Games

Storyline? In 'Skyrim'? No Thanks!

The narrative rests in the relationship between the environment and the items found in it, specifically placed for the player to find and create an explanation.

When a game has many players who ignore the main quests and journey off to create their own stories, one should question the value of embedded narrative. Does a game like Skyrim need a main storyline? The writing and character voice acting were okay and forgettable, just there for when I was in the area rather than being something of interest. I venture to say that the presence of a main story that you would find in other RPGs that don’t have such an open world is dissonant with how The Elder Scrolls series tells stories best.

There are actually multiple narrative structures in conflict with one another in Skyrim -- and arguably in Morrowind and Oblivion as well. The presence of fate as a central concern grows stronger in each installment, with Skyrim sometimes going as far as to control your character’s movement for you. The concept of fate is antithetical to the type of play that The Elder Scrolls promotes, which is player-focused and controlled. However, we’re so used to convention that we expect cutscenes and epic storylines to unfold before us. We’re not used to the idea of “This is my story” unless it’s a Minecraft or Dwarf Fortress that we are experiencing. Skyrim doesn’t need a storyline for the player to experience their own.

It wasn’t until the Jarl of Windhelm told me that I couldn’t ignore the summons of the Greybeards (and I promptly did) that I realized that the only support for a “fate” determining the protagonist's actions in the game was the existence of a main story. A player will question being determined by the storyline a lot less in a Final Fantasy because there aren’t tools to exercise freedom from the main action. But when serendipitous events such as a dragon attack or a king’s assassination frame the reasoning for your freedom, something just doesn’t feel right. The series already exists in tension with the realistic aesthetic that it attempts to adhere to, and its dependence on the player believing that they are fated to enact certain deeds undermines the spirit of the games.

Skyrim’s stronger narrative structure is found in the small details of a grand landscape. The locations and items themselves are the plot points and characters for the player to read. The focus on player initiative is also paramount to the narrative; the only way to speak of these stories from the game is to recount an anecdotal experience. The stories that my character encountered were finding out what the people of Skyrim hid in their homes, dungeons, and pockets. What’s this guy doing with a Ring of Pickpocketing? Who is experimenting on these vampires? Do I even want to know what “The Lusty Argonian Maid” is doing here? There are little stories waiting for discovery, not forced on the player through exposition or instruction. I found a witch’s letter detailing an interest in starting a coven with her daughter, a maid in a fortress constantly under attack. Those people weren’t telling the story; I created one in my mind. The narrative rests in the relationship between the environment and the items found in it, specifically placed for the player to find and create an explanation of them.

My response? Abandon quests altogether for future Elder Scrolls games. Skyrim is at a place in its evolution where the series can’t rationalize holding onto several RPG conventions for convention’s sake. There is no reason that we need to go into Skyrim expecting quests to guide us along everywhere because the point of the game is to explore with player-driven volition. I can see a Skyrim that has no quests that are explicitly given to the player but only offers rumors and clues along with different ways of obtaining them. My first time in Riverwood, I was looting the general store on the top floor and happened to overhear some siblings arguing over finding something called the golden claw. Just that knowledge should have empowered me to go find it, but Skyrim relies on the quest-giving model and its explicitly defined objectives, which are all created by developers instead of the player. This is especially problematic when you get the claw back from the bandit who holds it. Your game journal tells you to explore the barrow further. My decision to keep going into the ruins or to get the claw back to the store would be more meaningful if I came to that decision on my own, as hints were already there to do so.

I left Skyrim feeling that this was it. There’s nowhere else to progress given the trajectory the series has found for itself. It’s the same ol’ fantasy with the same ol’ combat, the same “epic” story that I have seen before. A stronger focus on helping the player tell their stories through the method that The Elder Scrolls has established would shed the necessity that binds the series in its RPG conventions. As recent RPG developers have found, the usual ways that the genre tells stories isn’t working anymore, and there’s little progress in designing something players haven’t seen before. The narrative is in the play. Let me play.

 

You can follow the Moving Pixels blog on Twitter.

Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Music

Glass Animals - "Your Love (Déjà Vu)" (Singles Going Steady)

British psych-pop band, Glass Animals' "Your Love (Déjà Vu)" is tasty for a minute or two, then curiously flavourless.

Music

The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 5, Joy Division to Gang of Four

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we conclude with part five featuring Joy Division, Gang of Four, Talking Heads and more.

Music

John Prine's 'The Missing Years' Showcases His Penchant for Storytelling

The Missing Years reveals John Prine's ability to embolden the amusing and touching despite the underlying strife.

Music

The Chats' 'High Risk Behaviour'  Screams Hilarious Attitude

Fast and funny, the Chats' "dumb" punk record, High Risk Behavior, is smarter and more interesting than anything Muse has ever done.

Music

MetalMatters: March 2020 - Self Isolation

March's MetalMatters features extreme tunes to get you through difficult times. Hopefully, they will momentarily allow you to escape from this harsh reality.

Books

Memoir 'Rust' Wrestles with the Myth of the American Dream

Eliese Colette Goldbach's memoir, Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit, is the story of one descending into the depths of The American Dream and emerging with flecks of graphite dust on her cheeks, a master's degree in her hands, and a few new friends.

Books

'Indian Sun: The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar' (excerpt)

Ravi Shankar was bemused by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds and other bands using the sitar in rock music. Enjoy this excerpt from biography Indian Sun, by Oliver Craske (who worked with Shankar on his 1997 autobiography), courtesy of Hachette Books.

Oliver Craske
Music

The Strokes Phone It In (Again) on 'The New Abnormal'

The Strokes' The New Abnormal is an unabashedly uninspired promotional item for their upcoming world tour.

Music

"I'm an Audience Member, Playing This Music for Us": An Interview With Keller Williams

Veteran musician Keller Williams discusses his special relationship with the Keels, their third album together, Speed, and what he learned from following the Grateful Dead.

Books

Shintaro Kago's 'Dementia 21' Showcases Surrealist Manga

As much as I admire Shintaro Kago's oddness as a writer, his artistic pen is even sharper (but not without problems) as evident in Dementia 21.

Music

Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad Proclaim 'Jazz Is Dead!' Long Live Jazz!

Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad bring their live collaborative efforts with jazz veterans to recorded life with Jazz Is Dead 001, a taste of more music to come.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.