Friday, April 25, 2014

The Importance Of Milking Smaller Stories

I love Skyrim, and I think it's a great game to discuss in my first post, because it has examples of what I consider to be both good and bad storytelling, and also because I'm super hooked and just loved talking about the game in general.

If you haven't played, Skyrim is a massive open world role playing game where you play the role of a Dragonborn, a slowly growing powerhouse who appears to be genetically predisposed to kick some dragon butt. Which is convenient, because dragons have just reappeared after being presumably extinct for hundreds of years. That's not all that's going on either - as in all the Elder Scroll games, various factions and races are in conflict and are vying for power across the land, and your role will be pivotal in the course of Skyrim's history.

Sounds like a pretty decent setup for a game, right? One of the joys of Skyrim is how little of the main storytelling you are forced to experience. It is apparently very common for players to venture off after being given their first taste of freedom, building up their character's skills, and hoarding treasure to their heart's content while dragons roam the countryside freely, and the citizens of the land wait patiently for their hero to come around.

If and when their hero does come around to the story (and he should, if only for the expected rewards he'll reap), there are hundreds of stories waiting to be told. On top of the many jarls and clan leaders in the world, there are many lowly citizens in the towns are in need of a helping hand for everything from clearing an area of bandits to helping out a small boy who's being bullied by an an even smaller girl. What's funny about my experience with those two specific quests was that clearing out the bandits was easy, but helping out the child was actually kinda tough.

99% of the quests offered in the game revolve around you the hero learning of a certain character's needs, then assisting - sometimes by retrieving or collecting something, or, much more often, by doing some killing. You are much more likely to be a walking sword and fireball generator than you are any kind of negotiator, tactician, or creative problem solver. Even quests that start off with the hero being asked to save a tree involve killing a number of witches, tree spirits and the like along the way. Of all the skill trees your character is able to develop, 'pacifist' is not one of them.

Which brings me back to the bullying quest. In between dragon slayings, a small boy approached me in the town of Winterhold, which became my character's de facto home town because of its centralized location. I purchased a home there and interacted with nearly citizen at some point. The child, Lars Battle-Born, asked me to help him with his bullying problem, which on its own was a fairly laughable request. The bully was a confident little girl named Braith who I'd seen running around. She'd told me over a dozen times how she wasn't afraid of me, despite the fact that, if I felt so inclined, I could incinerate her into ashes on a moment's notice (though technically, this wasn't true, since the game doesn't allow players to kill children, as you'll see in the below video, making her bravado more accurate than any other adult in the land).

When I was given the option of what to say to the boy's request, my characters was able to agree or decline, telling him "grow a backbone, kid," which was an interesting kind of rejection. It didn't necessarily make sense for my character to 'save' this kid from a girl who later told me she was only doing it because he refused to kiss her. This was exactly the sort of thing this kid should be working to solve on his own. Of course, I still wound up doing it, because denying him simply ended our interaction, and saying yes in Skyrim always leads to a reward. For all I knew this kid was holding onto some amazing staff, or piece of enchanted armor. (Spoiler alert: nope, he doesn't. He has exactly 2 gold for you).

(Note: this video shows the introduction to, as well an "alternative" approach to handling the quest)

In giving the player total freedom, a game like Skyrim finds itself limited in the ways it can tell stories. Many of the more important quests are hamstrung by the need to move the plot forward in a predictable fashion. The game assumes you are a hero (even if all of your actions dictate otherwise), and so eventually, if you want to see the end of the game, you're going to have to help out the right people in the right sort of ways. I think most players would agree this is a fine compromise. We're not quite at the point yet where games can allow for an infinite level of branching storylines the way it does character building. However, I do think there's an opportunity here for the game's smaller quests to shine.

I would have loved a true alternative choice to solving the bullying quest, where I actually helped Lars learn to fight his own battles. This quest doesn't matter in the grand scheme of the game's plot, so its outcome should, in theory, be a little more flexible. Maybe Lars could be convinced to spar with my character, throwing a single punch and then staggering back to convince the kid he's capable got a nasty left. Or maybe something a little less violent (though pushing the children to actually fight would be delightful in own twisted way), like convincing Braith to be a little more forthcoming with her feelings, and teach her a valuable lesson about the dangers of sending mixed messages. Either outcome wouldn't require a few more lines of dialogue, and asks nothing the game isn't already capable of, but multiple solutions would give me as the player a feeling that I did a little more than hit the "A" button the appropriate number of times to win.

There are some examples of what I'm talking about in Skyrim already, which I'm going to discuss in more a later post (another chance for me to talk about this game!) For now, I'll close by saying I think there's an opportunity in games like this to present the player with interesting choices without having to back up those choices with many long, branching alternative storylines. I say let us have our open world cake and eat it too!


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