65 – Might and Magic, Wizardry 6, Ishar and mapping

There’s a term–I learned it from The CRPG Addict–called lawnmowing. We’re going to need a couple of shots of some Might and Magic maps to understand. Here’s the area surrounding the first town in Might and Magic Book 1:

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And here’s an equivalent section in Might and Magic 4:

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There’s some obvious aesthetic differences–there was something like nine months in between playing the two games, and so I’ve gotten a bit more relaxed and loose with mapping; 4 also contains an automap, and so while mapping out 1 is essential in order to complete it, hand-mapping 4 was more for the enjoyment, and so I felt freer to use bolder colors and go for look more than practicality. But what I want to draw your attention to the pencil lines all over the place in the 1 map. These are the literal walls of the game–they’re represented as mountains and trees too dense to move through. In Might and Magic, you’re ultimately able to step on every single square–every area in the game is a 16X16 square–but it takes a long time to be able to do so. The challenge lies largely in growing strong enough to fight the enemies in each area and in actually winding your way from Point A to Point B. Very late in the game you get a series of spells which allow you to bypass walls and teleport around the map, and there are some areas where you need them in order to navigate, but for the most part, when you’ve finally gotten them, you’ve probably charted most of the area anyway and they end up becoming ways of speeding up travel and creating shortcuts.

4 has no such walls. There are a lot more terrain types–in my screenshot, it’s fairly obvious what’s what: Light green is grass, dark green is forest, blue is water, brown is a dirt path, grey a road, dark brown mountains, black the edge of the world. And while you start off being unable to traverse forest, water, or mountains, you end up getting skills in order to cross them fairly quickly and cheaply. You can still step in every square, and you *should*, but since all obstacles become removed and the gameworld becomes extremely flat.

And hence the term lawnmowning: Mapping out Might and Magic games becomes a case of going down every square in one row, going to the next row and going UP every square in that, ping-ponging back and forth till you’ve revealed every square. This is, perhaps, the biggest flaw of 2-5: Exploration feels a little less immersive because of the flatness: These aren’t trees and mountains, they’re icons of trees and mountains.

Usually walls solve this problem. Here’s the first location of Wizardry 6, a game that, looking at the maps a year later, I’m shocked I beat:

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I have stepped in every square of this location–a castle–but look at the layout: it’s a maze of doors and walls. Half of those doors are locked when you begin the game, and the initial stages of the game consist on going around the various rooms and floors and slowly unlocking more areas. The challenge is in mapping out these locks, in making your way through the maze, in figuring out the layout of this place and its connection to the other regions of the game–part of my love for the game is its insistence on regularity: It features five or six different locations, all of which are distinct in their layouts, all interconnected and snapped tightly and perfectly together. Think of Dark Souls’s map made in Legos and you’ve got the idea.

And so we’ve got this very simple and slightly cheesy lesson that we can learn: Restrictions make challenge and challenge brings enjoyment. And we can all walk away from this lesson nodding our heads and drawing Gordian dungeons…

…but for the fact that right now I’m playing Ishar, and this is the first area of Ishar.

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Again, light green is grass, dark green is impassable trees, blue is water–and if you’re playing along at home that means that we’ve essentially got a gigantic sprawling field with only minor areas, mostly the borders, where we cannot walk.

And it is one of the more fascinating Mapping Experiences of my time! In many ways it’s a dungeon in reverse. With no automap, with no way of seeing the game from a bird’s eye view, you’re often cast in a void of grass having to count paces as you make your way to the next landmark, which is, like, a bush. It’s an agoraphobic method of getting lost.

But Ishar also avoids the lawnmowing problem partially by not hiding random goodies in every square. I’m hoping I don’t end up eating these words, but the game depicts everything onscreen with enough peripheral and distance that you can see the major things from a few squares away as long as you’re facing the general direction.

And so instead of mowing the lawn, you end up mapping by scouting the area. I’ve been filling out the edges of the map and the hedges and things by the old fashioned move one square, draw the walls, move one square, draw the walls method. But for the inner part of the land, I’m picking a general direction, walking, and coloring in squares in a way not too different from a fog of war reveal, veering off when I see something cool.

And while in practice, that and mowing the lawn aren’t *that* different, it changes the scale of the maps. Might and Magic is exhaustive: You need to uncover and discover what might be hiding behind every single tile in the game. Wizardry 6 is almost a tangle of wires which has you focus in on every tiny detail in order to unknot. Ishar is about the big picture. About putting large islands in your grasp. The area of the gameis huge. This is why I love these games and why I get bored with roguelikes and corridor after arena after corridor level design and why I love this shit: I love the idea of kind of communicating with a level designer who I can see cackling as I try to figure out the cartography puzzle they’ve constructed. For as pretty as Columbia is, as impressively large as Skyrim is, their terrain didn’t communicate anything to me. These old-school dungeon crawlers are all about communicating things just through their layout.

 

 

 

 

64 – Zest trailer released!

Capture

 

This is exciting! As many of you know, I’ve been working on a Twine called Zest along with PaperBlurt and lectronice. We’re about a month from release–expect it to come out in late August–and in preparation, we’ve put together a short trailer, which you can find here.

Please note that the trailer contains a lot of blinking text, if you’re sensitive to that sort of thing, and as of now there’s some fonty macroey issues which mean that it doesn’t play nicely with the likes of Firefox and Internet Explorer–we recommend Chrome. (The browser on your iPhone will display everything fine except for the title screen at the end, if you’re on the go.)

And with that, I think Crunch Season officially begins.

 

63 – Mountain

I still have the smell of rocks in my hair and the taste of dirt in my mouth.

“You are mountain”, Mountain insists at its commencement. “You are God.”

I find this difficult to believe.

Mountain is an intuberance of crenellations, ones which have wormed their way into my mind. If Mountain weren’t well aware of the fact that mine is black and corrupt, it would attempt to connect to my soul. But it’s not. Mountain is too smart for that.

Mountain is. It is a mountain. You say mountain and God like they are one, but that’s an obvious statement. Mountain is truth.

Mountain is a videogame for iOS or the PC; I have the iOS version. It is a mountain that–unlike the mountains of old–grows and changes with time. Perhaps, one might cry, it is not a videogame but perhaps a semi-interactive screensaver. Mountain does not respond to those claims. One can play little piano notes to the mountain. The mountain does not respond. Just because a game has no controls or method of interaction does not mean that it is not a game.

One can zoom in and out and rotate the mountain. As above, so below: The top of the mountain is filled with snow, underneath is rocks and emptiness. And zooming out shows the mountain to be all alone in a void. As am I.

Mountain is a troubling manifestation of myself.

I am at a bar and I am staring at Mountain and a young woman next to me asks me, what are you gazing at? And I say, it is Mountain. It is a soul alone. It is God.

We screw.

I have a routine with Mountain and it is to open Mountain and set it spinning like a top. It is a reminder that even a mountain can be chaotic. Even a mountain can be beyond its control. Even with no method of interacting with Mountain I can interact around it. That perhaps that I cannot change the world but I can change my view of the world.

Mountain

Give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change

The courage to change the things I can

And the wisdom to know the difference

I still have the smell of dirt in my hair and the taste of rocks in my mouth.

62 – Blood and Laurels, You Were Made For Loneliness, Spellforce

–I’ve written a review of Emily Short’s new work Blood and Laurels for Storycade. Check it out. I liked it very much–some quirks with the engine but otherwise an excellently written work. Hell, it’s about intrigue and stuff in Ancient Rome–what could be better?

–How about…The Future? I’ve contributed a passage to a collaborative Twine thing called You Were Made For Loneliness. A bunch of people contributed to this Thing, and you may enjoy it! If you can guess which passage is mine, you will get a free copy of Zest when it’s done!

(Zest is, incidentally, going to be PWYW, so there was a good chance you could have gotten it for free anyway, but come on, it’s a contest, have fun with it.)

–The most experience I’ve had with RTS is a few abortive attempts at StarCraft, which while undoubtedly an excellent experience, didn’t particularly seem geared towards the novice who sucks at videogames–all right, fine, I just plain sucked at it. It wasn’t the kind of game I was into at the time anyway.

Spellforce is one of those GoG summer sale impulse purchases–a $5 bundle. I actually bought it half by mistake–I was confusing it for Sacrifice, which I’ve always had a mild interest in. Both games focus on their “hybrid RTS/RPG” nature, and since that’s where my main interest was, it wasn’t a problematic mistake at all.

I’m not sure quite why I’m so into Spellforce–the pack I bought includes the original and all expansions, as well as the second one and its first expansion and I’m playing the first. I can see some issues–the graphics aren’t always the most distinct, there’s no way of selecting units of a particular type beyond the basic worker units–you can’t select all melee units, for example–and probably plenty of other issues that hardcore fans of the genre would point out, but I think it’s pitched at exactly the right level for me.

I’m about a quarter of the way through the first campaign, playing on normal difficulty, and while it’s not a breeze I’m getting the handle of the basic techniques. It’s always a fun thing getting into a genre for the first time. There’s things that I’m finding extremely charming  about it–I really *like* that there’s a degree to which I can set my little dudes out to do whatever little resource gathering thing I need them to do, grab a cup of coffee, and come back to Progress.  I am, of course, playing on Easy Mode.

Which, that’s of course part of why I’m finding Spellforce more accessible–it’s not as dicky. One of the reasons I don’t play multiplayer stuff is because I’m actually fairly bad at most videogames. Single player modes don’t make me feel that way–I am perfectly content to run up against a wall chipping away at a level until it’s done–Spellforce has been particularly forgiving in this regard and does allow for some do-0vers–you can escape to another map, which wipes away any buildings and units you’ve created, but enemy bases stay destroyed and any gear or experience you’ve gained stay with your character. Even when I’m playing with someone with the best of intentions, I feel like I suck way too much in multiplayer to a degree that just isn’t fun.

61 – Planescape Torment club?, Zest update, Gothic II

So I’ve never played Planescape Torment because I’m obviously a terrible person. I didn’t play a lot of CRPGs growing up–missed Ultima entirely, played and hated Might and Magic II, didn’t play Fallout till college, have never gotten past chapter 1 in Baldur’s Gate. Weird, because I can tell you pretty much everything about every JRPG released in the states till about two years ago. Torment is one of those big holes in my gaming life: I’ve played through a chunk of it, but it’s such a big Thing in some ways that I’m nervous to approach it.

Well, I’ve reinstalled the game and I’m going to be playing it in the next couple of months, and based on some preliminary talk on Twitter, it seems like there’s a lot of people who’d be interested in some kind of Book Club thing. Now, I don’t know quite what form this should take. I don’t want to do the “okay let’s all play this much of the game this week and all discuss it”, particularly because it seems like one of those sprawling RPGs that isn’t conducive to that sort of thing. Maybe it would be enough to just encourage a ton of people to play and write about this game on their own blogs and we can link each other. Perhaps Joel Goodwin of Electron Dance could be convinced to give up some real estate in his forum for discussion.

Either way, if you’re interested–let’s say July-ish?–let me know, and if you’ve got an idea about how this thing could work, please, I’m all ears!

–In Zest news, the basic flow of the game has been outlined. The flow of the game is going to consist of  about a half dozen “time blocks”, each of which essentially has a different “deck” associated with it. The player’s stats influence a degree of randomness–we’ve actually been throwing out the tern “narrative roguelike” to describe the basic feel. My current goal is to come up with a couple dozen basic cards in all the separate categories; once that’s done, I’m handing it off to Lectronice and PaperBlurt who will respectively finish programming the card system and come up with some preliminary CSS. I’m shooting for a hundred cards int he final version–like TWEEZER, I want it to be a game that encourages many very short play sessions. We’re targeting an early July release–that’s part of the reason I’d like to do Planescape around them–so watch this space.

–Again, for a game with comparatively few verbs and stats, there’s a lot to learn in Gothic II. I keep learning new tricks for playing it–where I need to stand in order to pull certain enemies, the timing on how to chain certain attacks, what stats I need to increase to effectively kill things–and there’s plenty more. I still haven’t begun to figure out whether there’s a more efficient way to buy and sell things.

At this point I’ve done a broad survey of the bulk of the island–there’s a lot of stuff I certainly haven’t found, and I’ve only really seen the surface of most of it, but I’ve been, at some point, on every corner of the map, even if there’s only about a quarter of the game I’m able to navigate without trouble. What keeps striking me is I’m just on the first *chapter*.  There’s a lot to see and do in this game, and not all of it consists of doing quests–again, it’s the kind of game that’s rewarding just to poke around in.

–My save–which I’m going to get to as soon as I finish typing this post and will play until it’s time to go to work, I love this fucking game–has me in the middle of an area I have never been to in the middle of the night. Night is scary–or, rather, it’s more threatening than the rest of the game is, and the rest of the game is pretty threatening. While I wouldn’t say Gothic ever becomes a horror game, the sense of vulnerability never quite goes away. The game is like Dark Souls–I’m sorry, I’m sorry!–in that even beginning-of-game enemies can kill you at any point if you’re being too cocky. ANd while Dark Souls has much better creature design, there’s something hilarious about how my Gothic II character ran, panicked, from two chickens–who never fucking give up pursuing and who run fast–and accidentally pulled aggro from two boars, only to run headfirst into a lizard who killed him instantly. Props to the sound department, too: Each enemy has its own cry, and usually–there are a ton of trees–you end up hearing them long before you see them, and so it’s one of those games where the second you hear an animal howling at you, you either relax, though not completely, and maneuver into a position where you can be at the advantage, or you realize there’s two of them and you can’t take on two of them, or it’s something you’ve never heard before and you just run the fuck away.

60 – Gothic II, Daemonica, Always Sometimes Monsters

–I’m absolutely in love, for some reason, with Gothic II’s inclusion of a creature called a meatbug, which, when killed, gives 10 XP and an item called Bug Meat, which refreshes 10 HP. With regard to food in general, most creatures–from wolves to rats to chickenlike beings–can be harvested for a generic meat item which refills 6HP; if you get a frying pan, you can cook the meat into an item called Fried Meat which refills 12. There’s no hunger or fullness meters of any kind, and so there’s the wonderful situation of chowing down on five or six fried rat parts after every battle.

And you know, I could not be happier about this shit because I don’t really like when a fantasy videogame becomes too realistic. Some games can make really interesting systems out of stamina bars and hunger meters and weight limits and all of that, but I like that Gothic II is, mechanically, a relatively simple game. There aren’t very many skills or special attacks, there aren’t piles of statistics, and you don’t have that much equipment. A melee weapon, a ranged weapon, and a couple of spells or spell scrolls (and since I’m not playing a magic character I’m only using spells as high-damage fallbacks), a complete set of armor, and a trinket. At this point I think I’ve learned nearly every single one of the game’s verbs, and while there’s room for them to develop (right now, for example, I can only skin furred animals but other characters have assured me I”ll eventually learn to extract claws and remove wings and all of that), I’m admiring the way they’re balanced against each other.

–I’ve just passed the part I was at at my original playthrough; most notably I’ve gotten past a couple of very specific areas I was unable to, so this is a sign that I’ve built my character and learned how to play the game a little better. Still discovering shit in the first city. Looking at the city map, I know every single building and how to find my way around. Gothic II is one of those games that’s almost a Medieval Questing Dude Simulator, and if Skyrim was one of those too, it’s a lot less concerned with–well, let me think about this.

Because for all of Gothic II’s lack of realistic mechanics, the narrative feels a lot more coherent and consistent–maybe contiguous is the word I’m looking for. Like Skyrim, Gothic II begins with a very broad set of goals–coincidentally enough, the plot of both can be one-line summarized as “a bunch of dragons are about to attack and you’ve got to figure it out”, but while both have a large degree of freedom, Gothic ties itself more closely to the main plot. The goal of this current chapter, as far as I can tell, involves meeting with the head of the Paladins to tell him of the coming danger. To do that, you’ve got to align with one of the game’s principal factions; to do that, you’ve got to fulfill certain questlike requirements. The lion’s share of the quests at this point are tied, in some way, to one of these three goals. Some characters are involved in more than one quest. You’re attempting to make connections and move within the bureaucracy of a city that’s had too many strangers in it. Everything I’ve done has been for a specific reason: The game is very clear about who the questgiver is, why they want this favor done, why you’re doing it, and more importantly, you have a reason for doing it beyond simply it being there: And, hell, even from a metagame standpoint, experience and gold are rare enough that 50 XP and 25 gold is a pretty decent reward.

–Picked up Daemonica from a Gamer’s Gate sale–it’s one of those games that has cult classic written all over it, a moody adventure game wearing the clothes of a CRPG, contrast to Quest for Glory which is a CRPG wearing the clothes of an adventure game. It’s got awful voice acting, writing poorly translated from Czech, a drab, unpolished presentation, and an interface which isn’t quite as good as it should be–but it’s doing something right. Sometimes a decent enough premise can work wonders, and that’s the case here: You’re essentially a Medieval Dude who’s acting as a forensic psychologist and solving brutal murders by brewing up potions which allow you to communicate with the dead. So far so good–although the game lets you drop every inventory item and I completely lost something I needed, so here’s another game I had to start again.

–I’ve started Always Sometimes Monsters and gotten through Day 1; to a degree, I’m having trouble getting into it because I absolutely hate the main character, who’s pining over an ex and unable to write that book that he’s already spent all of the advance on.

I’ve written my share of pining-for-the-ex fiction and songs, and I will definitely cop that me at my most insecure and depressive was probably a horrible person to be around–c.f. “The Depressed Person” by David Foster Wallace–and part of me is extremely leery at the prospect of spending 30 days of game time with this guy. I’ve paid my dues.

(My character is male–the ambiguously dark-skinned dude with the hat and vest, if you’re curious, and my ex was the scrawny white dude who looks a little like he works for a tech startup–but the game features a bunch of different characters to pick for your main character and the ex; characters will react different based on your race or orientation, I’m told–one character discreetly referred to my “friend” that I was living with–but I’m not sure how deeply this affects things.)

I mean, I can already tell that it’s an excellent version of this–and perhaps the best version of this sort of thing possible. There’s some branching already, and I love that–scenes I’m not going to see because I made a specific choice. I think this might be a case where I end up admiring the artistry very much but rolling my eyes a little as the theme. But this is just an hour into the game, of course. It is hard to come up with sympathy for your protagonist when they’re a genuinely unlovable loser–this is a character who, after all, ended up Day One by sleeping on a shitty stained mattress in the alley outside the apartment he just got evicted from (without even attempting to bring up tenant laws to his landlord, who–if he was living in New York City, at least–would not have been able to kick him out so easily).

The game, it’s fair, doesn’t quite agree that pining for the ex is the best thing to do, and maybe it does kind of imply that this guy is in a shitty situation because he’s a shitty guy who doesn’t deserve anything really better. As I mentioned, he’s a writer who’s spent all of his advance but who hasn’t produced anything, and while there will certainly be Dark Things Revealed which go deeper into why he hasn’t written a word, it’s hard to see the character freaking out when his editor informs him he’s being dropped; He’s shocked that he’d be expected to abide by the terms of his contract, that his advance wasn’t free money, and that all the potential in the world don’t mean shit when you’re not following through. It’s hard not to feel for the editor when he informs our hero that he was a bad bet who cost the company a good chunk of money, when the editor informs him that he’s got a wife and family to support and he can’t afford another screwup.

Well, that’s certainly an interesting choice if that’s the case–most games genuinely don’t have the stones to give us an unlikeable protagonist. Even something like Actual Sunlight, while repeatedly reminding us that Evan is a fat drunk who’s terrible in bed, at least makes us feel sorry for the guy because of the scope of the tragedy–Evan is an inevitable result of the system he’s in–and because we do see him as squandered potential. It’s helped, certainly, by the fact that writer Will O’Neill’s is particularly skilled at writing pithy interludes, but the fantasies that permeate the entirety of the game show a man who does have a rich fantasy life which, in the absence of any real, authentic possibilities, is turned itself and set to permanently drain itself. Depression is, after all, anger turned inward. If Evan is paralyzed from too much introspection, Always Sometimes Monster’s guy suffers from the kind of depression which is caused by an utter lack of self-awareness–the kind which has painfully repressed any self-critical instincts and, as a result, has become pathologically incapable of realizing how his many faults have led to the same fucking problems happening again and again and again. Evan’s problem is that, in growing up, he forgot how to hope; the Always Sometimes Monster is too deluded by dreams to figure out the first step towards becoming an adult.

59 – Gothic II

I end up talking about Skyrim a lot, just like I end up talking about Final Fantasy VII a lot, and BioShock a lot, and it’s obvious why: Everybody’s fucking played them. And it’s obvious why everybody’s fucking played them, and, oh, let’s be honest with ourselves, most of these games deserve their position–they do what they do very well and in a way that a lot of people like, and if BioShock isn’t quite as deep as its press releases say it is, it’s deep enough. (We’ll leave the subject of Infinite closed indefinitely.)

Skyrim is one of those games that I love in theory, because let’s face it: I do very well with games where you’re placed in a land and you have to bum around and figure it out and maybe you fight dragons. But Skyrim is an extremely flat and homogenous game. In its effort to be all things to all people, in its efforts to be so large and so sprawling and so massive, the game simply doesn’t have enough tricks up its sleeve. Cast your net at a section of gameplay–dip in and pick a dozen quests and dungeons and maybe every one will be different. Dip in and pick another dozen, and another dozen, and there are going to be a few too many similarities in each packet. Skyrim is the kind of game which doesn’t want to leave any players unsatisfied. Oh, sure, there’s more to do if you’re Cheevo-hunting, and there are enough variants in the quests to make things interesting, but I’m a dungeons guy, I’m an exploration guy, and the dungeons are all samey and the exploration is so brief–it’s traversing rather than discovering.

Gothic II is the kind of game where I had to start over after about ten hours of playing because I squandered a few resources and built my character in an unproductive direction and wanted to do it right this time. In those ten hours I explored a relatively small area–the initial city and the surrounding woodlands–and in the entirety of that time I was able to chart only about two thirds of the entirety of that area and I certainly didn’t feel safe at all. Rather than large, Gothic II is going deep and intimate. There’s shit hidden in different corners, some shortcuts–it’s not as much of an intertwined cartography maze as Dark Souls is, it’s rather a single large island rather than a selection of interconnected areas which loop upon themselves in surprising ways. But it’s a hell of an island.

I find I like games which invite an intimacy with the land, which are based on developing a familiarity with the environment. It’s why I love Might and Magic so much: VARN is a world that you chart and become familiar with and eventually learn to navigate on your own. Same with the Wizardry Cosmic Forge trilogy. It’s why people love Dark Souls and why I loved ICO–hell, it’s why people love Ocarina of Time. I have never been able to have that intimacy with an Elder Scrolls game–although I’ve never played Morrowind which I’m told is one of the finest in the series.

Gothic is doing a great job at balancing some tight reins with an extreme degree of freedom; the monsters are hard, and the point–that your character is, right now, a supreme wuss–gets very strongly made when two flies kick your ass. Combat is sporadic and fixed–there aren’t too many enemies around, but all of them are legitimate threats and every combat feels very meaningful. But skill plays a part as much as your stats; restarting the game, the initial bits were much, much easier because I understand the timing underlining the combat a tiny bit better than when I first played. (Those flies are still really difficult though.) Everything has these really stringent requirements–half of the weapons I’ve picked up require strength 40, strength 80, strength 100 when my 10-hour character only had strength 10 (part of the reason I restarted was because I put some points into the wrong stats.) It’s a game where you chip and chip and chip away and every bit of progress feels like a rush, and the density of stuff and the rarity of stuff and the importance of stuff–finding two arrows and a healing herb has not stopped being a good find–means that every time you find stuff it’s rewarding. Skyrim threw crap at you, it gave you more treasures than you knew what to do with and gave merchants too little gold for you to sell everything and gave you weight requirements that meant you simply couldn’t take everything–and I don’t know about you, but it breaks my heart to have to sort through the items in a chest and have my decisions very easy to make because half of that shit is absolutely useless. Sure, it’s possible that the early game of Gothic requires gold in a way the late game does not, but all I know is that I’ve got to get 1000 gold pieces in order to do one quest, 500 to do another, and a good 200-300 to buy a couple spells I need to buy, and I’ve been scrimping and saving to capture 200.

I speak as if this is my character in the present tense, of course–this is all from that abandoned 10 hour playthrough, again, part of the reason I want to restart is because I want to manage my money better. I’ve loved the density of the world so far, and I’ve been told that it stays that way for the whole game, and I’m so excited to see more on the island and find more stuff out. All of the quests I’ve been given have been very meaningful and different–again, so far–and I just want to be able to play more of it. It’s just an immensely satisfying game in a way that Skyrim never was.