Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Simplifying

I started my stealth Skyrim game.  I figured I might as well also murder people while I'm at it.  So far a mean woman who ran an orphanage and a man who took a rude tone with me have dropped, but now I'm in the assassin's guild so I'm getting contracts and everything.

There is a trend in games towards the more simple and streamlined.  In the reimagining of XCOM they decided that rather than giving you an action point system where you could potentially combine a large number of actions into a single turn, they would give a simple move and attack system.  They reduced the squad size too.

Contemporary RPGs have long since done away with sprawling puzzle-dungeons of ludicrous size in favour of essentially linear dungeons with short side paths to find extra treasure chests.  First person shooter levels, for all of their bells and whistles, have nothing on the complexity of Doom 2.

And I don't like any of that.  I like games with very deep systems that you delve into.  I like dungeons that you have to actually explore more than dungeons that you just walk through.  I like games you can break and stomp all over and that you can make bad choices in to make things hard for yourself.

With Skyrim I feel like Bethesda showed that simplifying can be done right.  The systems are nowhere near as complicated as Oblivion, but there are still tons of paths to take and choices to make.  Dungeons are essentially linear but they use art and atmosphere to give the feeling of exploration.  Skyrim has had some of the most exciting dungeons I've seen in any game.  There are no more custom spells, but that was absurd and trivial to break.  There are no more stats, but stats were just an opaque boost to the power of skills that weren't interesting to increase themselves except when stats were being a harsh punishment for not leveling the right way.

All the simplifications seems like improvements to me.  You can still break the game - any game this complex has to be breakable - but it feels like you have to do some work to get there.  At the same time, playing it straight seems to work pretty well whether you summon minions, blow people up with lightning, hit people with a hammer or stealth past obstacles.

I understand a big part of simplification is the desire to appeal to a broader audience.  Intense and complex systems that punish mistakes harshly are the domain of serious geeks who inhabit a smaller and smaller fraction of the gaming market.  But the reason that you hear complaints of dumbing down and simplifying is not that entitled self-proclaimed real gamers want everything to cater to them.  It's that most of the time the simplified really take something away from the game.  When you replace complex systems with simple ones that are actually better, you make everyone happy.

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