“One Night in Skyrim Makes a Strong Man Crumble”

Nick shared this on Twitter. I’m sharing it on Dog Mic because it is very close to unearthing my perspective on the open-world game experience.

The article, by Tom Bissel, begins exactly on point, “review Skyrim? You may as well try reviewing last month.”

He misses, shortly thereafter, with,  “the first thing was that Bethesda had not yet figured out how to make a palatable console RPG, though few developers had in 2002.” Final Fantasy had been running strong since the 80s, and if other game like Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, Earthbound, Dragon Quest, and every Zelda game ever made weren’t good enough, then Final Fantasy VII (released in 1997) should be evidence that console RPGs were doing just fine. If he meant that open world games, or the new generation of console RPGs were lacking, I might give him the point, but he included no qualifier, and so I’m not quite sure what he means there.

Still, he makes this point, which is fantastic to chew on,

If cinematics have any value, it’s that they provide animators with a concentrated space to express the subtleties of character gesture and movement. If you choose to do without cinematics, you must accept what it is you’re forsaking and resist the impulse to sneak what you’re forsaking into the game in another more inadequate form. When you combine high-fantasy characters with limited animation with affected writing and artificial performances, the quality of the material becomes irrelevant. It probably wouldn’t matter if Skyrim‘s characters were working with a kilo of uncut Tolkien. Nothing framed in this way can be dramatically interesting. Why bother, then, with trying to generate drama in this very specialized way?

He hammers this home when he pulls the rug out from under the entire narrative(s) of Skyrim when he says,

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. The story of Skyrim functions like that of a fantasy novel with digital appendices — and these digital appendices are the only reason anyone’s reading it in the first place. If you threw most of the fantasy novel away, it wouldn’t matter, because it’s not nearly as good as an actual fantasy novel — and as fantasy cinema it’s a pathetic joke.

and this…

Why make every character a walking lore dump when lore can be more effectively embodied in the world and environments? After all, the world and environments are already there in Skyrim; they’re quite literally everywhere you look, gushing all manner of wonderfully implied lore. And they’re beautiful. 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.

One of the implicit criticisms hidden in this article is: Skyrim is boring because the world-set is too vast, and the narrative(s) are presented too poorly to hold the game together. In order to enjoy Skyrim you have to be an addict; you have to be predisposed to the experience, just like every other addict*.

*it’s unfair and partially inaccurate to breakdown addiction so simply. There are many kinds of addicts, and many variables that introduce a person to a self destructive habit. I am only concerning myself with videogames and the parallel to a single type of addiction.

That said, look how far they’ve come:

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4 thoughts on ““One Night in Skyrim Makes a Strong Man Crumble”

  1. That really sums up my problem with open-world games. If I were to start Skyrim, I can’t be certain I would finish it. I’ve seen page upon page dedicated to the many ins and outs of the world, and those ins and outs have ins and outs. I’d most likely lose interest in the main story line (is there a main arc?) or forget what the story was as I went along collecting cabbages. (A reference to something I don’t understand, but heard it was Skyrim related.)

  2. First: His problem stems from the fact that he is NOT playing a character with personality. The game is not going to give your character personality. Niko Bellic of GTA4 has personality, you play him the way you think he would react – which is truly marvelous. His opinion of the “indistinguishable from compulsion” argument is a human problem, not a game problem. In two words: gamers game.

    I like to think that I don’t play this way. If I can run through a level without killing anyone (Resident Evil 4, God of War, Uncharted, etc), I f***ing will because I have things to do! Or because I like to shame AI that will stand still and shoot at me while I run past.

    In games like Skyrim, I am quite bored by the collection of weapons and crap. I have no use for gold. In fact, Who the hell does?! Oblivion and Skyrim offer the best theiving opportunities of all videogames. Why collect crap along the way when I can just break into someone’s house and steal crap to sell?

    Also, and this is another problem with his argument, Why The Hell Do You Need Money In A Fantasy Videogame? Your character doesn’t need to Eat, Sleep, or Pay Rent. If you didn’t need to eat, sleep, or pay rent, would you work a job? Would you carry around money? When you need new jeans, you’ll break into a Gap. But why would you need new jeans in a fantasy videogame world?

    The compulsion is his problem (and Nick’s and Scott’s, etc). Nothing’s more boring to me than fake commerce and fake value. It’s a videogame. There is exactly one degree of value: entertainment.

    My argument in favor of Skyrim is my argument in favor of college: you get out of it what you put into it, and you can go days without sleep, and murder anybody but cops.

  3. Concerning his following point, and the major talking point of his piece, I have to commend him for his articulation, even if I disagree with a few minor points. I suppose the thing that bothers me the most about this argument is that I simply disagree. I believe great writing could save the dialogue of Skyrim and similar games. I believe that an intricate world could be dramatically revealed through Bethesda’s style of interaction.

    I do agree that the voice acting is a total waste of time. I’d argue for all dialogue to be entirely typed. That is until Siri and Hard Rain and Skyrim are all merged by some meglomaniacal billionaire game designer in about ten years. Imagine speaking your own dialogue, sharing dialogue with Patrick Stewart… Think about a game that actually holds you to your actions. You get caught stealing from someone’s house, you have a choice: lose a finger or spend the rest of the game living in bandit camps in the woods, cast out of society.
    You get caught murdering an innocent person, you have a choice: restart the game from the previous save point or watch your character beheaded and start again from the very beginning.

    These are fantastical suggestions, but I don’t think it’s fair to discard the genre and style just because Bethesda didn’t nail it, yet. That’s like arguing that capitalism is broken just because America keeps fucking it up.

    My final point is this: if Bethesda adapted the entirety of the Silmarilion, and you played a Wizard/Angel like Gandalf moving through the different Ages, and your character could learn, hear, read as much as you the player wanted… and then you gave this game to a generation of people who have not yet been exposed to Tolkien (so that there is not the comparison), I think that would be a glorious and strange interactive narrative that would work.

    It would not work as well as simply reading The Hobbit, which is a lore dump (to use his term) guided by the voice of a master storyteller and the humor of a father. But it would be interactive, and that is why we play videogames and why we buy DMGs.

  4. Not to harp on the subject (3 comments is too many), but I want to clarify a commendation. He is skilled at articulating points that others have missed. His prose is sometimes inventive, but he’s also too quick to jump at precious phrases (looksie-doodle), hip lingo (a kilo of uncut Tolkien) and a just askew of proper vocabulary (it is not the chacter that is interminable, but his speech). In short, I wouldn’t hire the guy to write anything for me, but I’d hire him to voice his opinions on a podcast.

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