I first picked up Skyrim on the day it came out: November 11th, 2011. I remember ‘cos there was that super badass advert with the ‘huh, hoh, hwaaaaah‘, and at the end the 11-11-11 turned sideways and turned into SKYRIM and it was awesome.
(Note, having gone and looked for that trailer: I may have been misremembering, since that doesn’t seem to have been a thing. Oh, well. Here’s one not dissimilar.)
I played that game a lot over… probably the next year or two, actually. My first playthrough I did pretty much everything: main Alduin stuff, Dark Brotherhood, College of Winterhold, the Daedric quests, the Companions… over a pretty long time, but all on a single character, I did most of the things that Skyrim had to offer. That one character became immensely powerful, of course, and I imagine they were a little bit curiously regarded; they did missions for assassins and honourable warriors alike, were honoured in the highest by both mages and fighters, and were generally a little bit amoral.
After what was probably a really long time, I took a little while out from Skyrim to… I dunno, finish my A-levels or something. Later, though, I came back and started anew. This time, I didn’t want to do everything; I’d already seen most all there was to see, and I’d enjoyed that but I didn’t feel like being O Great And Most Powerful Completer of All Things Indiscriminately again. So this time, I came up with a backstory before I started. You don’t really get told much about where your player character’s come from at any point; the only thing all Skyrim PCs have in common is ending up on the cart with Ulfric Stormcloak, heading for execution at Helgen, and everything both before and after that is pretty much entirely up to the player. I opted to be a Bosmer, or wood elf, and – although this could never actually manifest explicitly in-game – decided that my character was nobility who’d left their home and their station to travel the world in search of stories.
That character might not have ever even discovered they were the Dragonborn, actually; after surviving their execution, they found their way to Solitude, capital of Skyrim, and talked to as many people as possible to hear their stories. Hearing of the feats of the Companions, they signed up and gained a companion in Aela the Huntress, whom they married not all that long after and settled down with. After that, they travelled around collecting books and building a little library in their modest home, occasionally going on little quests just to make a good story of things.
My second character never levelled up most of their skills, using only the archery and basic magics they already knew from their previous life; they never completed the vast majority of quests, didn’t join any factions but one, never took a side in the Stormcloak-Empire conflict. (Side note: I’ve never sided with the Empire. Not once.) Their life was more simple, but also much more consistent, a much more personal story. I think I enjoyed that character more than my first one.
Breadth and Depth
I didn’t realise it at the time, but this sort of role-playing is something a lot of people do in Skyrim. Coming up with a backstory, even though the game can never acknowledge it, and then acting consistently with their character’s history and personality is something a lot of players have done. Rather than do anything and everything, players will choose to… make their character an aspiring mage, then go off and do the College of Winterhold questline and perhaps thereafter live in the forest collecting ingredients forever, perhaps. Or they could learn a trade, becoming a skilled smith and making a real living creating weapons and armour for their fellow townspeople. Heck, maybe some people have never even left Riverwood, just choppin’ logs forever. More power to ’em.
Skyrim has a lot of breadth, by which I mean that there’s a wide range of content for players to explore, but it also has depth: each individual component is well-thought-out, allowing a player to make an entire game out of a single aspect. I think a big part of the reason that it’s seen so many rereleases, and is still widely played and modded today, is because it allows almost any player to experience almost any style of play they like.
Intrinsic and Extrinsic Gameplay
This makes me wonder about a wider point: if I play through something like the Dark Brotherhood questline, I’m evidently playing something that the developers created and intended to be experienced in this way. There are aspects and functions which were designed and included in the game deliberately, considered and tested and planned out with a preconception in mind as to how this would become part of the player’s experience.
If, however, I decide that I’m going to eschew all the quests, instead deciding to buy a house, get married, become… a bandit hunter, or something, that would seem to me to be something that the developers couldn’t have intended, at least not to quite the same extent. Sure, they implemented the framework which allowed for that gameplay to happen (if there were no marriage mechanics and no bandits, I couldn’t get married and become a bandit hunter), but this behaviour is emergent from those elements in a way that I don’t think is… part of the game.
It’s a thought process derived from the idea of authorial intention, or perhaps of function. We judge (criticise, in the judgmentally-neutral sense) games, as well as other entertainment media like novels and movies, based on an understanding of what they were trying to do. We don’t judge a movie for not being a banana, because it wasn’t trying to be a banana (unless it was, and I’m sure Black Mirror will eventually do a banana special); we judge it on its merits as a movie. There’s inevitably some divination as to the intention of what the work, or its authors, might have been – what it was attempting to accomplish, in other words – and whether the thoughts behind, and process of, designing ought to be taken into account is probably a different matter, but I think it’s fair to say that we critique based on an understanding of a work’s intended function and whether it lives up to that. We judge a game based on whether it’s a good game, not whether it’s a good microwave.
The question I’m trying to eventually drive to is whether, when judging a game like Skyrim, we can account for these seemingly extrinsic elements. Skyrim isn’t designed, or intended, to be a marriage-and-blacksmithing simulator; at least, I would argue it isn’t. This is something that players have created for themselves from and within a game, not an intrinsic part of the game’s function as it was designed.
Perhaps this example isn’t clear-cut enough, so let’s have a quick think about some others.
Minecraft – The Most and Least Intrinsic Game?
On one end of the scale, we’ve got something like Minecraft wherein the entire function of the game is basically to allow people to create their own games (or other works). I’m aware that there are kind of loose narrative gameplay elements – surviving is a kind of story, and there’s now an ‘end goal’ in beating the Ender Dragon, I think? It’s been a while. Either way, I think whatever narrative Minecraft might have isn’t its primary draw, nor the thing it was really created to provide.
I think this puts Minecraft in an odd position whereby it has very little intentional function in its design, but at the same time its function is, intentionally, to allow people to create an enormous array of works within the game. People can create whatever structures they like, but they can also create entire worlds, stories, even narratives. I think including the potential that Minecraft purposefully facilitates when appraising it as a game is perfectly valid; it’s the whole point of the game, and so judging it on whether it is good at allowing all this extrinsic content to be created seems entirely sensible.
Hypothetically, The Most Extrinsic Game Possible
I can’t think of a good real example for this, so let’s do a little collaborative imagining.
Imagine a first-person shooter game with online multiplayer. The game involves two teams, one white and one black, all trying to kill each other or capture a flag or whatever. Now let’s say that this game has a huge fanbase of people who don’t actually do any shooting whatsoever, but who meet up within the multiplayer servers and play chess. The game itself doesn’t actually have anything like chess programmed into it, but some enterprising players realised that since there were already white and black teams, and since they could change their ‘skins’ (outfits) to include hats and other things that would distinguish members from each other, you could just get sixteen white-team and sixteen black-team players to represent all the pieces on a chessboard and have a good old game of chess.
When this game was released, I imagine that the reviews would have judged it on how well it fit its intended function of ‘being a good first-person-shooter game’. I very much doubt any reviewer would have written:
The shooting elements of the game are truly terrible and without merit. However, a very enjoyable game of chess can be played, and for that I must give it a high score.
That just doesn’t seem to be sensible; it’s factoring in something which I think most people would argue isn’t really part of the game, so it seems unreasonable to account for it in a judgement or criticism.
It’s sort of like judging a hammer on how good it is as a paperweight or a sci-fi-robot-antenna-costume-prop, rather than how good it is at hammering things. These extrinsic elements aren’t part of the value of the hammer-as-intended-function, I think, but they are things that can add extrinsic value.
One More Example – Self-Imposed Challenges
Something else that we sometimes judge games on is how they manage their difficulty. We like games to be hard enough, to be difficult to the extent that is consistent with their tone or themes. For example, Dark Souls is all about hopelessness and cycles, so we praise it for being pretty tricky. Pokémon, however, especially in newer generations, is designed to be an appealing and fun game for players of all ages, so I think it being fairly easy to get through is actually a good design choice, or at least a consistent one.
Lots of people like making games harder for themselves, so they’ll do things like play Pokémon with extra rules that mean they have way fewer ‘mons on their team, or play an action RPG without changing from the starting equipment or levelling up (so that their stats stay the same throughout). Those self-imposed rules are not part of the game itself, but created, defined, and implemented externally by the players – though, of course, they have to be possible to stick to in the medium and framework of the game.
I think, when judging games, we analyse the difficulty as the game presents it to us. We assume that the game wants us to use all the tools it gives us, and judge whether it’s well-balanced based on whether we get a satisfying experience and a reasonable, thematically-consistent curve of challenge that feels immersive and fulfilling. We don’t tend to judge games based on how well they lend themselves to doing self-imposed challenges, as far as I can tell.
Imagine reviewers judging a new Pokémon game on how well it was suited to Nuzlocke runs and ignoring the experience that most players will have, the experience which the game had in mind when it was designed. It wouldn’t make a lot of sense.
For this reason I consider that there are intrinsic and extrinsic aspects to games when it comes to difficulty, and for the reasons I’ve outlined above I think this extends to intrinsic and extrinsic elements of gameplay and narrative, too.
Blurring the Lines
These days, it’s perhaps easier than ever for gamers to create extrinsic content thanks to communities on the Internet and the accessibility of mods. Gamers can create self-defined rules or playstyles and share them with the world so that everyone can also apply these practices to their own game, or they can even mod it so that the game actually includes those practices in itself.
Again, though, I don’t think any of these community-defined elements can be included when doing criticism as it relates to the game itself, because I don’t think they’re strictly part of the game-in-itself. That feels like a bigger point which extends into literary and critical theory, but perhaps I’ll come back to that later.
Oh, Yeah, and Back to Skyrim For A Hot Minute
So Skyrim has a lot of extrinsic content that players define for themselves, whether that’s via modding or via role-play or simply via choosing to explore aspects of the game that the game itself doesn’t actively push them towards. It also has a heck of a lot of intrinsic content, things that were intentionally put there for people to experience in that way.
I think that’s why Skyrim‘s still getting new releases, new versions, new mods and content and players, and is basically still a very widely-played game despite being over seven years old. It’s that balance of having both a wealth of things to experience within the game itself and also having the framework to enable people to create their own, non-designed, emergent experiences.
If there’s one thing I’m taking away from this, it’s that I just really want to go play Skyrim now.
The Hannah Addendum
I was talking about this with my other half, who has a hilariously sensible way of looking at things, and her thoughts on the matter bear recording.
To her, it sounds like people who do the kind of role-playing I talked about in Skyrim are playing the wrong game. They’ve basically decided they really want to play The Sims, but they haven’t got The Sims, they’ve got Skyrim, so they just do their best to play the former game using the medium and mechanics of the latter.
It’s a bit like using a chess board to play checkers, I guess: you’ve got the right basic materials there (a black-and-white checked board and a number of black and white pieces), and with a little bit of imagination you can reappropriate those materials for a different set of rules, basically changing the game. In this example, Skyrim provides the basic materials – things like the ability to walk around, to interact with people, to buy a house, to exchange currency – and the player interprets those through slightly different application of play into something closer resembling The Sims. The medium doesn’t change – it can’t – but the player reimagines these RPG mechanics through simply framing them a little differently, imagining blacksmithing not as a skill to further their fighting capability but as a potential career path (for example).
The question, of course, is why you wouldn’t just play The Sims instead, and when Hannah posed this to me I found myself completely without an answer. I think what you create by doing this is something which is neither Skyrim nor The Sims – it’s qualitatively different from both, and quantitatively different from the latter if not the former – but some extrinsic creation which uses intrinsic elements of both.
This feels worryingly like I’m about to get into an actual treatise on some element of game theory that I’ve basically just made up, so let’s wrap it up there. I’d love to hear thoughts from people who’ve used one game to play another, though! Perhaps you’ve role-played in Skyrim, or created a playable version of Snake in Minecraft, or… I dunno, reimagined Football Manager as a dystopian cyberpunk shooter, somehow.