Author: rubix

Review: Skyrim – Falskaar

Reviewer: Xoleras777

The whole idea is ambitious and conceptually potent, but the implementation lacks the elements needed to bring that potency to life.

Falskaar takes place apart from Skyrim on the island of Falskaar. Upon entry the player is introduced into a familial and political conflict between two factions, each settled in their respective holds: Borvald and Staalgarde. The player adventures through a campaign to defend the interests of Borvald and its people against the tyrannical desires of the antagonist, ruler of Staalgarde, Yngvaar. Characters tell of a prophecy that “the Traveler” will enter Falskaar from another land in order to aid in its salvaging, and the player essentially fulfills the prophecy as they go through the campaign, ultimately preventing Yngvaar from attaining the Heart of the Gods, which would allow him to become all-powerful.

Falskaar is a vast land but there are immediate deficiencies easily noticed by players as they enter. The most evident among these is the landscape, crafted in an artificial manner that serves no effective purpose and thus acts only as a visual aberration. The landscape is thus, from a topographical viewpoint, evidence of excess land usage and poor layout. The immediate natural landscape takes on a similar and mundane image in most cases. This issue can even be judged comparably: take a random cell in the Falskaar worldspace and compare it to a random cell in the Solstheim worldspace, for instance. In those cases where the comparison is between traversable land, the cells in Solstheim are overwhelmingly more detailed and diverse. Similarly, the structure of interiors and artificial constructs also lack the kind of detail needed in order to distinguish themselves from their generic forms. Thus while it is evident that structure is present it is not devised in a manner any more elaborate than a generic grouping of base meshes for almost every example that can be found, which also proceeds to demonstrate the lack of innovation in the construction of interior and exterior structures; everything is created into a basic layout, which is the same thing as “playing it safe;” no risk is made in an attempt to catch the player off guard, although the consequence happens to be that the architecture is plain.

What atmosphere the mechanics of the game provide unabated to designers tend to be washed away in the experiences where a player may be exploring the forest or fighting their way through an interior. The repetitiveness of scenery and the excessively large proportion of land to content tend to wind the player down and pull them out of an immersive escape into fantasy. The same can be largely said about auditory immersion, as much of the campaign is played out in silence or with minimum contribution to the auditory environments that contribute to the experience of the levels as wholes. The presence of detail is a smattering of hits and misses. In about as many cases of richness of detail there are cases of poorness of detail to counterbalance the former. The atmosphere in summary fails to do the minimum of providing the immersion needed to escape from reality and become submerged in a new world, despite that some elements do more than their fair share in order to fulfill this need.

The style of play is reflective of the common dungeon-exploration scenario for most cases in which the player sets off to complete quests. Those portions of the main quest that play out in unique scenarios act as a counterbalance to level out the plainness of the combat. But even when all the primary characters are fully involved in delving into dungeons alongside the player, the gameplay experience quickly sinks back to a state of platitude as you’re forced to fight the same kind of enemies over and over in the same kind of environment for numerous iterations. The more unique parts of the experience are thus drowned out by the overpowering and ever present imposition of conventionality. At the same time, however, it should be noted that the combat gameplay is challenging and is not in and of itself the overpowering element, although it does not contribute much to the entertainment value as a whole. There is some degree of evidence that the author attempts to implement novel gameplay, although the risk yields little return as some of the cases result in unimpressive experiences. The best example of this is the final boss fight: a terse tussle with the main antagonist, wherein the player is enclosed by invisible walls and does very little in order to win the fight, simultaneously experiencing little as they complete it. On the other end of the spectrum lies the more colorful and unique experience of the invasion of Staalgarde, which was one of the unique highlights of the mod. Overall the completion of each level is a sluggish flow of progress brought about by the level of difficulty of the enemies but it is rarely confusing to figure out the next step in completing a level as the layout from a context of progression is sensibly constructed.

The author seems to attempt to design areas with the intent of strong visual impression, although the overwhelming results are that they end up being profound in one dimension, leaving the combination of elements required for visual awe unkempt. Despite this, it is not uncommon to realize and demonstrate the sense of conceptual wonder in the few locations where it has an opportunity to be exemplified. Yet in all cases there is nothing extraordinary that may indicate conceptual creativity as the author does little to prove visual creativity in the visual environments of each level. Everything can either be traced back to a generic grouping of constructs or can be outdone by miscellaneous environments in Skyrim in terms of environmental layout.

Most characters take on the template of a character of tertiary importance: one that has a few things to say and may have a personality but does not have much more and is thus generally shallow. Thankfully the primary characters have developed personalities and backgrounds, although the voice acting in some occasions doesn’t do much to convince us otherwise. The plot is laid out in a sensible and linear manner and takes on a typical sort of template in which the hero enters into a new world who at first seems unimportant but ends up saving the day in the end by defeating the antagonists. There is, however, no complete level of complexity beyond that and it is difficult to provide evidence that thematic depth fares any better, as there is nothing in the story that is made strong enough to indicate that, and so ultimately there is a theme to the story but it isn’t especially elaborate.

Falskaar in effect seems to carry the weight of buoyant endeavor and ambition but does not have the mechanical power to perform as well as it could have. That is to say that the whole idea is ambitious and conceptually potent, but the implementation lacks the elements needed to bring that potency to life.

Architecture – 0.9

-Structure: 0.75
-Innovation : 0.15

Atmosphere – 1

-Visual Immersion: 0.3
-Auditory Immersion 0.35
-Detail 0.35

Gameplay – 1.25
-Entertainment 0.3
-Intensity 0.4
-Novelty 0.25
-Flux 0.3

Visual Impact –  0.9

-Concept Impression: 0.5
-Visual Awe: 0.3
-Creativity: 0.1

Storyline – 1.45

-Character Development: 0.4
-Plot Development: 0.3
-Depth: 0.75

Overall Rating: 5.5/10

Tier Rating: 2/5

Review: Sven Coop – Shockraid Jungle

Reviewer: boggyb

Typically Sven Co-op players aren’t used to any attempt to bring some immersion into a level and the routine is to go through the level like a mouse looking for the cheese in a maze; there’s a hallway so I’m going to go through it. It’s never the contrary: my surroundings are very interesting or awesome. Probably because half the maps in the game take on the same simplified variations of the “pre-Lambda-Complex” palette: rugged industrial corridors that are dulled, grayish compositions of unaesthetic metal and concrete. It brings on the same feeling you get when you’ve gone through the “On a Rail” chapter from Half-Life a few dozen times. This is probably why my eyes light up when I see something bright and unique, like Shockraid Jungle.

Shockraid Jungle is a fairly short map that divides its combat encounters into cells similar to Case Closed except in creative ways that the player will appreciate. You’ll at least have encounters where you’re fighting through enemies in the jungle on different levels of elevation and with a map layout that provides touches of novelty in combat. The balance reflects the moderation applied to various features of the gameplay: a moderate amount of enemies, a moderate level of combative encounters and a moderate challenge for an objective. In some sense this also displays its weakness. The map doesn’t really go out with as much a bang as it could have. The level of difficulty rises as you make progress towards the end, but the combat is homogeneous to the point that it becomes predictable…until you get the vehicle surprises, which adds a good finishing touch and makes for a well rounded combat experience. Granted it’s very challenging to add the bang. It’s not easy making a unique boss scenario, something unpredictable compliments an adventurous landscape on which to fight the final fight. But it’s something that’s also severely lacking in Sven Co-op’s custom maps, and it’s nowhere near impossible to try, let alone do. The objectives are also pretty simple and there aren’t any twists or creative touches that an experienced player wouldn’t expect. Overall it’s a map whose gameplay has some nuances that keep the entertainment going.

The map uses an old style of depicting exteriors kind of like Nipper’s exteriors in Sven Co-op maps. You fill all the “outside” with vegetation textures kind of like how a kid draws a forest, and then pave the path that can be traveled. Which, to be fair, almost as much as you really can do in the Goldsource Engine. It’s very difficult to create exteriors of all sorts. It’s not like anything in the engine has a specialized way of rendering a forest or providing the components for one. However, even with these limitations it really feels like you’re in a forest. Or rather that you’re in a forest in a video game. Compare that with most other exteriors that try this kind of thing. Most of them give you the feeling that you’re in a map that has rectangular rooms which have trees for walls. So really it’s a huge leap forward. The lighting makes it all the more convincing, along with a few characteristic features of marshy jungles: waterfalls, rivers, islands, and so forth. The only issue is that it’s too small and typical to make the player go from “eyes lit up” to “jaw dropped open.” Which, again, is very hard to do but not impossible.

Sven Co-op players don’t really care about immersion, usually, because they’re used to there being almost no immersion at all. The Lambda Complex is a great example of a classic way to immerse the player into the setting: the hums and exhausts of the facility are always ringing in your ears as you hear the generators and machines constantly working at a distance. All that can be done with sound. If you really want to take your map to the next level, you stimulate all possible human senses. It happens that you can’t do much with taste, touch and smell, which would be weird. But sight and sound are the big two. Why ignore one completely? You’re totally missing out on a whole world of sensory input. Shockraid Jungle leaps to the upper echelon of levels by giving you the jungle in a dozen sounds or sound combinations. This is topped with the music which is quite fitting. You end up feeling like Rambo lost in a jungle.

Architecture 1.25
Atmosphere 1.75
Gameplay – 1.8
Visual Impact – 1.25
Overall Rating: 7.6/10 (normalized)
Tier Rating: 3/5

This is probably one of the best jungle maps I’ve tried to date. It definitely beats the forest settings you see in other Sven Co-op maps. It’s really built for a handful of players, though; don’t expect to have a wild adventure with a dozen players since the combat encounters are typically mild.

A Starting Point for a More Robust Review Methodology

As I’ve summarily explained in a previous article, having no framework leads to unfair review practices in a very technical sense of the word. On top of this we should consider that unlike systems that are powerful in that they express their elements truthfully, those that approximate a temporary molding together of personal influence and bias alongside sentiment and guessing are easier to use because humans do it all the time. They act as heuristics by which people operate in the world in a correct manner. But if the whole point of a process is to measure quality then that sort of ambiguous heuristically-driven approach doesn’t fare well at all. This is not difficult to realize. Find any reviewer on the web and find a review they made on a game level. They may have described their experience in playing the level. More analytical approaches provide elaborate essays detailing particular events and things that stood out. But in the case wherein no defined framework is provided you cannot trace their reasoning back in a logical way to conclude how they went from a description of sensory experience to a number, which so happens to be the very element of ambiguity. This is true both practically and logically; English is an ambiguous language and I don’t know if there has ever existed a human-developed language that is not ambiguous, in reference to the definition of ambiguity used in formal languages, a linguistic and computer-scientific study.

We can at least begin with a framework that has an outer structure. In the cases where each aspect of which the framework is composed of is well defined, readers and observers can more easily decrypt the reviewer’s reasoning and isolate particular components in order to more adequately figure if the reviewer’s rating makes sense, which is to determine the degree to which the rating coincides with the reasoning supporting it, which is collectively an approximation of the quality of that particular element, and being the very point in question, it suffices to say it is the whole challenge motivating the framework in the first place.

In order to build a framework however, we need to figure out what we want to get out of a work of art, which roughly translates into the need to define quality. This is dangerous territory because so many fields of study come to mind with partial answers. I’ll provide two different answers. The first is a general rule that may give a thoughtful and intuitive sense of what the goal for this framework is. I hold the philosophical presupposition that art ought to express and evoke the human spirit. The author ought to express it, and should endeavor to construct their art in order to evoke the spirit of others. This should be taken with a grain of salt, because what I mostly mean by this is more grounded in scientific concepts. This is where the second answer comes along, and it’s a long winded one. Beauty –the beauty we speak of, or perhaps artistic quality– is a property constructed by human interpretation. Hence we have fields of knowledge in every direction which may contribute to the problem. Beauty is undoubtedly influenced by phenomena studied in psychology, evolutionary biology and neuroscience. It has also been well-established, for instance, that certain stimuli in controlled environments yield a deterministic response from the human brain. Change blindness is a popular example. Scientific experiments have demonstrated that changing a particular element on a still-image in a sufficiently slow manner does not catch the attention of the human viewer, provided there are no disruptions [1]. There have also been quite a few many studies done documenting human male preferences of females based on deciding their level of beauty. Physical appearance is a culturally-independent property relevant to humans in seeking a mate, and certain features are found to be attractive across cultures [2]. It has also been demonstrated that combining visual and auditory stimuli resulted in activity in a particular cortical region [3], although it is more difficult to scientifically extrapolate more meaningful conclusions out of such experiments. Given that there are particular stimuli that evoke deterministic or chaotically deterministic responses in the human brain and that beauty is heavily influenced by human evolution we can at at least be certain that there is an human-contextual objective description of beauty, and so a framework which seeks to measure beauty as a quality of artwork ought to aim to identify aspects which reflect the degree to which beauty is properly expressed.

At this point you can imagine that interactive quality has a similar background, although perhaps there is a more distinct difference in male and female brains when it comes to interaction and play as opposed to visual and auditory stimulation. Nevertheless this collectively provides us a foundation onto which we can explore more proper methods by which we can quantify quality, and with this kind of unexplored and mysterious challenge we’re sure to modify some things every so often, but the whole point is to get closer to a more universal reading of design quality.

The initial template we use is as follows and is given out of its sum value of 10 points:

  • Architecture (2)
    • Structure (1)
    • Innovation (1)
  • Atmosphere (2)
    • Visual Immersion (0.75)
    • Auditory Immersion (0.75)
    • Detail (0.5)
  • Gameplay (2)
    • Entertainment (0.5)
    • Intensity (0.5)
    • Novelty (0.5)
    • Flux (0.5)
  • Visual Impact (2)
    • Concept Impression / Grandness (1)
    • Visual Awe (0.5)
    • Visual Creativity (0.5)
  • Storyline
    • Character Development (0.5)
    • Plot Development (0.5)
    • Depth (1)

I will break down each component individually and elaborate on it in future articles. You may notice that Storyline doesn’t have the kind of immediate experimental support that other aspects hold, so it also begs investigation on a psychological level, although that is an entire topic that can be written about in the future.

 

References:

[1] “Change blindness in the absence of a visual disruption”. Simons, Daniel J. Franconeri, Steven L., Reimer, Rebecca L. Perception. 14, July 2000. Vol. 29 pp. 1143-1154 DOI:10.1068/p3104

[2] “Maxims or myths of beauty? A meta-analytic and theoretical review”. Langlois JH, Kalakanis L, Rubenstein AJ, Larson A, Hallam M, Smoot M Psychol Bull. 2000 May; 126(3):390-423.

[3] “Toward A Brain-Based Theory of Beauty”. Ishizu, T., & Zeki, S. (2011).  PLoS ONE, 6(7), e21852. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0021852

Many Game Review(er)s Have Precarious Rating Systems

Have you ever read or listened to a game review, or a review for anything for that matter, and wondered how on Earth the reviewer came up with their diagnosis? Maybe they gave it their highest rating, but you find yourself baffled at how they might have been able to reason it through in the first place. Perhaps you saw a mod with a “Best Of” award, although the mod didn’t seem particularly outstanding. In the overwhelming majority of cases I’ve seen, mod reviewers in particular employ a practice of judgment and reasoning which is only as sound as the extent to which they can properly judge and reason, which is not saying very much given that it’s difficult to say that a review based off of reason does much more than discreetly display the reviewer’s biases and preferences. Not to mention that they might have never exposed their methodology which they use in order to come to a decisive conclusion in their review. The collection of these problems makes things confusing.

Firstly, since there is no sufficiently rigid framework for what defines quality, a reviewer can “feel” as though one mod is better than the next. The reasoning by which they say one is better than the other can hardly be said to be identical if they can’t describe the framework through which they felt one was better than the other. The result in effect is two different ratings based off two different (un)reasonable conclusions. It would be the equivalent of doing the following: looking at two different works and judging the first solely on its visual quality, and the second solely on its auditory quality. The first gets a far better rating than the other. That’s not a fair rating because, technically, what the reviewer actually did is give one a rating based off System A, and the other based off System B, whose components are totally independent, so that there is no comparison to say which one is better, yet one got a better rating. What many reviewers do is similar. They have no rubric and as a result, they can step into all sorts of mistakes that skew their review process. It’s not particularly credible. In the end if you are comfortable with that kind of phenomenon, it’s fine, but realize it’s simply the “Person’s Opinion Awards” and not an endeavor for true quality control, measurement, and comparison.