Tag! The Orc is “it”!

Randy Stardust, the Wood Elf, upon his horse.

Do you recall the games we played when we weren’t playing video games? Kick the can? Flashlight tag? Freeze tag or variations of it, like TV Tag? Family holiday gatherings always sparked these ‘All-American’ multiplayers, mostly because where the family gathering was being held didn’t have a gaming system (grandparents). I am not complaining. My memories of these spontaneous tag engagements, at a grandparents or aunt and uncles, are some of  the best memories from my youth. Many of these games were prompted to end with a call from famished parents wanting to start dinner, and wanting to get home. However, our games didn’t end until the last person made it to “base” and was safe.

If you have ever played a tag based game then you almost undoubtedly have seen or been involved in the car standoff. You know the car standoff, everyone has made it to base except for one individual and all that stands between them and safety is the person that’s “it” and a car. The two siblings/cousins jockey for position around the car, mirroring each others movement, always ending up opposite one another. Someone finally falters and is unable to match the other players pace and flinches, the person makes it to base basking in applause, leaving his sister in the dust.

I had this exact moment unfold in front of my eyes but, while playing the video game The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. I was thrown back to my childhood memories and was giddy. Yes, I was giddy. I squealed like a little boy playing tag, just making it to base. My Wood Elf, Randy Stardust (Randy, after Stan’s dad in South Park. Stardust, after David Bowie’s alter ego – the combination of the two sounding like a porn stars name.) had sneaked his way up a large stone flight of stairs leading to a ruined temple entrance. Randy was on a mission to return a ‘Golden Claw’ to a brother and sister owned trade house and the bandits of this claw had supposedly taken refuge in a ruined temple on a mountainside.

Randy is not one for full frontal assaults, unlike his porn alter ego, so he sneaked his way up the mountain and the steps. Just peaking over the apex of the stony stairway he spied a bandit mumbling to himself about the cold, Randy happily put him out of his misery with an arrow from distance. Looking around, Randy overtook the last step and cautiously peered through the blustery snow that swirled and engulfed the temple entrance. As he moved to the entrance voices cried out and an arrow buzzed by his ear, bouncing off the pillar behind him. “Shit,” Randy’s pupetmaster said out loud.

Two hulking foes had rounded a corner of the temple exterior and behind them was a   supporting archer. Randy is not well suited for a confrontation of this kind so a little improvisation was required. The archer luckily stayed back far enough that his arrows were of little concern but the two massive brutes on a direct path to Randy were a different story. Like Legalos, of Lord of Rings fame, Randy loosed three  arrows in quick succession taking our the lead bandit, whose speed was his misfortune for the first and last time in his life. That left the most dangerous of the two surviving bandits bearing down on him.

All that stood between me and the mass of muscles, brandishing a giant polearm, was a sarcophagus sized stone. The stone, that was once part of an arch that sheltered worshipers from the weather, was now going to shelter me from my foe. As he rounded the corner of the stone I mirrored his movement in the opposite direction. When he changed directions so did I. It was then that it dawned on me, I was back in the yard of my grandparents playing tag. Instead of a car dividing the two foes, there lay a stone. Instead of my sister opposite me, there was an ugly, snarling, Orc, with a dentist’s nightmare overbite (not too different from my sisters appearance during her more awkward years).

When both are wearing glasses the similarities are uncanny.

In this car standoff both players are armed but Randy has the ability to reach out and hurt. While we jockey back and forth, I quick fired arrows into the Orc’s chest. As the Orc slowly drained of life, I flashed back to my grandparents’ hazardous driveway (it consisted of concrete that was poured over a century ago). I knew the battle was won when I looked across the car into the tired eyes of a loved one. There steps, in attempts to match mine, had become clumsy. Their frustration and exhaustion became obvious as they slipped on gravel and tripped on uneven concrete. One last “juke” and they would be too slow to compensate. Now, looking at my sister the Orc, I could see the same frustration and exhaustion in his green eyes.

Another arrow floated harmlessly overhead. I took my time lining up the next shot, knowing it would be the finishing blow. The Orc across from me swung in desperation from the other side of the stone. As the head of his weapon just passed the halfway point of the swings arc, an arrow to his head ended his life.

I took a moment to appreciate how an encounter in a brilliantly made video game had caused me to flashback to fond memories of my childhood. I quickly out shot the depth perception deprived bandit archer and safely made it to base, while being bathed in applause.

Skyrim's version of "base".

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The Un-Elder Globes: Skyrim

I have yet to shiver in the rivers that run through the wintry landscape of The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. I have not stared down a dragon in the hopes of stilling his soul. I have, however, imagined that all the dragons sound like Sean Connery. I’ve also watched a multitude of trailers and now, game play, and what has caught my attention the most since post release?

Before I go any further and reveal my mannerism, let me put in place a preemptive apology to my girlfriend. Amanda, I am sorry, they mean nothing to me. Even when I do purchase the game and I am immersed within their world and perhaps living with them, even sleeping with them, they are not a real threat. Okay, now that is out of the way…

So what have I noticed constantly in the Skyrim videos post launch? Boobs. Large, perfectly shaped, breasts. Yeah there are dragons and dual wielding of spells and weapons, but boy did they do a job on the pixelated perkies. It seems if a women in the world of Skyrim has a low cut blouse then they must also have a before-its-time push up bra or, at least, a c-sized silicone implant… or both.

As soon as I started to regularly notice the boobzilla inhabitants of Skyrim (and trust me it didn’t take long) I instantly started to make up in world excuses for their existence:

“In the frigid northern lands, that is Skyrim, evolution has adapted to provide women with insulating chest pillows.”

“Among the possible spell paths is, the less traveled, Cosmetic Spell Caster. He/She earns his living by enhancing the beauty of the women of the north, who suffer from the harsh winters, by offering his skills for coin.”

“A side quest quest of Skyrim is to find the source (possibly a dragon), for King Weiner, that provides its women with large attractive breast so he may use it for his own shortcomings in his land of New Yorkia.”

All that was fun, but the real reason that eye cleaving cleavage is so prevalent in Skyrim is because, sex sales. I was sold on this game way before the Breastimous Magnanimous spell was ever cast on me. The game is huge and it leaves plenty to the imagination (No. Not, “I wonder what she looks like under that leather armor.”) or more importantly, exploration. It is a world you will struggle to see in its entirety, even if that is your sole purpose of playing it. The game is its own world, that you will enjoy getting lost in.

I understand the need to immerse players of a game within their surroundings by providing them with ample amounts of visual fruit (see cantaloupes, watermelons etc.) when that said surrounding is a brothel or the lair of an enchantress; I understand this and expect it. On the dual wielding hand, not every women in a hotel, tavern or farmhouse has a set of ‘dragon eyes’ the size of Duke Nukem’s ego.

What makes this more frustrating as a gamer who wants gaming to be taken more seriously; as an industry of intelligence, made up of players of intelligence (See the publication Kill Screen’s mission http://killscreendaily.com/pages/who-we-are.) is The Elder Scrolls series has been embraced by women and men alike. I couldn’t get Amanda off my old PC after I introduced her to The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. Both her and I have been anticipating the release of Skyrim and are now waiting for the right moment to purchase it. How many women gamers have been turned off by the YourTube boob views of Skyrim, passed on the purchase, and went back to playing Farmville?

Then there’s how video game news is covered. The industry must distance itself from the large breasted women trying to convince us they are actually informed about video games. What female viewer who is questioning taking up the hobby would decide that she wants to partake in an industry that covers news in such  way? Please stop insulting me by presenting your silicone talking head as an expert in the field of video game journalism. Yes, there are exceptions, where the woman is informed but they normally don’t rise to the top because of the following:

Yes, video gaming is dominated by us penis pushers and so are the themes of video games but think how much of a bigger audience a game would have it is just toned down the titties? I am in no way saying cut out the sexy that makes up 85% of females portrayed in video games but perhaps cut that down to 65-60%. In the process of cutting back on the racks, input some female characters that are more than just visually pleasing. Put some in there that are mud crab ugly. Put some in there that are attractive and intelligent. Put some in there that are as common looking as Jane Eyre and when the storyline matches, do put some in there with spell enhanced “attributes”. To their credit, Bethesda does this to some extent in Skyrim.

In a gaming economy that relies on having a large base of potential gamers wouldn’t it behoove a developer to not ostracise a potential segment? Lets take away the capitalist argument above. Shouldn’t creating games that could have mass appeal to multiple genders be done because it is the right thing to do? Because those who are playing the games are not just boner controlled morons, but evolved men and women who appreciate a fun fantasy game that doesn’t make them out to be walking hardons?

Almost Heroes: Exploring Open Worlds

Jean Luc got exploration right.

Unfortunately Janeway did not.

This large world, please let me get lost in it. Open world environments in video games are becoming a must for any successful Role Playing Game [RPG]. Open worlds provide us gamers with explore-how-you-want and go-where-you-want video game settings (also the same marketing slogans used on open world RPG box art). They are far beyond the constraining atmospheres presented in early side scrollers like Super Mario Brothers and Contra and even the more recent first person shooter [FPS] with invisible constraining walls. Open worlds enable us to tap into one of our species biggest desires,  “To boldly go where no man has gone before.”.

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Sadly Star Trek Online didn't get the open world right but patches and updates have made it more fun to explore.

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Fett (my Fallout: New Vegas character) is my virtual version of Magellan and Shepard (of Mass Effect fame) is our gaming pixel equivalent of Buzz Aldrin. Virtual exploration is the poor mans version of globe trotting. It allows us gamers to feel the freedom and excitement of exploration without the deep hit to our pocket books or deep cuts to our fleshy bodies. Open worlds give us a sandbox to play in (another phrase used to describe open worlds = sandbox) and lets us explore, kill and/or save lives within it.

Within the wood panels containing the sand of our video game virtual worlds are narrative influences (quests) that the gamer can either decide to interact with or not – so the freedoms in an open world do not just reside in choices of exploration. These narrative influences, rather they be a Dragon (as will be the focus of upcoming open world game The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim) or a lost traveler looking for assistance or partnership, can help shape the sandbox or can be ignored so the gamer may shape it on his own. This freedom to choose is at the core of our desire to explore and exploration – freedom in choosing ones own path. It is these facets of open worlds that make getting lost and having a game that is built large enough to get lost in, exciting to us gamers.

Skyrim's explorable area will be 3-4 times larger than Fallout 3's.

Freedom of choice in exploration, interaction with in-game groups or individuals and the awareness of the unknown make open world gaming as attractive as the New World was to Columbus. For RPGs, open worlds are a key component to being able to actually role play your avatar as demanded by your human desires. Open worlds provide marketing ability and legitimacy amongst the RPG gaming faithful.  It keeps the gamer guessing, exploring and wondering, what is over the next hill or toxic dump site.