Dammit, Just Play This! – The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim
It has been a while! I have had this blog for a month and a bit and only put up one article. Maybe I should have a set schedule… Nah!
So, this article is going to be the first of many in the “Dammit, Just Play This!” series. My goal for these ramblings focuses more on a semi-traditional review structure, but does not attach a score. As shown by the article’s title, I think these games are pretty rad; hopefully I can explain the extent of their radness and illuminate some interesting/wacky aspects that cropped up in my jumbled head. That being said, off to Skyrim we go!
Full transparency: my experience with the Elder Scrolls series does not span the gargantuan depths of time like other players. To experience all of the content for these games would realistically take around six-hundred hours. Even just starting at Morrowind, the mainstream breakthrough for the series, a player could spend up to three or four-hundred sword-swinging, magic hurling, backstabbing hours in their incredibly detailed worlds. Stepping into this narrative, this lore, and this style of design daunts the senses. I briefly forayed into Morrowind and played about a tenth of Oblivion in fits and starts; so I have not given myself over to the Medieval Western RPG in some time. Needless to say, I was excited but with a sense of temperance. I know that Bethesda, makers of The Elder Scrolls and the recent Fallout games, make quality experiences but ones that I seem to fizzle out. Then I started playing, and I kept playing. If I did not have school work/blog posts to be working on, I would still be playing it. The hooks are in, and the main question, to myself, is “why?”
Getting the technical aspects out of the way; yes, the game is pretty. Beautiful at points, and stunning at others. Playing it on the PC, the controls are fantastic, it keeps a consistent framerate, and the music frames the action to make every battle “epic.” The combat has some great improvements over Oblivion, and the new, supposedly iTunes inspired UI reaches near perfection for CRPGS. I have run into a few odd bugs (it would not recognize my “Tab” key at one point, a key part of navigating the UI) and the usual animation stiffness that accompanies an Elder Scrolls game. But, the good far outweighs the bad and my experience has not lessened these of these oddities.
The game is great; but, in my mind, the truly fascinating thing that arises from Skyrim was not intended by the designers. I have stabbed dragons in the tail for a 15x damage sneak attack, I have become both a vampire and a werewolf (through random happenstance and a quest objective, respectively), and a giant did this to me:
But, my favourite moment with the game did not come from the surfaced mechanics of the game; rather, I accidentally broke a quest-line and created my own narrative to seal the cracks. My Wood Elf thief/ranger/duelist came upon one of the many random caves in the overworld. As I was in between quests, I decided to take a break from exploring and see what the game world could give me. Sneaking into the cavern, I encountered two Necromancers who efficiently took care of a bandit camp and was now using their reanimated corpses to mine precious ore veined into the cave walls. I dispatched the wizards stealthy, and moved onto a decrepit crypt housing reanimated corpses that had risen of their own accord. Arrows flew from the darkness, swords pierced through rotted flesh, and I continued to the bottom floor; a beautiful underground grove housing a giant Frost-Spider. This battle would usually be difficult, but I had an equalizer. The floor around the Spider’s claimed abode was triggered to shoot jets of flame at the slightest application of pressure. It turns out that Frost-Spiders do not like fire; who would have thought. The final room, past the necromancers, past the countless undead and ancient beasts, was something man made; or at least created by something that had architectural sentience. Massive columns reached across the cavern and framed a single pedestal housing… nothing. The surrounding chests, once brimming with treasure, now only had minor armour and pieces of gold haphazardly strewn about. I had been beaten; someone got to this place before me. A thief, of equal or better skill, made it through/around the dangers I cut through to reach this monetary zenith, leaving nothing but a few coins. However, in the reality of the game, there was no thief. The stratified levels of the cave showing my assumed cross-section of Skyrim’s vast history, the priceless treasure that was no where to be seen; all of it was not actually real. I had crafted this story.
At that moment, the brilliance of Skyrim’s design revealed itself. The game did not “break,” it molded like a piece of thinly pressed gold. The open “interact with anything” design of a Bethesda RPG opens up varying avenues of play that conform to a players whims. A literary nerd like myself, who wants to see a narrative, can create story beats and lore through a cooperative interaction with the game’s mechanics.
Being somewhat of an academic, I feel a pressing urge to create some sort of poly-syllabic term to encapsulate this moment… “reflexive narrative interaction.” Thank you, five years of university.
Eschewing my attempt at literary pompousness, I think that Skyrim, and many open world games, create storytelling on this higher level. To steal from Karl Marx, it is a “superstructural” narrative form. The “base” interaction between the player and the game rises to a higher, intangible point of gaming. Skyrim and Bethesda did not program and create this section of the game with my narrative in mind; they had their own story to tell. Nevertheless, I was able to create a plot using the game world that only exists in the “superstructure” of my gaming experience. Even when I discovered the actual story thread that uses said cavern, it did not diminish the reflected narrative experience I had.
The key point that separates games from every other form of media is interaction, and I believe that developers have greatly improved how interaction plays into storytelling. But, most developers fall into trap of just handing players a story. While some cool interactive tricks may encourage the player to be more invested in the narrative, it becomes single track experience. Plot elements are explained or left open to be explained in sequels; the storytelling is fully deductive. Open world games like Skyrim allow, and encourage, more inductive storytelling. The elements are the world to be interacted with, but the narrative must be drawn out by us, the players. We may get the meaning wrong, and most likely a true meaning will not exist. Regardless, the inductive process of narrative creation will usually instill a sense of accomplishment and joy within the gamer.
But, maybe the player does not want to create a story. Maybe he/she wants to systematically murder every living thing within the game world. Skyrim will, to a point, allow that as well. If I can explain this game in one word it would be “malleable.” Play the role you want, be it noble warrior, sneaky thief bastard, or homicidal maniac. Just (legally) play the damn game!