For some folks, myself included, there’s not much justification to shell out $60 for a videogame these days. The fact that a majority of the season’s triple-A titles are rushed to market to make bonus bucks off holiday cheer never fails to fuel cynicism. Nor does the fact that they tend to fall prey to the unfortunate dichotomy of Western game design: ‘carbon-copy popcorn war shooter’ or ‘technically impressive but unpolished sandbox adventure.’
Skyrim, the newest addition to the Elder Scrolls series, seems to fit within the latter category. But after spending some time with a copy that I thankfully did not pay $60 for (thank you, roommate) I can say that I’m simultaneously impressed and annoyed — impressed because of the surprising depth and detail of the virtual space I was inhabiting, and annoyed because it fails to stop at that. If I had my way, Skyrim would be a game about nothing.
Of course I mean “nothing” in the tabula rasa sense; a kind of videogaming zen that coaxes enlightenment from simplicity. Admittedly, I’ve been spoiled by similar games like Minecraft, the million dollar indie hit which puts you in an expansive world, mixes in some solid game mechanics and leaves the rest up to your imagination. So when I’m walking around, enjoying the gorgeous virtual landscapes of Skyrim, my zen-like mellow is constantly harshed by the fact that there is some grand quest I should be embarking on, some dragon I should be slaying or village I should be saving.
Heroic feats of derring-do can be rewarding, yes. But they seem excessive—distracting, even—given the vast, multi-layered nature of _Skyrim_’s world. The villages and wilderness are populated with people, beasts and monsters that go about their daily affairs in sync with various stages of day and night. Dwellings are filled with items both useful and mediocre that exist as more than merely static visual ornamentation. Mills, metal forges, kitchens and various other facilities are functional and ready to help craft an enormous variety of goods, weapons and equipment. You can even learn to play the lute, buy a house and get married.
If you really can’t suppress your hard-on for danger, I suppose there are still plenty of tombs to explore, treasures to find and bad guys to slay. But quite frankly, if it weren’t for the whole needing to save the world thing, you could simulate a pretty nice life for yourself in a game like Skyrim.
To be fair, the narrative tries its best not to get in your way after the game’s scripted opening sequence and in most cases, the main plot exhibits little urgency beyond a marker appearing on your compass at the top of the screen. But it’s still there, gnawing away at your subconscious, and every bit of Skyrim’s painstakingly detailed history and culture seems designed to feed that insufferable “hero complex” of yours.
Must every sandbox game infiltrate the experience it creates with player empowerment and narrative? Can’t a virtual world just exist for its own sake?
Outside the town of Riverwood (GIF via nosebleed)
From a marketing perspective, the answer to that last question is almost always “no.” The videogame industry has, for a very long time, been driven by the idea that “content is king” and as a result, players have developed certain expectations of what “content” should entail. Most prominently among them are the triumph over adversaries (read: killing things), a sense of purpose derived from “player-centric” narrative and, more recently, the mandatory presence of collaborative or competitive multiplayer modes.
What I wish players and developers would do more frequently is question whether these design tropes are helping games to progress as an interactive medium or merely allowing them to stagnate. Looking out over a vast sea of Call of Duty clones and open-world games with nearly identical gameplay like Assassin’s Creed and Infamous, I would definitely argue the latter. Bethesda finds themselves in a unique position with Skyrim, but considering the troublesome presence of gaming’s most time-honored cliches, I worry that the experience for a majority of players will simply be more of the same.
If Skyrim were stripped of its ho-hum hero story, we’d be freed from distraction and left with the best features of an open-world game. Bethesda has gotten rather good at making their game worlds insanely rich and believable down to the smallest detail; why can’t we give pause and simply take it all in, rather than looking for the next Orc to kill?
Examples of interior detail and dynamic lighting in Skyrim (GIF via NeoGAF)
The most obvious critique of this argument will be that the kind of game I’m describing would be boring. Or worse — not even a “game” at all. I challenge this notion. Not because I doubt that some people would be bored to tears by the idea of meditative gaming, but because the reason they would has to do with the history of conditioned over-stimulation that videogames (and other mediums) are known for. I’ve previously wondered what gamers today would think of Ian Bogost’s A Slow Year had videogames progressed as reflections of self and virtual space rather than twitch reflexes, empowerment and skill.
I’m reminded of early CD-ROM adventure games like Myst. Putting little or no emphasis on combat and other high-stress tasks, these games are remembered fondly for the enchanting worlds they created. By showing beauty in digital solitude, they made a case for introspective software. Thanks to its intentional lack of multiplayer — a rare choice which publishers these days equated to financial suicide — Skyrim seems more than fit to carry this legacy, and yet does not seem to revel in its best qualities.
Solitude has been the focus of a few recent game projects, however. Journey, an upcoming PS3 title from ThatGameCompany (see also: Fl0w, Flower) sets the player in the middle of an enormous desert. There is no life among the desolation apart from you and anything that contains tiny bits of cloth, which you collect along the way. Your character can cry out into the wilderness and locate another lonely soul to travel with, but all communication is limited to a selection of various howls.
There’s also Dear Esther, the upcoming remake of a popular Half-Life 2 mod that sets a moody tone with its gorgeously eerie environments. “You will probably hear about it as the object of scrutiny,” writes Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo, “in a renewed debate about what makes something a video game rather than simply a piece of interactive art.”
The development process for a game like Skyrim, made by Bethesda Game Studios (The Elder Scrolls series, Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas), is appropriately epic in scale. Huge teams of writers, programmers and artists collaborate, often shooting from the hip, brought together at choice moments in hopes that the graphics, dialogue, physics and environments they’ve molded will synthesize into a highly-malleable but cohesive simulation.
Like many others in the open-world category, Bethesda’s games demonstrate an uneasy co-existence of scale and realism. Run a search for “Skyrim glitch” on YouTube and you’ll see some of the many, many examples of this — they are the consequences of too little code governing too much virtual space.
An exploit allows you to steal items without consequence by putting buckets over the heads of shopkeepers
Some of my favorites: Character models get stuck inside environment textures and inexplicably blink in and out of existence. Errors in event scripting cause characters to stand casually talking while they’re being beaten to death by monsters. And best of all, putting buckets over the heads of shopkeepers disrupts line-of-sight and allows you to loot shops undetected.
In one sense, these goofs are a kind of collateral damage, and were it not for Bethesda’s prestigious position and standard-but-steep price tag, they would be fascinating bi-products of an otherwise robust digital simulation (and perhaps they still are). But imagine for a moment what might be if the game’s entire development cycle were devoted solely to creating the world. Would such a utopian design be a world we’d want to live in? Or maybe just a place to be alone with our thoughts, safe from weird glitches and intruding impulses of heroism that might cloud our reflection?
I’ll accept that what I’m describing above may just be another type of game entirely, or perhaps even a non-game. But this wish to revert Skyrim to a form of virtual minimalism is born of my delight that games like it still exist. At a time when most games are half-hearted re-skins of last year’s hits, seeing the active progression of things like dynamic A.I. and environment rendering can give a guy chills.
My hope is that we’ll start experiencing these advancements in unique and perhaps less ostentatious ways. We’ve already slain plenty of dragons — forgive those of us who occasionally desire the space to independently contemplate every beautiful polygon of the wall where we’ve hung their heads.