12.18.2011

Diaries of a Gamer: It's Just Pretend (Spoilers)


On November 11, 2011, Bethesda Game Studios released a little game called Skyrim. 29 days later, it won Game of the Year at Spike TV's annual Video Game Awards.

I know there are a few gamers within my circle of family and friends, but for those of you who are not gamers, I want to impress upon you how much gaming in recent years has become more of an experience rather than just a matter of playing a game. Monopoly is a game. Skyrim is an experience - a world to be wandered, explored, and puzzled through.

Skyrim is what you call an "open-world" game, meaning that it doesn't consist of "levels" that you beat. Instead, it is a vast landscape where your character can wander over hundreds of virtual square miles, encountering all types of enemies, objects, terrain, towns, cities, caves, ruins, shipwrecks, treasures, etc. The actions you choose to take in the game influence the actions of the NPCs (non-player characters) around you, and even change the storyline. The story in an open-world game is a living story.


With Skyrim, Bethesda Games has taken this idea to whole new level I've never experienced before. Sometimes, my character will be running along a cobblestone road, and several yards up ahead of me, I will witness a wolf attack a rabbit. The mobs (computer-controlled creatures) in the game actually attack each other. I can either continue running and the wolf will see me and attack, or I can crouch and hide, and the wolf will go on its merry way. It all depends on what I choose.

And then there's the visual component of Skyrim. My sister was sitting beside me during the first dungeon I cleared out - an ancient, musty barrow filled with undead wights and booby traps. Both of us sucked in a sharp breath of wonder when I paused and we could see dust motes floating in the air of the barrow. Dust motes. It doesn't end there - there are fish in the rivers, wild dogs, birds in the air, abandoned camp fires, and weather. If you hit your head on a sign, and it swings creakily, the shop owner will chastise you. And sometimes, when your character is out wandering the varied wilds of Skyrim, if you look down at the dirt or a tree stump, if you are lucky, you just might observe a trail of ants.

This just makes me smile.

But the realism in Skyrim doesn't end there. (I use the term "realism" loosely, of course, since Skyrim is set in a fictitious ancient realm where there are dragons and potions and magic...) What was keeping me awake last night as I laid in bed were the actions I found myself taking in the game, and the moral path my character had traveled down of late. With Skyrim, Bethesda Games has taken great care to make the "straight and narrow" path of "right" as difficult to follow as it is in real life. Often, you begin a quest with the best of intentions, and before you know it, in order to complete the quest, you've become muddled up in the murder of innocents, theft, or political intrigue, and you aren't so sure you like your faction anymore. In fact, you've a rather jaded view of the whole operation now.

Right off the bat, I intended to be the righteous hero of Skyrim, as I see myself in all video games I have played up to this point. But it wasn't long before I tried to help a citizen who was investigating a conspiracy within his city and the city guard captured me and threw me in jail. Once in jail, I was faced with three choices - serve my time by mining silver (I had no idea how many hours of gameplay this would take), break out on my own, or break out with the help of the members of the conspiracy I had been trying to unearth. I sat there sighing.

My sister, observing, said, "You're disappointed you're in jail, aren't you."

She knows me all too well.

It was all downhill from there. A switch flipped inside my head, and I figured, hey, what's the point of trying to be good when it ends like this? I joined the Thieves Guild and then I joined the Dark Brotherhood - a secret society of assassins.

Here's my character, Freawulfa, in Nightingale armor. Nightingales are elite members of the Thieves Guild. 

Here's Freawulfa riding a scary undead horse with red eyes that was a reward for assassinating someone.

Here's Freawulfa in the emperor's clothes, after she assassinated the emperor.

Now, there are those of you out there, probably not huge fans of video games in general, who will make an excellent point as follows:

"What do you mean, Michelle, by the 'path of right' in a video game where there is killing at all? When is killing ever okay?"

And this is where I open it up to the forum. As a gamer, there are many games where it seems "obvious" which side is good and which side should be slain without mercy. For instance, I grew up playing Doom II, in which you play a marine who has been deployed to Mars because Mars contains a gateway to hell, and you must eradicate the hell infestation. So in that game, at least, you don't feel guilty about any of the targets you eliminate. The question I put before you is this: In games where it is possible to follow a system of morality or not to follow it, should we try our best to do right because it is important on a mental/spiritual level to behave consistently, whether our victims are real people or just a cluster of pixels... OR because it is just role-playing - like we participate in on Halloween or like actors do for films - is gaming in fact one outlet where it is appropriate to explore a different kind of storyline than you would ever dare unravel in your real life?

I don't know what my answer is yet. What I do know is that, like Ebeneezer Scrooge, though it is the eleventh hour, Freawulfa can be redeemed. After laying awake in bed last night, feeling a little silly about it, but praying for forgiveness for killing people in the game who held no ill will toward me (this is the kind of crazy thing that happens to religious gamers, I suppose), I have decided Freawulfa will turn her back on the Dark Brotherhood, and dedicate the rest of her life to bettering the realm. That is what repentance means - to turn around. And God knows, I could use more practice at repentance. Whether it be in worlds real or synthetic makes no difference.

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