Trust in Skyrim

My D&D group, now in its fourth year, is closing in on level 11. This campaign finds them at the Half League House, in our world a combination Prancing Pony and the roadhouse in From Dusk Till Dawn. The colorful retinue of Synergistic Enterprises LLC. includes a pyromaniac warlord, a Githyanki stat whore, and a particularly virile minotaur. In the past few encounters they’ve punched a pet pig, foiled an assassination attempt on a lesbian dwarf, and leapt down a well after a shapeshifter only to be attacked by a gelatinous scab. In December they’ll defend their impromptu stronghold from a siege by war trolls in a hex-based mini-game. Truth be told, I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had in D&D before. The reason is that after many years I’m truly beginning to trust my players.

After a dozen hours inside Skyrim’s town of Whiterun, I can see signs of Bethesda trusting me in much the same way. But do I trust them back?

Earlier this year I turned over a new leaf as a game master. Instead of carefully scripting encounters, instead of running with my own elaborate stories and pushing them down the player’s throat, I went freeform. I’ve begun showing up with a location or two, a handful of randomized NPC templates, and a conflict in mind. When I sit down at the head of the table I’m not reading from my own hackneyed script, I’m just letting my players play with the baubles I’ve brought with. The feedback, and the direction they’ve taken our game, has surprised me. They’re picking up on what I’m laying down atmospherically. What initially seemed a rough, seedy border town is really the pet project of a soft-hearted woman trying to create a safe haven for a populace she loves. What began as a sales expedition, a chance to sell their security services in a larger marketplace, is now a desperate mission of mercy. Our ruthless band of looters masquerading as security consultants has turned into blue-helmeted peace keepers, and I can tell they’re having a blast. I can see echoes of this same kind of atmospheric pacing in the town of Whiterun.

(What follows is spoilery for those who’ve not spent at least ten hours in the game. If you are so inclined stop reading here and skip down to the third paragraph from the end.)

An early quest takes you to the jarl's dungeon, surreptitiously hidden below the palace, to interrogate a prisoner. The way I got to this point was not by clicking a stoic NPC who had a gleaming explanation point propped above their head, nor was it by navigating dozens of textual options. I got here by overhearing a conversation that was happening at the town gate, by stopping, and asking questions. Things were happening around me as I entered Whiterun, they were not happening to me. The quest writer in this instance was showing rather than telling, and I the player was able to pick up the hook they left me or press on toward my meeting with the jarl.

But here in this dungeon I was presented with a different problem. The man I needed information from was behind bars, and the only way to get him to talk was to pay his fine. I could have broken him out, but he told me that only after I paid his fine would be talk. He wanted a clean record, a fresh start, and making him a fugitive would not have given him that chance. I ambled over to the guard and ponied up the cash, the prisoner’s lips loosened, and I received the information I needed to proceed with the quest.

But as I turned to leave another side conversation began, this time between the guard and the Redguard prisoner.

“Guard, let me out of here. My fine has been paid!” yelled the prisoner. “Let me see where I put that key,” mocked the guard. “Oh no! Seems I misplaced it. I’ll keep looking. Perhaps I'll find it eventually.”

Again, I could just walk away and leave this man to rot, but the other hints that Bethesda had been dropping since the beginning of the game suddenly coalesced for me. I had started my life in this world much like this Redguard, a prisoner kept against my will. As I walked through town my own character, an Argonian, was called out for being non-human and epithets were casually tossed his way by the town guards. Their armor itself made them faceless, dark orbs where their eyes belonged made them seem like jack-booted storm troopers in short pants. These bastards were racists, and they had it out for me just the same as they had it out for this hapless black man. I could do something about it, or I could just walk away.

And so here I am sitting at work contemplating my next move. In previous Bethesda games I might simply gut these guards, release this man, and together we would fight out way out of the city. But I’m part of this community now. I have a home, and a position in the jarl’s court. I can’t tear the place up and expect there to be no repercussions. I could sneak in, unlock the door, but more than likely this Redguard would die as he made a run for it. Perhaps after unlocking the door I can use my position to influence the guards and strong arm them into letting the man go, or maybe I’ll go speak to the jarl himself and negotiate safe passage out of the city. Maybe there’s a secret entrance somewhere nearby that will allow me to smuggle him out in the dead of night.

The simple fact is that Bethesda has trusted me at this point to come to my own conclusions about the plight of this man and my relationship with him. They’ve given me the atmospheric hooks to put together a truth, of a kind, inside my own head as to what the intentions are of each of the players in this little tableau. What remains to be seen, however, is how their system holds together. When I get home I’ll save my game and try a few different things until I get a feel, not for the situation, but for how the game will react to my actions. Bethesda trusts me to put two and two together, but I don’t quite trust them yet to make logical sense of my actions.

When I’m playing D&D I can save a situation gone awry, stop the players from killing an innocent or steer them away from disrupting something special I have planned for them. I’m there as a safety mechanism, a spotter for a high-wire act set inside their imagination. In a computer game there is no such insurance against failure. You save your game, you hope for the best, and you put aside your doubts about the reality of this world for the sake of trying to get yourself a little further down the rabbit hole that someone built for you to find. A good GM will see trouble coming and guide the group back to safety. A good group of players will trust the GM to do so.

In a way, Bethesda and I have come to trust each other more and more since Morrowind. With luck we’ll develop a rapport, if not as rich as the one I share with my D&D group, perhaps somewhere near as trusting.

Comments

Very nice counterpoint to last week's conference call; I find that my experience cleaves more closely to this than to the disappointed lack of engagement that the guys were chatting about. I think "trust" is a great way to describe it; Skyrim does not force itself upon you, and while there are valid criticisms to be made about what that means in terms of the reactivity of the world, it allows for this kind of experience, too.

Good god, ES VI is going to lead to all of us starving to death, isn't it?

The simple fact is that Bethesda has trusted me at this point to come to my own conclusions about the plight of this man and my relationship with him. They’ve given me the atmospheric hooks to put together a truth, of a kind, inside my own head as to what the intentions are of each of the players in this little tableau.

This is exactly what I love about the civil war arc in Skyrim—and I haven't even picked a side yet. But we had a great dialogue in the catch-all about who to back, again, all based on our own conclusions drawn from what Bethesda trusted us to discover. Neither side is obviously "heroic" nor "villainous", and further the game won't judge your decision with points or a slider. You just choose, or investigate and agonize, or just ignore completely.

That almost means there's probably little substantial difference to the gameworld, just which colour of tunic is manning the forts. Despite that, though, I feel more invested in making my decision than all the epic cutscenes in any other game could make me feel. Maybe that's the technical compromise that has to be made in nonlinear RPGs at this point in history. But I definitely never feel more like I'm role-playing in a video game, genuine pen-and-paper role-playing, than I do when playing TES.

The whole quest chain this anecdote is from is like that, too. Nothing is spelled out for you as to which side may or may not be telling the truth. You'll never know.

On my first character's run through,

Spoiler:

I assumed Saadia was telling the truth, that she was a princess from Hammerfell, wanted unjustly by her enemies, etc etc. I felt like a heroic savior coming in and slaying the lot of those murderous bastards in that cave. I was playing a sniping, sneaky wood elf archer, so I just started killing the Hammerfall dudes from the shadows as soon as I could draw a bead on them.

However on a second playthrough with a melee character, I found out there's a scripted dialog with the guy Saadia sends you to kill. He claims to be here to arrest her for selling out Hammerfell to the Altmeri Dominion!! Now, you have no idea which side is telling the truth. However, think about this: she asks you to go and kill everyone that is looking for her. He, on the other hand: 1) asks you to lower your weapon so you can talk rationally, and 2) isn't there to kill her, but to take her back to face the consequences of her actions. I may be wrong but his actions seem a little more honorable, leading me to believe he may be the one telling the truth. Anyway, my current character hates the Thallmer Dominion so I sided with him. Actually, I think he pissed me off by talking down to me after he nabbed Saadia, so I killed him. Then she woke up, got all pissy at me and attacked, and I had to kill her in self-defense. I looted the both of them and dumped their bodies behind the stable. *shrug*

Khoram that is hysterical. I never would have thought to finish the quest the way you describe in point 2. Your actions are the result of the side conversations and lore that Bethesda throws in, same as mine in the example I wrote up.

Gravey, I've been purposefully avoiding that discussion in the catch-all because I want to absorb the lore in my own way and organically through found items before I make a determination which way to go in the civil war.

You must have stopped playing before

Spoiler:

the guard walks over and lets him out. It only takes another minute or so. Sorry to be so anti climactic.

I am big on mountain making. There's very few molehills left, here at home or at work, when I'm around.

TheHipGamer wrote:

Very nice counterpoint to last week's conference call; I find that my experience cleaves more closely to this than to the disappointed lack of engagement that the guys were chatting about.

I totally agree. So much of the joy in this game is found from letting go in the world, listening to the conversations that are happening around you, reading books for clues and setting off to explore the world accordingly. Or not.

I love that it is up to the player to decide which bread crumbs to follow and which to ignore. Too many games feel like they are grabbing your hand and pulling you down a narrative path whether you want to go along for the ride or not. The freedom that Skyrim presents offer the player to come and go as you please is as refreshing as it is overwhelming.

And that is a good thing!

Grenn wrote:

Awww, Wordy. Nice write up. I thought the slang they were throwing at me was bad and I'm just an Imperial (guess which side I'll be taking in the war *wink*).

This was Wandy.

Charlie "TheWanderer" Hall wrote:

[size=18]Trust in Skyrim[/size]

Grenn wrote:

Awww, Wordy. Nice write up.

uhh... what?

I came across a women in her underwear face down in a small pond the other day. I took a moment to drag her corpse out of the water and check for gold :). If I could have buried the corpse I would have. Made me wonder what the story was behind it. Was it just a mugging? Was she out swimming and drown?

Edit: Reading what I wrote without context would be really creepy.

There have been several times in the game so far where I've moved a corpse to give it a more fitting burial. I'd love the option for a graveyard, or to repurpose tombs. If you can do anything, let's get on to doing everything shall we?

While reading this, I was reminded of Jeff Canata's comments on Weekend Confirmed about the strength of the story telling in Skyrim. The example he gave was a burning shack he came across. Inside was a burned up corpse next to a Pentagram. Jeff assumed that the poor soul had been dabbling in black magic and paid the ultimate price. That is master story telling; show don't tell.

I came across that very same shack in my travels through Skyrim with my Orc berserker. I assumed that the person had been set upon by evil magic users. I searched the room for clues, so I could track down the offenders. No one should have to die at the soft pampered hands of an effete cowardly mage!

We have been exposed to so much lazy, ineffective, and derivative stories in video games, often related to the player in cut scenes, dialogue, and voice over, that when it is not there we somehow think the game fails from a story standpoint. But I think the opposite is true. Bethesda, in many respects, is telling some of the best stories ever laid out in video games. They paint you a scene and let your imagination infer the rest. That is exactly what the best writers do.

As an aside: http://www.shacknews.com/tag/skyrim-...

TheWanderer wrote:

The colorful retinue of Synergistic Enterprises LLC. includes a pyromaniac warlord, a Githyanki stat whore, and a particularly virile minotaur. In the past few encounters they’ve punched a pet pig, foiled an assassination attempt on a lesbian dwarf, and leapt down a well after a shapeshifter only to be attacked by a gelatinous scab. In December they’ll defend their impromptu stronghold from a siege by war trolls in a hex-based mini-game.

This is why I still love to play D&D.

Awww, Wandy. Nice write up. I thought the slang they were throwing at me was bad and I'm just an Imperial (guess which side I'll be taking in the war *wink*).

edit* TYPO! LEAVE ME ALONE!

TheWanderer wrote:

There have been several times in the game so far where I've moved a corpse to give it a more fitting burial. I'd love the option for a graveyard, or to repurpose tombs. If you can do anything, let's get on to doing everything shall we?

Raise it as a zombie, then wait 60 seconds. Free cremation!

kazar wrote:

I came across a women in her underwear face down in a small pond the other day. I took a moment to drag her corpse out of the water and check for gold :). If I could have buried the corpse I would have. Made me wonder what the story was behind it. Was it just a mugging? Was she out swimming and drown?

Edit: Reading what I wrote without context would be really creepy.

Near Markarth? Her journal is sitting near by, along with all her clothes. As far as I could tell it didn't initiate a quest, it's just a random weird thing for you to discover out in the world, which is exactly why I love TES games so much. For some people the open nature of TES is not going to do it for them, personally I love being allowed to let my imagination fill in the gaps. The story I create for my character is way more engaging than most videogame narratives are.

w00t! ♫Daydreamin' of Skyrim alllllllll the time♫

(If only I could find a shop that would sell me a loin cloth of scintillation...)

Yes folks, that is the name of an item that Kord, Magnus' minotaur, purchased for himself. He lunges his hips at enemies and blinds them. I am not making this up... Magnus is making this up. And I just watch and keep him safe.

I have to post this here...

http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/...

... if only because Tom Bissell and I came to a similar conclusion on the same day. We just see it differently. I think I can let Bethesda do the DMing. He, on the other hand, has little to no restraint. You don't have to explore every dialogue option, or steal every thing. You don't have to max every tree or empty every dungeon. You need to make a truth for yourself and enforce it, and that's what a DM does when they're doing their job best in my opinion.