Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The Elder Scrolls: The best experiences are passed on by the survivors

People who don't live with me in an enclosed space may not be aware that Skyrim is only the fifth game in the Elder Scrolls franchise. Everyone remembers Oblivion, and I hope many of you at least remember Morrowind exists, but beyond that we're straying into Old School territory.

A brief history lesson, then: back before the world of Tamriel was inhabited by thousands of carefully-crafted NPCs  and exactly four voice actors, it was inhabited by tens of thousands of soundless cookie-cutter NPCs (Non-Player Characters - the video game version of extras) in a game called Arena. I first encountered Arena when I was a child, clutching a massive fifty Australian dollaridoos and searching desperately for something to fill the gaping void left by completing Ultima Underworld II. Arena looked a bit like Underworld 2, and cost exactly fifty bucks, so I bought it without any further consideration or research. Such is the serendipitous hubris of an 8-year-old consumer.

I'm not sure how close I was to puberty then, but the box art may also have had some impact on my decision.

The game had one feature which was as interesting as it was pointless: the various cities of Tamriel could be traveled to on-foot, but travel times were close to real-time. I tested it once, pointing my brave avatar at the nearest town and putting a brick on the mouse before going to bed. Sure enough, ten hours later I had overshot the town by some distance, but was still nowhere near the next. A truly open world, if by 'world' you mean 'recurring wilderness tileset with the odd generated inn or monster'.

This was to my small mind the beginning of the open-world genre, the significance of which was completely lost on me as I raced against my dad to be the first to assemble the Staff of Chaos and defeat Jagar Tharn, Imperial Battlemage slash antagonist. He'd kidnapped the Emperor (not Patrick Stewart, an earlier Emperor,) something about a ghost woman, and ultimately the same plot as every fantasy adventure ever. Those were simpler times, before gritty anti-heroes were necessary, before gaming's Brown Period, back when you could make the player move, look and fight in first person using only the mouse and not get laughed right out of game development forever.

Fallout 3: partly responsible for gaming's Brown Period.

I missed Daggerfall completely, and was significantly into my difficult teenage years when I got Morrowind. I thought I'd forgotten most of Arena until I got into it, swiftly recalling Dark Elves and those weird snake guys (Argonians) and the various other nuances which have become the hallmarks of the Elder Scrolls setting. Now I could wander the world between towns and there was actual content the entire way! And what content! The first time I ventured into the forest and it started to rain, I swear I could smell the rain falling around me. I got lost and staggered into another town what felt like four hours later (because it was four hours later) with one of my legs held on with a bit of twine and only a broken spoon left of my gear. The experience left me exhausted yet enervated, a rare achievement among even the best games.

The formative, powerful excitement I felt exploring these worlds was matched only by my mightily heaved yawn of disinterest upon playing Oblivion. The world felt like an empty shell stretched over the incoherent chaos of dungeons and NPCs generated on-the-fly. Like most, after I'd shut down my eighty-sixth Oblivion gate I put the game on the shelf and only took it down occasionally to frown at it in disappointment, or loan it to someone I didn't like. Whether this was a fair assessment of the game or not is beside the point - for me, the game failed to live up to Morrowind's high standard. Meanwhile, the world of Tamriel was still growing and developing as it had been since Arena, in ways I wouldn't fully appreciate until I journeyed to the frozen homeland of the Nords.

Shaping these to look vaguely like a vagina will only keep me entertained for so long, Bethesda.

It was while playing Skyrim that I became fascinated with the lore of The Elder Scrolls. I'd spend a fair chunk of time in Morrowind reading the various books scattered throughout the world, or discussing history with assorted NPCs. It was while reading A Brief History of the Empire during my travels in Skyrim that it gradually dawned on me that the history I was reading was also history from my own life. The tale of the brave adventurer assembling the Staff of Chaos and freeing the realm from Jagar Tharn? That wasn't just some story, that happened! It was me! I was there! Back when I was a little kid! It was like I'd opened up a copy of A History of the English Speaking Peoples only to be reminded I'd single-handedly won the Hundred Years War. I read on to learn also of my deeds fulfilling the Nerevarine Prophecy up north in Morrowind, and further about my vital role in ending the Oblivion Crisis (which sounded a lot more exciting than I remembered it). These tales fit seamlessly into the reams of history and folklore spun to shape the world of Tamriel, giving me a particular sense of connection to the setting the like of which I haven't experienced before or since.

Anything about me in there? No? Well, maybe next time.

My father read Lord of the Rings to me when I was a kid, and though it was a powerful experience to see that world realised in Peter Jackson's films, it was static; it was the same story I'd had read to me, only in a different (less effective) medium. The world of Tamriel, unlike Middle Earth, has grown and changed along with me. The dim memories I have of my childhood are of-a-kind with the dim, passed-down tales of Jagar Tharn's treachery, recent enough to be remembered, but distant enough for details to be lost. As much as cinematic games like Mass Effect and Red Dead Redemption boast that their worlds “adapt and respond to the player's choices” while you play, The Elder Scrolls is a world built on deeds so long past they're barely remembered – except, of course, by those of us who were there.

While I'm sure this is far from a unique experience in the history of story-telling (I've heard people recount their experiences playing family sessions of Dungeons and Dragons throughout their childhood that sound similar), it is nevertheless an amazing feeling to see as an adult the realisation of a world that grew up alongside you. For all the collision physics and emergent events and grass realism and more than four voice actors, what will really stick with me about Skyrim will always be the time I opened a book of history and read a grand documentation of my own childhood experiences, seamlessly integrated into one of the most detailed settings to be found in a video game. The feeling is given a genuine-ness that can't be faked no matter how impressive a budget your production has, or how talented your developers are. It can only be created by the passage of time turning a child into an adult who has the privilege of experiencing first-hand a setting that has been developing almost as long as he has.

One nerd's gross pixelated mess is another nerd's gross pixelated childhood.

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