I haven’t played Skyrim, but I’ve seen it. For a few hours, I watched as someone else played through the first sections of the fifth entry in The Elder Scrolls series. Sure enough, the game struck me as an impressive open world RPG. Skyrim is rich and atmospheric, a self-evident improvement over the monotonous green countryside and mushy-faced NPCs of Bethesda’s previous Oblivion. While I speak only as a second-hand observer, I can say with confidence that I look forward to playing Skyrim myself. As such an observer, though, I can also say that the game is impossible to take seriously.
Fantasy, of course, must struggle against its own obvious absurdity. Games only make that harder, layering heads up displays and other wrought video game-isms on top of a foundation of invented fiction. I say this as a fan of both fantasy and video games, so let me be clear: when I say I cannot take Skyrim seriously, I am not simply referring to “elves talking bullshit” (to borrow a quote from Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives). I am quite prepared to take seriously the most ridiculous bullshit an elf has to say. What I cannot take seriously is Skyrim’s open world, or more specifically, the nonsense borne out of that world’s complex ecosystem.
Imagine the scene: my friend battling bandits on the steep, snow-covered steps of some old ruins. Snow dust swept across the ground, moody music swelled in the background, magical fire poured out of the protagonist’s hands, etc. It was altogether pretty cool. Then we noticed something strange: an arrow stuck clean through the brain of one of the (still living) bandits – a hilarious victim, we supposed, of friendly fire. Then another bandit, slain by sword, toppled down the stairs, but kept going, awkwardly rolling over and over. We had to laugh.
Or consider when my friend slew a cave bear, only to harvest the bear’s pelt and hit carrying capacity in his inventory. He sorted through all of the items he had accumulated: buckets and boots and tankards and other medieval miscellany. (We won’t get into how silly it looks for a fantasy hero to run around collecting buckets.) He threw away a pile of junk. When he exited his inventory menu, all of the items flew out from his body, hitting the bear with spluttering thuds. He left the cave, leaving behind a garbage-covered bear corpse.
As players, we constantly revise the story of our gameplay. We self-censor and edit and create a narrative independent from our literal actions. If my friend had played Skyrim alone, he might instead tell a story of a dramatic mountaintop fight, or his encounter with a fearsome cave bear. If I had been playing alone, I surely would have found these scenes far less silly. If I had been playing, those buckets wouldn’t really exist – they are gaming ephemera, and I choose to be conscious of them or not.
As a spectator, though, I am not personally engaged. I can’t self-edit because I’m not watching myself. Skyrim is such a complex intersection of open world elements that, to an audience, it becomes a farce. I can’t take seriously a game where every few minutes I witness a bandit with an arrow through her head; or a game where the protagonist strips nude all of his fallen enemies; or a game where a warrior taunts “You can’t defeat me!” after (after) she is run through the belly with a longsword. And when the audience can’t take a game seriously, the player grows unusually conscious of those silly video game-isms too. (My friend later said as much about our time playing Skyrim.) I know I find myself especially critical of games when I play them in front of others, probably unfairly.
Not all games are so unintentionally silly as Skyrim. Some games embrace the comedy inherent in the unpredictable nature of open world design. Other games rein in player freedom, directing players down tightly scripted corridors. And some games begin to treat the player more as audience than gamer. Several critics have written of the Uncharted series less as a shooter and more of an interactive action movie: Naughty Dog as director, the player as actor. Writing for Kill Screen, Richard Clark said:
But who are we to complain? Naughty Dog has given us the privilege of taking part in Nathan Drake’s life. It’s a life that’s entirely more exciting and fulfilling than we will ever experience, filled with risk, adventure, romance, friendship, and treasure. Our lives, with all their mundanity and reasonableness, are exactly what we deserve. I mean, we could never handle real control over something as precious as Nathan Drake’s life, even in a videogame.
We’d just screw it up.
Skyrim gives us many opportunities to do exactly that: to screw it up, to be stupid, to collect buckets. For all of its self-serious fantasy gloom, Skyrim is nothing so much as an engine of absurdity. To an audience, even a sympathetic one, Skyrim is a brazen clown show. Whether the player ignores that clown show or becomes an active participant, I don’t know; but the player is able to take seriously what the audience cannot.
Sometime in 2006, I was sitting at my computer, all by my lonesome, playing Oblivion. I was trekking across Cyrodil’s countryside and encountered a truly striking scene: a family of deer grazing peacefully on a hillside – the sort of discovery that makes a lovingly detailed world so much fun to explore. And then I pressed the Attack button, and my character raised his fists on screen. And then I decided to attack the deer with my bare hands. They fled at my first punch, running uselessly into a nearby pond. I waded after them and pummeled each deer to death with my bare hands.
This experience stays with me not for its unimaginable stupidity (though it is unimaginably stupid), but for how little it interrupted my play experience. I screwed up, and screwed up bad, and I continued without pause to my next quest. My deer fight was barely a speed bump. I folded it into my ongoing narrative and did not worry for even a moment about reconciling it with a story I otherwise took seriously. My deer fight didn’t really happen because I chose to ignore it. But I could not ignore when my friend dumped a pile of buckets onto a bear corpse. To the player, not everything happens even though it does. To the audience, everything just happens.