Dumb and Dumber

On May 17, 2006, in Games, by peterb

There is, as I alluded in my first article on the subject, plenty to dislike about Oblivion. If you read various reviews and comments on the game, you’ll discover there are two rough sets of comments on the negatives.

First, there are the opinions of people who actually identify and discuss specific problems in the game. Secondly, there are the opinions of people who make the broad claim that the big problem with Oblivion is that it is “dumbed down.”

This charge of “dumbing down” is — appropriately enough — pure fantasy.

In order to understand what “dumbing down” means, we first have to take a brief digression and understand what “Computer Role Playing Game,” or RPG, means. There are plenty of definitions, but the one that is apropos here is “An RPG is the game that I played when I was 13 years old and didn’t have any friends, and any game that isn’t exactly like that I will complain loudly is not really an RPG.” For me, that game is Wizardry, for younger people it might be Final Fantasy, or Fallout, or Baldur’s Gate. The specific game doesn’t matter. The important thing is to realize that the moment someone trots out the tired phrase “dumbed down” what they really mean is “doesn’t suck in the precise way my 13 year-old self wants it to suck.”

My personal definiton of an RPG is that any game with an epic plot redolent of adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasies and “progression” of a protagonist qualifies. But if you want an even simpler definition, here goes: any video game that at any time, for any reason, shows you more than three numbers on one screen is a computer RPG. End of story.

There are two specific criticisms the Dumb Brigade frequently throws at Oblivion. The first one is especially hilarious. The claim is that Oblivion is really “just an action game” (and by implication, not an RPG), because of the real-time combat and the smooth animations and the dexterity required to play it. Oblivion, the argument goes, is a heinous betrayal of the deep, interactive role-playing offered by the previous Elder Scrolls games.

This, of course, is a load of crap.

The Elder Scrolls games have always been action games. I recently played Arena, the first game, for a significant amount of time, in preparation for a review. It is a game of mindless, nearly constant real-time combat, right down to having to “swing” the mouse in order to make your character swing his sword. Anyone who claims that Oblivion has more real-time action than the previous games in the series hasn’t actually played them. The main difference between Oblivion and the earlier games is that the real-time combat isn’t quite as boring and stupid and irritating and the terrain isn’t randomly generated (by “randomly generated,” by the way, I mean “boring and stupid and irritating”).

Second, deep interactive roleplaying? Did these people live through the same 1990s as me? Compared to the canned, cookie-cutter, bloodless dialogues in Morrowind, the “Name! Job! Health!” routine from Ultima III seems like freaking Dostoyevsky.

The second complaint of the Dumbfgruppe is that there are fewer skills in Oblivion than in previous games. This, I suppose, is the expression of the belief that more content is always better; presumably these are people who are bitter that various scenes were deleted from the theatrical cut of Lord of the Rings. As for me, I know a good cut when I see one, and the “missing” skills were good cuts. I’m intimately familiar with the skill system from the previous Elder Scrolls games, and frankly I can’t say that I miss any of the disappeared skills. The smaller number of skills makes it easier for me to get a vision of who my character is and how he is developing.

Which brings me to my real complaint about Oblivion. It is not that they cut too much, but that they cut too little. Why not get rid of levels altogether? You have all of these skills and a system for tracking them. Then you go and ruin it by coming up with some formula that determines how my exercising those skills, coupled with the phase of the moon, whether or not Saturn is retrograde in Aquarius, and the derivative of the previous week’s changes in the Nikkei stock index affect my “stats.” Why have non-skill stats at all? Why bother telling me how “strong” I am? Just use my skills to directly determine how well I do, rather than adding unnecessary and wanky complexity.

And make no mistake: the skill and levelling system in Oblivion is unnecessary and wanky. Put simply, you cannot understand it without reading about it on the Internet. That’s really all you need to know to know that it is poorly designed.

But it is “poorly designed” in exactly the opposite way that the most vocal critics claim. And if Oblivion was changed to be the more contemplative, intricate, and baroque game these commenters claim to want, it would be less fun than it is. And, not coincidentally, wouldn’t sell.

Developing software is always a tradeoff between the planned and the possible, between adding features and meeting the schedule. Oblivion demonstrates this. Many, if not most, of the features of the character system are in place not because they are “being true to the Elder Scrolls universe” or because they are “good”. Rather, they were already implemented, were “good enough” and it was more important to get the game they could actually build released, rather than build the perfect game and never ship it. In the meantime, you have to feel sorry for Bethesda as, every day, they have to read complaints from obsessive-compulsives who shout to the rooftops that the game is ruined, ruined, because it won’t let them collect candles.

Most of the problems in Oblivion come not from the innovations it introduced, but from the fact that it is the ultimate expression of what it means to be an Elder Scrolls game. The things that annoy in Oblivion annoyed in the earlier games. I don’t blame Bethesda for not throwing the setting out — given their succeess with Morrowind, I’d probably think them stupid if they did so. The people I blame are those who, through some sort of mass hallucination, have convinced themselves that they once found Utopia in a buggy, crashy game, and who criticize Oblivion for not living down to that standard.

Every Elder Scrolls game has improved on the past by cutting out more and more. I can’t wait to see what they cut out of Elder Scrolls V. It’s going to be great. Lest anyone believe that I am being sarcastic, I assure you I am perfectly serious.

Cut deep, Bethesda. Show no mercy, and cut deep.


57 Responses to “Dumb and Dumber”

  1. Christopher Lee says:

    You guys lost me the second you started talking about hardware constraints and algorithms. I’m not sure how that is germaine to the conversation.

    I have to agree that the industry has labeled any game which has character statistics (even if they aren’t modifiable) as a RPG. I like the “three numbers” classification scheme.

    The lack of even vaguely interesting choices has led to me shunning the RPG genre and playing FPSes, where at least the cardboard cutout characters are intentional. I believe the last interesting RPG I played where I enjoyed the dialogue choices was Fallout 2.

    Without the details of storytelling (little things like character, coherency and pathos), I tend not to see the point of RPGs. They don’t offer reflex-driven competition, social interaction (even the stunted social interaction of the 12-year-old squeaky gaming community), or mental challenge.

    I find it analogous to watching a 60-hour long B-grade movie that I have to click through scene by scene.

    Now, I sympathize that Oblivion doesn’t live up to high-art storytelling, but what exactly were you expecting? What particular aspect of Elder Scrolls are you missing that has left you feeling so betrayed?

  2. Snow White says:

    Regardless of all of the above, Oblivion would be better if it featured more hunky, manly battle dwarves.

  3. Anonymous says:

    [[> Considering over 50% of the customers that bought oblivion are unsatified

    Do you have a source for this, or is this the well-known, time-honoured technique known as "argument by making things up"?]]

    About every poll on the official forum ?

    I’m sorry mr wiseguy. But the morrowind forum didn’t look like the oblivion mess at launch time. I don’t recall ever seing that many complaints about a game, not even when they released the weird Diablo II patch on Battle net just before the xpack went on sales (the famous patch where Diablo II/hell was made unplayable… they fixed it within a week)

    [[Since English isn't your first language, I can see how you might have misinterpreted this. ]]

    Nice try really, I didn’t say I was lacking a brain. I just lack your 20-40 years experience at getting the spelling and grammar perfect. Or perhaps you never tried learning a second language so you don’t have a clue.

    peterb article was full of contempt for peoples taht *dared* to criticize oblivion.

    I explained what dumbed down meant for the peoples who used it, and that whatever you guys want to fantasize it meant it got no bearing on facts. it DOESNT mean simplified it the way you think. It mean all the stuff uselessly cut off.

    Simple obvious exemple. Every game out there manage seamless transitions, why can’t oblivion do it ? answer: they pushed all into hiring artist to produce high poly bells and whistle and not enought into hiring programmers. you have to be blind not to noticed all technology was licensed from outside.

    As for complicated, Oblivion *is* complicated for some of the simplest things. even the level up and leveled monsters are all screwed up for nothing. you have to design your character backward. I’m sorry but this ISNT simplifying

    [[As for the rest of your points, this is still - as far as I'm concerned - a conversation about gameplay, not tech specs]]

    you still haven’t read it, have you ?

    [[Peterb's point about Arena/Daggerfall having randomly generated terrain is not that he felt it should have used a different method to generate its world, just that he felt that vast, pointless tracts of wilderness do not add to a game.]]

    just for starter, he’s wrong. the terrain was NEVER randomly generated, it’s pulled out of a topography database. The comment on pointless tract of land is absolutely ridiculous.

    I already stated 10x already the ram/cpu speed limitation. Redo Daggerfall with today technology (unfortunately Bethesda said they lost the code) and it will look and feel BETTER than both oblivion and morrowind. How hard do you think it is to turn the *pointless track of land* into *filled with lively npcs and quests* land.

    Honestly, not hard at all. you all pretend to know more than me about programming (or at least put doubt about my background) yet you can’t figure out that today technology can indeed generate a very sophisticated simultion of the real world that would make the world alive as long as you want and more lively than oblivion.

    for god’s sake, we got automated robots that can find peoples stucked in dangerous terrain, but we can’t do a simple world simulation where kingdome (and demons, dragons, whatever) clashes and where merchants exchange goods ? seriously, using a petri net that stuff is so easy the cpu wont even feel the heat. you couldn’t witness rebelions, assasinations, war, the whole deal that make heroic fantasy what it is.

    instead they DIDN’t hire much in term of programmers, bought outside technology (speedtree, havoc, gamebryo and much more) and focused on hiring an army of artists that would create ultra high poly models. they didn’t evenn bother to do Level of Details which is why Oblivion graphic performance suck so much it melt all but the fastest graphic card.

    Oblivion doesnt NEED a fast card. never did. it’s just 10x slower than it should be. look at game out there, there manage to look better while not melting anything. why ? because they didn’t spet their money wisely.

    As for the rpg aspect. beyoond the fact it doesn’t have all the expected weapons (you can’t even throw a dagger) it doesn’t have any crafting (unlike all mmorpg) it barely got a small assortment of creature and dungeons (less variety than morrowind or any mmorpg)

    on the quest side it’s rather linear. once you do all quest (and does this make sense from a rpg point of view ? you roleplay a good monk or paladin type guy ? are you supposed to do the evil quests) – anyway, even if it take you 2-3 chracters – once all quests are done, it would get rather repetitive to play again. the closing of the oblivion gates are already ultra-repetitive.

    they had in their power to make the game much better. they improved the graphic (even if its in an inneficient way) but they cut a lot on the feature from previous games without adding any new feature.

    If you played mount & blade (whih is still only a demo version !), you know oblivion’s horses are hardly worth talking about. tell me, how can only 2 peoples have delivered a game that does horse combat in a balanced way yet Bethesda with a team of 70 could not ?

    How come mount & blade, which doesn’t even claim to be a rpg, manage to have factions waring against each other in a believable world ?

    why Oblivion didn’t deliver on it’s promises of really large battle ? on the promise of *live another world*

    it doesn’t even have the simplicity you guys claim it has. just try decorating your house. you’re in for an headache.

    it’s hard to see oblivion as anything but a short hack n slash game.

    in fact judging by google video…. I’ll let you see what peoples who keep playing it do whit oblivion… deem to have more in common with gone postal or hentai games than with rpgs. if that’s your style, have fun. I prefer rpgs and real-life women (and not to beat them up :P as those peoples seem to be doing)

    I’m underimpressed to say the least.

    I still fail to see the *simplicity* in oblivion. it’s totally weird and conter intuitive as a game. want an easy game, attack quickly at level 1. want a hard game, prepare for battle. please explain to me how this is logical or simple. It got tons of player frustrated. Of course all morrowind veteran figured out the easy exploit : don’t level up

    I wish I could send an email to warn King arthur to level up so he can be allwed to loot excalibur. of course a level 1 hobit isn’t allowed to meet a nazgul, so froddo was in the illegal business there.

    I am trully impressed by that article !

    Seriously, only a very easy customer would be satified after buying oblivion. worst rpg I ever played. it may be nice graphically, but otherwise useless.

    And quite frankly, I would rather watch Lord of the Ring 10x in a row. It’s much nicer.

    If you don’t get bored after the 5th gate, you really love replaying the same scene over and over. you would be better off playing unreal or quake. at least you can play against real peoples, not some dumb easilly fooled AI.

  4. Is it wrong for me to be enjoying this thread quite so much. It’s like the old days of Usenet all over again. Anyway….

    “[[> Considering over 50% of the customers that bought oblivion are unsatified

    Do you have a source for this, or is this the well-known, time-honoured technique known as "argument by making things up"?]]

    About every poll on the official forum ?”

    For a guy who claims that his maths and programming skills are genius level, he really doesn’t know a great deal about statistics does he?

    “I didn’t say I was lacking a brain. [...] peterb article was full of contempt for peoples taht *dared* to criticize oblivion.”

    Errmm… I think peterb has been criticizing Oblivion, and he has been doing that without too much self-loathing going on.

    What peterb is criticizing, though, is the game as it actually exists. Rather than say compared to a game that seems to exist only in some peoples’ imagination. Some of the stuff this guy is coming out with suggests he’s either a time-traveller or has only vague acquaintance with reality:

    “Every game out there manage seamless transitions”

    Really? So, what, I was just imagining those horrendous loading times for Jade Empire?

    “today technology can indeed generate a very sophisticated simultion of the real world”

    I asked Eliza “can todays technology generate a very sophisticated simulation of the real world?”

    Eliza replied “Say, do you have any psychological problems?”

  5. pvg says:

    This is also not directly relevant to the discussion but I’d like to point out that it was, in fact, I who invented the minuature catheter which saves lives. Which makes that other guy even less credible.
    Just sayin’, is all.


  6. Dan Hemmens says:

    “I already stated 10x already the ram/cpu speed limitation. Redo Daggerfall with today technology (unfortunately Bethesda said they lost the code) and it will look and feel BETTER than both oblivion and morrowind. How hard do you think it is to turn the *pointless track of land* into *filled with lively npcs and quests* land.”

    Umm… really fucking hard?

    Going from “vast tracts of empty space” to “vast tracts of space filled with interesting details” requires a lot more than a technological upgrade. It requires actually creating interesting NPCs and lively quests.

    To put it another way, perhaps if you redid Arena with today’s technology, and *added a huge number of lively quests and NPCs* it would be better than Oblivion, because it would contain a huge number of lively quests and NPCs.

    “Honestly, not hard at all. you all pretend to know more than me about programming (or at least put doubt about my background) yet you can’t figure out that today technology can indeed generate a very sophisticated simultion of the real world that would make the world alive as long as you want and more lively than oblivion.”

    I know sod all about programming. I know a lot about games. Today’s technology can’t do shit to produce a believable NPC or an interesting quest. It doens’t matter how good your algorithms are “deliver this message for me” is always “deliver this message for me.”

    You might as well say that if you took a book written in the 1980s and then published it as a .pdf the magic of “modern technology” would somehow make it into a better book.

    You can’t program something to be interesting, you certainly can’t program originality, and you definitely can’t program character development.

  7. Max_Normal says:

    With regard to the “Oblivion is not an RPG” debate, it is perfectly clear that it is not. No computerised RPG has ever yet been made, and it will be a long time before it happens. The concept of RPGs root from the mid 1970′s when pale spotty teenage spods sat around in one of their bedrooms pretending to be knights, wizards etc while playing “D&D”. The whole point was that the scenario could be *anything* that the dungeon master wanted, and that this could change in *any way* at *any time*, and that the players could interact with the “world” not only in any single possible way that a real person could, but in many more impossible ways too. Example, if Spod “A” says “I take off my left sock and stuff it in the dragons nostril”, the character could attempt to do that. So RPGs are in a very real way escapism, i.e. they allow someone to do or be something that they could not do or be in the real world. To argue about the compass being unrealistic is pathetic, many high level knights endured horrible deaths merely because the dungeon master did not like them much, or was in a bad mood due to being particularly spotty that day, while their adventurer companions survived the cataclism merely by dint of being the dungeon masters best mate in the real world. I guess what I am trying to say is, people who complain that RPGs should consist merely of difficult puzzles to endow them with a false sense of intellectual superiority have utterly, utterly missed the point of what these games were about in the first place, (and I would bet everything I own that the “spod-god” Gary Gygax would agree). If you want difficult puzzles, play chess or do the times crossword. RPGs are, and always have been there as an escape into an alternative world, pure and simple, and although there is a way to go yet, none approches an alternative world as closely as Oblivion.