Tuesday, December 13, 2011

TUESDAY TANGENT: Skyrim and the Illusion of Freedom

Contrary to the activity of my blog, I am not, in fact, dead. Truth be told, I am in the year-end crunch that most people experience at their jobs. Between that and planning for my vacation I've been swamped. And when you add to that the release of a new video game (Skyrim), well...lets just say the blog got put on the back burner, hm? In any case, I am finally taking some time to discuss something game related- though not at all Star Wars related (thus the tangent).

My introduction to the Elder Scrolls series (of which Skyrim is the 5th chapter) was with its predecessor, ES-IV: Oblivion. I purchased this game shortly after playing Star Wars, Knights of the Old Republic. I was looking for something to give me that same 'fix' of awesome, free-ranging roleplay. I played Oblivion for...oh, about two hours before I sadly discovered that it was nowhere near the experience I had hoped it would be. Many people would consider this an unfair comparison, and it is to an extent. But only to an extent. I think the exact moment I quit Oblivion is when I entered into 'conversation' with a random NPC and found myself in a bizarre mini-game involving different 'moods' and colors and... yeah. After the friendships I'd formed in Knights of the Old Republic (for example the awesome dialogue with Jolee Bindo), I found the whole thing to be very flat.

Even so, years later, when I saw the ads for Skyrim I thought that it looked pretty cool. So I took the plunge and hours and hours later, I finished the main storylines of the game. My initial reaction to the game was one of awe. The world was HUGE and beautiful, and I could go wherever I wanted. Okay, so maybe the NPCs were shallow, the combat was fun, as was the exploration. The sheer number of things to do was staggering. There were all kinds of dungeons and ruins and towns to explore. Okay, so maybe the big set-piece battles of the game were a little uh.. low key. Not epic, but still fun and playable. I was certain, though, that as things built towards a climax with the civil war AND the dragon invasion that there would be those big MOMENTS. I was sure that some of the characters (the main ones) would prove to be more than your typical NPCs... that they would have deeper stories to tell and have personalities that come out through association with them and... well, when I 'finished' the game, I was still waiting for this to happen. Don't get me wrong. I think Skyrim is a good game. I had (and am having) a lot of fun with it. But for all it's vast scope, it is not a very 'deep' game. And that is probably the reason why I am not nearly as enthusiastic about it as I was about other games.

Now, before I keep rambling, I want to get to the point of this blog entry- namely that Freedom in any video game is an Illusion. And to me, a well done illusion of freedom is a lot better than a game that offers freedom but seemingly without dramatic impact. I will explore this by comparing Skyrim to a couple contemporary games: The Dragon Age series and even Mass Effect. Now again, some folks might call the comparisons unfair- that Skyrim is going after another kind of role playing experience. But I am talking personal preference here-which is all anyone can really do, since there is no great 'universal truth' to making a game 'fun'.

First of all, I'd like to describe what I mean by 'Freedom' within a game. Ultimately what I'm talking about here is being able to make MAJOR choices that affect either the world or the story being told-which, in effect, allow me to steer the course of the story (and in effect the 'game world') in the way I want it to go. In games like Skyrim (and Dragon Age), this kind of freedom is achieved in three major ways- through the setting, the characters and the 'setpiece' events and storylines.

As far as setting goes, Skyrim achieves the illusion of freedom by allowing the player to go wherever he/she wants. The only 'invisible walls' are the borders of the huge realm of Skyrim. Other than that, if you want to get there, odds are you can find a way to do so-be in the peak of a towering mountain or the depths of an icy lake. The size of Skyrim makes this very impressive indeed. You aren't confined to one set of corridors or a single path that takes you through a forest. If you're on a road that goes east and west, you can make a right angle turn and go north or south and STILL find adventure. That is impressive. Especially when you compare it to something like the Dragon Age series, where travel through the world is achieved through menu screens and only 'encounter areas' are actually open for exploration.

Where this Freedom of travel/setting thing begins to break down, however, is in the scope of human habitation in Skyrim. Miles of tractless wilderness are one thing, but when you reach a large town or city, the 'illusion of reality' begins to falter. Yes, you're able to go ANYWHERE within that city map, but the city itself is small-maybe a couple dozen or so buildings all-told. And while, at first glance, it gives the impression of being larger than it actually is, the more you visit and explore a location, the smaller you realize it is. In games like Dragon Age (or even the Fable Series), there are 'snippets' of large cities present to explore, but beyond those are hints at the larger scope of the setting- buildings leading off into the distance. Even if I can't physically break into and rob each of those houses, the fact they are there creates the 'Illusion' of an epic scale to a story. A city LOOKS like a city, not just a collection of a few buildings. I would point to Mass Effect 2 for an almost perfect illustration of my point. One planet, Ilium, is a vast metropolis, a la Coruscant or Blade Runner- and yet the part you can explore is (in comparison) almost laughably small. Even so, when you look off of a balcony and see the miles and miles of cityscape stretching out... well, you get feeling- the illusion- that you're in a vast world. And yes, again I realize (and have heard) arguments that Skyrim's cities are supposed to be small, but seriously, 'real' medieval cities were a LOT larger than Skyrim's.

But more than just the setting itself, the characters (people and beasts) who populate it really help bring a world (and a game) to life. In Skyrim there are hundreds (if not thousands) of NPCs scattered across various cities, towns and even farms and remote cabins. Most of them can be interacted with in some manner. And then there is the wild life. Walking through the mountainous tundra, you can find everything from tiny butterflies to elk, to mammoths. And you're able to interact with ALL of them. Nothing here is 'just for show'. Are you really in the mood for some delicious mammoth snout sandwiches? Well, go ahead. Attack one of the beasts (I wouldn't recommend it though). Do you need butterfly wings for one of your potions? Go ahead, send your heavily armored dragon-slaying warrior skipping around the fields of flowers to catch one. It is all possible.

More to the point that most gamers seem to bring up, if you feel like killing some random villager for casting a disparaging remark in your direction (which, for some reason, they seem to do with frequency), you can do that. You can slaughter to your heart's content. Well, except for children. Because that would be bad. Oh, and except for shop-keepers or folks who are important to the storyline in certain quests and...hmmmm. So maybe my freedom is somewhat limited after all.

I normally play a good guy, so this 'unkillable NPC syndrome' doesn't usually bother me-I don't fancy random slaughter of children or anything else for that matter. But I ran into a situation in my own game that irked me. In one town, there is a crooked noblewoman- Maven Black-Briar. She basically runs the Thieves' Guild in her city. In fact, several NPCs tell you this outright. She is also thoroughly unpleasant to boot. So, after the tenth time of her making some snide remark as she walked past me, I decided enough was enough. I'd take her out, and the Guild with her. It would be one of those 'justified killings' (at least in my mind) for the greater good (the greater good!). Imagine my annoyance when I found out that she was unkillable. So much for freedom of choice. And honestly, in my play through I saw NO reason at all why she would be immortal. I didn't participate in any of the Thieves' Guild stuff, so her life (or death) were of no consequence to me or the main storyline as a whole. But in the end, it just serves to illustrate my point. As much as Skyrim may tout its 'you can do anything' selling point, there are a lot of exceptions to that rule.

In other games, such as Dragon Age, there were characters who I (or rather my character) would have very much liked to kill. But within the confines of that game, you knew up front that you couldn't do so unless it was 'scripted'. There was never any option to 'go berserk and kill everyone'. Therefore, such situations didn't really bother me. In games that tout 'freedom of action', however, anything that curtails that freedom really does become an issue. Once again, the Illusion of Freedom is broken- and if I had my druthers, I'd prefer to know up front (out of character) that some annoying people are just untouchable.

Another point regarding characters in Skyrim is the fact that all of them-even the lowliest farmer in his field or woodcutter plying his trade-have something to say. Most of them are able to interact with your character in some way. Some just have a few lines of dialogue, others have quests and still others turn out to be elements of various larger stories or adventures. Each town has its own rogue's gallery of denizens, each of them going about their daily lives. At first glance, this serves to make the world seem 'alive'- to make those cities (however small) seem to be bustling. But the fortieth time you return to your hometown and have the SAME NPCs spout the same lines at you that they have for the entire game. Well...it gets old. And I'm not sure if I have a good 'solution' to this one. In fact, Dragon Age and Mass Effect kind of do the same things, though they do have a lot fewer NPCs with lines.. and well, I don't mind that, actually. While I feel it is rewarding to talk to NPCs in a video game, I tend to only do so when that NPC has something interesting to say-and I don't just mean a fetch quest. I mean the ability to carry on some kind of conversation that teaches me about the world or the NPC. So while at first glance 'chatty' NPCs may seem like a good way to liven up a world, it tends (for me at least) to get old fast. Perhaps the whole 'less is more' thing is preferable. You can have a city populated by NPCs, but maybe only have a few of them speak and/or interact. And those that do should hopefully have some 'reason' for being interacted with- be it a quest, some general information or even just a laugh.

The last character-related issue I want to discuss is the depth of personality of specific, plot-important NPCs and companions. In Skyrim, unfortunately, this depth is lacking. Even the most important people in the game-the Greybeards, General Tullius and Ulfric Stormcloak, do not develop much through play. Nor do you ever feel like you are creating a 'relationship' with any of them. About the only nods to this are the bits of dialogue prior to them handing out quests. If you've been doing good for them, they'll comment on it, but that's about it. And for me at least, the Villains (or rather, the enemies I chose to label as such), didn't seem to react to me at all. I mean, I had helped the Empire capture two forts and was able to just walk into the capital of the Stormcloak rebels without any fuss except a guard commenting. "Hey, how come you're not wearing our kind of armor?"

As far as actual adventuring companions go, they might as well have just named them all 'meatshield' and/or 'walking inventory space'. None of them have any personality- at least not while they are with you. Oh sure, some of them might have a bit of a backstory (the Companions, for example), but once they begin traveling with you, they robotically adhere to the behavior (and even dialogue) of all other companion characters. Yes, Lydia, that does look like a cave. Yes, Erik the Slayer, that does look like a cave. Yes, Aela the Huntress, I too wonder if we should explore that cave. It is perhaps unfair to compare Bioware games and their very well developed NPCs to those of Skyrim, but... well, if you're going to include the option of recruiting people to join you, shouldn't there be SOME kind of reason for them to do so outside of helping in combat and carrying all your excess loot? In the end, I found companions to be more of a nuisance than anything else. And when that happens, you lose a wonderful way of helping players connect to the world and the story.

Finally, we come to the 'story' aspect of a game: how your choices affect the way things work out. In most modern computer roleplaying games, the player character is central to the resolution of whatever conflict is going on in the game world. Skyrim is no different in that regard- save for the fact that there are two ‘main’ quest lines running through the game. The first is the civil war between the Empire and the Stormcloak rebels. In truth, both sides are portrayed as rather ‘grey’, so whichever one you wind up choosing (if either) become the ‘good guys’ of your story. The second major storyline is the return of Dragons to Skyrim from their centuries-long slumber. In this case, you have a more definite ‘enemy’ in the big-bad dragon, “Alduin the World Eater”, who is destined to bring about the end of the world and the birth of a new one. So, unless you LIKE the idea of dieing to make room for a new world, odds are you’re going to try and fight Alduin.

The resolution of the Alduin storyline is pretty straightforward— find the tools necessary to defeat him and then go do it. The civil war is a lot more open ended—and how it ends depends entirely upon who you side with. There are also dozens of smaller quest-lines that can be picked up or ignored. You can become the Archmage of the College of Magic. You can join and take over the thieves’ guild, you can become an assassin in the Dark Brotherhood. On the surface, at least, it appears as though the sky is the limit (no pun intended). In practice, however, very little seems to change. The 'major earthshaking events' of the story don't seem to amount to much. The only things that really seem to change are the color of the city guards' uniforms and a few of their random bits of dialogue. In fact, even after I had defeated the 'main villain' of the piece, Ulfric Stormcloak (well, he was the villain in MY particular story), the various rulers of the different towns didn't even seem to recognize that he was gone. All the same (previously exhausted) bits of dialogue were still there, including questions as to why they chose this or that side in the war. And the responses I got were the same AFTER the war as they were while it was going on. Disappointing. For all the importance placed on my character, the world itself didn't change outwardly at all.

The same can be said of a lot of the other quest lines. I became Arch Mage of the college of magic. But apart from the snazzy new apartment and some robes, it didn’t mean anything. Only the Mages in the college ever referred to me by my title, nobody else in the world seemed to care. The same could be said for me becoming the leader of the Companions (Warrior Guild). No reactions at all, for the most part. So while you’re free to choose to do whatever you want, not a lot comes of it. There don’t SEEM to be any consequences or effect on the larger world.

Then again, when I look at a game like Mass Effect, it isn’t as though a whole lot changes based on your decisions- at least not within a single game. But when I played ME2 AFTER ME1, I really DID have the illusion that my choices had an impact. The dialogue of quite a few NPCs depended entirely upon what I decided to do in the last game- as did the tone of various encounters- and with the game continuing into its third installment, I can see how my game might be VERY different from someone else’s. Perhaps something like this will happen in Skyrim- either with DLC or the next game, but to me, the open-ended nature of the game seems to work only because you CAN’T change the setting that much. And that makes me feel less impactful as a hero.

Another aspect of story is ‘drama’- and by placing almost the entirety of Skyrim’s ‘camera work’ in the hands of the player, you can really miss out on a lot of drama. There were entire scenes and interactions between NPCs that I missed entirely because I ran past them by accident, then returned only to find the conversation over. Likewise, some big villain might be making his big entrance onto the battlefield, but I missed it because I was looting a corpse elsewhere. While this can be attributed to my own bad timing, it does contribute to an overall lessening of the ‘drama’. While I am not a huge fan of cut-scenes, I do feel that they can really enhance an encounter- even if only to momentarily focus your adventurer on some momentous happening.

And finally, there is something to be said for a sense of scale. In Dragon Age, the opening big battle of the game is preceded by an awesome cut scene of thousands of monsters and men doing battle. When you cut back to your character, you find yourself in a much smaller scale battle, but it FEELS like it is part of something larger. In Skyrim, the big assault on the enemy fortress seems to be conducted by me and twelve other guys, against a couple dozen bad guys, who come in waves. It was distinctly underwhelming. And I’d wager that in both games, there were probably the same number of enemies, the difference was the illusion of scale and scope present in Dragon Age and absent in Skyrim.

Anyway, that’s just what I wanted to ramble off the top of my head. And remember, despite everything I have said, I DO enjoy Skyrim for its own merits. I just can’t help but wonder if there will ever be a marriage of concepts. A game as BIG as Skyrim, and as Deep as Dragon Age. If it ever came to be, it would rank as one of the best games of all time, I think.