“It’s just me and the AI politician telling me the untruths I want to hear.”
By Harold Goldberg
It’s never night in this videogame land, which kind of freaks me out. But I still play within it. I still play The Elder Scrolls: Blades even though the Early Access version is, at its worst, uneven, unbalanced, unfinished and unsatisfying. I still play this role playing game even though my four gold chests full of loot vanished when I opened because app freezing up. I still play it even though it seems impossible to kill a strong enemy without spending money (emeralds) for an extra life – even though my character is at Level 23. I still play it even though the writing is blandly average and, at times, below average. I still play it even though 1,000 gems mysterious vanished from my account. The indignity!
Still, the visuals are the best I’ve seen in mobile game as far as realism is concerned. I’m playing on an Apple iPhone XS Max, a loaner that only gets a little hot around the processor when I play. But it never skips a frame. Even when I’m walking and casting magic and magic is being cast back at me, there’s still fluid movement in the backgrounds. It’s the right phone on which to play a game that’s a one gigabyte download, even though the phone weighs too heavy on these carpal tunnel-ridden wrists.
Look at the show Bethesda and the newest iPhone present to you. Rainbow halos around the never setting sun then blue butterflies lilting across that orange star, spider webs that look intricate and sticky, cottonwood puffs that seem alive, shadows that change as you move and sun-drenched dust and mist that would induce coughing if you were to inhale them on a hike. It all adds bucolic and medieval texture to the same looking caves, roads, dungeons and various lairs you must grind through as you re-build you town from a queen’s destruction.
Others have described how the game slows on phones with older processors. That didn’t happen on the iPhone. My issues were more along the lines of the tragedies of playing an unfinished game. Sometimes, the Daily Reward doesn’t open if it’s a chest – and then the game freezes. It used to be that this happened only when my treasure troves had accumulated to 10, the limit. Recently, this happened even when my coffers were down to two chests. It’s like a friend who gives you a gift and after you unwrap the pretty paper, the the gift is broken. And the friend doesn’t say, “Sorry! I’ll get you a new one.” The friend doesn’t say anything and the friend doesn’t do anything. The friend just freezes up.
The loot in Blades is key to making me return. I never felt this way with Candy Crush, which never had a hold on me. But Blades is deeper, a mobile riff on a series I’ve loved since the days of being a critic began decades ago. That’s not to say it’s that deep. In essence, it’s Elder Scrolls light, a game with in-town character dialog that rarely changes in tone, a game where the NPCs need more work. Still, there’s a lot of characters walking around with four or five readable lines of, “This is my job, this is what happened when the town was attacked, there aren’t many people here now, go here now.”
I love going to the loot to see what I’ve gotten in my last job or quest. The chests sparkle. The wooden chest opens and closes as it waits for you to open it. It looks to me like a happy mouth, a slightly anthropomorphized thing that beckons, “Hey, I’m here. See what’s inside.” And then there’s the sound, a subtle jingle-jangling of coins being thrown into your bank. It’s not loud. It’s soothing, satisfying, like your grandmother giving you a money envelope on a holiday.
Gift. Holiday. Family. Familiar sounds of hope, peaceful sounds, too. More presents.
It’s all sneaky, as if the AI is a politician who doesn’t mind lying constantly and you don’t notice it and you don’t mind the lying unless you want to know how free to play games work. Why am I coming back? I’d ask. Oh, here’s why: at its most alluring, Elder Scrolls: Blades feels like a re-imagining of home. That invisible AI politician? I’d like to hang with that person at a bar and have the snake lie sweet nothings into my ear as I drink minor medieval lore and I forget all about the bar, the real people, the smell of old beer, the conversations around me. It’s just me and the AI politician telling me the untruths I want to hear.
Is that bad? It is if you depend upon whether you use a closed method in the way you consider games for review. The lying doesn’t hurt me so much. In fact, it’s part of the essence of play: fun. Yes, Blades is designed to pull money out of your pocket. But I avoid the urge to be cynical here partly because free to play is here to stay. Plus, to assuage my losses of important gold and silver chests, Bethesda game me about $20 in gems. At level 22, I hadn’t gone through $10 of them. Again, I’ve had fun, which may seem vapid in a ‘Let me take a selfie’ way — because fun appears airheadedly trite (even though, at its essence, the meaning of fun is completely nuanced). Part of the fun is carefully managing what I have. So I’ve also built a town with two blacksmiths, two alchemists laboratories and an enchanter’s tower with a number of houses, dwellings and homesteads. I’ve done countless five-minutes jobs, mini-quests that don’t advance the narrative, but give you gold and materials like limestone to build houses. You’ll also get weapons which are often ones you don’t need. But you can sell them at any vendor for more gold.
At popular websites like Polygon and Kotaku, there’s no full look at this offering, of what weapon mixed with a what enhancement will beat what demonic enemy, and Bethesda’s game page information doesn’t help much, either. (And I discovered the long, informative Reddit after I wrote the first draft of this story.) So there’s a lot annoying of trial and error. I’m not going to spend all my gems in order to come back to life in order to further the stories in order to open the gate to my closed community and see what else is out there in the world. I’ll just keep slogging on until Lazsla, my character, is strong enough to take on my primary nemeses in the caves and dungeons.
But then, a disaster struck. One morning a few days ago, 1,000 of my gems had mysteriously disappeared. I rebooted the iPhone because I always think rebooting will help. To reword Napoleon, “In some games, stupidity is not a handicap.” And yet, rebooting didn’t help. The loss, the mysterious robbery, remains with me. It hangs there, saddening me. Eventually, I began my quests anew and took an Elder Scroll, only to be told in town that someone will try to take it back. I realize now this game will be endless like the worlds of the Elder Scrolls.
But I still play. How long that will last, I don’t know. The game gives, then the game steals. And when it pilfers because of mistakes in code, it feels like one of those blasts from an Orcish Mace, bashing over and over again but with errors instead of punches. I’m still here, inside. My town is beautiful and I built it my way. And here, I like the inside-ness. Yet I’m less here than I was a week ago.
Author/journalist Harold Goldberg is the founder of the New York Videogame Critics Circle and the New York Game Awards.