Like many — and I mean many — of my friends, colleagues and co-workers old and new, I dived into Skyrim last month. I have since come up for air, though I haven’t drained the pool for cleaning yet. I still play in bursts whenever the mood takes me. Naturally, it resurges since one of my Christmas presents was Jeremy Soule’s soundtrack for the game. When I get a new soundtrack, you see, I audit it and see what tracks need to go to what playlists, for gaming purposes. And the process of listening to the music for audit makes me thing “oh yeah, time to escape the mine…”
Anyway. The thing that’s struck me most about Skyrim is that its pre-loaded narrative is… well, it’s okay. Gets the job done. There are several questlines that are exemplary, and many scripted moments that are quite cool, but with the sheer amount of questing to be had in the game you know it can’t all be incredible. A really strong narrative cuts out the superfluous details, but a game like Skyrim is all about superflous details, about presenting you with so many choices that you focus on the things you like and disregard the stuff that doesn’t sing to you.
But as a game it inspires so much water-cooler conversation. That’s the most interesting part. Everyone has a Skyrim story. Maybe it’s something your faithful (or hapless) huscarl did at an inopportune time. Maybe it’s the moment a dragon pounced on you in an unexpected context (and then went off and fought a mudcrab instead of you). Maybe it’s an experiment in the Fus Ro Dah shout, blowing someone off just the right wall or cliff. It varies, and that’s the point: people create largely unique experiences within a shared, familiar context.
It reminds me, to be honest, of tabletop RPGs.
The best Skyrim stories, like the best tabletop stories, are those where there is enough context to be familiar yet enough of a unique occurrence to be worth the telling. It’s different than talking about a movie or an episode of Mad Men or whatever: those are discussions where all the context is familiar but there’s not really personalization. But it’s also different than the worst tabletop stories because those things are often bereft of context. The more personalized a gaming world is, the more personalized the scenarios you explore, the more exposition is necessary to set the scene for a listener.
Skyrim is, in effect, The Keep on the Borderlands. It’s G1-3 Against The Giants, or whichever of those old-school D&D modules that were so widespread that most people gaming in the ’80s had played through them. Those modules are so fondly remembered not just because of the experience people had playing through them, but because those experiences were easily shared. They did a lot to build a community, in ways that personalized adventures and tales of “my level 88 drow cleric/assassin who married Lolth” didn’t. It’s fascinating to see that coming around again.
Tragically, I look at the games I run and I realize I am not a community-builder. I don’t think my players could really go talk to other gamers about my games as easily as they could if I were running modules. There must always be exposition, the necessity to set a scene like “Okay, so this was in the game where we were political exiles in a penal colony set in a giant abandoned subterranean city.” If my players can amuse other gamers with tales of my games, it is because they are very good storytellers and not because my games are founded on commonalities. They’re certainly uncommon by compare. And of course, the choice of RPG you play is much less common than it was back in the day, with many systems and many editions. Another barrier to the community.
Don’t get me wrong, I have not begun thinking about forsaking tabletop RPGs for video games. There are still, to tread the proverb already worn smooth, too many things that tabletop RPGs can do that video games just flat-out cannot: the improvisation, the customization, the infinite “assets” available to you. But it’s fascinating to me that video games are now doing this one thing that tabletop RPGs did, and doing it very well: spawning war stories that actually have a lot of variance even as they have a lot of commonality. And with the advent of the Internet, the best war stories spread faster and farther and find more listeners. That’s quite impressive. It’s a shame that things like edition wars probably mean that tabletop RPGs may never catch back up.
That said, I wouldn’t go back and try to be more of a community-builder with my own games to try and boost the tabletop side. I love my customized games: they are those things that I still can’t get in something like Skyrim. They’re unprompted dialogue trees that go beyond what any voice acting budget can provide, quests no content writer could anticipate, romantic subplots with characters not “flagged” for romance, vistas that even the most powerful PC couldn’t handle. If Skyrim is the new X1: Isle of Dread from a war-story, community perspective, I think I’m okay with that. We’ve still got what X1 means from the perspective of possibility. And of course, a selfish bastard like me has both.
So there I was, life-draining daedric sword in one hand and sweet roll in the other, when…