Feature: Under the Open Sky
I’ve got Skyrim stuck in my head. You know how it is when you’re daydreaming – random thought flows to random thought until something decides to stick around, getting lodged in your mind so wholly that it refuses to go away even once you’ve come back to your senses and realised you’ve been staring out of the office window for an hour. Next time you get fired for slacking, sue the Dovahkiin for harassment and hope that dragon shouts aren’t legally permissible in court.
This daydreaming has been going on for a while, but I was slow to really think about playing the game again. Bastion was going cheap in the Steam sale and my Greek campaign in Rome: Total War was coming on a treat, which didn’t leave much opportunity for climbing the Throat of the World a fourth time. Then, just as I was getting close to putting the other games aside, I bellowed an enthusiastic FUS RO DAH! at my computer and it promptly broke. I like to think it was because my mastery of the Thu’um is such that the very earth trembles at my coming, but more likely there are gremlins in the power supply.
Still, it broke just in time for this column, because – and this sounds ominous even to me – I’ve got a theory: open world games are better when you aren’t playing them.
I’ve got form with this. Skyrim’s mad Granddad, Morrowind, is to me one of the finest games ever made. It holds a place in my heart alongside the music of Debussy, the poetry of Milton and the other artistic guilty pleasures that I couldn’t possibly tell you about without instantly expiring of sheer embarrassment. After buying the original game and then the Bloodmoon expansion, I traded both in to get the full game of the year edition. I polished off the Tribunal expansion, played a little more, then stopped. That was about five years ago. I haven’t played it since.
I tried a second character once, but something was missing. That first game, to me, is the game, with so many little stories and episodes forming the whole. I remember the first time I struggled through an ash storm to the Urshilaku camp on Vvardenfell’s northern coast. I remember exactly the road from Balmora to Pelegiad that I walked a hundred times. The bitter climb up Red Mountain, the blizzard after I vanquished Hircine, the sights and sounds of Sadrith Mora, Ald’ruhn, Ebonheart and Vivec.
The second time I remember using a dodgy method to get adamantium armour early on in the game and the hours I spent throwing fireballs at the wall to level up in Destruction magic. I remember the mechanics, the screws and the nail-holes and the scuffed edges, not the mountains and cities and people.
You know how in the Narnia books the children can’t come back for more adventures once they get too old? That’s me with Morrowind. I’m too cynical and jaded, too spoilt by newer experiences to happily go back.
Dreaming of Skyrim
With Skyrim, I’ve got a little more perspective, but I can sense that same feeling creeping up on me. What I find most surprising though, is how it might be emerging in other players too. The internet obviously doesn’t speak with one voice, but I’ve been amazed at the amount of articles in the last few months that have found cause for complaint with the latest Elder Scrolls. There’s been plenty of praise for the modmaking scene and lots of links to in-engine machinima, but positive articles about the game itself seem to have faded since the first reviews.
Instead, people talk about how the world doesn’t change, about how neutral NPCs in dungeons don’t seem to react when the guards are all dead and about the emptiness of being saviour of the world and head of all the guilds, yet to have no one really recognise you.
They’re fair points. I personally don’t plan on pursuing every quest chain with one character, for the sake of retaining some sort of consistent roleplay. I might not even experience the Dark Brotherhood quests, because there is no way my heroic high elf is going to turn to bloody, malicious murder and I’m not sure if I’ll start a second character. I really don’t want to see everything that Skyrim has to offer.
Why? It’s because I’m in love with the place. The hidden back road between Riverwood and Ivarstead, in the shadow of the mountains; the bleak hostility of a night on the glacier east of Dawnstar; the morning sunlight falling on Solitude after a slog through the marsh from Morthal. I want this world to keep its secrets from me, because otherwise how can I adventure in it?
Oh, but I know it’s got problems. I know the AI is still robotic and the dragons aren’t really going to devour the world. I worry that each time I click that enticing little button marked ‘Play’ I’ll be niggling away at all those wonderful moments I’ve already gathered up, poking the recollection of them with a big stick made of bugs and dodgy design.
The World in Your Head
Of course, there’s an element of this same feeling in all the things we treasure. It’s an infinite variation on ‘never meet your heroes’, but with art rather than with people. Our first experience of something extraordinary creates that fixed image in the mind’s eye, which we then decorate with imagination and a natty rose-tinted filter until the bad bits have been siphoned out. The subsequent looks are when you see the bugs, when you hear the uninspiring bass line on that awesome song and when you realise that, after all, John Terry really isn’t a brilliant role model and you’re a bit sheepish about having his name plastered on the back of your shirt.
I think that, if anything, open world games are even more prone to sparking these sorts of thoughts. An open world aims to show the whole span of life. It shows you where people live and how they make their living, not just how they’re involved in your story. It fills in the gaps between adventure and adventure with walking, running and riding along the roads (unless you’re fast-travelling, in which case you’re really missing out). Even in semi-open worlds like GTA IV’s Liberty City and the cities of Assassin’s Creed, the scope is such that the imagination is relentlessly stimulated, building up a picture of a game that doesn’t really exist in the code produced by the developers.
Looking back on this article, there’s a lot of waffle and hyperbole, but that almost proves my point. These worlds kick-start something in my head that makes me embellish the brilliant parts beyond sense or reason, whilst sweeping the faults under the carpet. So is it better to leave the game well alone, or to finish that main quest at last even if it means seeing those problems again? Whatever the answer, one thing is certain: any game that can have this effect has done something special, whatever those problems might be.