In keeping with my last post, I thought I would keep the Skyrim theme going. This one will focus on teaching and leading players in a game through design, using Skyrim for good and bad examples. I’m not the first to touch on this subject. It’s pretty central to game design theory in general. For further examples, I recommend Sequelitis: Mega Man Classic vs. Mega Man X by Egoraptor. He will, as he says, “blow your f@%&ing mind!”
Let’s start from the beginning of the game. I’ll try to stay vague where possible, but let thee be warned: Spoiler Alert!
In the early days of gaming, we didn’t have your fancy “tutorials”. We learned by fire, and we liked it! Okay, that isn’t really true. Much like Portal, the entire game was a tutorial. We learned what the game had to offer as it happened. The goal is to introduce game play elements in mostly sterile environments that integrated well into regular play before expecting the player to act upon them in a challenging scenario. The idea is that once you have seen something once, you can recognize the patterns and know what to expect when you see it again, because things should be consistent like that. More advanced games have made it harder to do this in a sane fashion (or have gotten lazy, your pick), and thus we have the “tutorial level”.
Skyrim has multiple areas that I would call tutorial levels. The first is the obligatory opening scene, which begins with you able to do little more than look around. Nothing pops up saying “look here, now look here”. Things simply happen around you, and you are compelled to turn and look at them. You aren’t treated like this is your first game. Yet if this was your first game, this sequence is excellent, intuitive practice.
When the dragon attacks (more on him in a bit), you are free to move and the game gives you points to run to. There’s no disembodied voice or massive text box informing you to walk to some virtual reality waypoints. There is a waypoint, but the reason for being there is anything but arbitrary. A dragon is wrecking all hell, fire is raining from the sky, and there is only one safe place to find cover nearby. There is a sense of tension and meaning to the tutorial.
Shortly after, you are introduced to jumping when asked to leap from the hole in a tower to a building below. You aren’t just being taught jumping, however. Notice that the leap is just far enough to hurt. Your health bar appears on screen, slightly diminished, and then slowly fills back up.
Wha’zabahuh? What’s that red bar? I grunted as I landed. I think I just got hurt. I see, it hurts if you fall too far. Oh, but look, it’s filling back up. Ah, your health fills back up in this game.
Well aren’t you just a friggin’ genius. Figued that all out by yourself, did you? No text box popped up to say, “zomg, datz yur helf bar, dont dye!” We just learned about the game, entirely through level design.
Help Text (or “Can we just kill that damn paperclip already?”)
Once you get your hands unbound, the game opens up the more complex matters like menus, equipment, magic, and the like, all in a very sort of “here you go kid, have fun”, hog wild fashion. Unfortunately, most of the menus have pop-ups with little explanation windows. In general, we don’t like these. They’re annoying, rarely as informative as we wish, and easy to accidentally skip. If an interface need explaining, then it is more likely a problem with the interface.
These pop-ups also lack context. They display a wall of instructions before the player even gets to see or interact with the things being taught. In general, the human brain just doesn’t function in a “bank random knowledge now, apply later when useful” sort of fashion. Our brains sort through information given to us and quickly drop what isn’t relevant to things we already know. We’re relational thinkers.
Monkey See, Monkey Do
Later on, you walk down into the torture chamber. You encounter a fight in progress and a character launching bolts of lightning.
Look, lightning! That’s friggin’ sweet! I wanna do that!
After the fight is over, you get treated to your first bit of lockpicking as you are asked to open a cage with some gold in it. But, what is this?
This dead guy is wearing robes. They give me magicka? Magicka regen? Those sound like magic. What’s this book. Spark? Oh, if I try to use it, it says I’ve learned the spell Spark. Hmm, spells come from books. Good to know. Now to test out my new Sith Lord awesomeness.
Just down the hall is a room with lots of soldiers. Most are at a range, and there are more of them than you have encountered thus far. It is extremely likely you will run out of magicka tossing lightning bolts around. Through this, you quickly learn your limits. I promise you that was no fluke. That’s level design.
Dragons See, Dragon Do?
I could go on highlighting these things, but I’ll leave it to you to go back through and catch them. The last part of the tutorial I wanted to call attention to was the dragon. The dragons are presented amazingly in this game. Your first encounter, you can only watch as he springs (albeit in a very scripted fashion) around the town, making havok. But everything the dragon does, those are things a dragon you will encounter later might do (shy of maybe the Kool-Aid man stunt through the side of the tower). In fact, the first thing you see the dragon do is shout, which turns out to be a critical mechanic in the game.
The second time you meet a dragon, you have a group of guards and a burly housecarl at your side. The game even makes it a point of never spawning a dragon until you’ve had this second trial. The prequel, Oblivion, did much the same thing with Oblivion gates, in which you learned how the gates can be closed. Here, there is terrain tailor made to expose what fighting a dragon is like. There are walls and rocks to use for cover and perches for the dragon to cling. And if you just can’t take him on alone, Irileth and her guards are more than capable, given enough time. You now know what you are up against, when the next dragon catches you alone in the wild.
Now, a small complaint. When you defeat the dragon, you absorb the dragon’s soul and it unlocks the “Unrelenting Force” word you discovered in an earlier dungeon. This lead me and many others to come to the assumption that this would be how all dragons work from that point on. Kill a dragon, unlock a word. As it turns out, you bank dragon souls, and must go into the menu and unlock the ones of your choice by hand. The inconsistency leads to confusion. It teaches the player, but teaches them wrong. Sure, there is a text box that sets the record straight. Remember what we said about text boxes? These are the moments that make games frustrating.
Just to ram it into your skulls, you remember that shout I talked about? You saw a dragon do it first. But, between that point and when you learn it, you fight a boss who uses that very same shout against you. You know, first hand, what it does by time you unlock the ability to use it.
No Fist Bump for You
Historically, the ability to settle matters with your fists has been a thing with the Elder Scrolls series and spin-offs, since the second game or so. It has never been the best option (though it was more than competitive in Fallout 3), but it wasn’t without its uses. The decision not to continue that tradition was unpopular, but not a poor one in itself. The problem was that they didn’t really tell us it was gone. Quite the opposite, the game made us feel like the option was totally valid.
At character creation, your first option is your character’s race. If you look at the Khajiit, you’ll see their abilities described as, “all Khajiit can see in the dark at will and have unarmed claw attacks.”
Oh, snap. Unarmed attacks. That’s a thing in this game.
Whether you chose to be the catlike Khajiit or not, this is now in your head. Before your hands are even unbound, you are already regarding them as lethal weapons. You may have even decided to try them out, and lo, things die when you punch them. This is, indeed, a “thing” in this game. Shortly after, you gain your first level. You have a perk point to spend, and you look over what your options will eventually be. You see a perk called “Fists of Steel” under the Heavy Armor category.
“Unarmed attacks with Heavy Armor gauntlets do their armor rating in extra damage.” Unarmed attacks are a thing, and if I’m serious about them, I should consider taking this. But where is the “Unarmed” skill? I don’t see it. Well, there is a “One-handed” skill. I am hitting them with one of my hands. You can’t get much more literal than that. I should put some effort there as well.
Not only do we begin to absorb what we are told, but we begin to fill in the gaps, based on what we now know. Like I said, humans are relational thinkers.
The problem with everything I put in the little player thought quote blocks above is that they are all wrong. Unarmed attacks are not a “thing” in Skyrim, at least not a supported thing. Aside from one more enchanted light armor glove in a sewer in the far corner of the map, that is all there is to unarmed attacks. The One-handed skill does not influence unarmed attacks. No skill does. ”Fists of Steel” is the only perk that does, and it only considers the base value of the gauntlet, not any improvements or skill you have with heavy armor. By the mid-levels, unarmed attacks barely scratch a pixel from enemy health bars. They serve no use to a character, long term.
Again, this would be fine, in and of itself. It is the developer’s prerogative to remove support for unarmed attacks. The deadly sin here is leading a player to think otherwise through your game’s design. Gameplay elements speak, and players listen.
Free Will is an Illusion
“Free Will is an Illusion”. ”Player freedom is an Illusion”. Wow, yeah, these are very charged statements in the video game world, and you’ll find lots of industry papers on the topic, if you look around. But since this isn’t an industry-facing blog, I’ll level with you. It’s a loaded statement designed to spark debate and one, zen-like conclusion: Games, like life, are defined by their limitations. Game code is, at the most basic level, a long list of rules. What makes it an interactive experience is what the player does within those rules. We resonate with those rules. We can respond and interact with them in a ways no other media can do. With books and movies, we can only empathize. With games, we are pulled into a unique universe with its own rules and customs. We do not dwell on the impossible in a game anymore than we do in life. Even our fantasies are simply wishful variations of the world we know.
I say all of this, because I want you to understand what you might be feeling, when you feel frustration at a game’s lack of “freedom”. Is it likely that you feel the game should give you more options? Do you play Super Mario Bros., and lament that Mario cannot walk around an enemy? At the end of the third stage, does it frustrate you that Mario can’t simply walk past the castle, knowing that his princess is still 7 castles away? We may joke about these things, but they are not truly restrictive feeling moments. The rules and narrative are consistent, and it just feels right.
So, why does Skyrim feel so restrictive at times? Well, this next segment here is going to be a spoiler, because I want to share the moment in the game that hit this home for me. If you have not chosen to side with the Stormcloak rebellion and don’t want it ruined, feel free to skip past.
How I Saved Whiterun (Mega Spoiler Alert!)
If you follow the main quest out of the beginning, almost immediately you will find yourself at the doors of the town of Whiterun. The events that follow put you in very good graces with them and you can even buy a house. While this is possible anywhere, the game makes it a point to make this town the most accessible. You become familiar with it. These are the otherwise unimportant NPCs whose names we remember, just from seeing them so often. They are your friends and neighbors. You may have even joined the Companions, who call Whiterun their home. Undeniable effort is made such that you will feel at least some bond to this place. And though a civil war rages all around, they have made efforts to remain neutral in the conflict. If you ask the kindly leader of the hold his allegiance, he will even tell you that he is on the side of his people.
Should you join the side of the rebellion, their leader, Ulfric Stormcloak, will eventually send you to try to convince Whiterun to side with him. With the Jarl’s hand pushed, he will deny Ulfric and turn to the Imperial Legion. Ufric answers the betrayal by announcing they will storm Whiterun by force, and that you are to help.
At this point, I was visibly shaken. I felt the story had done an amazing job of setting me up for this crossroads. Would I side with the rebellion, whose beliefs struck a chord with me, despite Ulfric’s less than open-minded demeanor? Or would I stand by my trusting friends and neighbors who called me their Thane? If nothing else, Whiterun was kind of where I kept my stuff. The dilemma weighed heavy on me as I turned off the game to sleep on it.
When I returned to the game, I found that no such choice existed. My choices were:
- Join the assault on Whiterun, overthrowing the leadership, but otherwise having no immediately obvious impact on anyone’s lives. (The blacksmith even continues to talk about her father being the Jarl’s advisor, despite him being quite violently removed from office.)
- Ignore the matter entirely, effectively leaving the quest in an eternal, unresolved limbo. My fellow Stormcloaks would wait at the ready for me to initiate an assault that would never take place. Everyone would continue to talk about a raging civil war that would forever be.
You Can Open Your Eyes Now (Mega Spoiler Over)
This happens in Skyrim a lot. (Yeah, I put that line in just so some of you would go, “what happens a lot?! I skipped that part like you said I could!” Yeah, I’m a stinker.) You are set up with difficult sacrifices that purposely resonate with our moral beliefs, but when it comes down to it, the feeling of sacrifice turns shallow when we realize that we do not actually have a say. They ask powerful questions. Would you sacrifice your immortal soul to a higher power to protect those you call friend? Would you invite into yourself a savage presence, compromising who you are, for greater power? These are deeply personal questions that the narrative and mechanics make strides to highlight, and then you are not given an actual choice other than to walk away, never to involve yourself with these people or situations ever again.
I find this disjointed reaction vs. mechanics in even the tiniest of moments. I was once attacked by hired thugs. On their body was a contract telling them to rough me up, with the name of an NPC I knew (I had stolen his sweet roll; I wish I was joking about that). It was a hard fight and I died twice before finally defeating them. Naturally, I went to the NPC and gave the old gruff a piece of my mind. And a piece of my fist, for good measure. As it turned out, he was considered “essential” to some quest, and could not die. He got back up and chased me to some guards, where I died. Why was this letter present, if I was not able to react to it?
This is the very essence of lost freedom. It isn’t the lack of choice that is so infuriating. It is the lack of choice in the face of a game asking you to make a choice. These are the invisible walls that we players hate so much. It is the visible path we are shown, but cannot walk, that drives us to cry for freedom.
This whole article has been dedicated to leading players with the mechanics of a game. I hope I hit enough examples to demonstrate what I mean by that, and to give you an idea what to look for on your own. It is in the controls, the score, the goals, the level design, the story and everything else. Games are only rules. It is the player and how they react to those rules that makes the experience. When we are mislead about those rules, the very foundations of that interaction is jolted. We lose trust in them, we become confused, and we become frustrated. Keep an eye out, next time you are playing. You’ll see the gremlins of gaming at work too.
I was dabbling about on the GameFAQs forums, and got into a bit of discussion on a related topic, when one user caught me well off guard with some factors I hadn’t even touched on. In the interest of spreading the joy, this is that post:
by hunterofjello; Posted 12/15/2011 1:05:13 PM [original thread] (It’s mostly a topic about graphics vs. content, but some decent stuff, as casual Internet discussion goes.)
The way that the game catches your eyes and ears to direct your attention is very subtle. If you look closely you’ll notice that each of the important characters in the game have had more attention paid to them and have interesting details to them. This includes each of the companion characters. Many of the voices of the common people are the same, but often the key characters and companion’s voices are completely different.
Unique buildings and structures are also very impressive when you discover them because you’ve been walking through so much scenery that is all the same (although pleasing to the eyes) for so long.
The use of music and sounds is also very well done. Different types of battles use different music. Fights against dragons will start by you hearing a distant echo of a sort of muffled roar. Then you hear an actual roar as the Dragon Fighting Music begins to play.
All of the unique items in the game also feel so much more unique when you find them since all of the rest of the items in the game are so similar. You can find your 10th Ebony Sword of Whatever in a row (that is albeit cool looking) and then obtain a sword like Dawnbreaker and get blown away by how awesome it looks.