Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Skyrim Interlude


Like pretty much all Bethesda games, I was late to the party for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Not that I didn't want to play the game when it was brand new, but because I knew that Bethesda is consistent about putting out “game of the year” editions with their expansions bundled in, and at a considerably cheaper price.

So anyway, Skyrim. It's got pretty mountains. Killing dragons has a nice feeling of accomplishment to it. Jeremy Soule's soundtrack is amazing. It's an entire province populated by Not-Vikings. Combat isn't quite as janky as in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. These are all good things.

Like Oblivion before it, the story is fairly bog standard and...not really engaging. Oblivion had the hilarious but kind of odd trait of casting you as the highly competent sidekick of the actual hero and sent around the kingdom to help him get ready to save the world. Here, you turn out to be a pretty big deal, a dragonborn capable of learning magical shouts when you kill dragons by absorbing their souls. And yes, the first shout you learn is how to yell so hard it knocks people over.

But the plot itself of Skyrim is standard fare. There's a civil war between two factions and you get to throw in with one of them. Worse, ancient dragons, not seen for centuries, begin flying around and tearing shit up. You see this firsthand at the beginning of the game as a prisoner caught up in this civil war on your way to execution in a fortified town when BOOM! DRAGON. You escape in the confusion and the town gets destroyed and from there the world opens up for you to explore as you wish. Ancient evil, need to find a way to stop it, need to level up by finding people to give you quests. Not my first rodeo, but one I still enjoy paying the price of admission for.

The main quest might not be amazing overall, but this and the hundreds of side quests propel you into what the series is amazingly good at: exploration. It gives you a big map with undiscovered locations and begs the question “What's over that hill?” “What's in that ruin?” Sometimes it's bandits. Sometimes it's an impressive view. Sometimes its just a mudcrab. But then there's the next hill, and what looks like a fort over to the left, and a dirt road running through a dense forest to the right.... That right there is where the “actual” story of an Elder Scrolls game is: the emergent personal story of you the player deciding to go explore something.

Case in point, this weekend I finally had my first real “whoa” moment. Playing for maybe an hour, I end up wandering back to the town from the prologue just to see what's there. Not much, it turns out. Some bandits, a few chests to open with some minor loot, and the burned out ruins of a small town. Following dirt road outside the town, I get attacked by a wolf. At level 9, a lone wolf is no problem and swiftly dispatched. Around the bend is a smear of blood and what's left of a campsite. There are two corpses labeled “refugee.” The location does not show up on the map as something discovered.

I think “man that sucks,” and proceed to loot their corpses. As sociopathic as it sounds, that's just one of the things that you do in these types of games. Its not like you've got the option to give them a proper burial. Beyond their pittance of gold there's nothing else of interest and I move on down the trail. A quartet of bandits is easily dispatched, then a small hill campsite with two bandits that got hostile as I approached.

On guard, I keep on truckin' and see a canine shape ahead that doesn't run away like a fox. “Probably another wolf” I think and get my axe ready. It does not run. It does not attack, either. I get close and its a stray dog.

Huh. I've been attacked by dogs in the game before, so I'm still on guard, but if he doesn't attack, then I've got no beef.

He doesn't attack. The game gives me the option to “talk” to him. I do, and all that happens is that he sits down and whines a little then wags his tail. I thank the game for a random encounter that doesn't want to kill me, and proceed into a nearby cave with my AI companion because CURIOSITY!

Inside the cave is an ice cavern with a bunch of skeletons (human and mammoth), an ice bridge, and a saber toothed cat.

Before you can say “Fighty Time!” I hear a bark and see a dog run at the cat along with my companion.

“Wait, is that the stray dog from... Shit, better kill that monster.”

The cat goes down and I look at the dog. Yep. Stray Dog. He sits down and wags his tail.

“Well damn. Thanks little buddy. Guess you're following me around. That's cool.”

And then I remembered the campsite, the wolf, and the dead refugees. Putting the pieces together into an entirely assumed conclusion, I decided that this poor mutt was the last survivor of that wolf attack.

At which point I made myself a promise that I'd get this dog to a settlement. Maybe a town. Maybe a farm. Maybe let him follow me around some more.

I exit through the other side of the cave with two companions in tow and see some ruins and one of the shrines that unlocks Dragonborn shouts. “Cool. New stuff!”

Then the music ramps up and a dragon soars overhead. I pause the game and weigh my options, and then I exited out. Not because I was worried I couldn't take it down, but because I was certain that dog was going to turn into literal toast. Plus, I had other stuff I had to do.

Right then and there was where I got onboard with Skyrim. It had just given me a Moment. No dialogue, not even text or any kind of exposition whatsoever, just context cues pulled from possibly unconnected incidents. The campfire ruin was coded for that spot, obviously, and apparently stray dogs appear at various places on the map to be rescued from immediate peril, yet I had no confirmation that these two were related. I made that connection in my head, and I'm not even much of a pet person.

This isn't a review or anything even close to that, nor is it weighing in on the “games are totally art, man” argument. It's just highlighting a brief yet oddly profound storytelling moment in a game that I been enjoying from a more...I guess “academic perspective” is the right phrase. Ironically for a game that prides itself on an epic story and scale, the best moment so far has been the exact opposite on the scale of intimacy.

So yeah. Skyrim's pretty neat. The main storyline is kind of blah, but that's not why I come to Elder Scrolls games. It's for the moments of exploration/discovery, the emergent narrative that the player is encouraged to build up around their blank slate of a character, and for the weird exploits possible that let you break the game. (For instance, by the time I finished Oblivion, I was a sword and board warrior with boots that let me run on water, an amulet that let me breathe underwater, and a unique unbreakable lockpick that essentially meant that I could go pretty much anywhere and take anything.)

Combat's still pretty janky though.

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