Skyrim: character under-development

Minor spoilers.

Skyrim is a game marketed as “reimagin[ing] and revolutionis[ing] the open-world fantasy epic, bringing to life a complete virtual world open for you to explore any way you choose. The legendary freedom of choice, storytelling and adventure of The Elder Scrolls is realised like never before.”

Except it isn’t.

It’s certainly a fun game and a technically impressive one. It often does a good job of making you think it’s an open sandbox game, but it’s really not. There’s nothing wrong with linearity – Portal 2 tells a linear story and I’d call it the best game of 2011 – but it seems dishonest to market this as an open-world game. It feels free, because it has a huge and beautiful world to explore that’s quite fun to just piss around in even without a quest objective. There is freedom in movement but little in character development. Sure, you can spec however you want without having to pick a character class, but that’s just gameplay style. Otherwise, your choices are that you can do a quest or not do it (with no option to delete or hide unwanted quests you are no longer interested in tracking), and you can choose the order you address your current quests.

Near the start of the previous game, Oblivion, you are forced to watch as an assassin kills the Emperor right in front of you – even though by that stage you are sufficiently equipped to have taken out the assassin before he could reach the Emperor. The game simply doesn’t let you. There are several more moments like this in Skyrim, where the game goes into cutscene mode and forces you to watch a murder or other crime your character would have been capable of preventing. Why not let us do this, and have that piece of the storyline go along a different path if we do so? There is in fact an example of this, where you can either assist a political fugitive in escaping her captors, or carry out your original orders to track her down and bring her in. I was pleased by this and expected the rest of the game to continue being this free. Most of it isn’t.

A particularly immersion-breaking quest is one many players have dubbed ‘the slut-shaming quest‘. The questgiver, Svana, disapproves of her aunt Haelga’s (consensual, private) sexual habits. Haelga has slept with three men in one month. Good lord! Svana asks, “What kind of woman would do such a thing?” An awesome one, that’s who! Svana seeks the player’s help in ‘rubbing [Haelga’s] face in it’ by confronting her with evidence of her behaviour and threatening to make it public. There is no in-game way of telling Svana her behaviour is obnoxious, that Haelga’s sex life is none of her niece’s business, or saying ‘U jelly?’ Your choice as a player is replying ‘There must be a way’ to Svana’s ‘Just once I’d like to see her squirm’, or hitting Esc to discontinue the conversation. Either your character is a slut-shaming douche, or you don’t carry out the quest. The only winning move is not to play. It could have been a good twist if you collected the Marks of Dibella (tokens Haelga gives to men she’s slept with) and showed them to Haelga, only for her to reply ‘ha ha, so what?’ or even call the guards on you for invading her privacy. It’s also just a bizarre scenario – a world which is okay with same-sex marriage and inter-species marriage (you can play as a human, an elf, an orc, a cat person or a lizard person) should be unperturbed by someone sleeping with just three people in one month. Furthermore, Haelga lives in Riften, which is home to the Temple of Mara, a god of love! It feels as though this quest was written by someone who couldn’t see that there was any other way to resolve the situation.

I find it hard to accept the possible explanations of lazy writing or technical limitations. The writing team were able to fit in dozens of readable books (you can read any book you find, and most have the equivalent of at least 2 sides of A4 of text), most of which are drivel. If they have time to write drivel, they have time to write more lines for your character (which don’t even need voice acting). Contrast Echo Bazaar: a little browser RPG created by people originally working out of their bedrooms, which after a year and a half of play has never made me pick a response that seemed out of character. I find it hard to believe that a professional game studio couldn’t do better.

I made a pleasant discovery early in the game, when a questgiver in Riverwood sent me to a dungeon to retrieve his MacGuffin. Upon finding it, the game suggested I continue exploring the dungeon. I did so (it would have been nice if the game had let me discover for myself there was more to the dungeon, but there you go), and after duffing up a mini-boss I found an odd object I couldn’t see a use for, but took with me anyway. Later, I made my way to the city of Whiterun, where the court wizard asked me to go and retrieve an object from a nearby dungeon… the very same odd object I’d already found! He praised me for having already got it for him, and rewarded me. Brilliant, I thought – I don’t have to wait to get quests to explore places and kill bosses. Compare this to, say, World of Warcraft; one of the most annoying features of which is its lack of retroactive quest completion (kill a baddie, get put on a quest to kill the same baddie, no option to say you’ve already iced them). Unfortunately, that dungeon and object seem to be an exception and not the norm. Several times I’ve killed dragons living on mountaintops or bandit leaders in hideouts, and then later on found out that there’s a bounty on that particular dragon or bandit, whom I have to go back and kill again in order to collect my reward. (And because I’m technically killing the same dragon again, I don’t get an extra dragon soul.) Guff. It gives me less incentive to explore the game world – if I do find a cave, I might pop in to see if it has any good loot, but now that I know I’ll have to do it again if I want a quest reward, why do it twice instead of once?

Sometimes, less can be more. You can side with the Imperials or the Stormcloaks (or neither, by not doing either recruitment quest), but not both. This is a good thing, because it allows each leg of that storyline to be developed independently and makes me want to roll a second character so I can explore the other leg. But if you’re going to let us join the Thieves’ Guild and the Dark Brotherhood and the Mages’ College and the Bards’ College and the Companions (Skyrim’s equivalent of the Fighters’ Guild), we’re going to do all of them just to get the rewards. But of course it’s not very realistic to expect one person would do all these different things. It reminds me I’m doing it just to get loot and that I’m not really role-playing. If the game was set up so that, say, joining the Dark Brotherhood (an organisation of assassins) locked you out of joining the more honourable Companions, and vice versa, this would make me excited to play another character to explore the path I didn’t take.

This is fine if you just want to play the game as an exercise in collecting loot and levelling up (which is fun), but it defeats the purpose for me of a role-playing game. In RPGs with creatable characters, I like to make a character who isn’t me and then explore how they would react. I already know what I would do; I want to find out what my character would do and observe them develop as a person. Skyrim doesn’t really offer me that and just reminds me I’m playing a self-insert.

P.S. Regarding the slut-shaming quest, I’m not going to accept ‘it’s a game where most of the quests include killing someone, why do you care about that one’. Murder isn’t something that most people in real life have to worry about, and everyone agrees it’s wrong. Slut-shaming is something that many women do have to deal with and is seen as ‘desirable’ by Western society. Killing virtual baddies is escapism because it allows us to satisfy a primal lizard-brain urge (‘Oh snap, a baddie! Revenge time!’). Shit like this isn’t escapism for those of us who are sick of it in real life.

Fallen London

Towards the end of the 19th Century, London became the fifth city to be stolen by the underground Bazaar. The city exists now in the dark Neath, having little contact with the surface. So goes the story behind Fallen London, a single-player browser-based RPG.

The game uses Twitter or Facebook for authentication, so you’ll need an account with one of these to play. After choosing a name, gender (lady, gentleman, or ‘an individual of mysterious and indistinct gender’) and a silhouette portrait for your character, you begin the game incarcerated in New Newgate Prison, which acts as a tutorial level. After you break out, the city is yours.
It’s lovely to see a game so inclusive right off the bat – many games don’t let you play as a woman, let alone a non-binary person. You’ll also find that your character’s gender doesn’t lock you out of any possible romances with NPCs, or from wearing any type of clothes. The use of silhouettes for representation is also a nice touch, stylistically suitable for the time period and a way of letting you know that your character’s appearance is none of the game’s business.

Mechanically, the game isn’t exciting. All the gameplay involves clicking on multiple-choice paths; you’ll never have to react fast, or type anything except for numbers of objects you want to buy or sell. The hook of Fallen London is the progression of your character from penniless prison escapee to whatever you choose. Become a master thief. Join the University, and maybe get kicked out for being too radical. Become a sailor (sorry, a zailor) and explore the hidden islands of the Unterzee. The game also eases you into its backstory this way, gradually revealing the shocking secrets of the history of London and the Bazaar.

The Neath is a gripping playground for the mind. It’s a warped version of the real London, with its place names hauntingly familiar – Watchmaker’s Hill is an obvious expy of Greenwich, for example. Its subterranean location brings with it Lovecraftian horrors (anachronism, but there you go), and a different way of life from the surface. Mushrooms are harvested for wine, and London’s new proximity to Hell means devils walk the streets alongside the humans and zombies (who come in two flavours: the drownies and the bandaged tomb-colonists). There’s the odd zeppelin too, and you can buy goggles, but thankfully the game has hardly any steampunk wankerypop.

The user interface is themed like a card deck, with two pools of possible actions called opportunity cards and storylets. Storylets are location-dependent, and lock and unlock as your character grows. You opportunity card deck is the same wherever in the city you travel (unless you visit some really weird locations, which take some effort to get to). Every six minutes you receive another opportunity card to draw (from a maximum deck size of six), and you can then play it or discard it. At the start of the game you can hold only one drawn card in your hand at a time, but as you progress to better lodgings you can hold more. Playing a storylet or an opportunity card costs an action (discarding or drawing a card is free), of which you get at least 40 a day – more on that later.

Your character has four main stats, which you’ll spend most of the game grinding in order to unlock more storylets: dangerous (strength), watchful (intelligence), shadowy (stealth/agility), and persuasive (charisma). You can build up any combination that suits you, and there’s nothing stopping you maxing out all four. Each characteristic comes with a corresponding menace, should you attempt to bite off more than you can chew – trying to be too dangerous will get you wounded, failing to be stealthy enough will increase your suspicion, and so on. There’s no permanent penalty for dying, going mad, being re-incarcerated in New Newgate, or being exiled across the Zee, but it’s inconvenient.

As well as the four main stats, your choices in the game will result in you acquiring and losing characteristics such as ruthlessness, austerity, magnanimity, and hedonism. You can also make or break alliances, which tend to come in pairs that lock you out of (or greatly impede progress with) the other. Increasing your connections with Hell, for example, makes it harder to get friendly with the Church, and being a constables’ pet makes you distrusted by criminals. These connections are presented as equal and viable alternatives, with nothing inherently better about each. This all makes it much easier to play your character exactly as you want to play them; the game will rarely if ever force you to do something out of character just to move things along. Progress with all of these connections and quirks nets you – you guessed it – more storylets and cards.

Fallen London is an allegedly free game – around 90% of the content is free to play, with a few storylines and one location unlockable with real money. You can also spend money on an in-game currency called fate, which can sometimes buy you sneakier choices in storylets. For 35 fate (about £5.50) a month you can buy Exceptional Friend status, which will give you 80 actions a day instead of the usual 40. You can boost your actions once a day by ‘echoing’ a snippet of exposition on Twitter or Facebook, which will give you an extra 10 (for free players) or 20 actions (for exceptional friends). Doing this also records the snippet in your character’s journal, which gives you another bit of character development to play with – if you wish, you can echo (and edit) only the snippets most relevant to your Fallen Londoner’s interests, instead of just picking the first one available.

Though single-player, the game allows some minor interaction with your Twitter and Facebook contacts. Sometimes you and your friends will be able to give each other presents, give each other a little stat boost or help chip away at a debuff.
There is also an opt-in subgame called Knife and Candle, in which players attempt to murder each other in a polite and genteel fashion. Knife and Candle is periodically taken down for gameplay balance purposes – as of writing this, it’s still down with no indication of when it’ll be back.

Fallen London is a charming and immersive little world, and gently funny in its own way. It’s easy to pick up, and is very compelling – you’ll probably find yourself watching the timer until your next action refresh. It’s worth creating a Twitter account just to try it.

Originally published July 2011 (when the game was called Echo Bazaar).

Updates: the information about action refreshes is now incorrect. The bad news is that actions refresh every ten minutes, not every six. The good news is that everyone now has unlimited actions per day, Exceptional or not! Exceptional Friend status also costs 25 fate/nex, rather than 35. Nex has largely replaced fate, and the part about echoing snippets to Twitter appears to have been removed.