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The Logic and Illogic of 'Skyrim'

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Thursday, Dec 8, 2011
Skyrim's logic lays the foundation for an enveloping, albeit precarious, form of world building.

While strolling along the vast expanse of wilderness between Skyrim’s major settlements, I chanced upon two mages dueling each other to the death. One was a fire mage, the other a frost mage. After killing them both (they were hostile, I promise), I took a moment to marvel at the consistency of it all. Here, in the middle of nowhere, I encountered something that I might have easily missed: a continuation, perhaps, of an eternal feud between fire and ice. While this duel might otherwise appear as a scripted event for my benefit, the fire/ice battle in a frozen landscape instead enriches the world of Skyrim. While the picturesque landscape and Nordic atmosphere constructs the environment, logic lays the foundation for an enveloping, albeit precarious, form of world building.
  
For the most part, everything seems to make sense in Skyrim. Visit the alchemist’s shop and you will find books about herbalism of course, the texts of her trade. Plumb the depths of a dungeon full of demon worshiping mages and you will find books about necromancy, detailing the practices of their dark art. Adding book shelves, stoves, and beds to a bandit hideaway adds a nice touch to the environment. Bethesda has put an immense amount of detail into Skyrim to make the world feel lived in. Yet it is the logic of these fine details that adds artistry to the already fine details. Homes feel both lived in and part of a wider world and history.


There is no better example of the game’s logic than a burned down house just off the side-road somewhere in Skyrim. Inside the home, a charred corpse—presumably the now deceased tenant—clings to a spell book that when used summons an otherworldly flame demon. We can paint a small history: a farmer, looking to become an adventurer—or maybe just protect his crops—dabbles in magic beyond his power and loses his life and home in the process. You, a legendary hero, stumble upon the poor man’s lodgings and take the book for yourself, using the fiery conjuration to save the world. You could walk past this house and never encounter this piece of Skyrim. The world has its own logic not beholden to the player. You fit into the world of Skyrim perfectly, without it feeling as though every inch were carved for your eyes alone.


If you have played Skyrim for even a short amount of time, you have undoubtedly created stories like this one. The logic of the world allows you to partake in world building. Some elements of Red Dead Redemption mirror Bethesda’s efforts—the limited supply of buffalo, for example, that ties the game to the mythic west, while also forging a logical environment in which player decisions matter. Other games sabotage this aspect of world building, such as Uncharted 3, which features an atrocious deus ex machina in the form of an desert nomad who’s knowledge of ancient cities, affinity for strangers, and precision timing make little sense.


While the logic of Skyrim contributes to Bethesda’s unparalleled world building, numerous and blatant illogical mishaps threaten to topple the intricately built tower of realism. Too often NPC’s share idle chit-chat with players while a dragon torches their hamlet to a cinder. The strange and “gamey” idiosyncrasies have birthed a meme.  Grayson Davis astutely points out the illogical absurdities that viewers encounter while watching another person play the game:


Skyrim is such a complex intersection of open world elements that, to an audience, it becomes a farce. I can’t take seriously a game where every few minutes I witness a bandit with an arrow through her head; or a game where the protagonist strips nude all of his fallen enemies; or a game where a warrior taunts “You can’t defeat me!” after (after) she is run through the belly with a longsword. (Grayson Davis, Skyrim and the Problem of Audience”, Beeps & Boops, 15 November 2011)


Perhaps the worst offense is the (un)importance of race in Skyrim. I play an Argonian, yet few NPCs recognize my race. Even my fellow Argonians seldom make reference to our shared lineage, and none bother to share memories of our homeland.  The Argonians also have a history of antagonism toward the empire according to Elder Scrolls lore, making Argonian heroes prime candidates for rebellion membership. However, the rebels are racist and generally carry a “Skyrim is for the Nords” mentality. Unfortunately one’s race makes no difference to the rebels. The player character is an identity-less blank slate in a rich and complex world. Failing to ignore player character race is more than a missed opportunity, it is an illogical oversight that tarnished a rich and complex world.


The logic of Skyrim’s world building makes its illogical moments that much more foolish. I am used to game contrivances. I can handle the bizarre and ludicrous byproducts of game products. But the game offers an alternative to the hastily constructed worlds of so many titles. Bethesda fits the pieces together with skill, finessing the world into existence with all the care of an expert painter. Skyrim is a beautiful landscape painting of a mountain dusted in snow, a dragon taking flight amidst the ruins of a lost civilization, an angelic beam of light bursting through a the clouds, and a man drinking mead with an arrow through his head. If I ignore the man long enough, I might just forget the occasional absurdity of the medium.


 

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