Archive for January, 2012

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – “The Writer and the Numbers”

Imagine a writer that was lacking in imagination, incapable of anything but regurgitating genre plots so filled with tropes and clichéd characters, he could barely write a word without making use of the formulas he read back in college in “how to write” books. Though not technically incapable – his English was competent – this writer was also devoid of gracious form in his prose, his stylistic flair incoherent and drab, either overwrought when need be of simplicity and elegance, or too shallow and paltry when riveting poetry was required. But how he yearned for success! Now, would this hypothetical writer actually be a videogame designer, he could practice a sleight of hand and actually become the most applauded and revered of authors. All he had to do was razzle and dazzle his readers with his effort and capacity to deliver quantity instead of quality. And so, though his prose did not evoke rapture, he started to write a beastly mammoth of a book, so vast one could barely take it in hands and not feel the weight of such hard work, as the bulk of those millions of words made itself physically known, as if you actually could hold what they were intent on describing: a never-ending world of adventure and fantasy, so large and detailed and multifaceted, none could compare. It would take thousands of hours to read every tale inscribed in his epic, “1001 Nights” now but a drabble by comparison, hundreds of hours to only scour the surface of his world and read his descriptions of its landscapes, making “Lord of the Rings” seem a trivial pamphlet, and thousands more for the never-ending wars and battles, each as long as the once mighty “War and Peace”. It would be the greatest masterpiece the world had ever seen… well, at least, literally speaking. Such hypothetical epic is, of course, “The Elder Scrolls” at its more symbollic, and such ungifted artist I write of is none other than Todd Howard, the mastermind now at the helm of the series.

In “Skyrim”, everything is massive and many, but such ostensive manner lead us nowhere. For at its heart, this is aught more than a traditional high-fantasy romp in dark-fantasy garbs very much the same line as “Oblivion”, with very little to distinguish the two. Admittedly, some authors are capable of playing with expertise inside the fictional confines of these stale genres – Square Enix once did that job beautifully -, but Bethesda has few virtues to speak of, and what little it has ends up lost in the murky ocean of discardable trash which populates their games. We sit far from “Fallout 3’s” acute cynicism and socio-political satire; herein you can expect more evil empires, more dubious would-be revolutionaries, more elves and orcs and ogres and pixies and goblins and dragons and whatnot, more bearded headstrong heroes with no charisma, more flashy magic spells, more repetitive combat, more blood and guts and looting, more quests, hell, even more elaborate plots about the end of the world and civilization! Only “more” interests for this new tome. The sole twist in this new outing lies in the obvious influence of “Game of Thrones” in both narrative and world qualities of the Skyrim land, and this alone is telling of the authorial honesty of Todd Howard’s goons: follow whatever is trendy in the mass media.

But how beautiful “Skyrim’s” idyllic landscapes are! – says the public and the so-called critics. But is it really so? Well, it is true that, if there is something which was enjoyable about “Morrowind”, “Oblivion” and, to a lesser extent, “Fallout 3”, it lied in these games spatial exploration. “Skyrim” is no exception to the rule. You’ll find a plethora of naturalist environments with vague romantic flair: many a pine tree, fern, flower, mountain and misty grove, coloring the landscape with grays and whites and greens that lend themselves to the slow trot of the passerby, accompanied once again by Soule’s breathtaking soundtrack, soothing the weary eye and cleansing the soul of more mundane, quest-like preoccupations. But the composition of its many visual elements is shoddy at best. Taken in separate, one cannot deny the competent technical capacity involved in its digital designs; but textures and models vanish in their uncoordinated ad-nauseam repetition, forming unflattering blobs of samey patterns. You get to see objects and lands many, many, many times, seldomly framed with the clinical eye of a gifted digital landscape artist, with most views sticking out in a jumble of procedurally generated redundancy. But where it hurts most is in the use of light and color: elements are usually integrated into each scene by dimming contrast, so as to afford minimal cohesion. The effect robs many views of their natural beauty, either making sets too bright and bloomy or dark and bleak. Further artifices are employed to mask the lacklustre digital draughtsmanship: “Skyrim” is, on a purely technical level, a state of the art piece, home to all the graphical engineering tricks that feature in marketing check-lists, but be not in doubt that these are to no avail when employed by those whose aesthetic vision is limited to comic-book and hollywood blockbuster references.

We are quick to concede that not all scenes and objects display such absence of ideal – some Romanesque buildings are a wonder to admire in their sheer monolithic opulence, and the elemental details are particularly pleasing to the eye. The icey cave stalactites with their cold sheen, the bright fiery torches with their sparkles flying through the air, the falls and rivers and bedstreams glistening white with hazy mist, the snowy mountain peaks with their fierce gales and, last but not least, the gorgeous night sky with its ever present array of colorful (yes, colorful!) aurorae borealis – these were all conjured with a genius that is altogether absent from their surroundings (the same being true for previous “Elder Scroll” titles). All in all, the world manages to feel living enough, and given the game’s reliance on long trips (as long as one avoids abusing fast-travel), you get to indulge in its scenery for so much time that it becomes an intricate part of its appeal, perfect for geocachers and strollers. But though it can caress your inner nature-lover, it boasts a lesser, mundane type of beauty: its picturesque qualities show as brave and bold aesthetics as can be found in a random pretty tourism postcard, and even considering the mellowing comfort it can afford, it is surpassed by similarly scaled games as “Red Dead Redemption” and the recent “Xenoblade Chronicles”, both of which manage to show far greater character and authorial impression in their many lavish settings.
But lively though its lands may occasionally feel, its inhabitants share not the same quality. There is no denying the effort that went into “Oblivion’s” schedule driven AI programming, with its array of motivations and social-functions, but where such technique might have borne vital flame to these dead polygonal dolls, their visual characterization and animation blow such kindle to cold icy ash, for once again they look like crude action figures and move like stiff robots. It is true that there have been minor improvements face the fourth chapter – women are now blessed with porn-actress bodies and Xena warrior face, and men are now strong-blooded Norse Vikings instead of mushy round-faced old men – but even if they are not quite as ugly, disproportionate or uncanny, they are still thoroughly grotesque and generic. The problem extends to their aural side, as once again voice actors have their lines repeated ad-infinitum in hundreds of different NPC’s, forced-fed the same flat script, made to blurt out never-ending bibles of drab fantasy lore in quarter-hour-long soliloquies, bodies rock-steady in their vacant emotional expression, absent of any poetry or charm whatsoever in their declamation.

At the end of the day, “Skyrim’s” woes are the same as its forbears. Like the writer, it sells its numbers as measures of quality, desperately trying to hide its inability to design something beautiful, subtle, articulate and emotionally expressive. It is surely not by chance that Bethesda has never created anything that could amaze without resorting to scale! For you can find no heart or soul in their works, only the fakeness of men wanting to sell quantities of pyrite as if it were a nugget of artistic gold. But art is not measured in a scale, and such creative philosophy can only subsist by relying on the objectivist, market-driven ideals of a medium’s audience that salivates at the presence of quantifiable quality measurements. “Skyrim” is a statement, “Experience the different character and play styles, the dozens and dozens of quests, the nine metropolises and their many satellite towns, hacking your way through hundreds of dungeons, in uncountable hours of exploration and combat, hoarding the many thousands of books and items and weapons, across forty kilometers of wide open space, built out of billions and billions of polygons! And all this with massive dragons on top!” One either subscribes this, and appreciates the sheer size of its lunatic ambition, engaging in its enormous amount of entertainment, thus giving in to the mindless trek of its addiction, hours and hours of menial tasks made enjoyable, building up experience and gold as if you were a meth junky… or one may as well keep a sane mind and heartily laugh at the game’s knick knackery execution, rough edges, derivative theme and incomprehensible lack of taste. We admit that with all its faults, “Skyrim” at least manages to march away from stats and dice-rolls and text-driven apparatus (unlike “New Vegas” or “Xenoblade Chronicles”), seeking a roleplaying game more naturalistic in form, with exploration of an open fantasy world at the forefront of its preoccupations. If only Bethesda could focus on creating a rich, detailed region with a heartfelt storyline instead of a spoiled mess of a continent with a hydra of bland fantasy tales, they might succeed. But like the writer, they are incapable of doing so, for just as he cannot really write literature, only spew out words into paper, so is Bethesda only capable of spewing out thousands of hours of gameplay… there simply isn’t a videogame to be found in them.