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Courtesy of Bethesda Softworks Elder Scrolls V

One Night in Skyrim Makes a Strong Man Crumble

A great game's great big problem

Review Skyrim? You may as well try reviewing last month. “It started out strong, but by the end I was definitely ready for it to be over. Some great things went down, along with some stuff that kind of blew. I nevertheless recommend last month. Lots of variety. 3½ stars.” Look, Skyrim is obviously a terrific game any way you cut it, and I come to you today neither to bury nor praise it. I come to you, in the spirit of respect and fellow feeling, to say what must be said about one of the most deservedly esteemed gaming franchises in the world. If you have no idea what the Elder Scrolls franchise is, you are probably either (a) an adult woman, or (b) the sort of person who once beat up the sort of person who likes the Elder Scrolls franchise, so herewith a quick primer: Bethesda Game Studios made it; its genre is the genre that has elves; and its subgenre is the open-world RPG.

The first real Elder Scrolls game was The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, which was released for the PC in 1996. Daggerfall‘s gameworld is reputedly the size of Great Britain and boasts around 750,000 non-playable characters (hereafter called NPCs). That is patently insane, even allowing for the fact that Daggerfall‘s capaciousness was mostly the result of random generation, which meant a bunch of NPCs that looked like Blocky McPixelface. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, released for PCs and the original Xbox in 2002, was a smaller, saner, and far more refined game. I played it a bit when it came out, but two things stopped me from getting too far. The first thing was that Bethesda had not yet figured out how to make a palatable console RPG, though few developers had in 2002. The second was the game’s self-serious devotion to its incurably dorky lore — and I say that as someone who’s read the Lord of the Rings cycle more than twice. In 2006 came the series’ most refined and absorbing iteration yet: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Not only was Oblivion the first game I bought for the Xbox 360; playing it probably changed the course of my life. Before Oblivion, I went months and sometimes years without turning on a console. After Oblivion, I somehow became a video-game critic. I’m as shocked as you are. What about Oblivion proved so ensorcelling? Early in the game, you emerge from a tutorial dungeon and find yourself standing in the middle of a sunny and seemingly endless veld. In the distance you see a city and a shimmering lake. Pretty sweet. Behind you, though, is a dense, mysterious forest. Check that shit out. In the north, however, looms a range of Led Zeppelinly misty mountains. I want to go to there. Open-world games existed before Oblivion, but none had ever seemed so detailed or comely.

And you start walking. Soon enough, you’re discovering cities, towns, forts, and caves, all of which are filled with weapons you can wield, gold you can spend, spells you can cast, and books you can — theoretically, at least — read. This isn’t even to mention all the people you’re meeting, many of whom have problems they need assistance with. A troll has been stealing cabbage and they need you to stop it. Bandits have set up shop in a nearby cave and they need you to go clean them out. The world is about to end and they need you to prevent that from happening. That all of these tasks wind up seeming equally pressing is either the central failure of Oblivion or its great and cunning secret.

Here, though, was the most obvious selling point: If you can see something in the world of Oblivion, chances are you can visit it. This includes, most enticingly, Oblivion‘s hundreds of private residences. If you wait until nighttime, you can pick the locks of these private residences’ front doors and sneak inside while their owners sleep. Remember that first time you stood at the base of a video-game bed and watched video-game people slumber unawares? Remember how strange and peepy that felt? Remember how you then crept around the house stealing all the bowls, spoons, paintbrushes, and bread you could carry? Remember then stumbling across an in-game fence willing to pay good coin for your stolen bowls, spoons, paintbrushes, and bread? Remember how you spent hours combing the realm for joints to case and plunder? Oh, but lord do you remember when you first realized you could pickpocket people, too? That you could lift their house keys? So now, rather than strike at nightfall, you wait for your hapless marks to attend to their afternoon errands; once they round the nearest corner, you’re free to burgle in glorious leisure. Remember that one time, though, when, instead of burgling, you followed one of your marks around town? Remember how he went into the local tavern, sat down, and had a drink? And you stood there, two feet from the dope, fascinated by his inability to comment on or even notice your creepy, malevolent lingering. Soon enough you popped over to his house for a looksy-doodle, nicked all his stuff, and returned to the pub. Dope was still there — drinking, talking to no one. Oblivion? Should call the game Oblivious. Remember how, moved by some obscure phantasm of conscience, you reverse-pickpocketed him and put all the stuff you nicked back into his pocket? Remember how you had to retreat to your one-hitter just to handle the spatial weirditity of that? And remember how, when the gentleman finally headed back home, you followed him, waited until he fell asleep, went back inside, and stole all his stuff back from him again? Friend, I was that space-time-bending Argonian mischief-maker.

There are other things — a lot of other things — you can do in Oblivion, but most of the roughly 200 hours I spent on the game I spent doing stuff like this. No apologies. For one of the first times in my gaming life, Oblivion offered what felt like a fully realized world populated by characters with alarmingly various social schedules.1 OK, maybe it was an often inert and nonsensical world, and maybe those characters were essentially robots with do-this and do-that timers on them; that didn’t make either any less fascinating. What The Legend of Zelda felt like when I was 12, Oblivion actually was. All of this is why, for a lot of console gamers my age, that moment in which Oblivion‘s open world first opened up has something like moon-landing significance. A massive interactive system, thoughtfully designed, that allowed for player experiences of nearly infinite variety: Here, finally, was a clear argument for what video games might actually be for.

Except for one thing. Despite how much gripping, odd, surprising, and otherwise enjoyable content the Elder Scrolls games contain, you cannot escape the repetitive and somewhat entropic nature of the core experience, which is dozens of hours of heading into caves/dungeons/forts to kill bandits/necromancers/skeletons to find a tome/rune/amulet, after which you beeline for the nearest merchant/alchemist/blacksmith to sell/trade/repair all the picked-up crap you’ve arranged and rearranged your inventory to accommodate. Is this enjoyable? Of course it is. But there’s a point at which this brand of enjoyableness becomes indistinguishable from compulsion, and it seems fair to ask when a game’s expansiveness becomes an affable form of indentured servitude.

I suppose that can’t really be held against the Elder Scrolls games any more than the addictiveness of crystal meth can be held against crystal meth dealers. The real problem with the Elder Scrolls games — the real artistic problem, I mean — is that when you’re not out there chopping and shopping, or dropping a Helmet of Alteration to make room for an Axe of Freezing, you’re stuck in some town, being buttonholed by a loquacious elf inexplicably determined to tell you all about a magic tree. The series’ designers have always mercifully allowed the player the option of spamming through the tedious pre-quest dialogue at the speed of thumb, but the problem with the Elder Scrolls games has now grown more significant than its narrative content’s optionality. The problem, it now seems clear, is that the way in which the Elder Scrolls games present their narrative content — the way, in other words, they try to communicate “drama” — has never worked and will never work.

The dialogue in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is without question the best written and most capably performed of any Elder Scrolls game. Another way of saying this: It remains terrible. Please know that, two hours into Skyrim, my astoundometer remained soaringly high. Whether you’re watching some lonely club-carrying giants herd woolly mammoths across the steppe or journeying up a snowy mountain to a hidden monastery or hiding in a watchtower from a poison-breathing dragon or doing something as desultory as catching butterflies, for god’s sake, the game is as visually compelling as it is experientially gratifying. Every time one of Skyrim‘s characters opened his or her mouth, however, I felt my irritation begin to nibble away at Skyrim‘s edges. Irritation in response to a game’s dialogue is especially problematical when said game contains hours upon hours of dialogue. How can it be that the part of the game that exerts so much effort to accomplish something succeeds in accomplishing nothing?

Topic sentence: Successful high-fantasy fiction is not an easy thing to write. I’ve been writing fiction for 20 years and couldn’t land a convincing line of high-fantasy dialogue if you locked me in a Welsh castle for six weeks. If Skyrim were a big fat fantasy novel, its dialogue would be perfectly serviceable. The problem is that Skyrim is not a big fat fantasy novel. As in all the Elder Scrolls games, the player-controlled character in Skyrim speaks silently, in on-screen text. Thus, in every encounter, you look over your dialogue options, pick the thing you want to say, and listen to the response. Skyrim‘s conversations frequently twist and turn to the result of becoming “dramatic,” and this is, without fail, a disastrous fate for these conversations to court.

It must also be said that creating a world as large and populated as Skyrim‘s has to be one of the hardest writing tasks imaginable. It is, however, only partially a writing task. So let’s imagine you’re one of the actors corralled to work on Skyrim. You’re given hundreds if not thousands of lines of dialogue larded with terms like “dragonborn,” “the Jarl of Windhelm,” and “the Ragged Flagon.” You’re standing alone in a sound booth in Burbank. You’ve got nothing to respond or react to. You’ve just got these … words, out of which you’re supposed to alchemize a dramatically compelling performance. By now I’ve spent hundreds of hours playing Elder Scrolls games and never been intrigued or compelled by a single character’s emotional predicament, despite these characters’ clear intention to intrigue and compel me. As Harrison Ford memorably said to George Lucas during the filming of Star Wars, “George, you can write this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it.” Patrick Stewart had a small but important part in Oblivion. That Stewart was unable to turn his serviceable, one-sided, fantasy-novel dialogue into anything worth listening to probably means that no one can. I’m saying this is a problem.

A lot of this, surely, has to do with how Skyrim‘s character-to-character encounters are staged. The game eschews traditional cinematics, which means that, during a typical encounter, you stand there and watch the other character undynamically cycle through his half dozen animations, which is about as involving as it sounds. 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?

I can hear you: Who cares? None of this has to do with what makes Skyrim so great. I agree. The question becomes why the thing that doesn’t make Skyrim so great is such a prominent part of Skyrim. Why, in fact, is it in Skyrim at all? I ask these questions as an admirer of Skyrim. Everything else in the game — from the beautiful simplicity of the user-interface system (at least when compared to previous Elder Scrolls games) to the crunchiness of the combat to the graphical fidelity of the environments — has improved upon previous Elder Scrolls games, so why hasn’t this? Are we not at the point where dramaturgical incompetence in a game as lavishly produced and skillfully designed as Skyrim is no longer charming?

Incompetence is a strong word, and I use it in a considered manner. That is, I use it in light of what happened to the RPG between the release of Oblivion and Skyrim, which was the appearance of From Software’s Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. Both games work Skyrim‘s high-fantasy register; both games feature enchanted weapons, spellcraft, scary monsters, and sought-after loot. But the capital-S Storytelling in Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls has been restrained to the point of apparent — and only apparent — nonexistence. The NPCs in the Souls games have 1 percent as many lines as the NPCs in Skyrim and speak in a faux-Shakespearean dudgeon higher and more stylized than the characters of Skyrim, and yet none of the stuff they say winds up feeling like overwrought bullshit. This is because the characters in the Souls games serve two purposes. The first is mechanical, as when they have something to sell or teach you. The second is atmospheric, as when they cryptically hint at things you might soon encounter. The NPCs of Demon’s and Dark Souls are never primary vessels for storytelling. The primary vessels for storytelling are the nonpareil environments and the player’s experience within those environments. We can be sure that From Software has a long and complicated bible that spells out its games’ (doubtlessly quite formidable) lore. We can be equally sure that character and location sheets were at some point drawn up and iterated upon and revised and consulted, but all this work is wisely withheld from the player. Why? Because no one cares. Not really, they don’t. And they don’t care because it’s not important. 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.

Maybe some of you love Skyrim‘s expository lore. I suppose this is possible. But I’m willing to wager that the sort of person who loves Skyrim‘s expository lore loves expository lore of all kinds — loves expository lore in principle. Asking an expository-lore-loving gamer whether there should be expository lore in a game like Skyrim is like asking an alcoholic if he’d like a drink. (He would.)

Of course, Skyrim would no longer be Skyrim if it were to strip itself down to the spectral narrative simplicity of Dark Souls. No one, least of all me, wants the game to lose its special character. That does not mean the next Elder Scrolls game would not benefit from a measure of radical distillation. It surely says something that even my most fervent Skyrim-loving friends cop to skipping through the expository narrative sequences. They laugh when they admit this, and it’s a nervous, uncomfortable laugh — a laugh that suggests they’re wondering why they do this. I’ll tell them: Because the stuff they’re skipping is so bad that it makes the rest of the game seem like a waste of time, which it’s not. When many of a game’s biggest fans are unable to endure large parts of that game, it may be time to reexamine the vitality of certain aspects of the experience. Just for starters, not every merchant in Skyrim needs a dialogue tree concerning his or her personal history. Not every Jarl needs to offer you the chance to learn about his town’s ostensibly fascinating history. 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.

I read the other day that Dungeons & Dragons has been making a comeback, and not just among ironists. If you don’t believe it, head down to your local comic-book store. Classes are being taught, workshops are being led, Dungeon Master’s Guides are being procured. In the middle of my Skyrim experience, I suddenly understood why. Those who love high fantasy probably just want the chance to imagine something again.

Tom Bissell is the author of Chasing the Sea, God Lives in St. Petersburg, The Father of All Things, and Extra Lives, which is now available in paperback.

Previously from Bissell:
Uncharted 3: Who Is That Man?
Believe It or Not, It’s Just Me: Batman: Arkham City
Catherine: The Sexiest Video Game Ever
Video Games Killed the Video-Game Star
The Art and Design of Gears of War
Beyond Angry Birds: The many pleasures of iPad games

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