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.
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: