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When Your Reading Assignment's a Video Game

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Tuesday, Dec 6, 2011
The world of Bethesda's Skyrim is filled with an almost intimidating amount of freedom for players. It's also a world where books are competing with the giddy thrill of dragon killing.

Be it writing online user guides for software programs or writing news articles, I’ve come to accept that the majority of what I write is disposable. An article for the newspaper will soon become the liner for someone’s bird cage. Another article will be quickly skimmed over and then forgotten as yet another article gets someone’s attention. It’s all part of the profession.


I could have worse jobs. As for others in the writing profession, I can’t think of a less enviable task than the writers for the 300-plus books that are scattered throughout the vast land known as Skyrim, the latest in the Elder Scrolls series. Last month, Bethesda’s massive, immersive role-playing game racked up more than $400 million in first week sales.
  
Like thousands of other players, I prepared for the release of Skyrim like most people would prepare for a record-breaking snowstorm. Days off work were requested. Coffee, alcohol, and food reserves were purchased. The apartment was cleaned to avoid any distractions. The process could also be compared to training for a marathon, but instead of running, you’re sitting on the couch for hours and mashing buttons.


Bethesda’s last Elder Scrolls game, Oblivion, demanded almost 200 hours of investment, and for many, that was on the conservative side. The main reason for such a time commitment is simply because the Elder Scrolls landscapes are just that big and the opportunities to do whatever you wish in them are that limitless. Join a faction of mages, help a down-on-his luck village resident retrieve a beloved family amulet, go on a rare flower-picking exodus, Bethesda notoriously develops each of the Elder Scrolls games so there is no “wrong” way to play.


The world of Skyrim is similar to the worlds of all other Elder Scrolls games. There are cities, different races, myths, and most importantly, a history. All of this is documented in the books that are spread out throughout Skyrim. And there comes the rub for players.


The most common place for these books to be found is obviously on a bookshelf in the inns, homes, and castles that exist throughout the game. But like the real world, books can also be scattered carelessly on a basement floor, be buried next to a pile of clothes or even at the bottom of a sack of groceries. People ignore books at their peril. Some books may unlock a critical mission, some may give the player a skill that will make their missions easier, and some will provide spells that allow players to cook their enemies to a crisp.


The only problem is that the game isn’t intuitive enough to know if the player actually reads the text in these books or just uses their control stick to thumb through the pages before their reward appears. In Oblivion, you at least had to thumb to the end of a book to earn a reward. With Skyrim, you get credit just by opening the book.


There is an obvious reason for this setup—most people do not want their video game experience to consist of reading a book. Reading a book on a TV screen is far more cumbersome than from your own hands, be it in hard copy or tablet form. In addition to the difficulty of reading it on a TV screen, the book has to compete with the general thrills of the game itself. You only have a set amount of time to play a game. Do you want to spend 15 minutes running through a forest and shocking enemies in your path or spend it reading up on dwarven history?


Hence my empathy for the writers of these books. It would be different if each book consisted only of generic text. But to establish the feel of an actual world, the books include plays, fables, and volume-spanning historical pieces. Yes, the player is tempted to thumb through these books as fast as possible, but the care invested in these texts is just as meticulous as the work that went into creating the mountainous landscapes.


Still, it’s not like players are forced to choose between satisfying their need to hack, slash, and burn their way through the game and learning about the history of the world that the Skyrim creators have worked tirelessly to create. A new app (of course) allows users download the books of Skyrim to their mobile tablet. As for the non-tablet holding segment of the population, it took more than five years for the developers to complete Skyrim. Chances are that players will have time to give these books of Skyrim a more in-depth read once the two-month long honeymoon period ends. For Elder Scrolls fans, it’s a worthy investment of time. For all the technical wizardry of that a PS3, Xbox 360, or new generation PC can supply, the real blood, tissue, and heart of the massive worlds that Bethesda creates still lies on the bookshelves.


 

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