Thursday, 8 November 2012

Skyrim: it's good to be bad.

Challenge of the decade: describe Skyrim without swearing. I've read a few reviews of Skyrim, and none manage to articulate quite how spectacular it looks. I can't either. Not without swearing.


Soooo, Skyrim. It's a game. I have it on my PC. It came out last year and everyone almost died because the scenery was very, very beautiful, and you can view it from the back of a horse, or with a dragon soaring across the sky, or the lights of the aurora sparkling above.

And the landscape is all yours. You can dodge round trees and spring from cliffs and dive into the crystalline depths of a lake fed by the biggest waterfall you've ever seen. There are villages here and there, and cities filled with life and strife and things that make them as alive as the beasties that gnash at your horse's flanks while those cities loom in the distance.

The first thing that struck me about Skyrim is how lucid and streamlined it appears to be. There are no confusing menus, no D&D stat calculation, absolutely no faffing around. You get straight into the meat of the world, and yikes, what a world it is. And what yummy meat. And what mixed metaphors.

I want to quickly clarify what I mean by the title of this blog post: there are two ways that being bad is good in Skyrim. One is by cheating. (Cheating is bad. But oh so good.) The other is by having a character that does bad things, which I'll talk about later.

Being a Badly-Behaved Roleplayer

Yeah, I did say cheating. I'm a cheater. I'm a filthy, filthy cheater. It's one of my favourite ways of playing games. I think it's because I like the design and construction side of games, and I don't like it when obstacles get in the way that are difficult to overcome. In Age of Empires, for instance, I love building cities and empires, and bad guys can just bugger off if they think they're going to shoot arrows into my meticulously placed fortresses. It's one of the reasons why I think Pharaoh is such a fantastic game – it's all about construction. No enemies! (Unless you choose them.)

As for RPGs, I love designing and developing my character, fitting them with bright and shiny skills and gear, and having them gain notoriety and trophies beyond compare. If that involves struggling through a dank and perilous dungeon for eight hours, swimming through spiders and having to re-load every time I get killed by nimble mages who shoot fire from their eyeballs then – yeah – you can bugger off too.

That's one of the reasons why I cheat at Skyrim: to get to the good stuff quickly. The second reason is that I refuse to spend too much time on it. It's a notorious timesuck, and I'm job-hunting. And the third and final reason is this:

IT'S SCARY, A BIT. Traversing a labyrinthine dungeon, you hear the drip drip drip of water from stalactites, interrupted only by distant, blood-curdling screams from some underground torture chamber. A giant spider lands on your head, and there's a blood stain on the wall in the shape of a hand-print.

It's a bit less scary if you know you can't die because you have Godmode toggled.

So I often play as a cheater. A big fat cheater. DIE SPIDER, DIE. You're not going to slice off MY elbows with those creepy pincers.

Playing a Badly-Behaved Character

Skyrim is famously immersive, so I was tempted to take full advantage of that and create a character based on me. I had in mind a hyperactive Wood Elf who walks everywhere and always gets lost and only ever eats chicken. Mmm, chicken.

But I was warned that the world of Skyrim can be a sexist one, and I knew that if an NPC shrieks “TITS TITS TITS TI–” at my character, I would immediately turn off the game and never play it again. And I was looking forward to Skyrim, so I decided to trust my distrust and create a male character.

I went with a mage character – a High Elf, which means he looks like a kind of gaunt Klingon with green skin. I played him as having a penchant for honour, justice – and destruction. So he can set a fortress on fire and still be hailed a hero. Woo.

This fellow was ideal for the main quest and the attached adventures. Because of wonderful cheating, I did in two hours what others did in two hundred – bring my character to the pinnacle of fame and fortune in the country of Skyrim. He slew bandits and assassins and dragons alike, he became Archmage of the College of Winterhold, Thane of Eastmarch, Champion of Azura, Harbinger of the Companions, and he brought the civil war to a epic and bloody end. And he saved the world, obviously. He mooched around in the afterlife and killed a lizard. Then got warped back home. And fell in a lake. But that wasn't part of the main plot; that was because my cat stood on the keyboard.

However, there was a whole other side to Skyrim that I was ignoring, because it went against the wishy-washy morals of my lizard-bashing High Elf. So I decided to start again and bring in a new character. A character as evil as Jozef Stalin with a honey badger strapped to his face.

At first I made him an unthinking serial killer, but that was a bit much. For one, watching a little girl weep in terror while I cut her father into bite-size portions didn't turn out to be my idea of a fun game after all, and for another, Skyrim's music and cinematics are just as lovely and heroic when you're stabbing an old lady in the noggin. I was walking around a deserted village (deserted because I'd killed everyone), and the music was all happy and jangly, which turned out to be deeply disturbing.

So. “Being Bad” Plan B.

I created a rogue character. A short, stringy Dark Elf covered in war paint. He's snotty and cruel and full of ambition, and wants more than anything to make the world fear him. But being a low-levelled nobody to begin with, he started out in the Thieves Guild in the city of Riften. Here he made a bonny coin from stealing, looting, pick-pocketing, persuasion, manipulation, intimidation and arson.

I spent more time with the Thieves Guild than in any of the dragon-slaying heroics of bygone days, because it's difficult to cheat with the Thieves Guild. This is simply because the quests are fairly complex.

Take 'Loud and Clear', for instance. In this quest you are expected to engage in some enjoyable industrial sabotage. Your client wants a wealthy maker of mead to buy their honey supplies from him instead of making her own honey with her beehives. So your job is to burn those beehives to the ground.

This involves breaking into the victim's Estate, which can be done via the sewers – but I did it by sneaking over the hills at night, climbing onto the roof and sending barbed arrows into the eyesockets of the patrolling guards.

There was a lot of sneaking. And picking locks. Being bad, it transpires, involves both time and thought.

Sadly, however, I couldn't complete the chain of thiefy quests, because of a glitch in the game. Hm. More on this later.

Regardless, my Dark Elf earned enough cash to alleviate world debt – and learned the simple truth that there really is no honour among thieves – so I thought it was time for him to turn his skills to darker ambitions. Like joining the Dark Brotherhood. Which sounds pretty dark. (Though nicely brotherly.)

The Dark Brotherhood is a group of assassins. They assassinate people. And wear cool armour. That's literally it.

You can get a mighty horse out of it.

But I don't like horses, I usually end up setting them on fire. (NOT IN REAL LIFE. In real life I just shoot arrows at them.)

Anyway, my Dark Elf suits the Dark Brotherhood, because he likes swinging an axe around for no particular reason. He does not, however, like having a torture chamber in his house, an option you receive once you have completed the Dark Brotherhood quests.

Having a badly-behaved character is a lot more enjoyable in terms of the scheming and strategy, and despite the blood-dripping dungeons so beloved by evil bastards, it turns out that bad people are just as likely as good people to thrive in settings and surroundings of great magnificence. You don't have to harvest juniper berries and save farmers to be rewarded by some of the best sights in Skyrim.

Take the horrific and murderous Daedric Princes, for instance; evil immortals that force followers to build their shrines in the most inconvenient - but AMAZING - places.

By the way, all the pictures in this blog post are actually screenshots, not concept art. You can literally see these things while playing the game, and move around and interact and drool and all the rest of it.

I sound as smitten as a bastard. But wait! I'm about to begin the third section of this post.

When Skyrim Itself Is Actually Genuinely Bad

Sometimes Skyrim is bad. But hang on: I don't mean the good kind of bad. I mean bad. As in rubbish. Yep. Here are the worst offenders.

#1: The Glitches

Sigh. All too often I've embarked upon an epic Skyrim quest only for the quest to freeze or jam my character in an iceberg or simply refuse to let a quest-giver acknowledge that I've retrieved their magic sword for them, even if I literally throw the sword in their face over and over again. Skyrim is as famous for its glitches as it is for its majesty.

I also consider it a glitch that you can't rock-climb in Skyrim. You just do the moonwalk face-first into a cliff as you gradually slide lower and lower until you end up in the icy river below. And when a character bumps into you, you hover backwards. Oh, and horses float sometimes, if the mood takes them.

#2: The Skyrim Community

I don't mean the rugged farmers and warriors striding around the settlements and speaking in muddled Dutch accents. I like them. I mean the real-life Skyrim community, on websites and forums.

I've read lots of posts in these communities on my hunt for cheats and mods, and it seems that members of the online Skyrim community all have one of two purposes in this life. One is to whine and whine and whine about glitches. Yeah I whined about glitches, but I got over it. But some people take it as a personal insult that the makers of Skyrim did not user-test literally every single situation and variable possible in this immense game. Do people have any idea how long that would take? Years. And when glitches are reported, the makers of Skyrim do their best to patch it ASAP.

The other purpose of the online Skyrim community is to turn themselves on with the power of pixels. Most of the top Skyrim mods are sex-related. “Got bored of the rather homely-looking women in Skyrim?” one asks. “Use this mod to make the NPCs into supermodels”.

“Wondering why the hell your female companions in Skyrim have such a manly stance?” asks another. “Install this mod to make them stand and run more femininely”.

This is how the Skyrim makers wanted to portray women:

Cool, yes?

And this is what many Skyrim modders have decided to do with that portrayal:

#3: The Shoddy Roleplay Capabilities

This might be a strange criticism given that Skyrim is widely lauded as the greatest RPG of all time, but sometimes it's actually a very poor RPG. Yes it seems to be all about imagination, and that's a good thing. For instance, you don't know your character's background (unlike in Arcanum) or strengths and weaknesses (unlike in Neverwinter Nights); or even the reason for their arrest. You have to make it all up in your head. But from there, the roleplaying goes downhill.

Starting with the basics, your character isn't allowed an age. You use your imagination for that. Which is fine – except when you design an elderly, grey-bearded mage and he gets called “whelp” or “lad”.

In actual fact, all appearance is ignored. With the exception of making your character roam around in their underwear, nothing can make the NPCs sit up and take notice. Your character could be a meticulously-groomed noblewoman and a passing guard might remark that she's looking the worse for wear. Or you could make an extremely evil-looking warrior with red eyes and war paint and the physique of a troll-wrestler and a nearby shop assistant might observe that he looks extremely unimpressive. It's as if the whole NPC system is designed to make sense for one particular type of character only.

Furthermore, the dialogue options are as limited as a Nord's wardrobe. (That's extremely limited, for those of you who were wondering.) Sometimes there is only one dialogue option, and it's phrased as if spluttered by a 30-year-old Western gamer, using phrases like “I guess” and “sure”. The dialogue options allow no room for charisma, wit or wisdom; nor indeed for biting cruelty, mania or depressed monotony.

The only way you can roleplay freely with such limited dialogue options is by literally pretending that your character didn't say what they just said. My dignified Archmage did not just say “uh, whatever; follow me if you want”, and my snotty, arrogant rogue did not just say “thank you, I'm honoured”.

Again, the dialogue options seem designed to make sense for one particular type of character only.

So Skyrim can be bad. Yes. But you can forgive it. Especially when you stumble across something like this round every corner.

 Or this.

Or this.

Or this.

 Or this.

… hang on, they're heading straight for me.

Quick, hide under horse. Then set horse on fire.

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