Roleplay or Foreplay?
I have sung the praises of Bethesda and their Elder Scrolls games before but as I work through the DLC for Skyrim, I feel a public service announcement is in order.
Never buy a Bethesda game at launch.
Not ever. I dutifully picked up Skyrim when it first came out in 2011 since I enjoyed Daggerfall and Oblivion as well as being generally excited for the game from its pre-release information. Fast forward three years and I finally purchased the Game of the Year edition because their stupid DLC never went on a decent sale. I could get the full game again with all the bells and whistles for less than two of their downloadable content. That’s simply inexcusable given that I even supported the developer at launch when those first sales are the greatest price and most important.
So never again. I’ll wait the year and a half to get your completed version on discount.
Anyway, this is beside the point. I still enjoy Skyrim and the Elder Scrolls series. It’s one of my personal preeminent roleplaying game series. As I’ve said before, there is no matching the sense of being dropped in a fantastical world and the wonder or exploration you can feel while exploring its farthest corners on your own, personal adventures.
There is an ugly side, however. Whereas most my roleplaying games will sink or float based on their narrative, I spend most of my time in the Elder Scrolls trying ever so politely to ignore the writing. For the most part, I can do a decent job. The series is full of minor side quests which can eat an astonishing amount of time as you crawl through dank caverns and pull yourself up to astonishing vistas. Who cares if the woman sending you half across the province in search of her husband’s amulet has neither character nor charm? I’m on top of the world battling dragons, trolls and brigands!
Unless, of course, you’re doing a DLC adventure. No one would ever argue that the main questline of an Elder Scrolls game was ever noteworthy. In fact, the best I can say about the writing in Oblivion was that the Dark Brotherhood storyline was “not bad.” That’s truly the greatest praise you can offer. Unfortunately, the DLC seems to only offer main quest line content.
Well, it’s all side questing to be fair. And Hearthfire is, perhaps, the more excusable content. Hearthfire gives you the lovely option to build a house instead of purchasing the prefabricated ones that launched in the game. Granted, you could do that with some very clever mods, but there was also the ability to adopt children included which is what truly made the game. So, I really like Hearthfire and it’s sob story orphans which are sprinkled across all the holds in Ice Age Tamriel.
Dawnguard, unfortunately, went a more narrative approach. There is no other way to say it–it is awful. When the developers moved the focus to their writing, the product truly struggles. Lengthy, involved questlines were never the series strong points and Dawnguard follows the tangential struggle of the titular organization as they attempt to rally support and resources to confront a rising vampire menace. The player is thrust into the middle of the conflict, initially through constant waylaying of devious vampires dressed in their adversaries garb (though always conspicuously standing over dead, stripped bodies making their ruse near immediately foiled) waiting along roadsides at random intervals. If the player wishes to end these random encounters, they’re encouraged by town guard to head towards Fort Dawnguard and seek out its leader, Isran.
When done, the player finds a cliched, grissled and wizened man who has lost near his family and friends due to his single-minded pursuit in ridding the world of all vampires. A noble aspiration, to be sure, but one that would have sounded pretty cracked urned had the player not been tripping over vampire corpses on the way to the fort. But the very first mission Isran tasks you with reveals why the Elder Scrolls is so bad at doing any sort of real narrative.
When tasked with discovering what happened to the Hall of the Vigilant (the original vampire hunters before Dawnguard was delivered), the player discovers an ancient ruin with a cadre of vampires searching it for… something. Of course, the player murders them all and discovers the secret box in the centre and I was legitimately surprised to see that it held a woman.
I was less surprised when this woman turned out to be a nagging clinger who was required to hook on to all of your quests as it followed whatever frustratingly boring family issues she had. Any time Serana opens her mouth, it’s like I’m being transported into a modern BioWare game dripping with cliches and shallow writing. The girl immediately requests you escort her home because it’s late and she’s out well beyond curfew. When you arrive to the soaring Gothic stronghold, no one is surprised to learn Serana’s father is the epitomous Lord Harkon and the villain of the DLC storyline. The man spends about one minute extolling the virtues of being a giant vampire jerk and offers to induct you into his court as a new vampire lackey.
So, immediately, whatever pretense of a story is shattered as the very first mission reward is the game blatantly asking you “Do you want to be a badass vampire or a badass vampire hunter?” I went with hunter because the thought of having to bomb around at night looking for pointless victims to suck their blood in order to keep myself from looking like I’m not some mythical monster that needs immediate execution the moment I look towards a town did not appeal. Course, stupid Serana immediately whisks after me to Fort Dawnguard to stop her father from twirling his mustachio over whatever silly “dark and emo” plan he’s hatched.
I’m just going to say it: vampires are stupid. I’ve only ever seen them handled well once and that was in Vampire the Masquerade. But VtM does something different with vampires that most people forget or ignore: they treat it like a curse. Sure, you get badass powers and immortality but the game’s core mechanics run around how much being a vampire truly sucks as you’re caught now in an intricate web of vampire politics and the ever growing sense that everything that kept you humane and moral is being slowly eroded away in the very act of simply surviving. No, most people prefer to lean on the “dark and sexy” motif of vampire culture and anytime they appear I feel like I’m stuck hanging out with the goth kids in high school again who want to sit around in their black fishnets writing bad poetry about how much the world misunderstands them.
Dawnguard falls directly in that category, in case you’re wondering.
Seriously, Serana’s whole storyline is about how much her parents “don’t get her” and spend all their time telling her what to do and not letting her do what she wants to do. I hate her, her teenage angst and the fact that she’s awful at holding enemy aggression while I’m playing on Legendary difficulty because all she does is sparkle the villains with her stupid red glitter.
I also hate how the game very blatantly writes in a romance option for her and that I mindlessly click on it every time.
I can thank BioWare for that instinct but, truly, it’s a problem with modern game design in general. From Persona to Dragon Age, players are encouraged to whisper honeyed words into the ears of their companions until they have a veritable harem tripping at their feet. Weirdly, as our technology gets better, our ability to simulate interactions get worse. Moral decisions have devolved into basic “good” vs “evil” binary choices. If you’re given a choice at all, of course. Skyrim doesn’t offer any true decisions beyond whether you want to do a quest or not. If you get a choice, however, there’s no functional difference between them. Say, I tell a woman I’ll find her cat out of the goodness of my heart, I’ll be rewarded just as well as if I blackmailed her with embarrassing photos of her kitty in sweaters prior to locating the animal.
Thus, I would be surprised if the vast, vast majority of people didn’t always take the “good” option when given a choice. There’s no negative so why not be heroic and paid for it? Furthermore, when given the option, why not be nice to your companions when given the opportunity? If it is a BioWare game, I’ll likely be able to level up their stats, get better equipment or some other tangible result by telling them what they want to hear. I don’t know what will happen if I keep flirting with Serana but I heavily suspect that I’ll be able to convince her to cure herself of her vampirism if I keep it up.
I’ll probably get a sweet bow too.
And this brings me to the reason I wrote this post in the first place. I’ve just met Serana’s mom (because yes, we’re that far along in our relationship) and had probably the most eye rolling moment ever in my 200 hours of puttering around in Skyrim. Serana’s mom decided to give me a lecture on the value of my word because I’m a vampire hunter and she can’t truly trust me that I have Serana’s best interests at heart because I make a living hunting vampires.
I wish I were joke. A vampire was trying to frame the moral narrative as though I were the oppressor and she some poor, innocent minority just trying to make her way in life beneath my brutality and wickedness. A VAMPIRE. That’s how lazy we’ve become in our narrative writing. The writers seem to be simply on auto-pilot here, feeling as though they need some perspective twist or raising of the stakes. It’s so bizarre and tone-ignorant of their own work as the character had literally just finished telling me about how she chose to be a vampire after dedicating her life to a demon prince that extols the virtues of murder and slavery. I just came from your house, woman, where you decided entrails and viscera made lovely floor decor! Oh, how tragic that some uppity human would consider the mindless, uncaring slaughter of their kind as an offense which needs to be curbed and stamped out. In fact, I don’t even need to murder you since getting vampirism cured in the Elder Scrolls is generally as easy as walking up to a statue and rubbing your face against it!
And of course, throughout this discourse I chose the options wherein I assuaged her concerns over my intentions for her daughter and promised I’d free her of her imprisonment and vanquish her murderous husband so she can return to her quiet life of necromancy and trying to sell innocent souls to otherworldly masters in exchange for power. Had this been anyone else at the helm, this script would be satirical and subversive of genre tropes. But it’s not and it makes its quality all the more painful. At least with the awful main quest, I intersperse it with twenty hours of murdering cave elves.
While I’d love for sweeping changes to how narratives are valued and viewed across the industry, I think the easiest first step would be to address simple interactions. Look, if we’re going to have mindless “good response/bad response” then at least have our NPCs react to them differently. If I live in a world and someone offers to go find me the loveliest mammoth tusk in the steppes, why am I going to turn around and pay them as much gold as it would cost to get the damn thing from the shop two feet from where I spend my hour lunch? No, if my adventurers are stupid enough to not negotiate a reward, then NPCs should undervalue their service. You want to be appropriately reimbursed for your work then you’re not a hero: you’re a mercenary. And if you’re going to sweet talk every girl that walks by, you’re not a charmer: you’re a womanizing creep.
It’s high time that the game started treating us as the monsters we are. Maybe then developers will be forced to make their actual monsters terrifying in order to compete.