Tuesday, November 22, 2011

You see that mountain? There's a story on it. Now go find it. - A bit of stuff about games, The Elder Scrolls, and Skyrim

Out of the gate, Skyrim has been hailed as a universal success.  Its rating on metacritic, that holy guarantor of quality and vigor, is something like 95 or 96 out of a 100.  You probably don't need me to tell you that Skyrim is good.  What I would like to do is highlight exactly why it is good, and give any gamers stubbornly clinging to Oblivion or Morrowind a polite clap on the ear, to hopefully wake them up.

I'd like to ask a searching question.  What, in the most basic sense, is the promise offered by each and every videogame?  The answer, I think, is simple, dictated by the interactive aspect of the medium: "if you play this game, you will not only be able to enter into a world specific to your interests, but you will furthermore be able to affect it and bring your own cognitive power to this world in order to experience this world according to your own desires, rather than that of, say, an author's."

That is, essentially, what is being suggested when that controller is put into your hand.  When you gain access to the power to change what you see on the screen, you are now leveraging for control of the media you are engaging in.

As we all know, that promise rarely, if ever, delivers wholesale.  There are little obstacles, sometimes very large obstacles, between your capacity to change the game world and the actual experience you receive.  Those barriers, disruptive to the very spirit of gaming and yet nearly impossible to avoid, are something we've learned to work with.  We are told the restraints of the game, what we can or cannot do, and operate within them.  And so our choice narrows.

At this juncture, the promise of gaming changes from "I may do whatever I want in this world" to "I may do whatever I want in this world, as long it is less than X and greater than Y."  In some ways, this is natural.  Complete freedom to do whatever one might want would disrupt any narrative gesture on behalf of the game, and I argue that we do appreciate a narrative in a game, even though in the same instance, the natural urge to push the game to the limits of what it will allow can disrupt that narrative.  Who, while reading a novel, does not root for a character, and silently judge their actions and advise them?  That is natural.  But when those novels cave to the simplest desires of the reader, they become trite and uninteresting.  Look, for instance, at George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, which has recently achieved pop culture status.  What is compelling about the fiction he presents is that it does not cater to what its audience expects, and instead offers up a vastly more fascinating narrative venture.

Now, imagine that you are playing a game set in Martin's universe.  I won't go into specific spoilers, but if you were playing through scenes where a memorable character was about to die, the player would want some sense of control, to be able to stop those deaths and prove themselves the champion, and so on: but it would cripple the narrative.  An author's advantage is that they can acknowledge that while the characters in the narrative may suffer and be exposed to undesirable circumstances, this will in fact produce a more compelling narrative.  When we are directly invested in the fiction--as a reader, viewer of a film, or a gamer--we struggle to find that same distance.  Games, then, which endeavor to provide any narrative experience, must navigate that divide, between our natural want for control, and the fact that when given that control, someone with a self-interested investment in a story will, inevitably, make it more predictable and less interesting.

All of this is a very roundabout way of saying that I think that there are two paths that games can choose in order to conquer this fundamental difficulty: a game can either become dictatorial, dictating to the player what to do, what their character says, and where they go, in the name of narrative (a fine example of this succeeding--because I do not suggest that this form of game narrative is entirely inferior--is Final Fantasy X); or a game can become emergent, to borrow a term from Peter Molyneux, who, though much maligned, has a fairly decent head on his shoulders for what gamers want, even though he might not always succeed in making his theoretical ideas a reality.  Emergent gameplay, in short, is described as a complex situation which emerges from the interaction of simple mechanics: I would go a step further, and call it a compelling narrative moment which emerges in the space between the player's internal narrative and the gameplay which the game offers to support that narrative.  This latter category, thriving on those narrative moments, has always been the focus of the games in The Elder Scrolls series (finally, you say, he gets to the point!).

The promise is in the friggin' game manual: the Elder Scrolls promises to let you be who you want, how you want.

However, this process will be necessarily complicated.  If players were just thrust into a world with no quests to explore, I imagine they'd get quite bored: in this sense each Elder Scrolls game has needed a dictatorial framework in which those emergent moments may exist.  The measure of success in any Elder Scrolls game, and any game in general, I would argue, is the intentional submerging of that dictatorial framework, making it nearly invisible, so that the focus is not on what you are being told, but what you are doing.

Morrowind, for instance, is often praised for offering a wealth of unique materials, in contrast to the earlier Elder Scrolls games which featured randomized content.  What are those unique materials and locations?  Things with a specific narrative.  Items which dictate their history to you.  The abundance of unique quest material in Morrowind, material which is dictatorial in nature, is often cited as the primary reason why the game is so well-loved among its fans.  However, Morrowind also enabled the player to choose which of those dictatorial elements to engage in, and to some extent, how to engage in them.  In this sense, we might call an earlier Elder Scrolls game, which chiefly featured randomly generated content, as a sort of amorphous narrative blob, allowing you to go in any direction with no real guidance, whereas Morrowind was a series of narrative paths, which you might happily walk down at your own choosing.

Fast forward to Oblivion.  Oblivion was always going to be the next stage in Bethesda's attempt to allow one full control over a richly realized game space: it was going to be the next stage in Bethesda's attempt to negotiate the divide between dictatorial and emergent gameplay.  Oblivion again adopted Morrowind's 'series of different paths' design, though its detractors, those who maintain the ascendancy of Morrowind, decry it for featuring too much randomized content.  Sections of the game are randomly generated.  In an article discussing the process from Morrowind to Skyrim of realizing the world of Tamriel, Oblivion's development is characterized as a "mix" of randomized content and "hand-placed" content.  In the eyes of many, this muddied the experience of Oblivion: it felt less sincere, less like a realized world.

So, if Morrowind was a strict adherent to the "dictatorial" path, and Oblvion veered too far into randomized gameplay, putting the focus on emergent scenarios without providing a specific narrative thrust, what can the solution be?

The solution, in short, is Skyrim.

Skyrim, Howard boasts, has a world which is "all hand crafted."  It's all "put there" by the designers.  Nothing is incidental.  This, if not handled correctly, could make the player feel as though they are simply playing "on rails" put there by the designer.  Skyrim, however, does not fall into this trap, for more than a few reasons.

Firstly, the elements of the game which are being "dictated" to you are minimized.  The interface, for instance, once a sharp reminder that you are, in fact, playing a game, has been reduced to strict functionality, without trying to hide it under a veneer of fantasy flavour.  Where it does hide beneath that veneer, it tries to make the facade seem like a genuine part of the world you're in: when you examine your skills, you're not scrolling through a list in some pseudo-medieval journal written in vaguely medieval text, but you are looking to the stars, purportedly your stars.  The attempt here, and one I admire, is to reduce the act of "stepping out" of the game world in order to access menus and lists and so on as much as possible.  In Oblivion and Morrowind, the game menus are framed loosely as a "journal" that your character is keeping, but the metaphor is weak: it is obvious to anyone that you are engaging with an element of game design, rather than a fictional world.  Skyrim's menu system assumes that the player has the intelligence to make this jump, that they will not be fooled by a light coating of fantasy paint, and instead tries to remove as much of the obstacle as possible, so that the player spends less time disconnected from the game.

Secondly, the game seizes on Oblivion's greatest success, which was that it never curtails you into any one "path" without your choosing. This is reflected in one of the game's more controversial, but ultimately brilliant, choices: the complete removal of stats.  There is no Strength, Intelligence, or Luck any more.  There are only the three base values that all those superfluous stats fed into: Health, Magicka, and Stamina.  This is a particularly clever move, because it removes any sense that you have to play in a certain "way" in order to maximize your character's effectiveness for a chosen build, which will then cause you to be more proficient in specific questlines.  In Skyrim, you can play freely, knowing that your strength stat will never fall below the curve, or you don't have to intentionally level up endurance skills in order to boost health, and so on.  Furthermore, the removal of a class system first takes away the problematic levelling issues encountered in earlier games, and secondly allows you a little breathing space as you play the game, allowing you to discover how you want to play.  Any superfluous dictatorial elements have been eliminated.

Meanwhile, those dictatorial elements which are desirable have been ramped up to eleven, and then presented in such a way as to disguise their nature as something which the designers "want" you to experience.  There are an abundance of quests you can carry out, many of which with a minor narrative structure in which to frame your experience.  When one walks into an Inn, you might hear a bard playing; when you rent a room, the Innkeeper will order you to your room.  These circumstances were obviously put in "by hand," so to speak, but they don't feel restrictive, because their point isn't to take away your own sense of agency, but to encourage it.  The game's "Radiant Story" system is ingeniously effective, offering quests with specific content to you in unique ways, tailored to your own experiences.  Then, of course, there are the fights with dragons, some of the most spectacular moments in the game.  These fights are filled with excellent drama and excitement, but are also, in their sense, random, in that they can appear at any time: how you choose to fight the dragons is up to you.  The dragon fights, specifically designed, are presented in a random way, and behave in a random way, thus making your own encounters with the dragons unique, freeing up those experiences for those moments of emergent gameplay that we all strive for, without sacrificing narrative clout. The main questline, and guild questlines, are gripping, but they do not impose: they can be accessed at your leisure.

Of course, Skyrim does not succeed invariably: the odd bug might bring your experience crashing back down to Earth, as you realize you're playing a game, not actually sneaking through a cave or chatting with a local blacksmith.  But like no other game before it, in my mind, Skyrim succeeds in negotiating the compromise between giving the player choice, and simultaneously producing a product which has a genuine narrative structure.  Anyone who clings onto older games like Morrowind or Oblivion is, in my mind, missing the point of the series.  While the quest lines offered in these games are engaging and intriguing, they are not narrative masterpieces.  If one might prefer this or that member of an earlier game's assassin guild to this or that member in Skyrim's Dark Brotherhood, that's fine.  That dictatorial element in the earlier game, for whatever reason, just happened to appeal more to you, specifically.

However, what Skyrim does better than Oblivion, better than the sacrosanct Morrowind, and indeed, better than any other game I've ever played, is take those carefully crafted dictatorial, narrative elements, and then infuse them with spontaneity, and a feeling of true control in the hands of the player.  Skyrim is the next step in Bethesda's promise to let you play the game as you want, and it is by far their most successful one.

Originally, this piece was framed as a review, but it obviously became something else.  I don't like numerical grades, I don't like stars, and I don't like letter grades, so by way of appraisal, let me say only this: Skyrim is an extraordinary game.  It deserves your investment, both financially and ideologically, and will reward you if you do.