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Dramaturgy in Video Games

Not the actual cover art.

On Tuesday, Grantland published a Tom Bissell piece discussing what he views as the significant flaw in the recently released and excellently received Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.  The (major) flaw, in Bissell’s opinion, is that the game mishandles its storytelling – that it relies to a large extent on lengthy and painful exposition in PC-to-NPC interaction in order to move the story forward.

A typical scene in Skyrim might play out like this.  You have just entered a town after spending an embarrassing amount of time frolicking next to running rivers, chasing wild goats or rabbits and attempting to beat them to death with your bare hands when a NPC (that’s “non-player character” for the uninitiated) runs up to you, stands still, and begins spouting off about how he wants me to do something for him.  He does not gesticulate or emote (beyond the fluctuations in the voice acting) but instead delivers his message perfunctorily, with all the drama of a Bill Belichick press conference. 

Or another example: after several hours beating goats to death in the wild, you happen upon a wizard who talks your ear off about some bizarrely-named demigod and the tribute to him we all must pay, lest the quest tree splinter off into a different direction.  The wizard may drop layers and layers of made up knowledge on you, such as names and places and dates and rituals, none of which really influences the quest you need to undertake or any element of the gameplay whatsoever, besides perhaps creating a more fulsome imaginary world in which to run around and choke the life out of defenseless goats, rabbits, etc.

Bissell says that he (and most people [indeed, including myself]) simply skip through this dialogue by mashing on the A button and reading (or not reading, as the case may be) the subtitles, which is a problem.  Given that these sorts of interactions represent roughly 90% of all exposition in the game, why aren’t they, well, better?  After all, the scenery is wonderful and the sheer scope of the game world is literally incredible (if every future sandbox game doesn’t at least approach the size of Skyrim, I’m going to break things) so why shouldn’t the narration be equally awesome?

Bissell points out a major issue, something which might be unavoidable:  “high fantasy” (as opposed to low fantasy?) writing is difficult to do with a straight face.  I’m half-way through the A Song of Ice and Fire series (aka the Game of Thrones series, which misnomer apparently really pisses off die hards) and sometimes, especially after reading a sentence like “Andal warriors had carved such stars in their flesh when first they crossed the narrow sea to overwhelm the kingdoms of the First Men.”  I mean, what?  I’ll be reading this on my Kindle on the subway and sometimes I’ll see out of the corner of my eye the person sitting next to me checking out what I’m reading and I’ll get the sudden urge to open the menu and switch over to some other book that doesn’t detail the scarification habits of imaginary people in make believe worlds just so this stranger whom I’ll likely never see again won’t think I’m a total weirdo.  Then I’ll just think “fuck it” and I’ll keep reading about Dothraki horselords or whatever.

So in a sense, because Skyrim takes place in a medieval fantasy world where dragons exist and nobody seems to freak out too much when I shoot lightning bolts from my hands, the game writers really have no chance to say anything that isn’t going to make sensible people’s eyes roll.  Or at least not make me feel weird about myself because I’m spending hours upon hours of my free time exploring such a world.

There’s also the fact that it doesn’t really matter that the writing is so lame or that the writers choose to present this speech by just having characters stand around and lipsync a voice actor’s speech.  Skyrim, like all Elder Scrolls games, is about exploration, not narration, so who cares if NPC interaction is mostly an exercise in presenting highly detailed descriptions of make believe things while standing still?  Who cares if a world that is obviously supposed to be a Dungeons and Dragons version of Viking country spends so much time essentially renaming tropes from Scandinavian source material and not adding anything interesting or useful to the gaming experience in the process?

The best game I’ve played in recent years is Red Dead Redemption, which is essentially Grand Theft Auto as presented by Sergio Leone in a make believe Wild West.  While both Read Dead (and GTA) and the Elder Scrolls games are sandbox games, a key difference is that in the former, you assume the character of John Marston, who has been created by the designers (and given a voice), whereas in the latter, you create every minute detail yourself.  You choose the character’s race, gender, hairstyle, nose shape, etc.  You even get to choose your own name, which I always find strange in a game where everyone just addresses you as “Dragonborn” anyway, but whatever.

In Red Dead, your character is a former gang member (more gang of horse thieves than gang of crack dealers) who is trying to start a new life with his wife and son.  The center of gravity in the story is your character’s struggle with his (haunted) past and the fact that despite his best intentions, he just can’t seem to get away from a life of crime.  The end of the game is heartbreaking, as you see your character betrayed by government agents he helped and who promised to clear his name.  After the credits roll, you’re allowed to continue the game not as John Marston but as his son, Jack, who inherits all of John’s skills, equipment, etc.  I remember actually being mad about this and thinking that John died so that his son could have a different life.  Think about that: I felt betrayed by a video game character.  At first I thought my reaction was a bit ridiculous, given that it’s just a video game, but through great writing and, most importantly of all, well-crafted context, the makers of Red Dead Redemption elevated a somewhat vulgar craft to the level of poetry.

John’s struggles became my struggles and I wanted very much to see him come through everything having earned the peace he so clearly wanted.  It’s interesting to compare Red Dead to GTA, where the main draw for me was always the ability to create massive destruction in urban environments with essentially zero consequences.  You can still technically do those things in Red Dead (although on a much smaller scale, what without the sports cars with which to run over civilians) but, for some reason, I never wanted to because I felt that John Marston wouldn’t do that.  That’s the impact that good writing can have on a game experience.

Could The Elder Scrolls do the same?  The lack of real context makes it difficult.  All Elder Scrolls games start the same way: you are a nameless prisoner whose previous crimes never really matter (and are usually not even explained) whose characteristics you, and not the writers, determine through a too-specific character creation system.  You can modify the degree to which your character has an underbite or overbite, but such details have no impact on the fact that your character is going to take on the pre-destined role of savior of all mankind.  The aesthetic choices one makes when constructing one’s appearance are essentially meaningless, especially since the game is best played from the first person perspective.  As Tim Rogers pointed out in a recent piece on Skyrim, what’s the point of giving you so much optionality (and inviting games to dedicate so much time) with respect to things that have almost no impact on the game whatsoever?

The lack of cutscenes also doesn’t help.  Red Dead Redemption, like GTA and most other recent Big Games, tell much of the story through dramatic cutscenes where the characters act like actual people, as opposed to scarecrows whose lips move when it comes time to explain the next quest.  Those cutscenes are only possible, though, because the writers have determined to a large extent how you are going to interact with the world and what that world is going to present to you.  They’re telling you their story.  The relationship is inverted in Elder Scrolls games: you’re given the ability to determine everything about your character and other than the main quest (you need to save the world from a dragon god of death, although you can technically completely ignore this quest line) you decide how you’re going to act and what you’re going to do in the game world.

I discussed some of this in my post about Oblivion kind of sucking.  In Oblivion, there are literally gates to hell opening up all over the world and extra-dimensional demons are fucking up the collective program, but the trinket shops in town are still all open for business.  I’m being implored by the town guard to do something about the Oblivion gates and save the world, but I still have the option to forsake my destiny and join the Thieves Guild.  This is not a bad thing (it’s part of what makes the Elder Scrolls so much fun to play), but it makes, I think, truly excellent storytelling all but impossible.  If the game designers implicitly acknowledge my right to not care about the story, why should they worry too much about how it’s presented?

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