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Posted by Brother None


The Rybicki Maneuver
When to praise and when to criticize: a how-to guide

By Brother None


I admit it, I'm no Elder Scrolls fan myself.

Roguelike RPGs just aren't my genre and while I've enjoyed limited playtime with the different iterations the series has had over the years, I've never been hooked, nor really interested until Bethesda studios purchased the Fallout license. At that point, it seemed like a good idea to pay more attention to their press coverage than I would've normally done.

The (p)reviews were unanimously impressive, generally a sign of a durably classic or alternatively a good game that'll wow you out of your pants the few times you play it. I can't claim my personal experience playing through Oblivion matched up with what I had read in the previews or reviews. More importantly, there's something odd that's been going on more recently, concerning this title.

The first sign of a paradigm shift on the horizon was PC Zone's top 101 games of all time (ref), where they placed Morrowind (#4) above Oblivion (#13) with the note Ooh, aren't we controversial? Yes, but constant bickering among the PCZ team has left the Vvardenfell lobby victorious. The argument runs thusly: Morrowind is a better game than Oblivion, if only for the things that Bethesda sacrificed in their pursuit of making the latter that bit more action-orientated.

That looks odd when you compare it to the opening of their review of Oblivion (ref): Magesterial. That's the word we're looking for. Morrowind can take the plaudits for laying the groundwork and scrubbing out the rules of location linearity in role-playing, but The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion takes that model, streamlines it, seamlessly integrates exhilarating combat, smothers it in beautiful graphics and takes both Tamriel and the art of role-playing to an unprecedented new height.

So which one is it?

Morrowind just laid the groundworks for Oblivion or Oblivion loses out to Morrowind on the basis of being more action-orientated? It can't be both, so what causes the difference in opinion between these two pieces?

And there we arrive at the central point of this article; the Rybicki Maneuver. In short the maneuver means that as long as your opinion on the product actually matters towards the game's sales, don't be too critical. The moment criticism doesn't matter anymore or, even better, criticism can be used to say "they won't do this again", do a 180 and suddenly claim the flaws you didn't mention in your review should be obvious to anyone.

A good example and the source of the maneuver's name (with apologies to Joe Rybicki, but the Rybicki Maneuver just sounds better than, say, the Butts Maneuver) is 1up's Fallout 3 preview penned by Joe Rybicki (ref):
but unlike Oblivion, the third-person view appears to be a viable option for actually, you know, playing the game

And this is significant, because Fallout 3 will place a much greater emphasis on conversing with non-player characters than Oblivion did. Sure, you could talk to all 1,500 or so NPCs in Oblivion, but few of them have anything interesting to say

Karma is a sliding scale, and the developers wanted to make sure the game could accommodate all styles of play rather than being limited by an Oblivion-style good-or-evil dichotomy.
Additionally, quite a few Fallout 3 previews had factual mistakes. Examples
He spent an hour playing the most brilliant First/Third Person Shooter (...) I've seen in a long time (ref)
It should come as no surprise that the team at Bethesda are fans of the original series. Back in 1997 [originally read 1987 - ed], while working on their own RPG, Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, they fell in love with Fallout. (ref)
With your trusty .22 rifle in hand, you can take potshots at the spiders, with a chance of hitting a body part (such as a leg, to slow it down, or an antenna to try to make it go berserk and attack his friends). (ref)
And before you start saying "Van Buren" remember that that game, too, was made almost ten years ago. It would not be the same game today. (ref)
[A] pretty gruesome headshot care of one unfortunate super zombie. (ref)


His colleague on 1up gave Oblivion a 9.0 (ref). He didn't talk about the viewpoint at all, the only problem he notes with NPCs is the voice-acting, not limited dialogue, and no mention of any limited good-or-evil dichotomy. Is the person who wrote the 1up review of Oblivion worse at his job than Rybicki himself? I doubt it. And the reviewer took his time to point out flaws, but oddly completely different flaws than Rybicki did.

But surely that's just one-time deal...

Apparently not. While a number of Fallout 3 previews skipped over comparisons with Oblivion wholesale or kept praising Oblivion on the same tone as in their Oblivion reviews (and I applaud their consistency), a number went with the Rybicki Maneuver. Note that all these juxtapositions either show the site directly contradicting its own review or omitting to mention the flaws it sees when previewing Fallout 3 in its original (p)review of Oblivion:

Bearing in mind the AI routines of the NPCs, which did seem more life-like and engaged in more meaningful actions than in Elder Scrolls IV - ActionTrip on Fallout 3 (ref)

Oblivion is populated with 1,000 NPC's. Unlike in some other single-player games, the life of the NPC's doesn't stop once the player has left the area. They continue to live their lives even with you out of the picture, with the help of Radiant AI. Each of them is given a basic schedule of events to follow throughout each virtual day. They will shop, go to church, engage in conversation, hunt and even steal. This will all depend on their character traits which are initially decided on by the developers as well as the course of events that takes place in the game. The whole thing is mind-boggling to even think about let alone make. - ActionTrip on Oblivion (ref)

One of our biggest worries was the dialogue. Oblivion, as much as we love it, isn't exactly the greatest example of NPC banter. Bonkers looping conversations with women talking in men's voices about a Grey Fox are just about dismissible in the Elder Scrolls world. - Eurogamer on Fallout 3 (ref)

The actual interactions you have with the NPCs are generally well-handled, though. Using a basic topic/question-based conversation system, you get the chance to grill almost everyone you meet, giving Oblivion the feel of one of those old-school adventures where you end up making progress almost as much by being plain nosey and inquisitive as your actions. - Eurogamer on Oblivion (ref)

You'll also be struggling with moral dilemmas through voiced NPC dialogue choices. The number of NPCs in Fallout 3 is about 300 (as opposed to Oblivion's 1000), so Bethesda has put alot more alcohol and devtime into making their individual A.I. more realistic and natural. Instead of NPCs walking around doing very simple tasks talking basic gibberish, they will roam with more personalized agendas and socialize with other people about topics that interest them. Who needs those flesh-based friends anyway? - Gamerevolution on Fallout (ref)

Thanks to the game's touted "radiant A.I." system, the cityfolk are impressively lifelike, going to their jobs, visiting the tavern, and returning to their homes to sleep. They'll even make chit-chat with each other if they meet up in the street (which, like the rest of Oblivion, can lead to yet more quests if you happen to eavesdrop.) Shops do feel oddly empty, however, as nobody seems to buy anything except you, and many characters will forget their previous interactions when they revert to the "standard" daily routine. Small potatoes, though, considering how much A.I. is in here. - Gamerevolution on Oblivion (ref)

And Bethesda really wants to make choices count in this game, much more than it did in Oblivion. After all, in Oblivion you could pursue every quest in the game and be all things to all people. - Gamespot on Fallout 3 (ref)

Also, the way the quest system is structured in Oblivion is a huge improvement to the way quests were handled in Morrowind. - Gamespot on Oblivion (ref)

And, thankfully, the horrid level scaling of Oblivion has been more or less phased out. - GGL on Fallout 3 (ref)

For all the excellence within this game, there are some flaws. Firstly there is the annoying and unpredictable issue of crashing. Both of my test machines experienced random crashes to desktop. (...) The other issue is more understandable and can be largely forgiven. The NPC interaction suffers from some rather illogical and disjointed verbal exchanges. - GGL on Oblivion (ref)

The animations all looked very impressive, particularly the lip-syncing that looked much more realistic than the system we saw in Oblivion. - Team Xbox on Fallout 3 (ref)

The voice acting is decent in the game, but conversations are furthered by choosing a pre-determined text block and NPC comments are recycled from time to time. We did encounter some glitches in the audio department, and it can be comparable to the clipping that occurs from the visual standpoint. There were times when the game couldn’t load up fast enough, making sound effects and dialogue either out of synch with the on-screen action or not playing at all. Again, it's not a big deal, but still noticeable. - Team Xbox on Oblivion (ref)

Where the faces in Oblivion sometimes looked a bit mushed and repetitive, those in Fallout 3 have much more lifelike detail. - IGN on Fallout 3 (ref)

Actually engaging NPCs in conversation is absolutely impressive - IGN on Oblivion (ref)

Now, environments looking fantastic in a Bethesda game aren’t exactly new: both Morrowind and Oblivion had fantastical environments, though the characters themselves looked a bit off; not so in Fallout 3. - RPGFan on Fallout 3 (ref)

Character models are well-drawn and animate with a surprising amount of grace and fluidity. Lips move in synch with speech. Eyes blink, facial expressions change, clothes move. All in all, the characters look strikingly real (save for the fact that most of them look like they have no teeth when they talk…a minor quibble) - RPGFan on Oblivion (ref)

Without quoting further, a strong impression is left that Oblivion, universally praised as a perfect reinvention of role-playing, has suddenly been demoted to nothing more than a springboard for Fallout 3.

And so...

What are we supposed to conclude from this? Nobody can look inside the heads of those reviewers, but why suddenly identify flaws in Oblivion now rather than a year ago, when it would still have mattered for opinion forming? Did they need a year to find these flaws? Do they not dare to criticize the game that early? Or can they only see flaws when they have something superior to compare it to?

And is this the future that awaits Fallout 3? When the TES V previews pop up, will they read "No more clunky character animations like in Fallout 3" or "No more childish aborted attempts at humor like in Fallout 3" or "This time, quest solutions really matter!" One thing is for sure, the gaming media is better at praising than they are at criticizing, since it takes them a one-hour demo to praise a game to high heavens, but a year to find flaws in a game once released.

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