Skyrim Storytelling

I’ve finally started playing Skyrim, but I wasn’t sure what to write about it. It’s not exactly an obscure game, and there have already been a slew of great reviews for it, so there’s not much point in adding my own at this stage (plus I’ve only just started playing). So far the game has been pretty much what I expected, and I’ll be playing it for a while, so there will be less time to squeeze in other interesting games to post about.

I considered writing about tweaking (and I still might), since I’ve been doing a lot of it and I think it’s an interesting aspect to certain games. But going into Skyrim right after To the Moon means my mind is still on narrative structures, and I’ve been noticing certain things in Skyrim’s approach to narrative that I wanted to write about first.

Skyrim, like its predecessors in the Elder Scrolls series, has a big focus on player freedom. The game provides a vast fantasy world for the player to roam, with several cities to visit, plenty of caves and ruins to explore and lots of treasure to find. The player can choose to become a criminal, stealing from townsfolk or even murdering them, or a hero who defends those in need. Or simply a wanderer, or even a woodcutter or miner or smith. This serves as a contrast to the linear story I lauded in To the Moon; Skyrim instead opts for player-driven narrative, an approach that is unique to games due to their interactive nature. Many famous games, including Civilization, Minecraft, and roguelike games, use this type of narrative (in fact, you can read one of my own player-created stories here, if you haven’t already). This type of storytelling often resonates with players more strongly than scripted stories do, because the end result is a personalized experience that accounts for the player’s choices and actions.

But Skyrim has traditional linear stories too. There is a lengthy main questline, analogous to the storyline in most other games, with the only difference being that it’s completely optional. Players are free to ignore it and do other things. And there are plenty of linear stories for these players to experience as well; several factions in the game have their own multi-stage questlines, and even the various one-off side quests available in Skyrim offer short, linear narratives (indeed, the one I’ve done so far led me to an old ruin with only one path through it — it provided a good story but didn’t offer much in the way of choices). Usually, however, these quests are separated by bits of unscripted exploration and discovery.

I haven’t had time to explore much yet, but I did have a memorable experience recently. I was traveling south on a mountain road as the sun was setting and the temperature dropping. I wasn’t close to any towns, so I was keeping an eye out for shelter where I could weather the night. Soon I spied a campfire, above the road, at the base of a tall cliff. Not sure whether the owners of the fire were friendly, I climbed towards it while trying to stay hidden, hoping to get close enough to see who was there. I could make out two figures in the fading light, but when they saw me they drew their weapons. One of the bandits charged me, but I was able to loose an arrow before he closed. Then I drew my hand axe and shield to engage him. He wasn’t very well equipped, with hardly any armor and a cheap iron sword, but I was careful not to let my guard down. We traded a few blows, most of them blocked or parried, although I managed to hit him a few times. Then there was a twang and he suddenly keeled over. His companion, who had stayed back, was trying to shoot me with her bow, but the arrow had struck my adversary instead, killing him. She was already drawing another arrow, so I charged, shield up. A few arrows hit my shield and one narrowly missed my head, but I closed the distance and with a few quick strikes she was down. For the first time I was able to look around the camp, finding it to be a meager affair with a single canvas sheet rigged up to break the wind and a few barrels and boxes with supplies. I searched the bodies but found little of value, although I did grab the woman’s arrows. Then I sat by the fire and looked through the supplies. The bandits had been roasting a skeever, but the rat-like animal didn’t look very appetizing. Instead, I cooked the rabbit I’d hunted that afternoon, seasoned with some salt from the bandits’ stash. I decided to keep their vegetables for later. It was quite dark by this time, and I debated spending the night at the camp, but I feared the bandits might have some more comrades and I didn’t want them to catch me while I slept. Putting the rest of the food in my pack, I moved on.

What struck me about this incident was that it wasn’t really a player-created story. Certain parts of it were — the fact that I arrived at dusk, the bandit being felled by his partner’s arrow — but encountering the camp was something the designers had intended. They knew players would take this road at some point, and they placed the camp in such a place that players were sure to stumble upon it and investigate. It wasn’t scripted, but it was signposted. And the camp itself — which told a tale of two bandits barely scraping by on skeever meat and cabbage, whose luck finally ran out for good when they tried to rob me — this was all built by the developers. I suspect that much of Skyrim’s world will have a similar design, full of little encounters waiting to happen. If my skirmish with the bandits is any indication, these should work quite well, straddling the line between an emergent, player-driven story and a more focused, hand-crafted one.

This doesn’t mean that Skyrim won’t have any truly player-created narratives. In fact, I’d be surprised if it doesn’t; I can already imagine tales of tracking deer across the rocky slopes or scaling a lofty summit just to look out across the land. But the fact that it mixes all these narrative approaches is part of what makes it so interesting. Skyrim doesn’t just let you do whatever you want, it lets you pick the kind of stories you want. You’ve got your selection of traditional quests, and an open world to write your own stories in, but there’s also these narrative nuggets like the bandit camp waiting to be unearthed, offering something in-between. Most games would stick to one of these styles, but Skyrim offers them all, to be mixed and matched as you please. How’s that for player freedom?

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10 Responses to Skyrim Storytelling

  1. jefequeso says:

    I’m kinda on the fence about whether I want Skyrim or not. I’ll probably be building myself a nice computer over the summer, so I’ll be able to run it… but I guess my inner hipster is loathe to join in the Skyrim frenzy :3

    • waltorious says:

      I’m enjoying it a lot so far. The new leveling system feels much more organic, so I’m not required to design my character and can just play, building the skills that I like as I use them. But I’m not very far into the game yet, so I’m sure I’ll find some stuff that bothers me later on.

      Of course, you can fix pretty much anything with mods. The Steam Workshop makes applying mods really easy, but not all the mods are on there so some might require a more “old-school” installation.

  2. geggis says:

    Hey Walter, nice piece! I haven’t played Skyrim or read an awful lot about it (call me weary!) but I’ve just got a few questions.

    “…the sun was setting and the temperature dropping. I wasn’t close to any towns, so I was keeping an eye out for shelter where I could weather the night … I cooked the rabbit I’d hunted that afternoon, seasoned with some salt from the bandits’ stash.”

    Does temperature, fatigue, hunger and thirst play a vital part in Skyrim? I’m playing Fallout 3 at the moment and I had to mod some of those things into it. I never liked that food and drink just increased my health. Now I have to eat, drink and sleep at intervals or else my character takes a variety of hits. Although these things may sound like a pain, traveling a long distance now has implications and you need to prepare.

    “I feared the bandits might have some more comrades and I didn’t want them to catch me while I slept.”

    Do you get interrupted during sleep? This doesn’t happen in Fallout 3 unless it’s a scripted event which is a bit annoying given the implied perils of the wastes.

    I’m enjoying Fallout 3, but the more I play it the more I start to realise it’s nowhere near as dynamic as it seems and I get the impression that Skyrim might rub me that way as well. Take for instance last night at Rivet City, lots of security guards were asking whether I’d seen this little girl that had gone missing and it just so happened (as part of her scripted sequence) she was running past them when they asked. I couldn’t talk to her because “she shouldn’t talk to strangers” despite me talking to her countless times before. I also couldn’t ‘bring her home’ until she got to where she was running off to. Bizarrely, the only way out of the city is over the gate bridge (the very thing that stops Raiders and Super Mutants getting in apparently), but the girl was able to escape nevertheless, she’s a genuis O_o. So I thought I’d ask the beggar outside Rivet City if he’d seen a girl run past, after all, he’d got nothing better to be doing than watching the road… but nope. What about the security guard who stands there all day? Nope. Then there are times like when I break into somebody’s room and they’re in there when I do so but they greet me as I if I’d done nothing wrong. At present I’m dressed in Abraham Lincoln’s top hat, some leopard skin pyjamas and I stink of beer (I’ve been drinking lots to carry around more stuff) and Fallout 3 tells me that’s very charismatic (+15 speech skill and +1 CHR at least!) Honestly, I look ridiculous. There are just all sorts of little quirks like this that jam me right out of the experience, which is a shame really. But, as I say, I’m still enjoying it so far.

    Speaking of emergent stories and taking into account your love of roguelikes, have you ever played Dwarf Fortress?

    • waltorious says:

      Skyrim does not model temperature and hunger, and only slightly considers fatigue (you get a bonus to how fast your skills increase if you are well rested), so I was just roleplaying those elements. But there are definitely mods that add these things, and mods are generally really easy to install using Steam Workshop. I haven’t tried such mods personally, although I might for future playthroughs, but I hear good things about them. There is a cooking system in the game, and I did actually roast that rabbit using salt I found in the bandits’ stash, but players are not required to eat by default. Instead food gives various useful effects, usually helping recover health and / or stamina. I prefer to roleplay and have my character eat semi-regular meals, but this is not required unless it’s modded in. I don’t think rest can be interrupted, actually, but I’ve only slept in relatively safe areas as I’ve been trying to rolepay that part too.

      The examples you give in Fallout 3 (which I actually still haven’t played) sound like things that could happen in Skyrim. There’s already a famous glitch where you can pick up a pot and drop it over someone’s head, and then steal all their stuff because they can’t see you. I understand how these things can break immersion, and I think some of them are due to poor writing (like the quest where the girl can mysteriously escape despite there being no way out, and the fact that the guards didn’t see her) and some are due to limitations of the AI programming. But I also think that these types of games work best when the player is willing to put in some effort and work with the game. I’m not required to seek shelter at night or to eat regular meals, but I do anyway because it helps me feel more immersed in the world. Skyrim can’t make me actually roleplay my character; I have to do that myself. And of course, there’s always a line to be drawn… it’s not exactly realistic that my character can carry so much loot around, for example, but that particular bit of realism isn’t actually something I want from the game. It comes back to letting players play the way they want. And those who really need strict imposed limits to keep themselves on track with things like staying warm and eating regularly can simply mod them in.

      I guess where I’m going with this is that weird behavior, like your character running around looking like a drunken maniac but no one caring, is a sort of necessary drawback to these kinds of games, but it’s something that I can look past easily if I keep the right attitude towards the game. Plus, it’s kind of awesome and hilarious that that stuff is possible, and it can be a lot of fun to just mess with the game sometimes.

      I did play some Dwarf Fortress a long time ago, but I haven’t played enough (or a recent enough version) to feel qualified to write about it at length. I have mentioned it briefly in a few posts though. It’s definitely a fascinating game.

      • Gregg B says:

        “But I also think that these types of games work best when the player is willing to put in some effort and work with the game … Skyrim can’t make me actually roleplay my character; I have to do that myself.”

        While games can’t make you roleplay, they should certainly inspire you to and sustain that inspiration. I’m not sure how ‘good’ I am at roleplaying but I find it much easier to forget I’m playing a game and be immersed in the world if I don’t have to repeatedly gloss over elements that snag me out of the experience. I’d argue that roleplaying properly is what’s causing half of these quirks to stick out so much. It was roleplaying somebody looking for a little girl that made me ask the two people (the guard and the beggar) watching the only exit out of the city. I get that the game’s huge and can’t cater to every gamer’s whim but every time these things crop up I get a peek behind the stage curtain and a little bit of the magic disappears no matter how hard I try to ignore them or work with the game.

        Actually, I just remembered, I wrote an article some time ago covering some of these aspects. Looking back it’s a bit wishy-washy and I think I lose my train of thought a bit but I think I was on to something: http://tap-repeatedly.com/2010/05/suspending-disbelief-and-roleplaying/

      • waltorious says:

        I may have been a bit unclear in my earlier comment. The example you gave from Fallout 3, about finding the girl, is a case of bad game writing and bad quest design, and is totally deserving of your criticism. Even something as simple as adding the option to ask the guards about the girl and having them tell you they haven’t seen her would have helped immensely. And one could argue that the problems with the quest are deeper than that and it should have been scrapped or redesigned from the ground up. When I talked about effort on the part of the player, I was thinking more of the general AI and realism problems you mentioned, like when your drunken character breaks into someone’s house dressed like a hair metal guitarist, but no one seems to be bothered by it in the slightest. That’s a much harder problem to fix through game design, because you need to program AI to be able to adaptively respond to player behavior that’s not necessarily communicated easily. What exactly should cause the AI to react negatively to you? Because you smelled like booze? Or of how you’re dressed? That would require tracking when the player had drunk alcohol, and what the player is wearing, and then programming in AI responses that indicate to the player that their costume or the booze they drank was the cause for a hostile reception — quite a lot of work, and prone to breaking down as more layers of complexity are added. Or maybe they should just be angry that you broke into their house? Fortunately I can report that in Skyrim most NPCs do get upset when I barge into their houses uninvited, so that at least is a plus.

        I find that when dealing with a necessarily limited AI, I can work past it by roleplaying. Sure, it’s doesn’t make sense that I can put a pot over a shopkeeper’s head and then rob their store, but it also doesn’t make sense for my character to attempt it. It’s silly; it’s something to have a laugh messing around with, but never something I would actually try when I was seriously playing the game. I often read criticisms from players about glitches like these, and how they “break” the game, but I simply don’t understand them. No one is making the player use this exploit. Do players really have so little self control that they can’t stop themselves from such obviously questionable tactics? I feel similarly about needing rest and food. Skyrim does not explicitly require it, but it’s easy enough to roleplay and have my character seek a safe bed and eat regular meals. I even take time to stop by the tavern for some drinks on a semi-regular basis, for no gameplay-related reason whatsoever. It’s a purely roleplaying decision. I don’t need, or want, Skyrim to forcibly encourage me to go get drunk in a pub, it’s something I want to motivate myself to do. All that is required is a little player effort. Now, as I write this, I realize I am essentially repeating my argument from my post about taking it easy, so you might want to take a look at that too if you haven’t already.

        I understand your argument about the limited actions available to the player breaking immersion, and I completely agree with the examples you give in the article you linked (like the GTA4 missions). But I think that these problems actually arise because games have more options, not less. These modern games provide so much more player freedom that when we find something we can’t do, it’s all the more glaring. Many people (including me) point to the original Deus Ex as the best game ever, but I’m wary to recommend it to people who haven’t played games, because I’m afraid they won’t see all the incredible freedoms it grants the player and will instead only see the limitations. When you haven’t played the games that came before (and since), you don’t realize how groundbreaking these freedoms were. A non-gamer would go into it expecting complete freedom, something that no game has been able to deliver — Deus Ex is better than other games but it isn’t as good as real life. I try to forgive the limits these games have and appreciate the freedoms they do offer, and that does require some of my own effort.

        This does not excuse immersion breaking like that you described in GTA4. To design an open-ended game and then stick such a limiting, linear mission in it is again a problem of bad writing. Skyrim has mostly handled this well so far, though. There are plenty of linear quests but they don’t seem linear at the expense of my player freedom; rather they are things like “go and get this item out of this conveniently linear dungeon”. But even the quests as simple as that are a huge step up in writing from the quests in Oblivion, and there are even some that can be handled multiple ways. For example, I recently tackled a quest about investigating several shady individuals and finding evidence against them. Since my character is pretty good at sneaking around, I snuck into a few places and pilfered or pickpocketed some incriminating letters and journal entries. Later I happened to see a walkthrough to this quest and was surprised to find that an alternate brute force method is not only possible, but plays out very differently: directly confronting the accused persons results in some elaborate scripted events including some fights and even a murder. By sneaking around instead I skipped all that and (unknowingly) saved someone’s life. Pretty cool. This quest immediately triggered another that I haven’t finished yet so I’m not sure what the final result will be, but it was still good to see that Skyrim has these kinds of branching quests too.

        Anyway, in summary I would recommend checking out Skyrim. There are plenty of realism mods that will add things like frostbite and starvation, and so far the quest writing has been pretty good. I also really like the character progression which doesn’t front-load a lot of decisions and simply lets you play and increase the skills you like as you go. It definitely still has some typical open-world game design problems, like AI that is a bit limited in responding to player actions, but I find I can forgive that. Hopefully you will too.

  3. Gregg B says:

    Hmm, WordPress has called me geggis again… I’m Gregg B, the dude you play Solium with! 😉

  4. geggis says:

    “What exactly should cause the AI to react negatively to you? Because you smelled like booze? Or of how you’re dressed?”

    Well I’d probably start with giving different types of clothing different ‘faction’ qualities, so being dressed as a Raider would almost certainly get you killed by most folk, being dressed as a Brotherhood of Steel guard would mean people wouldn’t bother you, being dressed as a typical wastelander will give you a neutral ‘friendlier’ apperance. Different factions will behave differently to different types of clothing (note that with this approach you could belong to another faction but your appearance would matter the most. You could infiltrate Raider camps or surprise Talon mercernaries if you were to dress as them). If you wore a crazy mixture of garments then naturally people would be suspicious of you (like my hot top-hat/pyjama combo).

    I remember in Morrowind if you walked into shops with… um, what were the names of them…? …I can’t remember, but they were basically drugs, shopkeepers wouldn’t serve you, so drinking lots of alcohol could very well have a similar effect: “You’re drunk, go away.” Anyway, they were just thoughts skimmed off the top of my head.

    “Do players really have so little self control that they can’t stop themselves from such obviously questionable tactics?”

    I’m totally with you here, I don’t like exploiting games if I can help it. Even fast travel seems like cheating when I’m hauling a buttload of loot to the shop. In the same breath however, I’m not a fan of doing things if they don’t really affect anything in-game, like sitting in a chair for example. I might do it for a quick look at my character or for a screenshot opportunity. I do occasionally shut doors behind me but I think that’s an old habit from Thief! I think you can go either way with it really; you can take a lot from the game (ie. exploit any quirks you come across), or put a lot in (roleplay around those quirks).

    Yeah I read your Taking It Easy article, it was an interesting read, not least because I’m a big fan of downtime in games, soaking in the world, or ‘taking it easy’. The books in the Elder Scrolls games are vital as far as I’m concerned, even if I did find the majority of them incredibly dull in Morrowind! There were a few that made me forget I was deep in the bowels of some dwarven mine though, those were the ones that kept me picking books up.

    I played Deus Ex back when it was released but for no good reason I couldn’t get on with it. I played it a few years later and it still didn’t gel with me. I gave it one more shot last year (before HR) with the intention of sticking with it but I stalled after 21 hours. I will say this though: I was very surprised at times by how well Deus Ex responded to my actions, it was very impressive when the dialogue recognised things I’d just done. Instead of being clumsily rigid it seemed surprisingly adaptive.

    Sheesh, these comments are getting long… 😛

    • waltorious says:

      Yeah, I feel like I’m writing whole new posts down here!

      You’re completely right that programming the AI to respond to things like character clothing or characters being drunk is possible, I was just arguing that it can be hard, and will often lead to weird bug-like situations where NPCs assume the player character is drunk when they are not, etc. Faction-specific clothing isn’t too tough, but NPCs responding to your top-hat/pyjama outfit? How exactly to code that in? When are outfits simply weird, and when do they become too weird? What happens when players think they’re just wearing distinctive outfits that they like, but then all the NPCs shun them and won’t let them into shops? That’s no fun. I’ve heard that producer Todd Howard’s mantra for the games they make at Bethesda is “we can do anything, but we can’t do everything”, which I think is a very sensible philosophy. This type of AI adaptivity is something they decided not to do, and I’m generally OK with that given all the other great stuff they did do with Skyrim (again, I haven’t played Fallout 3 so I can’t comment there). Also I would note that in Skyrim it doesn’t really make sense to have NPCs respond to character clothing anyway as there’s very little faction-specific clothing (it’s possible the Thieves’ Guild has some, I’m not sure) so it would merely be behavioral stuff like being drunk. Oh and by the way, you were thinking of skooma I believe… that’s the drug from Morrowind.

      I can totally see your point about not wanting to do things that don’t actually affect anything in-game. I don’t mind it myself, but I can understand that feeling, and that’s why people made mods to add things in like the need for food and sleep. I might even try some of those mods later as an extra challenge. And maybe there’s even an ambitious modder who’s trying to get NPCs to respond differently when the player character is drunk.

      Now about Deus Ex again: that adaptability you saw is exactly why I think it’s such a great game. But I worry that you and I only see it as adaptive because we are used to games not being adaptive. In most games there’s just one way through, and NPCs don’t comment on choices the player made earlier, so we’re pleasantly surprised when Deus Ex lets us really change how things turn out. But someone who’s never played games before wouldn’t be accustomed to such rigid experiences, and to them, Deus Ex might seem limiting. Sure, NPCs respond to choices you’ve made, and you can take various routes through the missions using different tactics, but why can’t you try to sweet-talk your way past enemies? Why can’t you steal an enemy’s uniform to disguise yourself? And so on. It all depends on what you’re comparing Deus Ex to.

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