Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Dark Souls and the Problem with Japanese Gaming

The kids aren't alright, at least not the Japanese ones involved in game design. Or are they? Political correctness would seem to nudge us gently but insistently away from the idea of an entire nation being somehow 'less able' than others in any respect, even game design. And in terms of sales at least the numbers do not lie; Japanese games have been the highest sellers for the last ten years. Even in the midst of their supposed 'downturn' of recent years, Japanese games still occupy 4 of the top ten slots for 2011. However, reviews are a different story: Not a single Japanese game makes the first page of Metacritic's game results when ordered by score, and of the best games of 2011, only one is Japanese.

There may be a decline, but is it the descent into madness IGN has been heralding, or a minor slump? As hamslayer and professional games reviewer Jim Sterling put it:
I don't think we can isolate any one market as especially worst. Japan definitely needs to shake itself up and get over its stagnant period, but the same can be said of Western development these days. Maybe people pick on Japan more because it's so much more invested in the console business, which is where a lot of the industry problems are found.
Overall positive, but even Sterling admits a problem, unless the word 'stagnant' has changed meaning recently. If I was to look at it as a trend though, I'd say the best example of what's 'wrong' with the Japanese gaming industry is encapsulated in the game Dark Souls. Now let me stop the train right here and preface what follows by saying I love Dark Souls. I love the style, I love the design, and I am slowly getting to like the challenge as I learn a new and unfamiliar spec system. I will argue in defence of this game until my death, and even then I'll probably just keep come back and pick up where I left off (in-joke!). However, I will admit it's not for everyone. In fact I'd go so far as to say it's barely for anyone. The difficulty is insane, even taking into account the fact that death forms a part of the game's ongoing challenge rather than being viewed as an 'end' to the narrative in the traditional sense. There are numerous glitches and quirks you have to get over, and the level design is pretty antiquated - I can't really see many of the environments in Souls that couldn't be achieved on a PS2 (or even a PS1) with a reduced poly count. But the single biggest feature about the game that I feel reflects something inherent to Japanese gaming as compared to Western gaming is this: The programmers are not on your side, and they are not forgiving.
It's something I realised a few years ago playing through Beautiful Katamari. For those who've never played it, it's an abstract game where you roll a giant ball around which picks things up. The more things you pick up, the bigger the ball gets, and you can pick up bigger objects. Most levels have a theme, so you get extra points for picking up 'sweet' objects and lose points for picking up 'savoury' items for example. At the end of each level, you are judged by your father. And when I say judged, this is not a cuddly western father sitting by the fire with a jumper on telling you to try harder next time. No, the King will routinely belittle you when you fail, and even when getting a near perfect score will still describe the resulting Katamari as fine or adequate at best. The king (and by extension, the feedback of the developers) is not there to make you feel better, or reward you for a job well done, or give you a little pat on the head and a cake. They begrudgingly acknowledge that you have passed their test, and may move onto the next. Japanese games seem to have an extra degree of harshness to them, and it's this extra challenge that can be offputting. On buying Dark Souls, I was warned by the helpful chap on the cash register that apparently only something like 1% of people have ever completed it. In reality, taking the people who achieved at least one of the end-game achievements (and counting only one per person) then cross-referencing it with stats for PSN trophies and Steam / Xbox achievements, the figure looks closer to something like 10%, and that's not factoring in people who bought the game and immediately traded it in without logging any achievements. But it's not just that it's hard. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2's 'Favela' level was hard on the higher difficulties, but it had very forgiving checkpoints. With enough perseverance and a little patience, anyone can make it through (or at least rush the next checkpoint). Fallout 3's Broken Steel DLC has some armoured albino radscorpions that seemed to take forever to kill, and I've been flipped into the air by more than my fair share of Skyrim's giants. Dark Souls feels different though. From the tutorial level where you get smashed in the face by a giant rock with no warning, to a giant halberd wielding demon that attacks you after your first save point, it makes absolutely no concessions to a failing player. Or a player making normal teething mistakes. The roll function is absolutely vital to your success in avoiding enemy attacks, but there are none of Fable's invisible barriers to stop you rolling off a cliff - if you are on an exposed walkway and you mis-step or panic and roll, you die.

I mentioned earlier that I died a lot on COD:MW2's Favela a lot. The developers knew people would die a lot - it's war, it's part of the progression. So they somehow managed to get their game engine to memorise the exact state of the character as they passed the last checkpoint, and then restore them to that point when they die without having to reload everything (after a screen fade and a brief bout of tinnitus). It's fantastic, it's quick and convenient... and it takes all of the fear out of dying. Like I said before, anyone could complete it given enough time and patience.
One Japanese game I played years ago was called Eve of Extinction, a PS2 game about a guy who's girlfriend's soul gets trapped in a sword. I'm sure Freud and Anita Sarkeesian would have a field day with it, but the point is that this game featured a lot of levels where it was possible to fall off things, like bridges or the edges of walkways. And when you fell off, you inevitably ended up about ten minutes away from where you were, having to slowly make a tortuous progression of jumps again. I don't think I ever completed it because I started looking at a room full of jumping puzzles, the stack of other games in front of me, and gave up. Immediately after, I played Prince of Persia: Warrior Within with it's instant rewind feature for when you fall to your death. No loading screen. No climbing back up. No waiting, no inconvenience, no fear of death. OK, POP is an odd example because it worked and was part of the game mechanic, but in general, I'd go with what Robert Boyd of Gamasutra said: "When failure has no penalty, tension is lost and victory becomes a matter of inevitability and loses its feeling of triumph." But western developers have spent years slowly trying to work out ways of removing the inconvenience to players that have died. My experience of Japanese games is that concessions made for players who have died or failed in some way tend to be absent, and nowhere is this more apparent with Dark Souls. There is no 'easy' difficulty. There are very few shortcuts, and they are usually just as difficult as the main path in their own way. And if you fall, you pick yourself up. Even the widely observed problem of getting 'locked' into an animation when attacking makes sense. If the attack succeeds, you did well. If it fails, well; you failed, that's not the developer's problem. It is something Bruce Lee also observed about the country's martial arts - Japanese arts tend to be rigid, inflexible and rely on a strict arrays of which countermove is an 'appropriate' response to each move. If you choose the wrong move, the other person wins by exploiting the resulting opening. Martial arts contests between higher level grand-masters often end up more like a mental game of chess than a physical bout. The trope of the harsh and disapproving Japanese father pops into my head here, along with my own worries about political correctness. But saying that Japan is a country psychologically different from western countries like the USA and the UK is a simple statement of fact. Japanese people are often expected to work 13 hour days, and live in a culture built heavily around the opposing ideas of shame and honour. It makes perfect sense that a nation that thinks differently designs games that reflect this difference in psychology. To the Japanese designers success is all that matters; admitting defeat is shameful, so shameful they won't acknowledge it. To westerners, it's more about being fair and giving the loser a leg up. This might seem like I'm cherry picking examples, and maybe I am - I've played a lot of games over the years, and these are examples of something that's seemed to be more of a growing, nagging unease every time I pick up a Japanese developed game. People are looking right now for an explanation of why Japanese games tend to be so badly reviewed worldwide, and this is one difference I see between the two markets. Ultimately I'm not saying that one is better than the other - in some ways I feel the western approach panders too much to the gamer in the same way that pop music and action films pander to instant satisfaction and cheap thrills. But if you only consume pop culture, you end up missing out on some older classics which - like Dark Souls - require a little patience to unearth an amazing and long-forgotten sense of reward. Also I was pretty much completely unable to seamlessly work this into the rant, so here's a great piece from Destructoid about Dark Souls which I love but am frustrated with but also love so be nice in the comments.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Academic Writing vs. Blog Writing

I have realised I have been trained into bad habits by University. Now don't get me wrong - obviously you do need to prepare for writing an article, even if it's just dashing off a vague idea you had the other day while cleaning out the guinea pig cage. But I realised this morning that I had been obsessing over my writing in a way that was actually harming it in terms of it being created for a blog. Instead of just writing the damn things, I've been very carefully researching sources, trying to find images that compliment the content and working out how to make sure I cover every point about the subject that can possibly be covered. And that right there is the problem. In writing a piece for academia, the most important thing is to close off avenues of debate in the reader. Leaving points open or unexplored encourages your audience (i.e. your marking tutor) to wonder why you haven't covered that angle, and that means you lose marks. Writing academically, you have to cover all the bases and close off the possibility of valid criticism cropping up. Whereas with a blog, it's more important to open up debate, leave questions raised but unexplored. One of my first year assignments, I was marked down heavily for asking a question and then proposing an answer. When blogging, asking questions (especially in the title) is a great way of psychologically engaging a reader. In other words, university encourages a style of writing that runs contrary to the way we converse and hold dialogue in everyday life. Right now I'm speaking and you're forming a counter-opinion. And that's a good thing. It makes you more likely to leave a comment, and also to share it on social media to get your friends to comment as well. The other thing is that a blog tends to be an idea presented in an exploratory sense rather than a finished one - blogging encourages a dialogue of "This is what I think, what do you think?" So, what do you think?

Monday, 19 August 2013

Is Metagaming really that bad?

For those that don't know, Metagaming is when you take an action in a video game that kind of breaks the fourth wall, and lets your character in on info that the player knows, but their character doesn't. The best example of this is when you're stuck on a bit of dialogue (or you're not sure what choice to make) in a game, so you look it up on something like Wikia. Example: You're wandering round the beautiful wilderness in Skyrim, and come across a man who has two bunnies; one white, one brown. The man can only afford to feed one and intends to cook the other, but asks you to chose because he hasn't the strength. He turns his back, sobbing. At this point, you have three choices:
  1. Kill the white bunny,
  2. Kill the brown bunny,
  3. Backstab the man and steal his stuff (including the bunnies),
  4. Surprise Nicholas Cage appearance: PUT THE BUNNEH IN THE BAWX.
Now the problem with this is that if you let the white rabbit live, it appears later outside your house; and if you feed it a grand soul gem, it turns into the Great Rabbit of Prophecy and spawns an incredibly rare sword called Gutfücker, which... OK, I'll stop that now because it's rapidly becoming silly. None of that paragraph was true. But there are better examples that have actually made it into RPG games. In Skyrim (for realzies this time) there is an annoying jester you meet on the road. If you kill him, it prevents an entire questline from kicking off (The dark brotherhood). As mentioned two posts ago, there are several very minor and seemingly unrelated bugs that can stop you from acquiring the Windhelm house, Hjerim. Most of the thieves quest storyline gives you the option of killing people or letting them live, with loot and sidequests made available or unavailable based on these decisions. The most common criticism is that in real life, you wouldn't be able to look ahead and see the consequences of your actions. But then in real life, there are an unlimited number of outcomes, and you have full control of how the outcomes play out. If you let someone live but they go on to later betray you, it's largely because there was no option on the dialogue tree to incapacitate them instead of killing them, or alerting the authorities, or getting someone to keep an eye on them. And that's assuming the options are written clearly - in Mass Effect, one of the first sequences involves Shepard telling a researcher that they can 'sort out' the researcher's gibbering co-worker. The speech option doesn't say "I can sort him out (smack him in the head with a gun butt)," it just says "I can sort him out" or something similar and then you hit him in the head. And because of the arrangement of the dialogue wheel, it's almost impossible to play as a female and not flirt with the male crew members without berating them for their unprofessionalism. The speech option to advance the romance is always in the 'paragon' spot, and the option to shoot them down is always a renegade one, so whatever happened to letting them down gently? In the end, the problem with metagaming is that it's not a case of 'spoiling' the story, it's more a case of making sure that the story isn't going to spoil itself if you choose the wrong option. Maybe it does sound like cheating, but the fact is, we're not really making an open choice and experiencing the consequences, we're choosing one of a set number of options and experiencing what the programmers think is the consequence. And that isn't real life either.

Friday, 16 August 2013

You are a Beautiful and Unique Snowflake

As much as I like Chuck Palahniuk, I'm a little sick of this oft repeated quote of his from Fight Club, namely: "You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake." It's used a lot on forums to justify the smashing down of people getting too insistent about their rights, or some percieved societal mistreatment. It's akin to the 'world's tiniest violin' in terms of responses, a demand for the recipient to suck it up and wade through the same shit as the rest of us. Well the problem with that is that - genetically speaking - you are unique. Compare your DNA sequence to that of any other organism on the planet, and you find remarkable variances throughout. You are one species in billions. One ethnic grouping within that species. One family within that grouping. One person in that family. Socially too. You could have a genetic lookalike on the other side of the planet, raised in a different society with different expectations. Even within the same city - a young artist born in Manhattan is going to have a very different life to one born in Washington Heights. And look at twins. The most similar at a genetic level that two organisms can get, put in the same social situation; but again, different reactions to different situations. True, you are not a snowflake. You are something better. You are the end result of a monumental accumulation of variables reacting and interacting over a span of time we can't even measure. All the material in your body was formed in the explosive birth of a star. You are more than a billion-to-one chance. And some people are happy to take that miracle made flesh and sit it at an office desk ticking 'no' on a form. Chuckling and nodding at every social inequality, shrugging their country away. What is it that makes some people so desperately crave the mundane, even to the extent that they would willingly force it on others?

Saturday, 10 August 2013

'Fool' Said my Muse to me

Over the last few days, I've been working on getting the site's layout back into shape. But standing in the kitchen earlier, just listening to the background noise of thoughts running through my head - thoughts for a new comic idea, thoughts about how best to spec my character in Dark Souls - listening to all of these thoughts, I remembered something I wrote two years ago. It was for Splendid Fred back when it was a magazine rather than a theatre company, about the importance of writing down these random ideas. I also remembered another post I wrote way back about the importance of keeping myself writing, and now I look at the empty posting calendar over there and feel a bit guilty. So here I am to flesh out one of the ideas at the sink: I have gotten myself a little lost. I have a project I started, you see; a fantasy novel with a big idea and a grand, sweeping scale. And unfortunately, it's such a big idea that it's crushing all the fledgling little ideas that could have been with it's weight. Everything about the book is hard to write - the third person style, the world building, the plot weaving... And it gets me to thinking that right now, the biggest obstacle in the way of me right now is me. I mean, I can write. This is readable, and you're reading it right now, so I'm writing. Blogging is easier because it's just me being me. And yet the last few times I've sat down to do so, I've mentally thought myself out of it because I feel I should be doing some 'proper' writing, or I don't have any ideas or subjects to write about. I do, it's just that right now I'm letting them escape while I'm at the kitchen sink, or in the shower or on the xbox. Or, I look at minor inconsistencies in the layout, like the impossibility of convincing the site that there's a margin (or there's supposed to be) between the next page button and the list of pages. Which really doesn't matter at all if there's no actual content on the page to look at. Hence the long gaps in the posting history. But I'm going to start trying again. Again. End on a poem:
Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show, That She, dear She, might take some pleasure of my pain, —Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know, Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain— I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe, Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain, Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburnt brain. But words came halting forth, wanting Invention’s stay; Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows; And others’ feet still seemed but strangers in my way. Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes, Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite— “Fool!” said my Muse to me "look in thy heart, and write!" - Sir Philip Sydney
So yeah, it turns out that history has already covered the subject of getting so stuck trying to write that you forget to write.

Friday, 9 August 2013

How to get Hjerim in Skyrim

Considering the amount of time Skyrim has been out, and the amount of bugs involved in this quest; I am genuinely surprised that googling 'How to get Hjerim in Skyrim' returns a list of confusing Gamefaqs forum posts from three patches ago, or wiki recommendations on which console commands let you fix it on the PC version, or reassurances that the PC only 'unofficial patch' has fixed the problem.

There are also plenty of guides that assume you know about the many bugs that can stop the quest dead, either by halting progress in a required sub-quest (Blood on the Ice) or by cutting NPCS off from the speech options offering you the house (Jorleif). Well, they're great and all but there don't seem to be any that say 'This - from the start of the game - is how to 100% guaranteed get Hjerim if you can't mod your game.' Which is why, after a few days of research and playtesting, I'm writing one titled precisely that.

This - from the start of the game - is how to 100% guaranteed get Hjerim if you can't mod your game.

Why Hjerim?

Hjerim is, without a doubt, the best house in Skyrim in terms of eventual storage space and convenience. It has both an alchemy room and an enchanting room, neither of which you need to get rid of if you want the child's bedroom for Hearthfire. It has a good amount of space for storage, an armory and display dummies.

It's only one transition away from a marketplace that has a fence and a blacksmith with a smelter, and on the off chance that they don't have enough gold to buy your loot, there's another merchant and an alchemist nearby.

No other city has all of these features - Riften is a good second choice, but there's no smelter and an extra transition to get to the general merchant. Breezehome is probably the next most convenient, but even then there's no enchanting table, no dummies, the layout is tiny and you lose the alchemy table if you want the child's bedroom. Even the Solitude house has no smelter, and the merchants are all behind transitions. Markarth's layout is a nightmare to quickly navigate when selling and the Hearthfire houses have nothing useful nearby anyway.

For those of you who are familiar with Skyrim's main and side quests, I'll keep it simple:
    Avoid the following:
  • Any 'fetch/deliver [item] from/to [place] for [npc]' type quests,
  • Talking to Jorleif / Ulfric before starting Blood on the Ice,
  • Entering Hjerim before talking to the witnesses or inspecting the crime scene,
  • Installing any mods / DLC before getting Hjerim,

    Do the following in order without deviating:
  1. Escape Helgen,
  2. Follow Ralof (Stormcloaks) or Hadvar (Imperial) to Riverwood,
  3. Get sent to Whiterun by Gerdur (Stormcloak) or Alvor (Imperial),
  4. Follow Jarl Balgruuf's quests until he makes you Thane at the end of Dragon Rising,
  5. Go to Windhelm*, enter, leave and travel to another location (Brandy-Mug Farm to the southeast should do). Repeat 4 times.
  6. Go to the graveyard between 7pm and 7am, repeating step 5 until you find a dead body surrounded by four people,
  7. Initiate the Blood on the Ice quest by talking to the guard, and follow the instructions HERE in order, as they appear. Ignore the 'Get assistance from Jorleif' objective, as it never updates.
  8. Start the civil war questline by talking to either:
    • Ulfric Stormcloak in Windhelm (Stormcloaks), Complete the Civil War up to the end of Rescue from Fort Neugrad. Speak to Jorleif.
    • General Tullius in Solitude (Imperials). Complete the entire Civil War questline, and speak to the new Jarl, Brunwulf Free-Winter. If his steward (Captain Lonely-Gale) cannot be found, use Unrelenting Force on the exiled Jarls sat at the table in Windhelm's Palace of Kings to get a bounty. Escape, return, pay off the bounty / serve jail time, and then speak to the Jarl and Steward to continue.
  9. If the Steward does not have the dialog option to buy property, complete any sidequests that require you to pick up / deliver an item for someone and keep trying.

* Via the cart outside the Windhelm stables. Basically, if you want to be able to buy Hjerim, you need to have done the main quest up to Dragon Rising, and the Civil War quest up to Rescue from Fort Neugrad as the Stormcloaks (or the entire Civil War questline as the Imperials).
Below is an explanation of why you need to follow all of the above steps along with a little more detail, but for most people, the above is a collection of all you need to know in order to purchase Hjerim. If i've missed anything important hit me up in the comments, but I can confirm that this solution works as of patch 1.5 (Xbox 360).

Detailed runthrough:

So here's why you should avoid doing the following:

Any 'fetch/deliver [item] from/to [place] for [npc]' type quests.

Skyrim uses a quest system called Radiant, and one of the things it does to keep things interesting is make up randomised fetch quests for the player to do. In theory, it means you will never run out of things to do. In practice, it sometimes has the unfortunate side-effect that if you have an incomplete Radiant quest, it can prevent Stewards that you haven't spoken to yet from getting the dialog options that allow you to buy property. It happens a lot to Falkreath, but it can occasionally happen in Windhelm. The most common of these to crop up is collecting an amulet of Arkay for Torbjorn Shatter-Shield.

Talking to Jorleif / Ulfric before starting Blood on the Ice.

Some wikis are reporting that if you talk to Jorleif before starting Blood on the Ice, he will never have any more than the two basic speech options, and therefore not only will Blood on the Ice be impossible to complete, but the speech options for Hjerim will never appear. If you talk to Ulfric before starting Blood on the Ice, some users have reported it bugging Hjerim out later. Plus, if you start the Civil War questline by talking to him and decide to side with the Imperials, Ulfric become hostile and you cannot buy the property anyway until Brunwulf Free-Winter becomes Jarl. Also if you side with the Imperials, it replaces all the Windhelm guards with Imperial Soldiers, none of whom have the correct dialog to initiate Blood on the Ice. Jorleif will then be stuck telling you that Hjerim is unavailable due to some 'unpleasantness.'

Entering Hjerim before talking to the witnesses or inspecting the crime scene.

If you pick the lock and enter Hjerim before starting Blood on the Ice, the investigation markers will bug out and the internal logic of the quest jumps ahead to a point that makes it impossible to complete without console commands. So don't. If you enter after picking up the quest but before interviewing the witnesses and talking to Helgird, the quest markers bug out and the game will no longer point you to your next objective, which can make finding Calixto damn near impossible.

Installing any mods / DLC before getting Hjerim.

Dawnguard starts sending out vampires to attack cities at level 10. Dragonborn sends random cultists out to attack you. Either one can accidentally kill Arivanya in the crossfire, who needs to be alive in order for the quest to start properly.

So here's a bit more detail about why you have to follow certain quests:

Escape Helgen. Follow Ralof (Stormcloaks) or Hadvar (Imperial) to Riverwood. Get sent to Whiterun by Gerdur (Stormcloak) or Alvor (Imperial). Follow Jarl Balgruuf’s quests until he makes you Thane at the end of Dragon Rising.

This is all to make sure Balgruuf is ready for the Civil War questline - You won't be able to speak to the Jarl freely in order to hand him the axe until you've got the quest up to this point, so you might as well do it now.

Go to Windhelm, enter, leave and travel to another location (Brandy-Mug Farm to the southeast should do). Repeat 4 times.

This is probably the weirdest requirement, but Blood on the Ice has an internal counter that logs the amount of times your character has entered Windhelm, exited, travelled to another map marker, and travelled back. Once it hits four, the quest will initiate. Travelling to Brandy-Mug Farm and back is enough.

Go to the graveyard between 7pm and 7am.

The murder 'happens' (i.e. Skyrim moves the NPCs into place) between 7am and 7pm after the counter hits 4.

Initiate the Blood on the Ice quest by talking to the guard. 

Blood on the Ice is one of the three main reasons people aren't getting Hjerim (the other two being the Civil War and the radiant quests bug), and is one of the most glitchy quests in the entire game. It's mostly because of this quest that I've made sure I did things in this precise order. Because of this, follow the instructions in your quest log exactly. There are walkthroughs on most Skyrim Wikis, but I'd do it this way:
  1. Talk to the guard at the graveside,
  2. Talk to the witnesses,
  3. Talk to the guard, and then Jorleif,
  4. Talk to Helgird in the Hall of the Dead,
  5. Follow the blood trails to Hjerim but do not go in,
  6. Talk to Jorleif,
  7. Wait 'til 9-10am, then go to the House of Clan Shatter-Shield,
  8. Talk to Tova, say you want to help catch the killer,
  9. Do not talk to Torbjorn - he offers you a radiant quest that will (temporarily) stop Jorleif from gaining the speech option to sell Hjerim until you get Torbjorn the amulet (and it's not an easy amulet to find).
  10. Go into Hjerim and click on all the investigation targets, (some of them CAN make the house glitchy once purchased if not investigated).
  11. Talk to Jorleif again,
  12. Talk to Calixto, offer to sell him the medallion,
  13. Talk to Viola Giordano,
  14. Talk to Wunferth and accuse him of necromancy (then follow his suggestion to wait for the murderer),
  15. Go to the market at midnight and kill Calixto as soon as he draws his weapon,
  16. Talk to Jorleif.

Again, this is such a glitchy quest it's best to do it in this order just to be sure.

Start the civil war questline by talking to either Ulfric or General Tullius

Once you start the civil war, you have two options:

Stormcloaks: You only have to get up to the end of the Rescue from Fort Neugrad quest, at the end of which Jarl Ulfric will make you Thane and give you the right to purchase property. Assuming you have no radiant quests outstanding, you can now go over to Jorleif and purchase Hjerim. Buy the clean-up first. If you don't buy the cleanup option first, the bloodstains and cobwebs will remain there and you'll never be able to get rid of them.

Imperials: You get the longer route, I'm afraid. In order to be able to buy property in Windhelm, you need to follow the quest-line the whole way through in order to replace Jarl Ulfric once he turns hostile to you as an Imperial. Once you have done this, speak to the steward. If his steward cannot be found, it's most likely because the game has not yet updated Captain Lonely-Gale with his new role, and he's wandering round Windhelm. If this happens, use Unrelenting Force on the exiled Jarls sat at the table in Windhelm’s Palace of Kings to get a bounty. Escape, return, pay off the bounty / serve jail time, and then speak to the Jarl and Steward to continue. For some reason, getting a bounty and then paying it off places the steward correctly into his 'routine' of being at the palace. If the Steward does not have the dialog option to buy property, complete any sidequests that require you to pick up / deliver an item for someone and keep trying.

And that's it! That's how to get Hjerim. Hopefully. As I said on the first page, if there's anything I left out or that wasn't clear, hit me up in the comments and I'll see what I can do.