Sunday, July 08, 2012

On Playing Skyrim

Have you heard about this game? It's a huge game, set in a quasi-medieval semi-Nordic/Scandinavian land that is experiencing the return of dragons. It's swords and sorcery to the nth degree, and totally not my kind of thing.

So why am I playing it?

Because I have read about this game as a breakthrough in gaming--and entirely non-linear adventure game, in which the player can control the experience. I get to choose what quests to take on, I get to decide what order to do them. The game doesn't lead me through a single narrative in a specific order, and that intrigued me enormously. What kind of story telling could you create, if you didn't have to be limited to a single narration?

I am not much of a gamer generally, I am a reader. I am deeply engaged in what stories tell us about ourselves and how they can give us visceral understanding of lives that are different from our own. Books, movies, television; and now, possibly computer gaming?

Before I get into the inevitable squawking (the heart, it remains cold and dead) I do want to acknowledge some of the remarkable achievements of this game. To begin with, it is outrageously gorgeous. The landscapes are amazingly beautiful, and the way the light changes over the course of the day is exquisite. Honestly, this is high praise from somebody who refuses to go camping. Some of my favorite time spent in this game is just wandering around the environments, looking up at the night sky (two moons! the Aurora Borealis! the sunsets!), bobbing in the rivers, as the visual field breaks the surface of the water. Truly gorgeous stuff.

The music is also wonderful, sweeping, epic at times, quietly moody and melancholy at others. It fills in and underlays the environment without overpowering it. Delightful to listen to. The voice work is solid, and although there are some exaggerated characters I don't particularly care for, I won't complain about that either. Even the sound effects of footsteps is carefully done, subtly changing as my character moves from paved roads to grassy meadows to snow fields. So much has been done to make the experience of this game effectively immersive. Playing it in a dark room on a large screen TV is an amazing experience.

The non-linearity as as promised as well. In my first iteration of the game, I made it out of the "training" portion and my companion recommended that I should head to a nearby town and talk to his brother the blacksmith. Instead, I went the opposite direction and tried to avoid whatever I was asked to do. There are some limitations to this liberty; for example, I met some witches who were far to strong for me, and so I just died over and over again, which effectively blocked me from that particular quest. I also think that had I successfully climbed the mountain to the dragon's lair, I'd never have had the weaponry or skills necessary to do anything but die a fiery death.

But there are plenty of quests, large or small, that one can accept or decline--delivering letters to lovers, joining the imperial guard, seeking out new scrolls for the library at the college of magic. Even if the game is not entirely non-linear (and really, I didn't expect that), it's sufficiently non-linear for the characters to have a realistic appearance of free will.

So with all that said--why is Skyrim so disappointing?  And the answer for me is simple--the storytelling simply fails to live up to the standards set by the other elements of this remarkable game. Because while there is an overarching narrative--the return of the dragons--and several complicating sub-arcs (the conflict between the Imperial government and the rebellious Stormcloaks, the fractures caused by the banning of a single religion in an otherwise pan-theistic world, the indications tensions between the various races and ethicities), the game basically comes down to "Meet new people, kill them and loot the corpses."

Sure, there are subtleties that justify the killings--these are bandits, these are zombies, these are vampires, these are people who attacked you first. Even so, these "stories" are sketchy at best. What you spend an ungodly amount of time doing is figuring out just how you are going to kill them: two-handed battle axe versus steel sword and hide shield, or maybe bursts of magical flame. The the more you use any particular weapon, the better you get at it, and thus you can kill more people faster, and take on the even more dangerous characters.

A couple of nights ago I decided that I was going to learn magic at the college, and I spent a (game-time) night traveling north on foot to the college at Winterheld. I could see the location on a map, but the route isn't marked and I had to simply strike out in the general direction, guided by the on-screen compass. Of course, the game landscape is not just beautifully rendered, but is also geographically complicated, and there is no straight-line course to follow. So I looked to the landscape for clues--animal paths, the remains of paved roads, gaps in the rocky terrain. And as I ran along, I would "discover" locations that were inevitably dens of bandits, or vampires, or zombies, or something where the whole point was to go in, kill everybody, and then loot their corpses and anything else in the vicinity. But I didn't want to do that, so instead I would get the notification that I had discovered a new location, I would use internet walkthroughs to determine if there was any other reason to visit the place, and (since there never was) then run away as fast as possible to avoid being killed.

In this manner, I reached the magical college, where I collected two spells before being sent out to explore an archeological excavation. And here's where the game completely lost me, because guess what? The point of this location is to kill zombies and loot.

Now, this isn't just a matter of stumbling on an abandoned fort that has been adopted by bandits, this is a location being explored by the academics of the college who are seeking information about the ancient culture and their knowledge of magic. You and your classmates are led there by your  professor and given tasks. And yet, once in this dig, you end up grabbing any artifacts you can find, as well as looting corpses--both the ones you kill and the ones that were buried their eons ago. Because this is basically a necropolis, and there are sarcophagi and wall niches holding ancient bodies. There are burial urns scattered around. And periodically, as you enter new rooms (intent, as you are, on looting the place) occasionally a couple of draigur (Skyrim zombies, basically) try to stop you.

So, let's put this in some broader context. Imagine this is Egypt, and you are in the Valley of the Kings. For millenia, the Egyptian Pharaohs have been sealed in their tombs, surrounded by their grave goods, part of a vanished culture and the objects of now-forgotten religious beliefs and rituals. What goods are present, how they were arranged, what was considered valuable and necessary for a trip to the afterlife provides information about a culture now lost to time. Many of the items are intrinsically valuable--gold, jewels, alabaster. All of them are priceless for the information they can give modern scholars about the past.

So, when something like Tutankhamen's tomb is discovered, Harold Carter should have brought in a handful of freshman students (none majoring in Egyptology or archeology, but maybe business majors looking for careers in finance--because they understand gold, right?) and just turning them loose. "Hey--just run on ahead and see what you can find. Go ahead and pocket any coins or gold bits for your own use. Since, hey! Private tuition can be really expensive, and what better way to pay for tutoring than using ancient coins for their face value!"

I mean! Sure, most Egyptian tombs were looted, usually soon after they were sealed by men who had worked on the tombs. And that's a tragedy because of the loss to our understanding of the culture of this great (and long lasting) nation. But it's also kind of understandable, since many tomb thieves needed the gold more than the corpses did. So the trade in stolen artifacts is a double-edged sword: the loss to world culture is incalcuable, but many of the people who engage in that trade really are desperately poor and the money goes to support the living rather than decorating the dead.

So you might find the situation in Egypt to be regrettable, but understandable. Knowledge is lost when artifacts are stolen and sold on the black market, but there are people who are also trying to understand and preserve the past and who conduct their archeological explorations with precision and care.

In contrast, Skyrim sends you to a site of unparalleled import--the professor keeps exclaiming about how unique it is, how the burial practices are unlike any he has encountered before. But the game is designed so that you will loot the corpses and throw away anything you don't want, with no attempts at documentation. It's bad enough that you murder bandits and leave their bodies lying around as you scavenge anything of value--it's even worse to desecrate a heritage site.

This may be where I stop playing this game. Because this is where I realize that what I am looking for in a game is to engage at a deeper level in the narrative of the land. I want to explore the dig for information, not just for loose gold coins. I want to understand the religious beliefs that inform the burial practices, not just fight sword-wielding zombies. I want a game that has a story that matches the standards set by the design and art and music of this amazing world. I want more than killing and looting, and that's my personal quest.

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