Repressed memories dredged up by Skyrim, and reconsidering some assumptions about storytelling in videogames
I started a couple of times to write a review of The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, but as time went on it became increasingly irrelevant (and this is on the scale of relevance that includes amateur blog reviews of videogames). There’s already such a surfeit of reviews, walkthroughs, parodies, and travelogues available that any review from me would do little to add or subtract.
But according to Steam I’ve spent over one hundred fifty hours in Skryim, longer than a lot of real places I’ve been to. It’s an outstanding game, and it’s joined the growing sub-genre of Games Good Enough to Make Me Angry.
Team Fortress 2 was annoying because it was so much better than it needed to be. Portal 2 bugged me because it took “feature-length” storytelling beyond the FPS and delivered a novel puzzle-based sequel with new mechanics and had an opening sequence that went past virtuoso presentation into just plain showing off. But Skyrim doesn’t draw attention to its art direction (even though it’s often astonishingly beautiful). And it doesn’t depend on spectacular set-pieces (although there are a few). Skyrim pissed me off by invalidating almost all of the assumptions I’ve made about open-world sandbox games in the past few years.
You’ve been having strange dreams, Outlander?
Playing Skyrim, I kept having unsettling flashbacks to Morrowind, my first exposure to the Elder Scrolls series. I played that the
HellOblivion out of that game when it was released, but all memory of it had been buried under sandstorms (seriously, the entire last third of Morrowind is one interminable sequence walking through the desert during a sandstorm) and the lackluster sequel Oblivion.
But gradually, all those hours in Morrowind started to come back to me: I remembered that Bretons are good at magic, Khajit are cat people who make good thieves. I remembered jumping from rooftop to rooftop in a city building my acrobatics skill. I remembered making potion after potion and crafting ridiculously overpowered spells using the souls of monsters I’d killed. I remembered reading dozens and dozens of books scattered throughout the world. I remembered traveling from city to city on the back of giant bugs. More than anything else, I remembered being completely transported to a different world with centuries of history.
I’d saved the world, too, but I couldn’t tell you from what, exactly, or how I’d done it. Something about a prophecy. That’s a big part of why I’d dismissed open-world games as nothing more than diversions: completely engrossing while you’re playing them, but they evaporate as soon as the insubstantial main quest ends.
The Elder Scrolls games are all about world-building and giving the player near-infinite flexibility in creating his own character and his own story. So it would seem that criticizing Morrowind for building a completely immersive, memorable world but failing to deliver a compelling plot is missing the point. If anything, it’d seem to be a criticism of my own failure to tell a good story.
But that gets back to my core complaint about sandbox games: too often, they act as beautiful echo chambers. I’m not actually interacting with the game developers in any significant way; I’m spending hours telling a story to myself. (And a pretty tedious story at that, since videogame stories take place in real time).
And what’s annoying and tantalizing about Skyrim is that it’s full of instances that do more than that. They don’t form the bulk of the game, and they can be outweighed by the constant push-and-pull of a linear main narrative and an empty “do whatever you feel like” game design. But when those instances reveal themselves, they hint at how videogame stories are supposed to work.
Books: Check ‘Em Out
Here’s an example, left somewhat vague so as not to spoil it for anyone: while I was heading to my clearly-marked destination for some quest or sub-quest or sub-sub-quest, I wandered into a house. I killed a couple of lower-level monsters, and I found all the occupants of the house had already been killed. A new quest popped up: find out what caused the murders at this house. I wandered around, collecting the personal journals of the murdered occupants and reading them to find out what went down. They had clues telling me where to go next and where to find helpful potions or weapons along the way.
All of this is standard stuff, I had dozens of similar quests already in my quest log and had done countless more just like it in other games. (The first rule of creating a videogame world is populating it with characters narcissistic enough to document every detail of their lives either in journals or voice recordings). I followed the instructions, found the cause of the murders, and killed it. Boom, quest completed.
But then: I remembered a detail I’d read in one of the journals, a detail that had seemed like something of a throwaway. The game had already told me that I was done with that quest and could move on, but I decided to take a few minutes to role-play what my character would actually do in that situation. Without prompting from the interface, I went off course and followed one of the murdered people’s last requests as mentioned in a journal. Surprisingly, the game recognized it and rewarded me for it, with a permanent boost to my character’s stats.
Most of the discussion in support of open-ended games talks about “emergent storytelling,” but there’s nothing emergent about my example. It was a moment deliberately left by the developers for me to find, and they acknowledged me when I found it. But the key is that I was never explicitly told what to do. I wasn’t rewarded for following instructions, I was rewarded for understanding the story.
There are plenty of more conventional examples scattered throughout the game, where books give you explicit context for what you’re doing and what you should do next. There are also plenty of terrific examples of purely environmental storytelling. My favorite is wandering up to a burning house in the middle of the woods, exploring the interior, and finding a charred corpse next to a summoning circle and a spellbook describing how to conjure Flame Atronachs.
But the bulk of the storytelling in Skyrim uses the most conventional means possible: cut-scenes, dialogue trees, and books scattered about to give context to the world and to specific dungeons. And that’s fine, because Skyrim isn’t a storytelling game.
Its emphasis is on exploration and experience, and it seems that the design mandate throughout the Elder Scrolls series is: “Do everything possible not to interfere with the player’s experience.” The player’s free to take on the main quest at his own pace, or to ignore it altogether. The player can make his own weapons and armor as he sees fit, and then add (almost) any enchantment he wants, until his character is practically invincible. (Which invariably leads to complaints that the game is “unbalanced,” which is a silly thing to complain about in an open-ended single-player game, especially one in which the central story revolves around a mortal man who became so powerful he joined the pantheon of gods).
More significantly, the game avoids the usual binary good/evil morality choices and instead offers a multitude of completely linear quests. There’s frequently only one linear path through a storyline, and instead of choosing one branch or the other, you simply choose to follow the storyline or drop it completely. In most games, that wouldn’t be an option, but Skyrim has dozens of stories to choose from. In fact, it’s when the game tries to impose a more complex story on the player — when it forces a moral decision — that it starts to break down. There’s a sequence of events in the city of Markath that forces the player’s character into prison and into an alliance with one of the fellow prisoners. It feels the most structured of any of the storylines in the game; you can tell that the developers were trying to present a complex, multilayered subplot of political intrigue with its own warring factions and its own exploration of relative morality. But it ends up feeling the most artificial and frustrating of all the game’s storylines, because it breaks that central design tenet of player freedom (literally). The game just isn’t designed to give the player as much control over interaction with characters as he has with the rest of the world. In the rest of the game, when the player’s presented with an unsatisfying choice, he can simply choose to leave.
A Game of Drones
After all that, it would seem like I agree with Tom Bissell’s review/analysis of Skyrim on Grantland.com. He says that it’s frustrating when Skyrim insists on presenting its fantasy world via cinematics, long expository dialogues, and text:
Are we not at the point where dramaturgical incompetence in a game as lavishly produced and skillfully designed as Skyrim is no longer charming?
Dense expositional lore has no place in video-game stories — especially stories that go without highly wrought cinematics — and it seems increasingly clear that video games are neither dramatically effective nor emotionally interesting when the player’s role becomes that of a dialogue sponge. More simply put, the stories of Demon’s and Dark Souls are told in a way that only video games can tell stories. They don’t suffer in comparison because there’s no comparison to make.
But while I agree with the kernel at the core of Bissell’s argument — videogames are capable of telling stories in ways that no other medium can — I don’t agree that the more conventional storytelling used by Skyrim was clumsy or overbearing.
For starters, Bissell offers Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls as RPGs that don’t sacrifice their core “gameness” in order to establish a fantasy world. I must be in a completely separate circle from Bissell on the Venn Diagram of people who play RPGs, because I’ve tried Dark Souls and found it completely, almost offensively, uninteresting. I found myself dropped into the most generic fantasy world possible, and I was given absolutely no context for what I was doing, or why I should care. I refuse to believe that the solution to “bad” storytelling in games is to bury the storytelling so completely that I’m just wandering around, killing dudes because they’re there, and collecting experience points.
I also disagree that the more conventional storytelling of Skyrim was, on the whole, clumsy or overbearing. I enjoyed all of the storylines that I played (there are several that I still haven’t completed, even after over 100 hours), and they all ranged from above-average to quite good. The “main” storyline is obviously the one dealing with the reappearance of the dragons, and I thought it had a very satisfying, suitably epic and heavy metal finale that was cleverly inspired by Norse mythology.
I didn’t enjoy the Civil War storylines as much, although I do have to give them credit for making them more nuanced and less black-and-white than you tend to see in videogames. You don’t side with pure good or pure evil, since both sides are pretty much dicks, and the unabashed transparently evil characters are constantly looming in the background. (If the DLC doesn’t let me kill a lot of the Thalmor, I’m going to be sorely disappointed).
But calling the cinematics, dialogue, and expository text in Skyrim good or bad is completely subjective. Calling them unnecessary is less so.
Of course, Skyrim would no longer be Skyrim if it were to strip itself down to the spectral narrative simplicity of Dark Souls. No one, least of all me, wants the game to lose its special character. That does not mean the next Elder Scrolls game would not benefit from a measure of radical distillation.
Like most who play Skyrim, I’m greatly drawn to these incredible environments because the act of exploring them becomes uniquely my experience. When I’m listening to and watching Skyrim’s interminable characters, I’m skipping through the same dumb cartoon everyone else is. Video games can tell involving, interesting stories — but they can’t do it like this. It’s high time we start thinking about another way or ways.
Here’s my biggest disagreement with Bissell’s argument: the storytelling in Skyrim is already inherently interactive, because the world-building and exposition are entirely opt-in. After the lengthy (and unfortunately, unskippable on subsequent play-throughs) opening sequence, the cutscenes rarely overstay their welcome. They give just enough exposition and information to give context and keep from degrading into “You. Go kill that dragon.”
For those of us who want more context and world-building, there are dialogue options, where we can ask most characters for more details on recent events and the state of the world. And for those of us who want to go all-in on the high fantasy, there are tons and tons of books detailing the history of the world, its leaders, and the various races. And many of the details are provided purely via background dialogue, like the amazing vocal performance of the devotee of Talos who rants/preaches in the square of Whiterun every morning. But none of it is required.
Contrast that with all the movies that have struggled to present a novel’s worth of fantasy world-building exposition. They’ve varied in success from the horribly inept (Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings) to the baffling (David Lynch’s Dune) to the pretty interesting (Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings). And even with the explosions and elf battles, the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring could seem like an information dump, even to those of us who’d read the books. A game can give the audience the option of saying, “Yes, I know this already; let’s move on.”
We’ve seen what happens when you take a complex fantasy world and give it a “radical distillation:” it becomes generic. There’s no shortage of elves, dragons, and wizards in videogames; it’s only via the Elder Scrolls’s stories of racism, political intrigue, lost races of dwarves, conspiracies, and dragon languages that this world distinguishes itself from hundreds of other Tolkien- and George R.R. Martin-inspired game settings.
So how to convey that to the people in the audience who choose to opt out of much of the storytelling?
Ideally, you do it through the gameplay. But I don’t feel that the focus of Skyrim is on killing dragons or even killing bandits, even though that’s what the player’s doing 99% of the time. The focus is on becoming completely immersed in a fully-realized world and having the freedom to shape a character however you want. And Skyrim only works as well as it does because it doesn’t impose too much on the player, instead relying on the “uncanny valley” effect — its stories are generally linear and its characters generally one-dimensional, allowing the player to extrapolate subtleties of character and cause-and-effect chains in the plot.
I believe Skyrim is on the right track. Even for those of us who’ve enjoyed the game’s conventional narratives, they’re not the most compelling parts of the experience. Skyrim works best when we’re given a sense of agency, allowed to stray from the static list of instructions and explore the world on our own terms. But more than that, it’s most compelling when we interact with the world and it responds.
All of us speak the language of games — even if you’ve never played a computer RPG before, you can’t proceed far in Skyrim without understanding how the game works. As such, we learn to control and throttle our interaction with the game’s storytelling. We learn to distinguish main quests from subquests; random monsters from the end-dungeon boss; significant books from ones just provided for color; and actions that are pure exploration from actions that will trigger the next big story moment.
I think almost all of the storytelling in Skyrim is competent, but it’s only when it breaks out of the predictable cycle of exposition-then-action that it excels. Staging a dragon attack on a city that I’d assumed was a “safe zone.” Having a random NPC in a tavern unexpectedly transport me to the other side of the continent and force me to retrace my steps. Giving me a quest reward that wasn’t on my list, a reward I wouldn’t have known about if I hadn’t picked up on a detail in a private journal.
You could punch up and trim down the dialogue of a cutscene all you want, but it still won’t resonate if the player’s been conditioned to think that the cutscene is just getting in the way of the real game to follow. It’d be the equivalent of trying to improve a roller coaster by making the valleys and lift hills more interesting.
What I’d like to see in the next Elder Scrolls game, and in all the open-world games to come that are going to build on Skyrim‘s success, is an attempt to blur the line between the main quest and the game. I shouldn’t feel as if I’m either furthering the story or straying from it and exploring, with the difference between the two clearly marked on my quest list and map. I should feel that the game is actually responding to what I’m doing, recognizing when I’ve done something that wasn’t explicitly asked of me, and rewarding me for it. And ideally, changing the world as a result of those actions.
It’d mean closing off some of the content, but Skyrim is the first game in years that I’ve resolved to give a second playthrough and then actually done it. I wouldn’t mind having parts of the game closed off to me. And if Bethesda has proven anything, it’s that they’ve figured out how to generate tons of content without its spiraling out of control.
The Radiant System as originally rumored was supposed to do a lot of this, constantly adjusting the world in response to the way you were developing your character. In one huge aspect, it worked: throughout my game, I always felt as if dungeons and random monsters were at a suitable level of difficulty, and that I was actually progressing and getting stronger. (Contrasted with Oblivion, for example, where after a certain point, you were discouraged from wandering, for fear of encountering a random bandit who had even finer armor and weaponry than you did).
The quest assignments, however, still felt noticeably computer-controlled. I didn’t feel as if I was interacting with Bethesda’s story, but with a random number generator. That’s the danger of relying too much on a “virtual world” to take the place of pre-generated content. I’d like to see the system expanded not so that I get infinite content — there’s already more content in Skyrim than I’ll ever see — but so that the content I do see is in response to what I’ve decided to do, not simply as a result of my checking an item off a To-Do list.