Try Again? – on being a prodigal gamer (oh, and Skyrim)

by James M. Potter

I played games as a kid. Nintendo’s consoles were my bread and butter, and you can probably estimate my age with considerable accuracy when I say that they were the Super Nintendo, the Nintendo 64, and latterly the GameCube. I varied my diet with the Playstation 2 and the PC, and refreshed my palate with Game Boys of various types. My tastes were not elite, nor were they especially refined, but I had a lot of fun in my virtual worlds of choice – Hyrule, Spira, Lylat, the various monochrome worlds inhabited by the Pokemon, and countless others. I exhausted them, turning over every stone, using them as playgrounds, sometimes regardless of the way the game was meant to be played. I spent far longer than was probably intended by the makers of Mario Kart 64 off-piste in ‘Royal Raceway’, exploring the grounds of the castle (though somehow never discovering this). As my ideas of success expanded to include exam grades in the real world instead of high scores in the virtual world, the former began to take precedence. I got my place; I went to university.

For a lot of people – dare I say the majority? – that’s where this virtual side of life ends. Technological playgrounds become limited to social networking websites, which are deemed for some reason an acceptable waste of time, quite unlike childish immersion in video games. Avatars become profile pictures. I can haz job, let alone cheezburger. ‘Real life’ takes over.

Whilst ‘real life’ was never going to be a huge concern for me, at least not immediately (universities have that effect), work was, and I barely touched games for the length of my course. Some people could probably have done both, keeping a healthy balance between their efforts in worlds virtual and academic – I couldn’t, and I knew it. I passed through university without completely disgracing myself (at least academically). That could have been it – but in late 2011 I came back to games, and I’m glad I did.

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Getting caught up on five years of games isn’t easy. It’s a strange and humbling experience seeing how far things have come in what is, for most other media, a relatively short time. For one thing, online distribution platforms like Steam have moved from being ‘rather handy’ to ‘absolutely indispensable’. On certain of these games and topics too much ink has already been spilled, but there’s a certain novelty in coming to these games without being exposed to too much hype (I’ve managed to remain fairly immune to marketing) and with a fresh if slightly unpractised eye.

Actually, forget that boast just now – surely even the most studious undergraduate or professionally-minded worker, having just a shred of gamer in their blood, would find it hard to ignore a certain behemoth lumbering over the horizon. Even if the urge to game has lain long-buried, surely something primal should stir at the thought of this world at one’s fingertips? I’m talking, of course, about Skyrim.

What’s perhaps most impressive about Bethesda’s boldly unrestricted world is how real it is. The sense of freedom is exhilarating, and yet daunting. In fact, confronting this world is almost as daunting as confronting the real one, in scale and opportunity. After the first few minutes you are unceremoniously dumped on the threshold of a land of which you know little, a town lying in smouldering ruin behind you, and a bleak, enormous, dangerous world ahead of you.

A path is suggested but never enforced. Unlike the binary choices of some other RPGs – do this or don’t, consequences happen – choice here is framed far more broadly. Save the world – or don’t. Join the rebels, fight for your country – or, you know, go catch some butterflies, go steal some stuff, go sit in a chair on top of a fort and just look at the sky. Each approach is rewarding, and actually leads to a deeply personal experience. Earlier I met a fox on the road. He looked at me and then ran off, but something about him suggested I should follow, which I did. He led me through the trees to a great waterfall. Realising I might have entirely missed it had I not followed, I stopped to admire it like a shameless tourist, ceasing to do so only when I realised that my intrepid guide had leapt into the water and was swimming towards it. It was surreal, magical and an example of what makes playing Skyrim so very different to every RPG I’ve played before.

It’s also impressive because so little is handed to you. The concept of ‘player training’ seems to have largely ignored the vast provinces of Tamriel, and for the most part you’ll just have to work it all out on your own, quite probably with frequent reference to the ‘Help’ section of the manual. There’s something pleasingly old-school about this, though. Obviously those familiar with previous Elder Scrolls games have an advantage in this regard, but for my part, my limited credentials (a few hours in Oblivion) haven’t significantly held me back.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Here’s another interesting thing. I’m at a point now where I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to declare a political affiliation. The seriousness with which I am approaching this task is a further testament to the detail present in the game. It’s pleasingly full of moral gray areas, unlike the light/dark, good/bad dichotomies that some other RPGs have used in the past to assign you an ‘alignment’. As I wander the northern provinces I become particularly aware that, having chosen to play as a Nord, I am expected to fight for the independence of my home. At the same time though I’ve encountered a nasty strain of inter-species racism in some of the smaller towns, and can’t help but sympathise with a farmer I met on the road, who confided that ‘a united Empire is better for us all’. I’ve realised that in order to do justice to the game and myself I’ll have to treat it like I would an election in my real-life constituency, perhaps even more seriously since the fate of many people may hinge on my decision. I’ll have to thoroughly research all arguments, weigh them up, and finally make a decision that allows my conscience to breathe easy. That research is no mean proposition – but I’ve made sure to hang on to at least some of the vast literature that Bethesda have sown across the land. I’m not sure any game has invested me in such a personal way in its fictional history or politics.

Finally, some initial thoughts on the music of the game (it’s my area after all). Obviously no expense has been spared in the production values of a triple-A game, and it’s crystal clear and beautifully recorded, with the popular Jeremy Soule back in the composer’s chair. I have heard some mutterings about ‘generic fantasy scoring’, but from my point of view, while there’s little that’s hugely original here, the consistency with which Soule has worked in appropriately cinematic effects suits the world perfectly. In the title theme he’s combined a rhythmic profile transparently referencing Zimmer’s Pirates of the Caribbean theme with a choral texture – the latter always guaranteed to up the ‘epic’ ante. That it sets words in the invented Dragon-tongue of the game calls to mind the Sanskrit of the ever-popular Duel of the Fates from The Phantom Menace. It’s no accident that the first thing you hear in the game simultaneously references two major movie franchises – probably more if one were to subject it to rigorous analysis. It’s designed to help you associate the game with these franchises, and the sense of epic adventure that goes with them.

The music is beautifully and quite subtly mixed into the game’s ambience. Most of the time it stays contentedly enough in the background, allowing you to concentrate on what the inhabitants of Skyrim are trying to tell you about arrows in their knees, etc. However there are moments when it seems to surreptitiously come to the fore, as when you are trudging, hopelessly lost, across snowy tundras, when it helps remind you of the care that’s been put in to assembling the world.

I haven’t even started on the various ‘medieval pastiche’ elements of the score, like the songs sung by the bards. Maybe I’ll post soon on that. It’s not often musicologists get to do research in the field. Perhaps that would make me an ethnotechnomusicologist, which has a pleasing number of syllables and would make me feel important. We could even add ‘ludo-‘ in there somewhere and feel especially proud of ourselves. Watch out for ‘Ethnotechnoludomusicology – A Handbook’, coming soon to a retailer near you…

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That’s all for now since I’ve clearly lost my train of thought. Hopefully still to come: further thoughts on the musical landscape of Skyrim, a look at musical motifs in games and how they’re used, and more musings on coming back to gaming after a prolonged absence.

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