Author: rubix

Review: Skyrim – Republic of Maslea

Reviewer: Xoleras777

The novelty and grandeur expressed here is overpowered by the severely lacking fundamental elements of design.

The Republic of Maslea, or Maslea for short, is a medium-scale DLC mod for Skyrim that mixes in some unique touches in to what would normally be a typical content package. Alas the broad strokes of this mod’s personality are painted on an unkempt canvas and it’s the fundamentals that overpower the more unique parts of the mod.

The outside world design fares far better than the interiors overall as the lush, mild semi-tropical climate of the islands is convincing as scenery. However, the architecture in both exterior and interior design suffer the same flaws. The design demonstrates the ability to maintain proper architectural structure but there is no demonstration of quality that would reflect exceptional skill in the crafting of the constructs as the overwhelming case is a set of simplistic pieces that would have sufficed in very old game engines solely due to their incapacity to visualize more vivid details. In other words the level of architectural detail and structure the constructs display is something I would expect to be seen in the Goldsource engine or any other engine that is incapable of displaying elaborate detail due to its native limitations. There’s an argument to be made that at some point sufficiently acceptable implementation of conventional architecture supersedes poor implementation of novel architecture.

This is a bizarre case where the two unruly extremes of combat intensity exist. The combat intensity goes from incredibly easy to incredibly hard. At the same time the number of enemies you face reflects the same pattern, except that usually the combat tends to be on the lighter end and the number of enemies encountered in proportion to cell span is incredibly sparse. In summary there are a handful of enemies in every interior and slightly more in the outside world. The flux reflects the same extreme pattern. There are so few encounters in some interiors that the player flows through the map unperturbed, but every so often they come to a complete halt due to vagueness of direction and the player typically spends an order of magnitude more time figuring out what to do in such cases relative to the amount of time spent gliding through blank spaces. Aside from a few interesting plays at novelty this mod doesn’t attempt to implement unorthodox combat gameplay –the mod does include some new weapon additions but those are minor details. It does, however, try its hand at designing platforming challenges which are at least unique and unusual as compared to vanilla Skyrim levels. Overall it’s a painstaking experience and the entertainment value suffers thus. This description is applicable to both interior end exterior level sets.

Visual and auditory immersion are diluted by the quality of the materials used in each respectively. Extremely poor quality textures, erroneous mesh placement, poor-quality normal maps and so forth relieve the player of any immersion they had enjoyed up to the point when they encounter those aberrations. The constant, poor-quality sound in the form of voice overs and ambient compositions for environmental simulation (such as the collection of outside world noises played in some exterior areas) are often harmful to the sense of atmosphere that the exterior visuals provide. While the exteriors provide high detail density in terms of detail mesh count per cell, the details in the interiors are extremely sparse and often totally inexistent.

The exteriors, while convincing, go no further than what is sufficient. The islands, for instance, look like islands in considering everything from the base terrain to the detailing and the meshes, but an up close view displays awkward landscape texturing and a general absence of a coherent natural environment. It’s very easy, for example, to find a portion of the island composed of awkwardly sloping terrain and nothing but scattered vegetation that seems to have been placed lazily about in an indiscriminate manner. The interiors are more creative but no more impressive overall. There are some unique designs that tie into the gameplay but they are almost always awkwardly built and look incredibly plain. The first dungeon is a set of trials the player must venture through in order to retrieve elemental stones. This dungeon in particular is an excellent demonstration of the lack of visual impression and detail. Cubic rooms and plain spaces are something you’d expect to see in decades-old engines, not in the Creation Engine. There were some occasions in the interiors where the designer clearly attempted to magnify the conceptual impression and grandeur the unconvincing visuals overpower them in virtually every case.

The storyline is difficult to follow in that it isn’t made clear what the characters were involved in Skyrim in the first place and there’s no central theme, nor plot, nor convincingly dominant antagonist to drive the storyline forward in a cohesive way. Not to mention that it’s roughly drawn out and while there is plenty of detail regarding the background and lore of the mod, there remains a void where there would otherwise be a more gripping storyline. There is scarcely any voice acting done here and the voice acting that is done sounds like someone is repeating what they are given on a teleprompter. Few characters are developed and have any sense of personality largely due to the combination of voice acting quality and the lack of introspection one can do for the characters that are relevant insofar as there exists a loosely conjoined set of plot events in which they can be relevant.

In short the novelty and grandeur expressed here is overpowered by the severely lacking fundamental elements of design.

Rating ElementExteriorsInteriors
Architecture0.750.7
Structure0.250.2
Innovation0.50.5
Atmosphere0.8250.4
Visual Immersion0.3750.2
Auditory Immersion0.20.1
Detail0.250.1
Visual Impact0.850.75
Concept Impression0.50.5
Visual Awe0.250.125
Creativity0.10.125
Gameplay0.60.6
Entertainment0.1250.125
Intensity0.1250.125
Novelty0.250.25
Flux0.10.1
Storyline0.6250.625
Character Development0.1250.125
Plot Development0.50.5
Depth00

Overall Rating: 3.3625/10

Tier: 1

Architecture in Level Design

The idea of architecture entrenched in physical descriptions is traditionally what is espoused in the practice of architecture in academia and the application of such ideas are attended to in practice, but the greatest benefit in relation to architecture that level designers have is their ability to escape from reality which affords them a far less limited description. There are still rules in constructing a level, but a level designer need not pay attention to rules which prevent them from designing constructive things in the real world. There is no need to pay attention to physics or restrict the mode of design to the set of methods possible in the real world. Therefore we need a more abstract conceptualization of what architecture is that is useful to level designers. A more useful definition is that architecture is the visuospatial characterization of geometric details over base geometry, which is collectively the most basic forms of geometry needed to visualize location.

Despite level design being an escape from reality the machines that interact with the level are still human, and so the rules of being human still apply, which is why adopting the exploitation of phenomena discovered in neuroscience is appropriate. Intuitively architecture in this more abstract definition performs two interrelated purposes: telling the same story and doing so in a different way. It’s highly unlikely that a level designer will be able to build a novel template on which architectural detail can be added since there are not many different ways to lay out the foundational geometry that have not already been done before. One might even claim they have discovered a new template only to discover that it can easily be characterized and traced back to something that has already been seen. A church is the perfect example. The template is the same, the details are different. So structure in architecture should optimize the visuospatial characteristics of the template for the sake of evoking a desired response in the viewer as structural detail contributes to the phenomenon. So the difficult question that arises is “What makes better structure?” Paying attention to what visual stimuli are more capable of invoking a particular response or mood on the part of the viewer allows us to determine that architecture which is more influential in provoking a response along with visuals that coincide with a human notion of aestheticism is structurally better than architecture that is less influential in doing so. This doesn’t mean that architecture can’t be “ugly” in the sense that a level designer might want to invoke a dark mood or a sense of disgust, but rather architecture that is less able to do so and is aesthetically nonsensical is purely inferior to architecture that is not. In every case looking at the concepts behind the details give an intuition of what the human brain feels in most cases. Humans group objects based on visual characteristics like shape, color, and spatial distance [1]. Architecture can then be analyzed in a hierarchical way, in which structures contain substructures and the quality of those substructures combined with the quality of the larger structures provide a sense of quality of the whole visual construct. Those structures are the visual things humans group together. Two key principles to pay attention to are the orientation of symmetry and the harmony of ordered wholes. There are various kinds of symmetry but structure has to maintain symmetry somehow for the maintenance of proper structure, given that the human brain pays an elevated level of attention to symmetry [2]. The latter is something which I am in the process of figuring out, but it doesn’t seem to be the same thing as symmetry. The best description I can give to it is the geometric respect for natural order. You can find plenty of ugly buildings in the world but I have never seen a building which was built in a way which violates this principle, perhaps because it is in the very nature of humans to avoid it innately. There is a visual orderliness in the universe in anything which by its nature has structure. This may need not apply, therefore, to fluid, for example. A great violation of this principle may be imagined. Take a look at the Forbidden City.

Now, in your mind, for every set of fixed units in a cubic region, take any geometry that exists within that region and rearrange it in any arbitrary manner, through rotation, extrusion, decimation, scaling, stretching, splitting, et cetera in a manner totally different from every other region you have modified. This would be an ideal opposite of harmonious ordered wholes, which may perhaps simply be related to chaos in a geometric sense. The whole point of structure is the maintenance of visual order and in architecture it is done hierarchically. Since we have an idea of what not to do we have a sense of what to run away from and how to do it, which at least gives us an intuition of how to qualify structure.

Within a foundational structure creativity can be realized in how the designer applied innovation to what has already been done and how they manipulated the visual template in order to creatively maintain its structure yet give it a unique personality. Tōdai-ji is in a geometric sense built upon the same template as the Forbidden City, yet the two have architectural details which contrast them so much that they are uniquely distinct from one another.

Having covered how to roughly qualify architecture in level design we can focus on the specific ways in which the human mind can be influenced by the spatial and visual structure of architecture. Symmetry, for instance, can be used to highlight differences and similarities. A focal point in a symmetrical space can be used to orient the viewer in order to aid them in absorbing a scene wholly. Repetition of visual motifs allows simultaneous processing of the visual figures being repeated. There is also some work that may suggest that facades themselves influence mood, and perhaps if a relevant portion of the cortex that is stimulated is the same portion which is involved in the processing of human faces, there may even be a more grounded sense of what distinguishes aesthetic facades from unaesthetic ones. Some work has been done attempting to use machine learning for face recognition (SVM) in order to extract from facades those inputs that would otherwise be recognized in faces and assign to them particular moods [3], albeit this may not truly relate the data to the phenomenon through which processing faces occurs in the human brain the phenomenon of pareidolia has been studied for some time.

So it’s evident that architecture is a profoundly relevant factor in level design and can be used to further the very purpose of level design as an interactive art.

References:

[1] “Gestalt Principles”. Web. http://graphicdesign.spokanefalls.edu/tutorials/process/gestaltprinciples/gestaltprinc.htm

[2] Symmetry activates extrastriate visual cortex in human and nonhuman primates. Yuka Sasaki, Wim Vanduffel, Tamara Knutsen, Christopher Tyler, Roger Tootell. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Feb 2005, 102 (8) 3159-3163; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0500319102

[3] Simulating Paredolia of Faces for Architectural Image Analysis. Chalup, Stephen K., Hong, Kenny. ostwald, Michael J. International Journal of Computer Information Systems and Industrial Management Applications (IJCISIM) Vol.2 (2010), pp.262-278

The Clockwork City’s Visuals are Amazing

The combined scale and grandness of a big idea brought to life with aesthetic and intricate architectural designs grazed with rich detail are what makes this DLC stand out among the rest. The Clockwork City blows every other zone in the Elder Scrolls Online out of the water. This makes what I’d argue is the runner up, Orsinium, look like a little village.

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