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?