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Everybody remembers the Oblivion Moment, yeah? It's been repeated in so many open-world games that even if you haven't played Oblivion you've had an Oblivion Moment, whether it was a Fallout 3 Moment or an Amalur Moment. It's what happens when you step out of the tutorial zone and get blinded by the dazzling light of the world you're free to explore, like a baby alien emerging from a human chest cavity. In Oblivion you've slogged through a sewer dungeon to get The Moment. You've earned it. You finally kill all the damn goblins and get to stand outdoors, on the shore of a rolling river. Across the water you see crumbling stone ruins, a bandit camp, and endless greenery leading off into the draw distance.
But you probably turn around at this point. You have that urge to go left instead of right at the start of a level, whether it was instilled by Pitfall! or Metroid. That's what I did, and behind me rose the white stone of the Imperial City. Bugger the countryside—that's where I went. For hours I walked the streets, talked to beggars, met the head of its Thieves Guild in a graveyard, and interrogated a suspicious merchant named Thoronir who had a face like a shiny punchable brick. They were good times.
Too soon, I had to leave. Questlines kept sending me to towns with unlovely names like Chorrol and Skingrad. Oblivion and games like it don't want you spending too long in one place, because you'll start looking at it too closely and realize that there aren't that many people for a city of its size and start asking uncomfortable questions. There are 194 citizens and 119 guards in the Imperial City. How much crime do they think people commit?
Living in the Imperial City's great, though. The shack on the waterfront is the cheapest home in the game and also the best. Sure, it's a fixer-upper, but the fact it's small means everything you need is in a single room and you can swim to it from a nearby fast-travel point even if you're wanted by all 119 of the city's guards.
The big city is the place to be in so many RPGs. Almost all the good bits of Baldur's Gate II happen in the city of Athkatla, a city where almost everything is legal except unlicensed spellcasting, and that’s what all the cool kids are doing. When we reminisce about Planescape: Torment it's Sigil we think of, a city built on the inside of a giant floating doughnut, not Curst, a border town we visit way too late in the game to care about.
In the city there's something to find around every corner, and while in the wilderness there are impressive sights—the cliffs of Skellige, the mountaintop views of Skyrim—there's a lot of trekking to get from one to the next. In Sigil the Smoldering Corpse Bar, Ragpicker's Square, and the Brothel For Slaking Intellectual Lusts are all just a few screens apart.
Thanks to the unrealistically low population numbers necessitated by processing power, video game cities cram their interesting characters close together. In the shifting tectonic city of Anachronox, from the game of the same name, you're never far from Whackmaster Jack and his brawling lessons or K'Conrad the floating informant. But eventually you have to leave Anachronox and travel to a spaceport full of scientists, then a world where everyone is obsessed with the democratic process. Neither is nearly as interesting. It's like when Final Fantasy VII makes you leave Midgar behind, or Mass Effect boots you off the Citadel—you swap a location that seems full of possibility and bigger than it really is with places that end up shrinking your conception of the game world.
While RPGs are fixated on their progression from the small tutorial area to the big city to the wide world beyond, open-world games that aren't really RPGs (though they borrow some of their mechanics) have no compunction about putting all their effort into a detailed city you can't leave. Most of the Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row games, Sleeping Dogs, L.A. Noire, and a couple of the more recent Assassin's Creed games have concentrated on making ridiculously detailed cities for crimes to happen in. Now imagine the kind of effort put into those games poured into an RPG which traded detailed vehicle physics and shooting for dialogue choices and branching questlines.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was the closest the GTA series came to being an RPG. CJ could be personalized in more ways than just a new haircut and had stats that controlled how good he was at driving or running, as well as how chubby or muscular he got. My CJ and your CJ might have had different amounts of stomach flab, different girlfriends, different levels of respect with the gangs, and access to different fighting styles. But San Andreas was also the GTA that pushed you out of the city, forcing you to abandon Los Santos and its gang wars for the much less interesting San Fierro and then an airfield where you had to spend hours gaining a pilot's licence. When GTA became an RPG it followed the genre's lead by making you leave the city—and suffered for it.
Of course, there have been attempts at RPGs set in and around a single city before. Dragon Age 2's energetic haters and fans have been furiously skimming over the previous paragraphs waiting for a mention of it. But though Dragon Age 2 limited itself to the city of Kirkwall and its surroundings, it infamously recycled so much that it felt thinner than the previous, larger Dragon Age instead of feeling more compact and detailed. Kirkwall was a city with only one warehouse in it, though it must have been a pretty good warehouse since every other covert meeting and gang war took place there.
Dragon Age 2 wasn't the first fantasy RPG to limit players to one city and cop flak for it. Way back in 1989 the D&D game Hillsfar trapped characters in a city like Athkatla where magic was banned. And apparently so were levelling up and the turn-based combat of the other D&D games. There has been an RPG that made a single-city setting work, however: Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. Its night-time Los Angeles is made up of hubs representing Downtown, Chinatown, Santa Monica and Hollywood, each with a different atmosphere, each a different angle on the city of angels.
Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines only works the way it does because you're a predator and the city's your feeding ground. It needs to have its dark alley with a guy pissing up against a wall, its multiple nightclubs, its believable parking lots, because those are places you can feed. Because those things make the city a perfect setting for vampires, Bloodlines had to pull off what other RPGs haven't. It was focused, able to evoke one place in a layered and hyper-detailed way. Even . Every hangout felt meaningfully distinct, even though two of them were goth clubs—one a kind of warehouse space, the other a converted church.
That's what can happen when games stop chasing the goal of bigger meaning better, of trying to give us entire countries or even planets to ramble across and then having to repurpose the same story ingredients like they're stretching out last night's leftovers. In the city small distinctions can matter, even if it's the difference between the cafe you like and the one across the street you don't like. Spending time in one place makes us imbue it with significance if it does even the littlest things to earn it.
Games benefit from significance. A quest to save a place stops being item three in the journal when that place is the bar your favorite busker plays at. Finding out there's a fortune hidden in a building might make you want to steal it, but if the people who own it have a life beyond that you think twice. Characters who aren't just job titles and sleep schedules, shops that aren't just inventories and price lists, and locations that have as much personality as the people in them. How often do video game cities even bother naming their streets?
Now imagine a fantasy RPG with a level of detail equivalent to that of Bloodlines' Los Angeles or GTA's Los Santos. Taverns to hang out in, carriages to catch from place to place, markets to visit, and so many characters to talk to there'd be no reason to leave except for that one quest in the abandoned hotel outside of town. Or a futuristic version in a city with neon signs, hovercar traffic, late-night sushi bars, and sirens always wailing in the distance.
Maybe Cyberpunk 2077 will be that game, but even if it isn't, I've got my fingers crossed there are more people out there willing to overlook the reaction to Dragon Age 2 and try a one-city RPG again. I've had enough Oblivion Moments now.
Previously in this column, somehow not taken up by the industry as of yet, I suggested that the word ‘quest’ was being somewhat damaged of late by the fact that it can be anything from ‘Kill the Great Red Dragon’ to ‘bring me some orange juice.’ I advocated a system where instead, tasks were split between two basic categories – what used to justifiably be called ‘quests’, and the more prosaic ‘shit to do’. I realise now though that I missed an important third category, World Quests, named because scattering mostly pointless crap everywhere is much easier than actually filling an open world.
Valve's for their work did not survive contact with the PC gaming community. When the proposal was announced in April 2015 with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim as a pilot game, it was met with a mixture of opposition and praise that Valve called "a dump truck of feedback." The plan was in just four days.
To some, the notion of paying modders was contrary to the spirit of modding. Many suggested a donation scheme for Steam Workshop modders as an alternative to traditional pricing. Others, including themselves, made the case that revenue sharing was long overdue for a group of creators that had produced beloved work over so many years.
"We underestimated the differences between our previously successful revenue sharing models, and the addition of paid mods to Skyrim's workshop," Valve's Alden Kroll wrote at the time. "We understand our own game's communities pretty well, but stepping into an established, years old modding community in Skyrim was probably not the right place to start iterating. We think this made us miss the mark pretty badly, even though we believe there's a useful feature somewhere here."
Almost two years later, Valve is speaking again about paying modders for their work. In a roundtable interview at Valve attended by PC Gamer and other press on Thursday, Valve's Gabe Newell expressed the company's intention to take a second crack at paid modding on Steam at some point in the future.Responding a question about the topic from editor Jeff Grubb, Newell talked broadly about the importance of Steam producing useful information for creators about their work.
"In a sense you want to have really good signal to noise ratios in how the gaming community signals to developers 'Yeah, do more of that.' Or, 'No, please, don't release any more of those ever.' And [modders] create a lot of value, and we think that … absolutely they need to be compensated, they're creating value and the degree to which they're not being accurately compensated is a bug in the system, right? It's just inserting noise into it," said Newell. "You want to have efficient ways so that the people who are actually creating value are the people that money is flowing to."
This language is stronger than the mostly apologetic blog post Valve left us with ("We think this made us miss the mark pretty badly, even though we believe there's a useful feature somewhere here"), and it makes clear Valve's commitment to bringing back paid mods.
Newell continued to acknowledge that Valve's first attempt at monetizing modding was painful for the company. "The Skyrim situation was a mess. It was not the right place to launch that specific thing and we did some sort of ham-handed, stupid things in terms of how we rolled it out," he said. "EJ [Valve's Erik Johnson] basically said we just need to back off of this for now, but the fundamental concept of 'the gaming community needs to reward the people who are creating value' is pretty important, right? … the degree to which Valve helps contribute to efficiency in the system is one of the ways in which we're adding value to the system as a whole. So, you know, we have to just figure out how to do it in a way that makes customers happy and that they buy into it, it makes creators happy because they feel like the system is rational and is rewarding the right people for the work that they do. Does that make sense?"
Newell didn't elaborate on what Valve would do differently in the future, but it'd be surprising if this eventual second attempt was tied to a big game with a heavily established modding scene such as Skyrim. "[Skyrim] gave us a ton of information. But there was also a little bit of 'That burner is hot. Maybe we wait awhile before we put our fingers on that burner again.'"
Skyblivion [official site], the huge fan project to remake The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion as a Skyrim mod, is picking up pace. We had a peek at their progress in December and, the dev team say, that video helped them recruit a load more help. “We have made more progress in the 2 months after the release of our update video than we have in the year prior to it,” they say. Crumbs! So let’s take a look at a new video showing what they’ve done in those two months: … [visit site to read more]
If I was a betting man, I’d have put money on Enderal, the vast Skyrim total conversion, winning the public vote for ModDB‘s mod of the year. That I’d have lost all that money is why I’m not a betting man. Enderal came second behind Stalker: Call of Chernobyl, a similarly vast total conversion for the enduring Stalker: Call of Pripyat. … [visit site to read more]
SureAI’s huge Skyrim total conversion Enderal: The Shards of Order [official site], which builds a whole new game upon Bethesda’s foundations, is getting an expansion of its own in 2017. Enderal’s launch this year was dang impressive – “play this excellent mod,” said Cobbo – but a few bits were cut from the initial release. Now the game’s lead writer has picked those up off the cutting room floor and is polishing them up for Forgotten Stories with 10-20 hours of new quests and new quest lines, along with a few other nice odds and ends. Have a peek in the announcement trailer below. … [visit site to read more]
Bethesda Game Studios executive producer and game director Todd Howard, the driving force behind the mega-popular Elder Scrolls and Fallout franchises, has been announced as the 22nd inductee into the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame. Howard "has created some of the industry's most success games by pioneering open-world gameplay," the AIAS said, adding that the games he's headed up "have been recipients of numerous DICE Awards throughout the years."
Howard has been with Bethesda since the early '90s, beginning as a producer and designer on The Terminator: Future Shock. From there, he did design work on Daggerfall and Skynet in 1996, and then ascended to project leader on The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard in 1998, and Morrowind in 2002. Every major Bethesda RPG since then (which is to say, all of them) bears his name as either executive producer or game director.
"Todd's impact on his studio, our company, and the gaming industry as a whole has been truly remarkable," Bethesda VP Pete Hines said. "When you look at the very best game developers of all time—the 21 members of the AIAS Hall of Fame—I think Todd deserves to have his name right alongside of them as the best of the best."
Howard will be joining the likes of Shigeru Miyamoto, Sid Meier, John Carmack, Will Wright, Richard Garriott, Gabe Newell, Hideo Kojima, and numerous other industry luminaries as a member of the HOF. It's an impressive list of names by any measure, and a fitting end to a remarkable year: Howard also earned a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 16th annual GDC, while Fallout 4 claimed the Game of the Year award at the 19th DICE Awards, along with the nod for Outstanding Achievement in Game Direction—another accolade for Howard, who served as game director.
"Todd is revered by legions of fans not just for his creative leadership over the years but for his humility and humor,” AIAS vice chairman Ted Price said. “Despite the fact that he’s helmed several of the most successful franchises in the history of our industry, he consistently defers praise to others and is the quintessential team player. Yet it’s Todd’s vision and strong direction that has brought Tamriel and the Commonwealth to life for millions around the world."
Howard will be presented with the Hall of Fame Award during a ceremony at the 20th DICE Awards on February 23, 2017, at the Mandalay Convention Center in Las Vegas—ironically, the setting for the one major Bethesda-era Fallout RPG that he didn't work on.
Oblivion fans, this is sure to tug on your strings. Skyblivion, a modding project aiming to recreate the entirety of Oblivion in Skyrim, has released a new teaser trailer highlighting another year of hard work. Above, feast your eyes on a number of locations from Oblivion (including the entrance to The Shivering Isles). Set to the Oblivion soundtrack, the four-minute teaser provides an enticing look at Cyrodiil through the lens of the more recent Elder Scrolls RPG.
We don't yet have a release date for this expansive mod, but in an email modder Kyle Rebel told me, "Now that the base game is done we can focus on implementing the quests, voice acting and finish all the weapon and armor sets." That's a considerable amount of work still to do, but it's hard not to marvel at the progress that has already been made.
As another year ends, it’s time to reflect on all that’s been done and all that’s still to come. So they tell me, anyway; I try to drink away any concept of the past or future. But bless ’em, the gang remaking The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion have worked hard and are proud of their work. A new trailer shows off Skyblivion [official site] as it stands now and yep, that’s looking a lot like Oblivion rebuilt in Skyrim. … [visit site to read more]
DOOM, Skyrim and Fallout have been recreated as Pinball FX2 [official site] tables. Because nobody else at RPS has the flippin’ guts to take on such a massive task, I’ve spent a couple of hours with each, and have now judged them. Short version, I like them about as much as I like the games they’re based on, which means one is great, and the other two are a bit of a ballache. To find out precisely what I mean by that, join me below.