The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Brock Wilbur)

Screen Shot 2018-04-21 at 2.07.04 PM

A proper modding community can keep a game world alive long after the studio behind that title has put it to pasture. Or, more accurately in this case, when the studio just keeps porting the original game to new devices instead of, you know, making new entries. Skyrim has some of the most in-depth world building teams on the mod market, and instead of merely remastering or HD’ing their way through old titles, they’re re-inventing the wheel. The Beyond Skyrim team just released the trailer and description for their expansion Iliac Bay and the production values are awe-inspiring.

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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

My least favorite sensation in all of gaming is when I'm playing an RPG, and I pick up a weapon, or a breastplate, or an incandescent bauble of no obvious importance, and suddenly my feet cement to the floor. My character is over-encumbered! I have to spend the next few minutes on the pause screen, deciding which knick-knacks in my inventory to leave abandoned on the side of the road. Once spry and light again, I continue my adventures deep into the murky chasms of whatever fantasy world I'm exploring, until inevitably I find another item I want and the exact same thing happens again. 

Why do big games, particularly open world games with thousands of objects that can be picked up and examined, so often turn to a mechanic where fun goes to die?

I am not alone in hating encumbrance. It's a source of constant annoyance for gamers everywhere, to the point of achieving meme status in certain communities. And yet, it's still common. Bethesda makes two of the most popular single-player franchises around with The Elder Scrolls and Fallout, and yet we've all crossed our weight limit and hampered ourselves in the middle of a fight with a rowdy sect of Super Mutants. CD Projekt Red is one of this industry's few near-universally beloved studios, and yet Geralt always seems to be one looted corpse away from completely losing control of his body. There are cases where it makes sense, obviously—of course Dark Souls has an opaque encumbrance system, given all its other intentionally draconian quirks—but it certainly seems weird that such a despised mechanic is implemented, and re-implemented, over and over again.

Why do big games, particularly open world games with thousands of objects that can be picked up and examined, so often turn to a mechanic where fun goes to die? I figure there must be a reason. I'm constantly in awe of just how much work it takes to create videogames, and generally, when I find something to be stupid and unintuitive, I'm willing to hear the experts out. There must be some method to the madness, right?

The Witcher 3 is great. The Witcher 3 with a "no weight limit" mod is even better.

Konrad Tomaszkiewicz, game director of The Witcher 3, outlined a few arguments for encumbrance when I emailed him. The first is probably the most obvious: Immersion. "Having a limit to how much equipment Geralt can carry plays a part in making the character and the world around him more believable," he says. "Yes, you’re playing as a professional monster slayer. He’s very strong, stronger than normal humans, due to experiments and mutations witchers have to endure throughout their rigorous training. But even then, Geralt has limits. It’s a small touch that packs a lot of punch for the role-playing aspect of an RPG."

Having a limit to how much equipment Geralt can carry plays a part in making the character and the world around him more believable.

Konrad Tomaszkiewicz

Tomaszkiewicz tells me that he believes the fundamental purpose of an RPG is to embody the central character fully. That's why, he says, some players choose to unequip all of their armor before taking Geralt for a dip in a river or a lake. "They want to live the fantasy the game is enabling them to live, while keeping the experience as close to authentic as possible," he explains. It's the belief of CD Projekt Red that functions like encumbrance, while occasionally annoying, add up to a world that feels more consistent.

Oscar López Lacalle, lead designer of the survival game Conan Exiles, offers a similar justification. Exiles is different from The Witcher, in the sense that it packs a crafting system that heavily relies on resource harvesting and management, which makes it a pretty natural fit for a weight limit. But Lacalle tells me that the team decided to opt for an encumbrance mechanic, rather than a traditional inventory page, because it opened up the flexibility—and yes, the authenticity—of how you fleshed out your character.

"For example, we can set items like explosives to be artificially heavy because that makes players think on the logistics of sieging rather than just bringing unlimited explosive jars or trebuchets to breach any wall while still being able to fight at peak capacity," he says. "We can also say that all our core resources are much lighter than specialty items to enhance the feeling of rarity and the relative worth of items when compared with each other. This becomes an important factor in situations like coming back to your base loaded with riches, or relocating your base to a new location in the map. In general, it's a powerful tool to enhance and promote certain aspects of the game without adding other, more aggressive limitations."

Conan Exiles' inventory system encourages you to trade in raw resources for lighter crafting materials.

That's just the front end of things though. Tomaszkiewicz highlights a number of  behind-the-scenes issues that make encumbrance systems necessary for a healthy experience. He mentions how too many items can clutter the UI, and that adding a limit helps "manage the chaos." Also, you can't ignore the fact that every piece of inventory takes up a sliver of memory, and for a game like The Witcher 3 that already asks a ton of your hardware, developers need to be frugal. "You've got to keep in mind what might happen performance-wise when players hoard insane amounts of items."

Lacalle swears up and down that encumbrance systems are not designed to make players uncomfortable. Instead, he hopes to simply coerce us into interesting choices. Exiles was specifically designed around the remaining weight a character will have access to after equipping a basic set of armor. What you do with that remaining space hollows out your place in the world, and your role in guilds. When he frames it like that, it sure sounds a lot more dynamic than simply choosing a class.

Lacalle swears up and down that he hopes encumbrance systems coerce us into interesting choices.

"We made heavy armor and certain weapons heavier—because we wanted to steer them towards the fighter archetypes—and certain materials heavier or lighter depending on how many are needed for typical activities and how rare they are supposed to be," he says. "For building pieces, we made them lighter than their material parts because we wanted players to commit to converting materials instead of amassing tons of raw resources, with a few hand-picked exceptions like Altars and Wheels of Pain. Finally and most importantly, sprinkle in some design voodoo (lots of testing and iterating) until it feels good!"

It's true that sometimes you don't know what you really want, and as much as it might sound fun to jog through The Northern Kingdoms with Geralt sucking up loot like a vacuum, I'm willing to admit that I might be misguided. However, it's clear that the world at large is not convinced.

Websites like Eurogamer and Motherboard have dedicated blog posts instructing on how to turn off encumbrance, ostensibly because there are so many people on the internet googling for answers. A mod that gives you infinite carry capacity in The Witcher 3 has been downloaded over 30,000 times (it's the third-most popular Witcher 3 mod on the Nexus). The "100x your carry weight" mod for Skyrim has been downloaded 380,000 times. The developers I spoke to are all reasonable people who make good points, but it's hard to shake that fundamental feeling that encumbrance only slows down our fun.

Image via Nexusmods

All that being said, maybe there's a way to make encumbrance better without completely purging it from the code. David J. Cobb has spent the bulk of his modding career tinkering with the nuts and bolts of Skyrim to create a more realistic, more demanding weight system, and he makes a strong point about how encumbrance is often poorly implemented. There's never any warning when you're about to become over-encumbered in Bethesda games. Your momentum comes to a screeching halt after you add one extraneous item to your inventory. "Like carrying hundreds of pounds of gear effortlessly, only to stop completely in your tracks because you decided to pick a flower on the side of the road," he says. He argues that instead of creating immersion, that breaks immersion.

Cobb came up with a set of checks and balances called Cobb Encumbrance that add progressive penalties to your speed and stamina as you add more weight to your character. Essentially, it's an uber-hardcore interpretation of the core Skyrim fantasy. Personally, that doesn't sound like my kind of thing, but it also feels a tad more honest than how most other games deal with encumbrance. Maybe it's not the answer, but it's certainly an answer. 

"The encumbrance mechanic has to be viewed as part of the broader experience," says Cobb. "It influences and is influenced by everything around it."

Thumbnail GIF via the delightful Skyrim animation above by Ferhod.

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind® Game of the Year Edition

I know few virtual places as intimately as Seyda Neen, the port in the southwest of Vvardenfell where your Morrowind character begins their adventures. I’ve fleshed out dozens of characters in its Census and Excise office, and I’ve bought many a starting weapon at Arrille’s Tradehouse. I’ve passed the necromancer’s tower countless times, and I’ve… 

Hang on, that isn’t right. There’s no necromancer’s tower on the outskirts of Seyda Neen. Actually, I don’t recall there being this many shacks clustered on the coastline. And was that shady-looking tavern with the red lantern outside always there? What in Vivec’s name is going on? 

Such is the sensation of exploring Vvardenfell with the Morrowind Rebirth mod installed. This enormous mod remodels huge chunks of terrain, expanding towns and adding new dungeons and adventures alongside swathes of other content. It also achieves this with such a delicate hand that, if you haven’t played Morrowind for a while, you might struggle to identify where the old Morrowind ends and Rebirth begins.

Landscaping

Morrowind Rebirth was first released in 2011, starting out as a collection of town-overhaul mods created by trancemaster_1988. Since then the mod has received 44 major updates that basically give the topography of the entire island a makeover, adding a truly staggering amount of new and modified places to explore. 

Unsurprisingly, a large amount of the mod’s focus is on expanding towns and settlements. Almost every scrap of civilisation has been altered in some way. Caldera, the Imperial mining town northeast of Balmora, has seen new buildings and shops introduced within its walls, while the perimeter has been remodelled to include farmsteads with working windmills. Meanwhile, the massive city of Vivec has seen its entrance area overhauled, with a range of shops, houses and warehouses added near the Silt Strider port. Even tiny villages, such as the northern outpost Dagon Fel, have been expanded. 

One of the towns that has received the most attention is Balmora. Rebirth’s interpretation has not one but two entirely overhauled districts – one near the town’s south gate and the other on its northern hillside. These include multiple new merchant vendors such as a Scroll specialist and a seller of magical clothes. Alongside trancemaster’s own work, Morrowind Rebirth incorporates third-party mods, such as Balmora Underworld, which adds a vast subterranean market. Beneath that lurks a labyrinthine Dwemer ruin for players to plunder.

What’s particularly impressive about these additions is how seamlessly they fi t into Morrowind’s landscape. These new buildings aren’t simply plonked down wherever there’s space, trancemaster has painstakingly moulded the game’s terrain to accommodate for them. Beyond the game’s urban centres, trancemaster has added various new adventures and perils. These include bandit camps to raid, and multiple new dungeons, including a new Daedric realm to explore, and unique sights such as, err, mass graves. 

It’s worth noting that Morrowind Rebirth doesn’t add many quests. At least, not ones that will be recorded in your journal. Instead, Rebirth’s adventures are less offi cial, taking the form of notes pinned to walls that hint at the location of an item or a stash of gold, or bounty hunters that will track you down if the price for your head reaches a certain threshold. Rebirth also doesn’t make signifi cant changes to the game’s visual prowess, although it does make landscapes more varied, while adding visual variety to recurring NPCs like Imperial guards and skeletons.

Returning home

Alongside its many additions, Morrowind Rebirth also makes a massive number of balance changes. Hundreds of mechanical values have been tweaked, from the damage of different weapons to the weight of items and the price of travelling via Silt Strider. It’s impossible to go into these in any great detail, but the general effect makes levelling slightly slower and the diffi culty more challenging. Personally, I always felt Morrowind was slow and challenging enough, but this does spread your progress out more evenly across the mod’s increase in scope. Plus, if you get stuck, that’s what the diffi culty slider is there for. 

What I like most about Morrowind Rebirth is how natural all the additions appear. It makes Vvardenfell feel as if it has grown and evolved during your absence, like returning to your hometown after years away, only without the disappointment at discovering your favourite coffee shop has been replaced by yet another Starbucks. It doesn’t feel like the game has been modded. It’s more like time has simply moved on. If you want to know just how much has changed while playing, however, keep an eye out for hanging lanterns. These are trancemaster’s calling card, and you will be seeing them absolutely everywhere you go.

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind® Game of the Year Edition - Valve
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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Alice O'Connor)

It’s time to hang a pine-scented Little Tree air freshener from your cybergoggs because The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim VR last night launched on PC, following its console debut in November 2017. It’s Skyrim but in VR, yeah? Put your feet in a foot spa while you sit by a river in the rain, hang an old sock over your nose when venturing into Blackreach, and punch yourself in the knee any time you drag up tired memes. Ow. (more…)

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Bethesda has announced that Skryrim VR will be coming to Steam on April 3rd.

Skyrim VR, which originally launched on PSVR late last year, sees Bethesda's classic open-world fantasy epic rejigged and reworked for virtual reality headsets. As was the case on PSVR, the Steam version of Skyrim VR will include the celebrated base game, alongside the newly VR-ified Dawnguard, Hearthfire, and Dragonborn expansions.

Skyrim is pretty ubiquitous at this point in time, having appeared on six different platforms and in three different guises since its release in 2011 - but Bethesda's thorough virtual reality update, which includes support for VR controllers, is easily one of its most impressive.

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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Alice O'Connor)

Given that the iconic image of Skyrim is a fella wearing a Knightmare-esque bucket on his head, it’s only fitting that Bethesda want you to strap cybergoggles onto your head to enter the fantasy RPG’s world. Today they announced a PC release for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim VR, a new standalone version built for cybergoggles. Skyrim VR debuted on PlayStation VR in November 2017, and now it’s headed to PC on April 3rd. It seems a terrible shame that the game doesn’t (as far as I know) use goggle microphones to control dragon shouts. (more…)

Dragon Age: Origins - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (RPS)

podcast-36-best-mates-b

Hello chum! Sit down and have a nice glass of water and a pack of Bombay mix. That’s how we greet our closest friends on the RPS podcast, the Electronic Wireless Show. This week, best pals John and Brendan discuss how friendship is handled in videogames, and what characters felt most like close buddies. John felt a kinship with Alistair from Dragon Age: Origins, and sees Lydia from Skyrim as Wilson the football from Castaway. Whereas Brendan felt a habitual closeness to the undead woman in Dark Souls who sold him poisonous arrows. Takes all sorts, really.

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The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind® Game of the Year Edition - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Alice O'Connor)

A new video of Beyond Skyrim: Morrowind, a wildly ambitious upcoming mod for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, gives a look at its version of lands from The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. This isn’t one of those mods remaking Morrowind, mind. The wider Beyond Skyrim project wants to revisit lands from older Elder Scrolls games, exploring how they’ve changed in the hundreds of years since through new stories which are contemporaneous with the events of Skyrim. How is Morrowind looking after all these years? Not that great, what with the devastating volcanic activity and all. Observe:

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BioShock™ - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Brendan Caldwell)

Buh! Buh! baa-dddaaah!

The game trailer is a sly creature. It wants to entertain you, to excite you, to embolden you with curiousity. But it also wants to sell you a bunch of code wrapped up in some 3D shapes. Some trailers turn out to be more artful than the game they re hawking, others plant sneaky emotions in your head with music. However, some are better than others. Here are the best conflagrations of light and noise in PC gaming.

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