Monday, November 21, 2011

What Skyrim Has Taught Me About Writing, Game Design and Life

Everyone award yourself +50 Nerd points for reading this article.

So Skyrim happened. And is happening. And will happen until the mountains crumble into the sea.

If you haven't heard, Skyrim is a huge open-world role-playing experience that many of you are having, and many more of you should be having.

More than just escapist game-playing, Skyrim has been instructive. Theodore the Barbarian Nord has been a wonderful opportunity to develop some imagination, some life lessons and some writing skills.

Here are a couple:

1. An Open-World is full of options that appeal to multiple interests simultaneously. Theodore is level 16, and I've only gone through the first parts of the main story quest. (Learned two shouts, haven't gone see the Graybeards yet) Why? Because I just kitted out my house, and have been roaming the countryside as a lycanthrope, killing those who would oppose my hirsute bloodlust. The main story can wait. The experience here is all about Theodore developing into a potent, realized being. Who happens to swing a Skyforged Steel sword and breathe fire.

This afternoon for example, I plan on pushing myself towards level 20, by way of a few Miscellaneous quests and Smithing. Those are things that I like to do currently, but maybe in two levels, when Theodore crafts his umpteenth-billion iron dagger (I have forty pounds of leather strips....), I might decide to move back towards the main quest.

Skyrim offers that sense of openness without any of the nagging. I don't have some blinking urgent giant arrow railroading me towards one specific story -- the story is mine from the moment the game loads until I've lost five hours and gotten lost in the same mountain range...again.

2. Life Lesson: You're never without tools and options. I'm running around with Lydia, my butler-ess with an elven warhammer, and she's about as helpful as a hacking cough during a movie premiere. (I believe her thought process is "Is there a large and potentially lethal hazard ahead? I'll bring it to Theodore!") And when she lures those two giants and that troll to me, I need to be able to not die.

It doesn't always work out. She was a peach for luring a pack of necromancers towards me just after I turned that corner, and when the mountain path went vertical, it was great of her to backtrack and get lost for ten minutes, but all I had was at hand - and that's what I needed. When life/Skyrim gives you a mountain to scale en route to a bandit camp, head for the treeline, draw your sword and get to business. Your tools never leave you, even if you make your less-than-stellar companion carry all the dragon bones and the spare sword.

3. In the game world, the player wants to feel like they matter. I'm a werewolf now, and during my first canine moments, I may have torn through a few guards and pedestrians who didn't realize that the howling death machine always has the right of way. The next day, it was the talk of the town. Guards and the widows spoke about the horror that came from the night to ruin their lives.

And that was the "hook" moment for me. I did something, something not affiliated with the main plot of the game or even dragons, and the world responded. The player of a game has needs (a need to feel like they matter, a need to make an impact, a need for encouragement and consequences), and Skyrim satisfies all of them with all the claw swipes, howls, Shouts and smelting of ores.

Game designers - do the characters matter? Does what they do affect anything? Ask yourself, and push yourself to find the answer.

4. Writing - Even if you're a Swiss Army knife, there are a few tools you use often. Theodore doesn't do a lot of magic. He's got enough juice in him to transmute some iron to gold and occasionally light some dark rooms up, but on the whole, it's sword and shield time. The character has the options, and the building blocks to be quite deep and broad, but time and again, my play style involves putting the pointy metal end into the soft bits of my opposition.

In my books, the characters can do a lot. They detect. They communicate. They act. They delve into mysteries great and small. But time and again there is a 'comfort zone' of actions they engage in, and those are the brighter facets of their character-gem. Kestrel the eccentric detective is a shiny diamond of problem solving while Charlie Commons is a rich emerald of supernatural sleaze.

The experience is shaped for and by my play style. I could easily decide to switch from swords to magic, and while it would be awkward at first, I think I could adjust. But with every subsequent sword-slash, I'm one motion deeper. I fall forward into a world and drown in the details.

So, in short, Skyrim rocks. Grow from it.