Roleplaying and Storytelling

Roleplaying and storytelling are not the same, and should not be confused.

I have been playing a lot of Skyrim. Skyrim is one of those cultural phenomena that many people will dismiss as "just another computer game" in the same way that some British folks dismiss Dr Who as "just another TV SF series" or War and Peace as "just another lengthy Russian classic".

Skyrim is a big, diverse world, beautiful and curious; an amazing achievement that builds on the lessons of Morrowind and Oblivion (previous titles in the "The Elder Scrolls" (TES) series) by taking a long hard look at the work done by the vast modding community* and a good hard look at the success of the accomplished but troubled Gothic series that has dwelt in the shadow of TES, but held its own through quality and reliability.

Even with the work that was done to make Skyrim such a visually pleasing and amazing place, many of the first mods deal with making it even more visually stunning. The first mod I downloaded was a new, high resolution night sky. OMGIFOS!

Playing Skyrim is a matter of wandering around, talking to folks, creeping into dark caves, investigating mountaintops and getting quested. Players of "tabletop" rpgs like AD&D will know that when you speak to the innkeeper, he'll give you some bit of rumor or gossip, you'll go check it out and end up embroiled in a plot or saving someone's kidnapped spouse/child or trying to get your hands on a big pile of gold (GP) or enough experience (XP) to level your character. This is called getting quested. Getting quested can be a blessing or a curse. In the best cases, it is both. Getting quested is essential for roleplaying because it gives you an objective. Once you have an objective, it is up to you to decide how you intend to fulfil it.

Skyrim's creators went to a great deal of trouble to ensure that there were plenty of opportunities to get quested, and plenty of quests of all different sizes and shapes. And these quests can all be placed on a scale which has at one end "getting railroaded" and at the other "vague curiosity". Thankfully, the "Main Quest" seldom railroads, once you get over the initial irritation of being the unique chosen one with special blood. I happen to hate that kind of thing, but there are opportunities to pick sides and make moral choices in the main quest. That's amazingly impressive, even to the limited extent that it has been done.

One of the worst offenders for railroading is the Thieves Guild main quest. (Some people say the thieves' guild doesn't even exist…) This quest line is daft. A balanced character would find some of the tasks a little tricky, but my character is a stealth sniper. For the first 30 levels I did almost nothing other than sneak and shoot. The tasks were a walk in the park for me, and after completing these "little errands", the thieves promptly insisted that I become guild master. This actively pissed me off. Because I'm roleplaying in a way that only TES makes possible: I decided in advance what sort of person Clothilde would be, and I make decisions based on that. Since you can do that in TES, and more so in Skyrim than any other game I have ever known, it is very disappointing indeed how often you can't refuse an appointment (or even a title), or change your mind once you set off on a mission. I really hope there's a modder out there with plans to change quest options so that you can back out if you decide you don't like the direction a quest is taking.

I suspect that some (definitely not all) of the quest designers genuinely think that the only choice that players will make is between the three standing stones at the start of the game (where you decide initially - the choice can be refined or made again later - on your broad playing style, between fighter, rogue or mage), and once that choice is made you'll follow every quest you get hit with out of curiosity for the unfolding story. Those quest designers (House of Horrors anyone?) need to be hit on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper, and then have it pointed out to them that Skyrim is an RPG environment. Compare and contrast with Assassin's Creed.

In AC, you follow a story - it's explicit in the scenario design that there is only one path; all presented objectives have to be met, and your only choices are in the fine details - concealed blade or throw him off the roof? AC is addictive because (like Skyrim) it is beautiful, but also, unlike Skyrim, because it has a single, highly compelling, storyline, and you keep playing because you want to follow the twists and turns of the plot. In AC you are reading a thriller. In Skyrim you are playing AD&D.

The next (techno)logical step is TES played in cooperation. Not massively multiplayer, but 4 to 6 players in a cooperative party, getting quested the way you do in AD&D. And, therefore, being able to build quests. This, we already can, though it is tricky and very time consuming (rather more than when you play tabletop).

My verdict for Skyrim? It started out awesome, and once the modders have had a couple of years with it, it will be the most complete roleplaying environment ever seen outside of the imagination of a party of experienced AD&D players.

Roleplaying is the undervalued branch of creative play. Everyone values as "culture" books, theatre, film; storytelling has been largely lost, and roleplaying is seen as something even less cultural, even more ephemeral. I think, however, that the best culture is ephemeral, because the best culture is created for, and created before, a live audience. Just as the script of a play is not the play, so the book of a story is not the story. It is natural and right and special and both humanly and culturally affirming to get together and roleplay - make up a story, a scenario, together. With Skyrim, computer gaming has taken another big step towards facilitating cultural activity instead of distracting from it.

* modding is creating new content for an existing game. For free.

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