On Christmas Eve, someone on my Google+ stream mentioned that Skyrim was on sale for 33% off. (For the next 3 hours or something). I was lost at that moment.
The rest of my family had already been playing it on their gaming computers. Lobilya and Thing2 had been playing it since launch. (And swapping stories about it at shared mealtimes, too.) Thing1 spent her savings on an XBox360 and the game. Given she plays her XBox on the TV in the same room where my gaming computer is, I could hardly not stop and watch her while flying cross-country on Randolph the Reindeer in Vanguard doing the latest Unicorn Rescue.
So I was primed. It took most of the evening to download, which was fine, because Christmas Eve was otherwise taken up with presents and food and general celebration. At your left you see the PC version of Toldain Darkwater, Skyrim Edition. Unfortunately my fabulous red hair is covered by that hood. It’s cold, you see…
The game is achingly beautiful. For example, the lighting effects. That shot was taken at the top of the mountain on a cloudy, stormy day. The light is very white, and very dim. It’s different at other times and places. The walk up the 7000 steps made me very nostalgic for the backpacking trips I took as a teenager.
One of my favorite novels by Roger Zelazny is Roadmarks. It describes a road that is a time travel mechanism, traveling along it moves one through time and space and there are exits at many interesting places in history. Chapters are labelled either One or Two. Here’s what Roger said about it:
“I did not decide until I was well into the book that since there was really two time-situations being dealt with (on-Road and off-Road—with off-Road being anywhen in history), I needed only two chapter headings, One and Two, to let the reader know where we are. And since the Twos were non-linear, anyway, I clipped each Two chapter into a discrete packet, stacked them and then shuffled them before reinserting them between the Ones. It shouldn’t have made any difference, though I wouldn’t have had the guts to try doing that without my experience with my other experimental books and the faith it had given me in the feelings I’d developed toward narrative.”
Bethesda is no newcomer to making Fantasy RPG games, and the world of their games has been developed over several titles. Skyrim’s full name is Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim after all.
Skyrim reminds me of Roadmarks for two reasons: First, it’s full of non-linear storytelling. There is a Main Plot, much like chapters labeled One in Roadmarks. But that is such a small, small part of what makes the game interesting and engaging. It’s not so much that there are a lot of side quests to choose from as there are entire lifestyles to choose between. You can develop and express your character by joining the Empire or the Rebels (they are called Stormcloaks). You can marry someone and set up a household (or many!)[EDIT: You can have many houses, not many spouses. You only get one of the latter, but it can be of whatever gender you wish.] You can aspire to political power, stay in an ivory tower or be a hermit, it would seem. You can aspire to be a master smith or enchanter. You can try to collect all the books in the game. There’s no reward for it particularly save for the satisfaction.
The other similarity with Roadmarks? Dragons. In the case of Skyrim, lots of them. I’m hoping to write another post about the battle I had with a Dragon this morning.
But this post is about the sandboxiness of Skyrim. After the initial stuff, which is pretty linear, I went over to a den of bandits to clear it out on behalf of the Jarl of Whiterun. When I finished it, I looked up at the mountain it was on and thought, “Hey, that sort of looks like a path up that mountain, I wonder if I can go up it.” I could.
I climbed to the absolute top of that mountain. On the way up, I ran across a Vigilant of Stendarr (The God of Mercy). He invited me to visit their lodge on the other side of the mountain. When I got near the top of the mountain, there was a little shrine there, with fires burning and offerings made. I’m not sure to whom. The peak was nearby. I climbed to the top of the rocky outcrop, just because it was there. Just below the outcrop was none other than Talsgar the Wanderer, a bard who likes to get out of the inn and have adventures, dammit! He had apparently just bested two bandits. On that mountaintop.
Continuing down the other side I found a temple to Mehrunes Dagon, which was locked. And well it should be, since, as I found out later (through reading in-game books!) that Dagon was at the center of the Oblivion Crisis (Elder Scrolls IV, I think), and must needs be safely locked away. I kept walking.
I visited the lodge of the Vigilants of Stendarr (The God of Mercy). Their slogan is “May Stendarr have Mercy on you, because the Vigil will not!” Yes, they’re crazy. But they were nice enough to me.
I kept walking. I fought a few creatures and ended up on the northern coast in Dawnstar. The Jarl there was Skald the Elder, but he acts like a child, and everyone says so. When they aren’t talking about the nightmares they are having. There was a priest of Mara there, and Toldain is a follower of the Goddess of Compassion, regardless of her name, so I helped him. We set things right at the Nightcaller Temple, but he had a habit of saying, “Oh, did I forget to mention…?” In the end, the nightmares were ended.
There are so many more adventures. Those all were Two. Eventually I got back to One.
When the Nintendo64 came out, it brought 3D graphics into everyone’s living room. Miyamoto Shigeru, in making Mario64 demonstrated that 3D meant a lot more than something looking nice. That game had a lot of non-linearity in it, along with a dose of “whatever works, works.” There were known solutions, but not prescribed ones.
Skyrim adheres to this and makes it so much bigger. Combat isn’t about memorizing a sequence of button pushes to get you through a game level. But it does have a fair bit of “fast-twitch” to it, more so than DDO. It’s definitely heir to FPS games. Aiming matters, unless you aren’t an aimer but a summoner or a basher. Then it doesn’t matter. Much.
I’m nowhere near an expert on this kind of game, I’ve focused mainly on MMO’s and economic sims. But it seems that the accomplishment of Bethesda on this game can be summed up in three maxims:
1. If you can see it, you can go there.
2. When you go there, there will be something to do.
3. If you can do it, it will work.
Most of my very considerable RPG experience has been with other people. My only wish is that I could do this, or something like this, with other people.
(UPDATE: “Morrowind” corrected to “Oblivion” Crisis in reference to Mehrunes Dagon, a very Lovecraftian name, by the way).