I’m old enough to remember when video games were comparatively simple things. For example, I remember the side-scrolling video game adaptation of Robocop (1988). Relatively short, Robocop had you shooting and jumping your way from one side of the world to another. Once you got to the end of one world, you moved to another, and then another… and then the worlds started repeating themselves in slightly different colours. These games were simple to understand: you immediately knew what you were expected to do and what constituted victory. Nearly twenty-five years on, video game technology has advanced to the point where games are beginning to acquire the complex ambiguity of the real world — and with this complexity comes difficulty.
Simple games are satisfying because they tell simple stories. Complex games, on the other hand, can often be profoundly unsatisfying, as they also attempt to tell simple stories. An excellent example of the failure to develop complex narrative techniques to fit complex games is the narrative wasteland that is Bethesda Studios’ The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011). Far more than a poorly written game, Skyrim is a damning indictment of video game story telling, in so far as it completely fails to imbue the events of the world with any kind of emotional significance. Skyrim is a deep and complex game, yet the experience of playing it is very much akin to spending a week on lithium.
But then, maybe the game is just being honest with us?
- Emotional Reductionism
To understand the world is, on some level, to explain it — and to explain the world is to talk about what is happening on one level in terms of a second, more basic level. Thus we talk about human behaviour in terms of biology, of biology in terms of chemistry, of chemistry in terms of physics and physics in terms of mathematics. Sooner or later, everything boils down to mathematics.
This reductionist creed stands at the heart of the scientific method and the Enlightenment project as a whole. The challenge of reductionism lies in taking all aspects of a particular level of explanation and accounting for them in terms of a more basic level. Thus, a successful account of human behaviour would take every aspect of our daily lives and explain them in purely biological terms. This is why prediction is so important to the scientific method: if one cannot predict what will happen on one level based upon our understanding of the more basic level, then one has not accounted for everything on that first level, and the reduction has failed.
One can look upon the history of human culture as a series of attempts at accounting for human psychology in more basic terms. Indeed, when writers tell stories and create characters they do so with a basic understanding of the causes and effects underpinning human behaviour. Bad characterisation is what results when the author’s psychological model fails to map onto ours. Many introductory courses in the humanities account for human culture in terms of our capacity to generate more and more sophisticated models of human psychology. Thus Homer’s Greeks are less ‘realistic’ than Dante’s saints, and Dante’s saints are less ‘realistic’ than Flaubert’s disaffected middle-class women.
One of the most interesting ways of looking at contemporary culture is to assess which kinds of models creators used to inform their writing. Consider, for example, the Freudian assumptions that go into TV series such as The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, or the existential vision of human nature that informs the writings of Sartre and Camus. While most creators are swift to claim that their approach embodies greater ‘realism’ than that of their contemporaries, it is clear that all of these works are simply a reproduction of reality rendered in terms of a pre-existing theoretical understanding of human nature. Depending upon which theoretical understanding of humanity they tend to hold, creators focus on different aspects of the human experience, which is why you seldom get existential romantic comedies but frequently get Freudian takes on family relations.
Being a video game, Skyrim’s vision of human nature must ultimately reduce down to a series of binary instructions to circuitry. However, while this is true of all video games, Skyrim’s vision of human nature comes across as particularly mechanistic and reductionist. Indeed, despite being modelled on the epic fantasy stories of the Tolkienian tradition, Skyrim presents the life of its characters as nothing more than a series of interlocking to-do lists: Go here, go there, kill him, kill her, save the world, collect butterflies. Aside from reducing the complexities of life to a series of to-do lists, the game also refuses to impose any kind of hierarchy on the relative importance of difference missions; as a result, saving the world appears no more or less important than ruining the local bard’s love life.
On one level, this psychological relativism is a serious flaw in the game, as it sets up what Clint Hocking calls a case of ludonarrative dissonance — in that the game is supposedly about the urgent need to save the world, but saving the world is really just another way of making ends meet. Like so many RPGs, Skyrim is nothing more than an extended pursuit of easily quantifiable improvements. On another level, this psychological relativism results in a game world that is utterly drained of meaning and emotion:
Q: Why did I complete that mission?
A: Because it allowed me to level up.
Q: Why did I put my character in danger?
A: Because I thought that that heavily guarded fortress might contain some decent loot.
Q: Why do I care if I level up or get my hands of decent loot?
A: Because it makes my character more powerful.
Q: Why do I want my character to become more powerful?
A: Because I want to take on tougher missions and so level up and gain more loot.
While all video games ultimately reduce down to mechanical feedback loops and branching decision trees, most game designers soften the impact of their mechanical reductionism by hiding it behind a series of dramatic conceits that place the events of the game within a particular context which, though meaningless in mechanical terms, will provide the players with a context through which to understand their in-game actions, a context that will allow them to connect on an emotional level with the plots and characters of the game.
- Applying Meaning to Mechanics
Consider the classic arcade game Breakout (1976). Based on Pong (1972), Breakout featured a paddle that moved horizontally back and forth across the bottom of the screen in order to intercept a ‘ball’ that would rebound back up the screen and destroy one of a series of blocks. The aim of the game was to keep batting the ball back towards the blocks until they were all destroyed and you moved on to the next level. Looking back at Breakout, one of the most extraordinary things about it is the absolute failure to situate the game in any kind of narrative context. Breakout is not about escaping or about saving someone or about exploring the intricacies of the human condition. It is a game about destroying blocks.
Space Invaders (1978) differs from Breakout in so far as its title is an attempt to provide a context for the events of the game. On a purely visual and mechanical level, Space Invaders is not that different to Breakout, but because its title forms a link to the films and literature of science fiction, the game suddenly acquires a narrative context. It tells a story and invites us to invest our emotions in the pixels that comprise the game.
This attempt to forge an emotional connection between the player and the game reached maturity in the 1980s when games such as Super Mario Bros (1985) included primitive cut-scenes that situated the events of the game within a broad romantic quest narrative in which a pair of plumbers battled evil minions in order to save a beautiful princess.
As time has passed, game designers have become more and more proficient at placing their games within particular cultural and narrative contexts. These contexts not only allow players a good deal of freedom and agency, they also provide them with a basis for imbuing in-game actions with a certain degree of emotional significance. This process of imparting meaning to in-game events draws on two different but ultimately overlapping classes of technique:
The first class of technique is the one pioneered by Space Invaders, namely that of forging a connection between the events that take place within the game and a wider set of cultural narratives. Humans seldom accept things purely at face value; instead they approach every new situation with a set of expectations drawn on previous experience. When people began feeding money into Space Invaders, they experienced the game not just in terms of that game’s content but also in terms of a literary and cinematic tradition that stretched back at least as far as the 19th Century. When people reacted to the in-game events that made up Space Invaders, they were not merely reacting to Space Invaders but also to films such as Star Wars (1977), Forbidden Planet (1956) and the novels of Robert A. Heinlein and H.G. Wells. By naming their game Space Invaders, Taito and Midway were not just inspiring themselves from popular culture, they were also tapping into a set of conditioned responses resulting from decades of reading and watching: conditioned responses that invited people to connect on an emotional level to what they were seeing on screen.
This technique is still visible today in the tendency of games to borrow characters, settings and plotlines from other cultural artefacts. For example, when we react to the events depicted in L.A. Noire (2011) and Red Dead Redemption (2010), we are not just reacting to the events depicted in the game but also to the events depicted in the novels of James Ellroy and the films of Sergio Leone. When seen in this light, the derivative nature of game characters and plots are not so much a failure of the imagination as they are a deliberate attempt to tap into a set of emotional responses to the work of other writers and directors.
This technique is also evident in the tendency to draw on real world and historical fears to provide a narrative framework for such military shooters as those of the Battlefield and Call of Duty franchises. The reason why both Battlefield: Bad Company 2 (2010) and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009) present us with plots revolving around Russian invasions and WMDs is that these were sources of popular anxiety for American audiences; when people engage emotionally with those games they are engaging not just with their content but also with the legions of newspaper articles, blog posts, rolling news reports, novels and non-fiction books that have been written about WMDs and an increasingly belligerent and autocratic Russian state.
The second class of technique is far more conventional, in that it involves using traditional literary devices such as character, plot and dialogue to invest the events of the game with an emotional charge. While elements of this technique are evident in the decision to populate games with recognisable characters such as Mario or Sonic, the technique only really reached maturity when games acquired the capacity to mimic the cinematic narrative form and its visualised depiction of characters engaging with each other in a fictional world. The fact that game designers and writers are still struggling with this approach to narrative is evident in the fact that there are far more memorable video game characters than there are memorable video game stories. Indeed, for every death of Aerith in Final Fantasy VII (1997) there are dozens of Revolver Ocelots, GLaDOSs, Gordon Freemans and Lara Crofts. In fact, now that I come to mention it, the death of Aerith is only a ten-minute segment of a largely forgettable narrative that spans many dozens of hours.
A better example of this approach to investing in-game events with meaning is that used by the creators of Dragon Age: Origins (2009), who augmented a highly generic fantasy plot with a wealth of memorable characters who bounced off each other so effectively that one could not help but forge an emotional bond with them. I have played hundreds of video games in my life, but few moments compare to the way I felt when I decided to cheat on Zevran and impregnate Morrigan lest she leave the group prior to the game’s climactic battle. At the end of the day, my decision to betray one character in order to maintain my group’s combat efficiency was nothing but a question of mathematics — but because the writers and actors involved in Dragon Age: Origins had done such a brilliant job of making me believe in their characters, my betrayal felt like something far more unpleasant than a rational tactical choice. In fact, thinking about the decision in terms of combat effectiveness (and what that says about my character’s vision of his companions) is precisely what makes that decision so emotionally uncomfortable.
- The Sisyphean Horrors of Skyrim
Skyrim’s failure to create an emotional context for its narrative derives partly from mishandled applications of the above techniques and partly from a deliberate refusal to employ any techniques at all.
Firstly, Skyrim’s main narrative is crippled by the chicken-and-egg problem of tension and distraction. By presenting all missions as equally important, the game encourages us to spread both our emotional energies across dozens of branching narratives. In effect, this means that the main narrative is frequently interrupted for hours at a time while the players goes off and explore becoming a werewolf. Because the main narrative is presented as only one of dozens of possible tasks in your to-do list, it never has the chance to acquire the levels of dramatic tension required to sustain our interest. I say this is a chicken-and-egg problem as the game’s mission relativism is due in no small part to the fact that all of the missions are equally derivative in their nature and equally sloppy in their implementation. Presented with a generic world populated by generic characters engaged in generic activities, it is difficult to care about anything you do in Skyrim. The game’s narrative structure simply ensures that the merely difficult becomes the downright impossible. This is why people like Eric Lockaby have attempted to imbue the world of Skyrim with their own values that might provide some kind of context for their in-game actions.
Secondly, setting aside the structural problems of the game’s narrative, Skyrim’s principle narrative seems almost perfectly optimised to imbue the player with feelings of dyspeptic apathy. Oblivion (2006), the previous game in the Elder Scrolls series, complicated the traditional hero’s journey narrative by having you play not the hero but the hero’s sidekick who did all the leg work prior to the real hero stepping up and killing the bad guy. Skyrim places a similar spin on the traditional narrative by suggesting that you are only one in a long line of heroes obliged to deal with the return of dragons to the world that has served as setting for all of the Elder Scrolls games thus far. Skyrim ends with the player character visiting the afterlife in order to convince a pair of dead heroes to return and face the draconic menace that they each vanquished alone.
The cyclical nature of the draconic threat is a peculiar choice as it suggests that the role of the player is not so much to solve a problem as it is to minimise the damage caused by a recurring problem that is ultimately insoluble and destined to recur. In other words, Skyrim is the story of an innocent bystander who is forced to assume a nightmarish burden. Like Sisyphus, doomed by the gods to roll a boulder up a hill for all eternity, the game ends with the character knowing full well that he or she is doomed to spend eternity fighting the same bloody dragons over and over again. Killing bandits and collecting butterflies may not be particularly heroic or ‘epic’ but at least they have a purpose and a meaning. Skyrim’s main narrative is not so much a hero’s journey as it is a hideous mise en abyme, a portrait of bottomless futility rendered in levitating mammoths and man-eating hillsides.
Thirdly, even if we move beyond the problems posed by both Skyrim’s narrative structure and its primary plotline, we are still faced with the problem of the faceless narrator.
Much like the Metal Gear Solid, Fallout and Dragon Age series, the Elder Scrolls series is a hybrid that combines elements of the traditional computer roleplaying game with elements borrowed from both the first person shooter and the third-person sandbox game. Thus, the game takes place in the same fantastical landscape as the Baldur’s Gate and Final Fantasy series, while the gameplay is inspired by the sandbox exploration elements of the Grand Theft Auto series and the RPG/FPS hybridisation of the Deus Ex games. With so many RPGs out there, it is hardly surprising that Bethesda have tried to forge their own path by presenting their audience with a game that is mechanically quite different to those of Bethesda’s competitors. The problem is that, while the mechanics of Skyrim are the product of sustained experiment and innovation, their approach to narrative has failed to keep in step with their mechanical changes: hence the decision to build a story-focused RPG around a nameless and faceless protagonist who never reacts to anything.
The mute protagonist is hardly new to video games. Developed to suit the demands of the action genre, where the need for subjective immediacy caused designers to adopt the first-person perspective that would later form the basis of the FPS form, the mute protagonist becomes hugely problematic once games cease to be about the immediate experience of danger and become more focused upon a broader interaction with world and story.
Faced with the problem of imbuing emotional meaning to a sprawling sandbox narrative, the designers of Dragon Age: Origins opted for extended cut-scenes that provide top-down emotional context for the player’s actions. Despite being largely top-down, Dragon Age’s narrative structure afforded the player a good deal of agency in how they related to the world. Not only could the player react to the world as they saw fit, their decisions also impacted upon how characters reacted to them — and so a degree of meaning and emotional resonance was infused into what was ultimately nothing more than a series of decision trees. On a very basic level, this approach to narrative works because we see our character emoting on the screen and we take our cues from them. The same is true of games such as Grand Theft Auto IV (2008), where Niko Bellic would provide an emotional context for his actions either through cut-scenes or in-game voice-over. By refusing to give Skyrim’s character a voice and by refusing to provide a substantial top-down emotional context for his actions, the designers of Skyrim ensured that their protagonist had no emotional reaction to the world whatsoever. With no cues provided as to how they might be supposed to interpret their actions and make decisions, players float aimlessly through the world with a head full of numbers and an absolute lack of interest in the human consequences of their actions.
All games are ultimately about branching decision trees; it is just that some games are better at hiding this than others. By adopting a structure, a narrative and an approach to in-game narration that fail to provide an emotional context for the game’s content, Bethesda have produced a game whose mathematical reductionism is all too apparent. The only reason for doing anything in Skyrim is because it might improve your Damage Per Second by a couple of points. This is not so much an epic tale of heroism as it is a Randian nightmare in pre-rendered pixelated flesh; a journey through a hermeneutic and existential desert, Skyrim is the saddest and loneliest game that I have ever played.
- Chuckling at the Chasm, Babbling at the Abyss
While it should be clear that I did not enjoy Skyrim, I think many of its problems are due to the fact that much of our thinking about narrative is derived from a history and literature built up in order to make sense of comparatively short and controlled narrative journeys. Skyrim is not a novel, or a film, or a TV show; it is a small world, and if we, as a species, struggle with our place in the universe, is it any surprise that we should recreate this sense of existential detachment when we create our own digital worlds?
In many ways, the challenge posed by Skyrim’s narrative failures is the same as the one posed by the collapse of traditional cultural narratives. With God’s corpse stinking up the place and the owner’s manual for life accidentally thrown out with the VCR instructions, we live lives stripped of all inherent meaning. The emotional context of our lives derives not from meta-narratives embedded in the nature of the universe but from our capacity to latch onto the mundane details of our lives and imbue them with an emotional resonance that recreates the sense of meaning and place that our ancestors once took for granted. We enjoy telling stories and so our lives become about the quest to become a published author. We enjoy the experience of eating and so our lives become about gourmet cuisine or replicating the horrors of Man v. Food. We love our families and so our lives become all about protecting and providing for them. Life is a many varied thing and our capacity to impose meaning on our lives is nothing short of heroic. At the very heart of humanity’s spiritual being lies the capacity to render the world meaningful through the power of thought. Our ancestors used this power to embed themselves in a world of heavenly spheres and great concentric circles moved by divine love and coloured by eternal grace. We seek meaning in many faiths, creeds and identities that colour the world with narrative and warm it with context. Even those of us who struggle to find a creed worth adopting can replicate some of that feeling of meaningfulness by escaping into worlds of fiction and adventure. Of course, this raises a larger question about Skyrim.
If the purpose of escapist media is to replicate the sensation of existing in a world where our actions might have both a meaning and a purpose, why would the creators of Skyrim choose to produce a game world that is just as meaningless and futile as the real world?
While the narrative techniques at game designers’ disposals are primitive and ill-equipped for the task of imbuing entire worlds with meaning, they do at least replicate some of the techniques used by people to lend their real lives meaning. When a game designer slaps a morality system on an RPG, he is not just providing an avenue of fun or a set of mechanics to engage with, he is also providing players with the basis for decision-making. When a game designer bothers to hire decent voice actors and scriptwriters, he is not just providing players with a source of entertainment; he is also providing them with the same experience of human contact and interaction that lend meaning to our own lives.
Of course, the scientific reductionist in me wants to point out that all of these mechanics are artificial and unrealistic… but what is living a meaningful life if not a grand exercise in self-delusion? Our beliefs are carefully designed and controlled psychoses that we step into voluntarily, because the real world is just a little bit too cold, barren and dull. By choosing to not avail themselves of the techniques traditionally used to provide context for in-game actions, Bethesda have not just created a lousy game, they have fundamentally misunderstood both the purpose of video games and the nature of human existence. Frankly, ‘Fail’ doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Jonathan McCalmont is a freelance critic living in the UK. His work has appeared in such places as Strange Horizons, The Escapist, Salon Futura, Gestalt Mash, The New York Review of Science Fiction and Vector. He also maintains a blog named Ruthless Culture where he writes about films, literature and the fundamental hostility of the universe.