When Games Matter: The Wonderful Lore of Skyrim
When Games Matter is a weekly exploration by Drew Dixon of meaningful moments in games. Operating under the assumption that games do in fact matter, Drew seeks to highlight those moments that have much to say to say about who we are and the world we live in.
Tom Bissel recently wrote an interesting review of sorts of Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim in which he spent the latter half of the article criticizing the game’s poorly conceived dialogue and overly abundant lore:
Dense expositional lore has no place in video-game stories — especially stories that go without highly wrought cinematics — and it seems increasingly clear that video games are neither dramatically effective nor emotionally interesting when the player’s role becomes that of a dialogue sponge. . . .
Why make every character a walking lore dump when lore can be more effectively embodied in the world and environments? After all, the world and environments are already there in Skyrim; they’re quite literally everywhere you look, gushing all manner of wonderfully implied lore. And they’re beautiful. Like most who play Skyrim, I’m greatly drawn to these incredible environments because the act of exploring them becomes uniquely my experience.
Bissel is one of my favorite game critics and his book, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, helped inspire me to take up writing this column but I don’t think I could have had a more divergent experience with the lore of Skyrim. What Bissel feels detracts from an otherwise compelling world, I feel enlivens it.
Skyrim is my first true Elder Scrolls experience. I played about 10 hours of Oblivion which pales in comparison to the many people who spent 200+ hours playing it. I have found myself willingly reading Skyrim‘s many books and stopping to listen to the stories of it’s many characters. I am not, as Bissel suggests, a lore-fan. I skipped nearly all of the lore of Dragon Age: Origins and stopped midway through my second reading of The Lord of the Rings trilogy due to feeling overencumbered by it’s lore.
For the first time ever, I decided to make a female character–I did this for a very distinct purpose–to make clear in my mind that I am not my character. I don’t live in Skyrim, I can’t cast magic spells, and I am not a dark elf. As I explored Skyrim, I came across many books about the Dunmer or “dark elves,” my character’s people. I discovered that many were forced out of their homeland of Morrowind, many are now exiles or slaves, and that most Nords (the native people of Skyrim) hate the Dunmer. I read about their wars, their bitter history, their heroes, their villians, their religion, their culture, and their checkered past. I was also fascinated by many of the stories of my kindred or “lore dumps” as Bissel calls them. When I arrived in Windhelm and found out that all the dark elves were living in poverty in the slums. I was eager to hear their stories–rather than oppressing me, their stories enriched the story of my own character–this expositional lore became “uniquely my experience.”
I understand many of Bissel’s complaints. There have certainly been times that I found Skyrim’s dialogue annoying. I often wanted to tell the guards in Whiterun, “Give it a rest! NO ONE STOLE MY SWEET ROLL!” However, given how videogames tend toward power fantasies, I found the history and lore present in Skyrim refreshing, it reminded me that the world around me is much bigger than my character.
Were it not for the dense lore of Skyrim, I would not have known much if anything about my character’s people and I don’t think I would have cared as much about her if I hadn’t. Further, all this lore is optional–most of it you can pass on, but quite often, I find myself not wanting to. I also find myself constantly stopping to listen to the conversations of others–many are awkward but each tells me something about the city I am in. These are details that Bethseda did not have to include and details that I could pretty easily ignore but the multitude of them serves to do something rather rare in video games–it makes the game more about the world than it is about me.
Skyrim’s history, culture, and lore certainly are embodied in its world but why can’t games embody lore in dialogue as well? Despite the fact that I am able to slay dragons and shoot fireballs from my hands, as I climb Skyrim’s peaks, explore its ruins and listen to the stories of its inhabitants, I can’t shake the how small it makes me feel.
Great article Drew, I especially loved the “over-encumbered” joke haha.
I must be one of the lore-junkies cause I mostly enjoyed the Silmarillion, the complete backstory to lord of the rings, (mostly enjoyed, mind you.) I love lore because it reminds me of how the Old Testament brings so much richness and context to the New Testament. And I agree Skyrim benefits from its long history. So why can’t I bring myself to read all those in-game books??
I think Hissel’s real problem (and possibly mine) is with the medium. Bunkering down in a comfy chair with a cup of tea to read lord of the rings is the best “medium” to dig into lore. You can concentrate and there’s no rush, you have plenty of time to invest in the story. But when I jump into Skyrim I move at a different pace, I am running up and down mountains being chased by a dragon. And when I discover a book in a dungeon I have to make a choice: Keep shooting flaming arrows at the undead or start reading about the history of the Empire. Flaming undead win every time.
I am glad you found that funny. I agree with a great deal of Bissel’s article, I just think most of the lore is optional and I am glad it’s there. I skip most of it, but the times I have actually stopped to read stuff and to hear people’s stories, it has mostly enriched rather than detracted from my experience with the game.
I know enough now about the world of Skyrim that I am skipping most of the books and often cutting people short when they talk but still–I am glad I can go back to those books if I want.
I’m not usually a big fan of lore either. Generally, I like that it exists and is there for the reading, but I rarely find myself interested in pursuing it (I read The Silmarillion once because I felt compelled to do my due diligence). I can think of two exceptions and both revolve around lore associated with robust gameworlds: WoW and Elder Scrolls.
Apart from exploring lore sources in-game (which happens much more frequently for me with ES games), I’ve found myself exploring wiki articles delving into the histories and circumstances of various figures and places (this happens more frequently with the more character-heavy WoW). I enjoy the little stories that unfold in people’s backgrounds. I enjoy the history revealed in books and, in Skyrim, I enjoy learning about what’s happened in the last 200 years since Oblivion (my special interest concerns the Dunmer, the Argonians, and the fate of Vvardenfal—since Morrowind was a watershed game for me). These textual stories (as conveyed both in these worlds’ literature and through dialogue) are every bit as much an exploration of a world as cresting a col and taking in the glory of a new vista or delving the depths of a fantastically contrived barrow. And since they’re just one more aspect of exploration, players are able to explore them or not, according to their preferences.
I’ve pretty much never felt my experience infringed upon by the dialogue of the participants. And I never felt the dialogue in the game obnoxious or out of place. Part of it may be that I a) know what it is that an Elder Scrolls game is going to deliver and b) that I look forward to getting an Elder Scrolls game. Honestly, if I have one complaint, it’s that the use of voice actors cuts down on the amount of story that can be conveyed through dialogue. Part of the thing to realize is that there are tons of different ways to convey story or meaning. Dark Souls may choose one route. Bastion another. Super Mario Bros another. And Elder Scrolls another.
Of course there’s room for improvement in the scripting and balancing of info with interesting conversation. Part of the problem may be expectations. Gaming as a medium lends itself more to compressed dialogue and narrative. For pragmatic reasons, realistic conversations just won’t work. Even if a game were to go a cinematic or theatrical route, these other mediums hardly traffic in believable dialogue. For every medium a suspension of disbelief is demanded and depending on the medium that suspension will have to cover different ground. But across them all (movies, books, games, theater), dialogue will always take a hit on the believability scale.
Yeah, I think if they tried reinventing the story telling to make it more engaging it might cease to be elder scrolls. Like the blocky graphics of minecraft, the dialogue and clunky books of lore add to the charm.
Agree agree agree!
By the way–do you like my picture there? I took that one in game–that is a picture of my character standing below Solitude.
I was going for something that would capture the theme of Skyrim making me feel small.
Solitude is just amazing to look at. I love how much more care it feels like they put into creating this world.
Here’s a beautiful shot of Solitude from below the arch: http://i.imgur.com/U9HPM.jpg
Here’s a 7-day (in realtime) timelapse of Solitude from above: http://youtu.be/_tkRKuW63pg
I think Bissel’s point was that video games offer a different way of expositing lore – an incredibly effective way, in the case of Demon’s Souls – with little to no lengthy cutscenes or text dumps. Yet games like The Elder Scrolls keep relying on the same old methods of story telling.
Removing these old methods would definitely take away from some of the “gamey charm” of games like The Elder Scrolls, but ultimately would be for the better. At least I have to agree.
By the way, I LOVE lore. The Silmarillion is one of my favorite books. But when I’m playing a game, I’d like to keep playing without being bogged down. When I’m reading a book or looking in a Wiki, it’s a different story. No pun intended.
I haven’t played Demon’s Souls, but I am curious if the “show, don’t tell” approach really works with lore?
I mean, there can be tons of ruins and stuff, but “ruins” seems like such a videogame fantasy cliche. I feel like I would miss out on tons of story because I didn’t pay close enough attention to the scenery or the secret hints embedded within. But maybe this isn’t the case?
@David – Yes, games offer a number of ways to convey story (and backstory). That doesn’t make one inherently better than another. You mention that when you’re playing you don’t like to get “bogged down” with reading, but I think you’re only considering yourself bogged down because you’re approaching the game with a very narrow view of what your game experience ought to feel like.
From what I’ve said earlier, it might not surprise you to know that I don’t consider in-game conversations or reading to be outside the game experience. I don’t find that the game bogs down on these point because I’m taking them on good faith that they are actually still the game as much as one-shotting a Draugr Deathlord is. And I believe that approaching the game this way has rewarded me in ways that Bissel won’t understand.
I would take the time to read the lore in skyrim…
but I took an arrow in the knee…
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