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Old 11-29-2011, 09:54 PM
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Default Scrolls vs Souls, or, An Epic Tale of High Fantasy Regarding How I Came to Wet Myself

Tom Bissel has an article up describing some of his thoughts on Skyrim that I enjoyed reading.

In particular, I think he does a decent job explaining some of what I've failed to competently express in the past regarding what neither he nor I did not like about Oblivion*, as well as making a competent pass at why the Souls games are so good at what they do.

The problem, it now seems clear, is that the way in which the Elder Scrolls games present their narrative content the way, in other words, they try to communicate "drama" has never worked and will never work.

The dialogue in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is without question the best written and most capably performed of any Elder Scrolls game. Another way of saying this: It remains terrible. Please know that, two hours into Skyrim, my astoundometer remained soaringly high. [In other areas] the game is as visually compelling as it is experientially gratifying. Every time one of Skyrim's characters opened his or her mouth, however, I felt my irritation begin to nibble away at Skyrim's edges. Irritation in response to a game's dialogue is especially problematical when said game contains hours upon hours of dialogue. How can it be that the part of the game that exerts so much effort to accomplish something succeeds in accomplishing nothing?


Are we not at the point where dramaturgical incompetence in a game as lavishly produced and skillfully designed as Skyrim is no longer charming?

Incompetence is a strong word, and I use it in a considered manner. That is, I use it in light of what happened to the RPG between the release of Oblivion and Skyrim, which was the appearance of From Software's Demon's Souls and Dark Souls. Both games work Skyrim's high-fantasy register; both games feature enchanted weapons, spellcraft, scary monsters, and sought-after loot. But the capital-S Storytelling in Demon's Souls and Dark Souls has been restrained to the point of apparent and only apparent nonexistence. The NPCs in the Souls games have 1 percent as many lines as the NPCs in Skyrim and speak in a faux-Shakespearean dudgeon higher and more stylized than the characters of Skyrim, and yet none of the stuff they say winds up feeling like overwrought bullshit. This is because the characters in the Souls games serve two purposes. The first is mechanical, as when they have something to sell or teach you. The second is atmospheric, as when they cryptically hint at things you might soon encounter. The NPCs of Demon's and Dark Souls are never primary vessels for storytelling. The primary vessels for storytelling are the nonpareil environments and the player's experience within those environments.
I sort of disagree with his claim that the NPCs in the Souls games are never primary vehicles for storytelling. I think he's close to the truth, but it would be more accurate to say that they are employed as a different sort of narrative device. One of my favorite twists in Dark Souls is that one of the main NPCs who appears to exist to handle the routine chore of dispensing plot points to the player turns out to defy that expectation, and is actually lying to advance a specific agenda.

We can be sure that From Software has a long and complicated bible that spells out its games' (doubtlessly quite formidable) lore. We can be equally sure that character and location sheets were at some point drawn up and iterated upon and revised and consulted, but all this work is wisely withheld from the player. Why? Because no one cares. Not really, they don't. And they don't care because it's not important.
Again, I think Bissel is very close but not quite on point. The lore, or the lore that matters anyhow, is not withheld. The player can discover it in the game. It's just that it doesn't get beaten into the player's head through long winded exposition dumps. It's found in visual clues in the environment, in descriptive text, never more than three or four sentneces long, on items, and in conversation with NPCs.

In some ways, the mystery of a story not quite told can be very satisfying. What was the deal with Lord Gwynn's four Knights with the animal motif rings in Dark Souls? Who knows, but it's a small touch that makes the world feel more deeply realized. The snippets of their stories the player can read in the descriptions of certain items in game have the feel of old legends half-remembered, like the unknown significance of Gilgamesh's reputation as a subduer of lions. The best Magic: The Gathering expansions did something similar with the story implied by the sparse lines of flavor text on each card in the set.

Dense expositional lore has no place in video-game stories...and it seems increasingly clear that video games are neither dramatically effective nor emotionally interesting when the player's role becomes that of a dialogue sponge. More simply put, the stories of Demon's and Dark Souls are told in a way that only video games can tell stories. They don't suffer in comparison because there's no comparison to make. The story of Skyrim functions like that of a fantasy novel with digital appendices and these digital appendices are the only reason anyone's reading it in the first place. If you threw most of the fantasy novel away, it wouldn't matter, because it's not nearly as good as an actual fantasy novel and as fantasy cinema it's a pathetic joke.
Bolding mine, and I think that's the heart of the matter. Games need to stop trying so hard to be films or novels. If I want to watch a movie, I can watch a movie, and I won't have to complete arbitrary challenges to unlock each scene.

* - Note that Bissel does like Oblivion, as well as Skyrim. He does, however, share my feelings about the way they handle storytelling.
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Crumb (11-29-2011)
Old 11-29-2011, 10:44 PM
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Default Re: Scrolls vs Souls, or, An Epic Tale of High Fantasy Regarding How I Came to Wet My

The storytelling approach in the Metroid Prime series also is one that works for video games and not for novels or cinema. Most of the story is deduced through scanning items and creatures, not through dialogue. You get tidbits about items in a lab, or research logs, etc.

I do think that JRPG games can be pretty good at telling stories, but more action-oriented games definitely suffer from too much cut-scenes.
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Adam (11-29-2011)
Old 11-29-2011, 11:41 PM
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Default Re: Scrolls vs Souls, or, An Epic Tale of High Fantasy Regarding How I Came to Wet My

I like being able to run around a world, doing what I want and building an uber-character. The story/quest stuff is just there to give me a goal. Frankly, in that regard, Skryim is much better than Oblivion, nearly every dungeon of any size has some story behind it, making it easier to ignore the fact that you're exploring a space that seems designed mostly to be challenging to explore rather than serving a useful function. Even with the actual quests, the info dump can be skipped. You don't have to ask Basil Exposition what an Elder Scroll is or who the Thalmor are, if you don't want to. When General Tullius gives you an order, just click 'yes sir' and that's that.

But I don't spend a lot of time talking to people IRL so it's not a big deal if I don't talk to them much in a game.
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