Post-It Note Role-Playing, or the White-Collar Warriors of ‘Skyrim’

This isn’t the first time that I have felt this way while playing a Bethesda game. A couple of years ago I wrote a blog entry about the manner in which the Fallout series felt like some sort of “to do” list simulator (Fallout, the “To Do” List Simulator”, PopMatters, 24 November 2010).

But in a sense, I don’t feel so alone in my feeling this time. Having spent some amount of time in the world of Skyrim myself, I opened a copy of Game Informer this week to find this description of “experiencing” The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim:

At one point, I had 14 main quests and 32 miscellaneous quests active at once. This huge list turned me into an antisocial outcast; I stopped approaching other characters for fear of getting more quests from them. Even this strategy didn’t work, as messengers would hand me documents containing new quests, and some NPCs rewarded jobs well done with additional tasks. (Andrew Reiner, “The Elder Scrolls V: Skrim: An RPG Worth Shouting About”, Game Informer, January 2012, p. 80)

Reiner had logged “over 100 hours” of gameplay time having written that, and while I have only spent about 10-12 hours in the game’s world, I already relate to the overwhelming feeling that Skyrim evokes in providing an ever increasing list of things to do for its players.

Now, by no means is the idea of packing a game, especially a role playing game or an open world game, with tons of stuff to do especially innovative. Grand Theft Auto and RPGs of all types have been doing this sort of thing for years. However, there is something about the presentation of quests, something about the relentlessness of quest-giving characters in Skyrim that just reminds me, well, of being at the office.

Games often simulate work-like experiences. SimCity simulates city development and management. The Movies simulates running a movie studio. The board game Agricola simulates subsistence farming. But Skyrim most often seems to me like a fantasy veneer — complete with smatterings of chainmail and dragons — spread over the most boring occupation that I can think of, managing and prioritizing tasks at an office.

Reiner’s observation about feeling like an “antisocial outcast” by avoiding communication with NPCs reminds me very much of what I often quip when I find my mailbox empty at work: “No mail is good mail.” I comment as such, of course, because any mail that I will find in an inter-office mailbox is likely to just be a request for my time. Oh, and the great thing is that if I complete some such request and report to someone that it is done, I might be “rewarded [for] jobs well done with additional tasks.” E-mail inboxes evoke the same horror in me, in spite of (or maybe more appropriately, because of) the fact that I am chained irrevocably to attempting to comply with whatever tasks those messages will saddle me with.

Seen from this perspective, Skyrim‘s choice of presentation of the “quest journal” common to games is quite repellant to me. A nicely and neatly organized list of quests with subheadings that indicate the relative importance of the tasks beneath them is exactly the kind of list that I have to write for myself in real-life in order to figure out just how I am to accomplish what I am to accomplish today. Oh, and talking to or hearing from someone just adds another and another line to this mounting list.

In this sense, sitting down to a game of Skyrim feels like the unending job of clearing my inbox, but clearing it, of course, “for the greater good.”

All of this business is funny to me, though, given that I tend to really enjoy open world games (I might even call it my genre of choice in gaming). However, there is something about the distance that a map with some icons that indicate some places that I have to visit (but doesn’t contain a description of what I need to do there — these are things that I will discover when I get there) that somehow feels less sterile, less occupational than a well organized list does.

It might also be the nature of the tasks themselves, though, too. Deliver these ingredients to the alchemy shop, have a word with a man who is giving another woman in the office (did I just say office? — I meant, in the village of Riften…) a hard time — see if you can work it out, go see if you can find this thingamawhatsit for someone, etc., etc. Sure, these are fetch quests, busy work. This is medieval filing and sorting. It is so very, very white-collar.

Sports and games frequently represent something like the kinds of work we do. You know that crazy event in the Winter Olympics where athletes ski for awhile and then stop and shoot targets before continuing their race? I imagine that that event is based on some kind of real-life work. It’s gotta be that some hunters or soldiers or something in snowy climes decided at some point to compete by doing what they did in their “normal” work world in order to see who was best at it (okay, I might be wrong about that and I imagine that Wikipedia would tell me for sure whether or not the origins of the Biathlon are something as I imagine, but for the sake of argument, let’s just roll with it). For me, Bethesda games and maybe just American RPGs in general very often feel like an effort to just play out what we, as an increasingly white-collar working nation, do best: managing and prioritizing tasks.


But we do it so very heroically. And I think, perhaps, this is why the simulation needs to wear the disguise of delivering a memo for a Dark Elf, or retrieving an ancient enchanted key for your boss (did I say boss? — I meant, the Jarl of Whiterun…) because the work that we do for the “greater good” is one whose ultimate design seems far less compelling and significant than running enough errands to save the world from dragons — yet, we would like that kind of busy work to lead to some such overwhelming importance. White-collar warrior sounds so much more mellifluous than white-collar worker drone.

Play on.


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