|Skyrim: providing a limited -- yet intriguing -- chance for player creation of odd subplots.|
I know there's been a lot of talk here recently about both Skyrim and storytelling in games. And it's not my intention to beat a dead horse.
(Though I'm getting used to horse carnage. If you play Skyrim like I do, there is a lot of equine collateral damage. I treat my horse like it is a mountain goat and can hop from cliff to cliff with ease, which is not always the case.)
Thing is, Skyrim ranked ninth in Joystick Division's recent best-of list on game narratives of 2011. The reason cited for its inclusion on the list wasn't that its main quest was more inventive, compelling or fresh than other games, but that given the breadth of choice that the player is afforded concerning his or her adventures as Dovahkiin, there are myriad routes the story can take in any given play-through.
Since getting the game from a friend, I've been diving into it every chance I get. And, to be sure, I'm excited by the possibilities of Skyrim. But do my actions really interact with Bethesda's meticulously detailed world in such a way that actual, identifiable subplots are created?
Following are a couple subplots that have emerged through my thirty hours of gameplay thus far -- subplots that I've created as much as the game has. Sometimes these are created more by the programming and sometimes they're made more by my imagination based on subtle hints from the game. But they were both delightful little reminders of the continuing advancement of open-world games and also the human ability to cobble together a story out of even loosely connected elements. Here they are (mild spoilers ahead):
1.) The Old Flame
|Dovahkiin's faithful wife... or IS SHE|
Soon after his cinematic, harrowing escape from Helgen, my Dovahkiin (a god damned handsome Imperial with a permanent mega-mean-mug, let's just shorten "Dovahkiin" to "DK" for simplicity's sake) trudged down the hillside to the picturesque village of Riverwood. While DK rested there and pondered what his next move would be, he became embroiled in a love triangle between several of the locals.
Camilla Valerius, a Riverwood merchant's sister, had caught the eye of the pompous singer Sven and the bosmer archer Faendal. She seemed to favor them both equally. Sven and Faendal each tried to get DK to intervene on their behalf in various unscrupulous ways. They both seemed like douchebags to DK, and so our hero refused to help either suitor.
And, while he was in town, DK himself began to understand why Camilla was so sought-after. A few days later, in a move that could only be described as "baller," DK swooped in past Sven and Faendal and proposed to the young lady. Her voice trembling with joy, she accepted. They were wed in a run-down little temple of Mara in Riften soon after. She moved into DK's cozy home in Whiterun to start their life of wedded bliss. All was well.
Until one day, returning home after a day of adventuring, DK opened the front door of his house and saw his wife sitting in the living room -- and standing next to her was Faendal.
|"If I see you in my house again, I swear to God, I will Fus Ro Dah you all the way back to fucking VALENWOOD, okay, buddy?"|
A flood of questions rushed into DK's mind. Why was Faendal there? What were they doing? Had DK been cuckolded by some two-bit Riverwood bosmer? Of course both Faendal and Camilla acted like nothing was amiss. When DK spoke to them, eyes red with fury and voice primed with fire breath, they would just recite their same old lines. But DK knew what was going on, and from that day on his marriage was a cold, passionless ordeal. DK invested more and more of his time into killing bandits and enchanting maces, and he kept seeing Faendal around Whiterun, the elf's presence silently mocking the once-sacred bonds of DK's family life.
In time, DK became a powerful warrior. But not even his mighty Thu'um could save him from the invincible dragon that is jealousy.
(Apparently this is a glitch that can occur if you marry Camilla -- Faendal just shows up in your house. I found it suspicious.)
2.) The Abyss Also Gazes Into You
|In the Nord legal system, necromancy-related crimes are considered especially heinous. In Windhelm, the dedicated adventurers who investigate these mage attacks are members of an elite squad, known as the Necromancy Victims Unit. These are their stories.|
In Windhelm, a murderer is on the loose. Women are turning up dead, their corpses mutilated. DK, disgusted by these crimes, offers his help. And since you don't turn down an offer of help from a dude who can incinerate people by yelling, Dovahkiin is put on the case.
His first lead is the blood trail leading away from the crime scene and to an abandoned house. In addition to finding a secret room full of dismembered limbs, DK discovers that the place is full of clues, including two journals indicating that the murders were done
to make a coat out of female elf skin by some kind of wizard interested in necromancy. DK also finds a mysterious amulet.
But then the trail runs cold. Frigid, in fact. He asks around about the amulet, but all he can get are vague answers about court mages. When he approaches Windhelm's court mage, the guy just brushes him off. DK can't accuse the man, and he doesn't have nearly enough proof to just kill the guy! Just some cryptic journal and a spooky amulet!
(At this point in my play-through, I'm not sure whether I'm missing an objective or there's been some kind of bug. Either way, though, I have a strong suspicion about the killer and no one seems to want to talk to me about it.)
DK, consumed with bitterness about this turn of events, promptly ran into Rolff, a Nord bigot who had been stirring up hatred against the city's dark elves.
|"Okay... easy, Dovahkiin... count to ten... one... two... thrrreeee... fooooooouuUUUUCK IT! FUS RO DAH!"|
As an open-minded, liberal Imperial, DK hated prejudice, and Rolff was like a big, walking ball of it. Rolff challenged DK to a fistfight, and DK, still brimming with all those feelings of injustice and impotence after failing to stop the killer loose in Windhelm, proceeded to beat the shit out of him. As Rolff kneeled, panting and unable to fight back any longer, DK was overcome with rage and pulled a sword, prompting a swift reaction from the guardsmen nearby. He got in a few stabs before he was apprehended.
And so, at the end of the day, the Dragonborn was headed for prison while the psychopath he had tried to hunt down roamed free.
(I still don't know if the quest glitched out or if I simply missed a crucial objective somewhere, but the result is like the plotline from some sad TV cop drama airing on basic cable, which is pretty much the last thing I expected to see in Skyrim.)
Have you, in Skyrim or any other open-world game, created a new storyline like this, initially based on scripted events but made more nuanced and colorful (and maybe nonsensical) due to your actions as a player?
I guess this is a type of role-playing. It's an odd experience, it feels halfway between playing a linear video game and goofing around with action figures in your basement. I kind of like it.
Aaron Matteson writes an article weekly for Joystick Division. To see the inane scrapings off the inside of his head, you can follow him on Twitter: @AaronMatteson.