his pocket to start with (I verified via pickpocket).

You can talk to your allies, but the only commands you can give them are "follow me" and "stay here". There's a "trade" option for storekeepers - why not simply enable that, but tweak it so that no gold changes hands?

Also, I don't think puddle jumping is so hard to solve. Just by making so-and-so refer you to her brother in another city, you can solve most of it. This way, when you do good in one city, the next city will feel better about you. It's not just boring.

You know what I really want? The ability to have ANYONE join my party. :)

Jeff said...

So I'm here to defend the company. Sorta. You're pretty much right in every regard but I will point out a few things you might have missed.

1) NPCs do blink and tilt their heads in responce to dialoge. Last I checked anyway. They may not blink when you're looking to choose a dialog option though... Also, the eye movements can be affected by an NPCs mood. Get an NPC really scared and then talk to him. It's actually pretty cool.

2) There are no children by design I believe. We didn't want to deal with the ethical implications of you being able to kill children. Simple solution is to not have children.

3) There are mentions of sexuality, but not romantic ones. Mostly they're comic assides. Go talk to the alchamist in Skingrad.

Everything else I'm pretty much in agreement with. Especially the puddle jumping. I love that term. However, how many games really offer anything more? Even in their main quest? And also offer a good game? That good game part being paramount to me. My god I hated Xenosaga.

Also, I believe you could actually use your pickpocket abilities to plant items on people. It's actually a way to beat a quest in the Dark Brotherhood questline. It's not a perfect solution (and you're right, giving people items should have been put in), but it should work.

Craig Perko said...

Thanks for the commentary. I'm always too harsh.

The "head tilting" that the NPCs do is... pretty much nothing. It's a teeny tiny twitch. More importantly, although the mouth moves realistically while speaking, it doesn't change expression (nor do the eyebrows).

I can understand not wanting to allow people to kill children, so all I can really say there is that I disagree with your choice. I would rather have dealt with the ethics.

"However, how many games really offer anything more?"

Well, I'm looking over at my "stack o' Games" here. Most non-RPGs seem to offer a beautifully linked world. Prince of Persia or Splinter Cell, for example.

It's a bit rarer in RPGs. So, let's see... Beyond Good and Evil. Final Fantasy 2 and up. Chrono Trigger. Neverwinter Nights. That Vampire Game Whose Name I Can't Remember. Lunar. Phantasy Star 2 and up. Suikoden.

At least half the RPGs on the market connect all the dots. The rest are like Oblivion. Also, most of the ones like Oblivion are one-character games, whereas the majority of multiple-characters-in-your-party games are connected. Interesting.

It's just a matter of writing. It has nothing to do with technology.

"Also, I believe you could actually use your pickpocket abilities to plant items on people."

When I tried, it said that I wasn't allowed to. That pissed me off, too, but not enough to complain about it.

Bleah. I dislike defending a criticism. It makes me sound snotty.

Craig Perko said...

Just as a quick comparison, you can see a long list of SNES RPGs here.

Looking through the titles, it would be easier to list the ones which puddle jump, rather than the ones which flow like a river or gather like a lake.

kestrel404 said...

"The AI already knows how to handle potions."

Simple ones, yes. But can't you make a potion that does two contradictory things (heal and damage)? You could in the older games. That get's very tricky very quickly for AIs.

RE Puddle Jumping: You're looking for a reputation system, then? Didn't Daggerfall and Morrowind have a reputation system? I seem to recall Daggerfall kept it in a flat text file (which was fun to play with, BTW). Was that removed, or is it simply so useless as to be unnoticeable now?

Craig Perko said...

It sort of existed, but I'm not talking reputation. I'm talking walking into town and talking to an inkeeper who says, "oh, yeah, Mary told me about you!"

What it really needed were two tiers of like: the "like" tier and the "trust" tier. Sweet talking raises the "like" tier, but only time and favors for friends and family raise the "trust" tier...

Pomaceous said...

I am glad the things you brought up were not addressed in Oblivion :D

The reason I say this is that like everyone else, I have my own set of aspects I would like to be different with the game and if they had spent time addressing yours, then I would expect my set to be larger as the game was more targeted at you, and the limited set of people like you. This disparity of our individual concerns kind of reminds me of the "book haters", I read a forum where there is what could be a minority that wanted all books gone from the game, because the time that could have been spent on them should be spent on whatever they personally found lacking. They are an extreme though, who don't understand that taking away from one part doesn't have any relationship to how much of another is done, or how it is done.

I think that Oblivion is a great achievement. But it is just more of the same. I say this because playing it feels like playing a 3D version of Baldur's Gate II, but with a slightly different game world, and use of more advanced technology. Like most other games, there isn't infinite time to make it or the ability to cater for all the features that they would have liked to make. So what we get is a generalised and abstracted mish-mash full of separately scaled back systems with what could for all intents and purposes be, arbitrary design decisions made to get them back to an achievable level.

No one aspect about it feels like is done as well as, or the way, I would like. But considering all the parts together into the game they made, and what we can expect in this day and age for a game, I think they did a great job. I look forward to whatever they make next along these lines.

Craig Perko said...

No argument: the game is fun. But it doesn't feel alive, to me. It feels like it was created by a formula then tweaked by a committee.

They didn't think, "how can we make the best game with the resources we have?" They thought, "we proved that this formula works, so let's use it again."