Skyrim and the Problem of Audience

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.

, , , , , , , ,

6 Responses to Skyrim and the Problem of Audience

  1. JD November 15, 2011 at 9:59 AM #

    I had the experience of being watched while playing Skyrim over the weekend, and I concur with your analysis.

    Having a spectator made me focus on the silliness more than normal. At the time, I was mostly skulking around town being a miscreant; I ran around on some tables, scattering plates and cheese, picked pockets in plain sight and collected a bunch of useless objects.

    It didn’t really hurt the experience, because I find amusement in the absurdity of it all, but it was very different from the late-night sessions I’ve had alone with the game.

  2. Nekojin November 16, 2011 at 2:40 PM #

    This was one of the things I realized VERY early on with MMOs, particularly third-generation MMOs (World of Warcraft, City of Heroes, etc). There’s so much going on in the world, that the game is almost parodic in its static nature. You turn in a mission to kill boars that are tearing up a campsite, the mission giver thanks you and talks about rebuilding, then turns to the person next to you and asks them to go kill the boars that are tearing up the campsite. Or running across entire continents in under an hour.

    The only way to really cope with these matters, I decided a long time ago, is to treat the game world (cities, zones, etc) as “super-deformed” representations of a real world. Everything visually is compressed down, distilling the game to a manageable subset of a realistic scene. Similarly, the enemies that you see milling about aren’t actually there until you decide that they’re there – there are thousands of purse-nappings and muggings depicted every hour in City of Heroes, but the only ones that actually happen are the ones you choose to interact with. Otherwise, it makes no sense for experienced heroes to fly blithely past some mecha that appear to be trying to blow up a building…

  3. Grayson Davis November 16, 2011 at 2:45 PM #

    Thanks for the replies Nekojin and JD. In response to Nekojin, I had a similar MMO experience when I played in The Old Republic beta this past weekend. It had been some time since I last played an MMO and I forgot how ridiculous MMO worlds can be with all of the constant respawning, mob camping, etc.

  4. Odyssey November 20, 2011 at 5:14 PM #

    Your problem seems to come more from how different playing a game with other people present is than the actual surreal world interactions, which are inherent in open world systems, and imo shouldn’t be sacrificed. I would rather see my items be physically dropped than just disappear, and I would rather be able to manipulate any object in the world at the cost of some silliness than not be able to move anything at all. The best scenario is foreseeing and embracing the absurd interactions (like having an npc get pissed off at having a pot placed on their head and throw it at you), which is something games like those of the MGS series do great great, but it’s also probably unfair to expect that level of nuance in a game as absurdly big as Skyrim.

  5. Odyssey November 20, 2011 at 5:21 PM #

    Your seem to be addressing more how different playing a game with other people present is than the actual surreal world interactions, which are inherent in open world systems and imo shouldn’t be sacrificed. I would rather see my items be physically dropped than just disappear, and I would rather be able to manipulate any object in the world at the cost of some silliness than not be able to move anything at all. The best scenario is the developer foreseeing and embracing the absurdity that comes from emergent mechanics (like having an npc get pissed off at having a pot placed on their head and throw it at you), which is something games like those in the MGS series do great, but it’s also a little unfair to expect that level of nuance in a game as absurdly big as Skyrim.

    But yeah, having other people present can break the illusion of any game.

  6. Ryan December 9, 2011 at 2:48 PM #

    An extension of the peaks and valleys theory? seemingly insignificant fallacies become more pronounced as the medium becomes more life like. The ludicrous notion of a gorilla using floating barrel cannons to zoom around a jungle doesn’t make us blink, but when you create a world that is so life like that it gets the player close to complete immersion, seeing something as stupid as a guy walking around with an arrow in his head is jarring. Like a splash of water to the face of someone having a kick ass dream.

Leave a Reply