Today, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim makes its much-anticipated debut. From updates to graphics, revisions to gameplay, and additions to The Elder Scrolls (TES) lore, there is certainly much to look forward to in the fifth iteration of such a highly successful series. For me, I look forward to continuing an experiment I began with the previous game, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, which has a lot to say about what narrative games are and how to play them.
Oblivion was the first TES game I played. A friend gave me his copy and, as a complete newcomer to the series – its gameplay and mythology –, I found it extremely overwhelming. The detail of the world and characters, weapon crafting, alchemy, player progression – I didn’t really know where to begin. In fits and starts I gained enough understanding to navigate the world though I didn’t understand at all how it was functioning. With almost no knowledge of the game’s leveling system, I engaged it naively as first and foremost a (fictional) world. By that I mean, I discerned how to interact with the game through the graphic and narrative metaphors with little to no consideration for the rules and mechanics they encoded. I got invested in plotlines and characters; focused on my avatar’s place in this vast world; and paid almost no attention to strategy. In other words, I approached it as a story rather than as a game.
Long story short it turned out badly. After close to 100 hours of gameplay I started to get really frustrated because my level-28 character was consistently outmatched in just about every battle. Even creatures I ran into simply trying to travel from one task to another killed my character almost instantly. I died a lot. I tried a bunch of different methods and nothing worked. So, I went to the Internet for advice and found The Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages wiki. What I discovered was that because of the intricacies of the leveling system in Oblivion by ignoring strategy I had irreparably crippled my character.
I’m not going to get into exactly how the system works because its just too complex to explain here. Essentially, as I leveled up the world and my enemies leveled up as well. However, because I was not caring for the mathematical composition of my character and efficiently maxing her attributes, my level-28 character was actually only as powerful as a level 11 character. It is no wonder then that she stood barely any chance against monsters that more than doubled her stats.
After learning this, I started over with a new character and a new strategy. I read as much as I could about the game of Oblivion and how to maximize my effectiveness within its mathematical combat systems. I made a spreadsheet (yes, I know) to chart my progress and maxed out every level. Crafted special weapons, armor, and spells that would “chain effects” to amplify their damage.
Though this play-through it went much more smoothly, it did so because I had basically broken the game in the opposite way. Where as the problem of the first play-through was that I ignored Oblivion’s gamic elements, the problem for the second play-through is that my investment in the algorithmic structures had destroyed the game world. By level 10 at the latest my character was so mathematically efficient she could one-hit kill pretty much every common enemy type. She was effectively invincible, wandering without fear or urgency, closing Oblivion Gates like they were nothing. Both story and game became meaningless. The plot had no drama; the game had no challenge. Eventually I got bored and wrapped up the main quest so I could stop playing.
At some level, my experiences with Oblivion is the result of poor design. Perhaps, by attempting to create an “immersively” coherent world, the designers went light on tutorials, making it hard for a newcomer to understand what is going on. Perhaps, the leveling system was unbalanced and too easily manipulated. More fundamentally, however, I think my experience speaks to the ontology of videogaming and raises questions about what it means to play a game well. Neither my half-fantasy play-through nor my half-real play-through could do justice to the game and both eventually rendered it unplayable. To play well, I decided after well over 200 hours spent with Oblivion, one must find ways to integrate narrative and mechanics, to engage one through the other. As James Paul Gee explains with regards to Metal Gear Solid 4, playing Snake well does not necessarily mean gaming the system for maximum efficiency. I think that was the lesson here, too. Playing well requires one to know both system and world well enough to create and enact a meaningful character. Otherwise, the game will likely break in one way or another.
Though I’ve successfully avoided most of the hype surrounding Skyrim, I did see that the leveling system has changed. No more major and minor skills with governing attributes, replaced by a much more streamlined system that favors exploration over attribute manipulation. It appears then that reconceiving the interplay between story and mechanics was a central concern for Skyrim’s development. So, I’m excited to begin my experiments again and to see how the changes made for this latest iteration fit into a theory of playing well. I’ll report back after I get some perspective.