Posted on August 3, 2012 AT 09:17am
Something remarkable happened on Thursday for fans of Skyrim, and that remarkable thing was that the first round of downloadable content, titled Dawnguard, was released for the PC after over a month of it being held hostage on the Xbox 360. With this release of Dawnguard to a broader audience, I think it is time to address an issue that has been on my mind for a while, and that is; do gamers really need a compelling story to play a game, or should they just have fun? Does story really matter at all?
This is something that has been on my mind for quite a while now, well before the release of Bethesda’s smash hit The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was ever conceived. What Skyrim serves as, in this case, is a topical and current game that has absolutely enamored just about every gamer who has dared to pick up their controller or keyboard and mouse. It isn’t uncommon to hear players talk about spending over one hundred hours exploring the vast land of Skyrim, doing quest after quest, learning their trades and slaying anything that stands in their way. Much in the same vein, it is uncommon to hear anyone ever discuss Skyrim’s story with anything other than a dismissive tone. I’ve known friends who brag that they’ve spent dozens of hours playing the game without ever venturing to High Hrothgar to visit the Greybeards and get the game’s main quest into motion.
For a game that is entirely single player, it almost seems unheard of that the main plot is so easily brushed aside and quite simply forgotten about, but that is exactly what happens in Skyrim for most players. The gameplay, is simply put, incredibly addictive and fun, to the point where the player begins to set their own goals and objectives and carries them out. On top of that, the infinite amount of side quests become a focal point and eventually the main story arc is completely buried beneath a sea of fetch quests that can promise money, weapons, potions or any other assorted loot. Sure, you name your character at the beginning of the game and you change their race and appearance, but outside of that your character is essentially a mute vehicle for whatever you desire. Dawnguard is no different, as there is a new main story arc added to your game and some minor updates to being a vampire, but overall it is the same sort of fetch quests lined with MacGuffins and no motivation beyond the fact that you are playing a game and want to achieve something.
When Mass Effect 3 launched in March, I remember having a conversation with a friend about how I’d finally put Skyrim down in favor of the last installment in the Mass Effect series and how it would be a welcome change to the barren narrative found within Skyrim. He balked at this idea, going on to explain that what he loved about Skyrim was that the story was completely inconsequential and that he could choose whatever he wanted to do in the game because there was no pesky story being pushed upon him to complete. As a long time gamer, I understand this attraction to the open world concept in games. The idea of doing as you please and writing your own narrative in your head has always been something that I’ve done with games, dating back to some of the early “open world” games like the original Grand Theft Auto.
The amount of time that I spent playing the original Grand Theft Auto was downright ludicrous. All of these years later I could not tell you much in the way of details of the missions in that game, what the story was or what even the point was. To me, GTA was about the cheat codes and editing the values and sprites for vehicles to create the game that I wanted to play. The police cars in my game were flying saucers that went at insane speeds but upon impact would explode, I had customized sports cars for myself to drive around in, and most of my time in-game consisted of finding a good place to hold out, activating some weapons cheats and having an epic last stand against the police and military. Part of the fun was finding that perfect alcove to hide in and shoot rockets from, or lining up the cars outside of my hiding spot to help shield me as well as create a chain of explosives.
This type of pure, unadulterated fun carried over into GTA III when it was released and the concept was perfected. GTA III still holds a place in my heart as the pinnacle of the open world games and easily the best in that series. The stoic protagonist who simply did as he was told and worked his way through the underworld while being far more entertaining to play as than any lead character in a Grand Theft Auto game since then. None of the following games had that same sense of pure anarchy that GTA III did, nor did they have the stripped down story that gave you freedom but still instilled a sense of urgency into the player to want to move forward.
Urgency is really the key word I use when I look at a lot of the more recent open world games, including Skyrim, as the thing that their story is sorely lacking in. In Skyrim you can create a life for yourself; you can simply work at improving your smithing and speech so that you can make and improve your weapons and sell them to vendors, or make potions and enchanted weapons and armor and do the same. You can do the multitude of quests that pop up where some poor, disenfranchised NPC will ask you to go into a cave full of beasts or bandits and retrieve a family heirloom or artifact that they’d get themselves, but for one reason or another want you to do instead. Whether you choose to continue in the main story or not, all of these things continue to happen and the world continues on exactly as you are playing. Sure, a dragon might pop up in the mountains here or there and kill a wandering hunter, but as a whole, they are not swooping into cities like Riften and interrupting the blacksmith’s speech about finding genuine fire salts that you’ve heard a million times.
The player is given no reason to care about moving the plot forward, as the world continues on almost unscathed while it waits for the player to trigger the next plot device. If you are truly dedicated and wish to simply plow through the story, this won’t be an issue, but when you stop the smell the roses in Skyrim, a part of you begins to wonder if it is really worth it to save the world because it doesn’t seem like it needs much saving. Dawnguard continues on that fine tradition with a plot of vampires and vampire hunters pitted against each other, forcing the player to choose a side and play out the story through the usual fetch quests and dungeon crawling. If the gameplay of Skyrim has you as enamored as most players are, none of this will bother you and the idea of more Skyrim content will be reason enough to hop onto your PC and download it right away. On the other hand, if you are looking for a deep, involved storyline and characters that truly suck you in and make you want to keep playing, you won’t find that experience here.
So the issue here is that games like Skyrim tend to lack the urgency or finer points of storytelling to really pull players in and compel them to want to hear the story that is being presented to them. In cases like this, gameplay becomes the sole driving force behind firing up the game for endless hours of fun, and it is fun. There is no doubt about the fun that can be had while playing Skyrim and just how immersive the world can really be. What is curious is that the developers can’t find a way for the story to be integrated into this immersive world to create a total experience.
Why do games have to be one or the other? Games don’t have to be on the extreme opposite sides of the coin like Heavy Rain and Skyrim are, do they? Heavy Rain was an amazing experience that I was given the pleasure of playing through and compelled me to keep playing to find out what happens next, and when it was done, it was done. It left me feeling a rush of emotions and processing what had just happened. While it did all of that, there was no way to just pick Heavy Rain up and hop in a car and drive around the world, to actually live a life within that world and just have fun. Instead, the player was more or less on rails for most of the experience, being guided by a tightly-plotted narrative to a thrilling conclusion. This is a stark contrast to Skyrim that gives you all of the freedom in the world while giving you no reason to care about the stories presented to you.
In the broadest sense of what a game is intended for, which is to have fun, games like Skyrim more than succeed. It gives the player lots to do and gives them satisfaction in whatever way they choose to play the game, making them want to come back for more. Over the past twenty years, though, video games have grown a lot and the spinning of a compelling narrative has become key to broadening the appeal of games to the masses. The idea that you can go out and buy an interactive story that lets you play a game on top of it is really quite remarkable when you stop to think about it. From my perspective, games have yet to really find that right mix of addictive and rewarding gameplay mixed in with a truly compelling and rewarding storytelling experience. There is no right and wrong, but in the future it would be nice to really see games look to become the total package than to just do one or the other.
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