In relation to the post below, here is a YouTube tour of the real estate opportunities available in Skyrim.
We can say with some certainty that 2012 will end after 31st December 2012 and that it’s unlikely the world will end on 21st December 2012 (the end of the Mayan calendar). The inevitability of the end of the year and the unlikelihood of the world ending before Christmas has reminded me that I’ve been meaning to gather together a few thoughts about endings, particularly endings in games and how they relate to our experience of them as separate from everyday life – or not.
I started playing Skyrim on Xbox 360 sometime in September and I decided to stop playing about a month ago and it was the point when I stopped playing it that got me thinking about endings. For those who don’t know it, Skyrim is the latest instalment in the Elder Scrolls series. While previous games have been defined by the richness of the world and the extensive and detailed back stories they sit upon, Skyrim took this to a whole new level. From the beginning you are plunged into a world under threat by the return of dragons (actual dragons), thought to be long dead, a threat that only you, as the Dragonborn (meaning you have the power to use dragon “shouts” and absorb dragon souls), have the power to overcome. The world is also in the middle of a civil war between the Imperials (those loyal to the Empire of Tamriel) and the Stormcloaks who are fighting for an independent Skyrim. The Stormcloaks are Nords, the dominant ethnic group in the country, but not, it emerges, the area’s original inhabitants.
So the “main” mission is to save the world from destruction by the dragon Alduin, the World Eater, and the dragons who follow him. It would be extremely difficult to complete the main quest straight away though because your character won’t be powerful enough. The game is specifically designed to encourage the player to get to a higher level by doing other quests. This is standard for a RPG (Role Playing Game), you need to level up to progress. What distinguishes Skyrim is quite how many quests there are and how many story-lines. Some quests are self-contained while others are entire story-lines of their own, with one quest generating another and so on until the whole storyline has been completed. Notably, you can choose sides in the Civil War and this is where the game provides with a complex political decision. Do you support the status-quo even though it is corrupt and disturbingly controlled by outside interests or do you side with the rebels despite the fact that their fierce nationalism extends to institutionalised racism towards immigrant communities within the country? There are also story-lines that relate to your decision over which category of player you want to become: so you can train as a Mage or become a member of the Thieves Guild.
This is, of course, only a very brief description of the enormous world of Skyrim and the many, many possibility that are at your disposal to create your own narrative within that world. I think I played it for around 80 hours altogether. I thought alongside the Strormcloaks in the Civil War, defeating the Imperial Forces. I became the Arch-Mage at the College of Winterhold. I became a Thane of various Holds, bought houses and had a gay marriage (Skyrim is surprisingly liberal in certain ways). I trapped and befriended a dragon whose back I rode on to the Land of the Dead where I enlisted the help of my ancestors the ancient Nords to finally defeat Alduin, the World Eater, thereby saving the entire world. The game still wasn’t over though. There were still quests that I could do. I had to make the personal decision to stop playing the game on the grounds that the quests that were still on my to-do list were now going to be anticlimactic. How could I go from saving the world to fetching packages and delivering letters for people? As the narrative and the character’s behaviour had been placed in my hands, I had to follow what I felt to be the logic of my character’s journey. So I decided to end it.
I checked some online discussion boards to see if other players had experienced a similar kind of confusion about when, if ever, the game was over. I’m not exaggerating when I say that there’s a more information online about Skyrim than there is about several nation states. There was quite a bit of debate over when someone could say that they had “finished” Skyrim, with some people suggesting that you had to have played the main quest through with every different class of character, become a Thane of every Ward, bought houses in every major town, etc. before you could say that you had “finished” the game.
Bethesda, the studio who make Skyrim, actually brought out a DLC (Downloadabe Content) for the game called Hearthfire. This allows the player to buy, customise and maintain their own homestead. It gives you the option to hire your own stewards, your own bard and there is even the possibility of adopting children (Dragonborn can’t reproduce though, it would seem). After all your heroism, you have the option of becoming a member of the land-owning bourgeoisie. One of the comments that stayed with me most from the Skyrim online forums was someone complaining about domestic life in Skyrim after you’d completed all your major heroic endeavours: “the trouble is that you can’t play Skyrim in Skyrim.”
Having started as a piece of escapism with dragons, trolls, elves, swords and sorcery, the game in some ways becomes the victim of its own immersive enterprise. The world becomes so immersive that it can’t possibly remain exciting. It starts to resemble the domestic mundane existence you wanted to escape from in the first place. This is what happens when the narrative ends and all that is left is the world. It then comes up against the problem that we already have a world to live in and that world has more possibilities than any game that we can imagine existing and always will do.
Can a game be never ending? And if it doesn’t end, is it still a game or does it become something else? And if does become something else, what is that thing? It is part of the principle behind MMORPGS (Massive Multilayer Online Role Playing Games) like World of Warcraft that they are ongoing. While I haven’t played these games myself, I understand that they are based on the structure of RPGs like Skyrim where you have missions to complete within a world. The “games” themselves are not so much games as platforms for game missions and worlds in which those missions or games can exist.
This brings me back to the idea that, for all the delights of escaping into a detailed online fictional world, we do have a real world around us and we are physical bodies within that. What if an MMORPG wasn’t online (an MMRPG)? I’m not talking about a bunch of people trying to replicate World of Warcraft in a field somewhere in the countryside dressing up as massive cows and elves or shooting each other with bows and arrows. That isn’t existing within the real world but taking a closed off controlled environment that is as close as possible to an online world. A real-world MMRPG would have to sit on top of our everyday lives. It would have to use elements of the real world but make us see these elements in different ways. In this sense, it might have more in common with our dream-lives than with any fictional world: it would take the pieces of our own lives, mix them up and turn them around, creating new systems and rule-sets. Our avatars would look a lot like us and only other people who were playing the game would know our secret identities as players of the game, inhabitants of this other world. This world would always be there for this if we wanted to step into it. The game won’t last forever, of course, but then neither will we.
You may remember that back in September I was looking for people to help test out a new game I am developing with Tim Kindberg. After that very early jam at Westfield Shepherds Bush, we’re now doing a “proper” play-test of the game, which for the moment we are calling The Deed, at Cabot Circus in Bristol on Thursday 25th October at 6.00 pm. If you’re interested in playing (it’s free!) please e-mail email@example.com or fill in the “Ask Me Anything” form in the right hand menu. We need to know what kind of phone you’ve got and what your mobile number is.
There are two teams and you’ll find out what team you’re on and what your starting point is going to be closer to the time. The game is part race, part espionage and you will need your phone (fully charged) as well as your ability to blend into the crowd… Think Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: The Game!
This month, on consecutive weekends, there were two weekend-long festivals of live games in the UK, curated and hosted by Slingshot and Hide & Seek, in their home cities of Bristol and London respectively. I went along to both. At IgFest (the Interesting Games Festival) in Bristol, I was running my own game: The Eschaton. The game went well and I was pleased that, after repeatedly refining and tweaking it over the course of an initial play test at Battersea Arts Centre with Coney followed by running the game at playARK in Cardiff and Playpublik in Berlin, it felt like I had got it down to something that was as accessible and fun to play as I could make it. I also have to say that the players at IgFest were a really great bunch who seemed very literate in their understanding of these kinds of games and also, more importantly, up for engaging and being playful. I wasn’t running anything at the Hide & Seek Weekender on the South Bank so I went along as a punter on the Saturday and mostly watched people playing games. One of the things that Hide & Seek have been concentrating on in their recent series of Sandpit events has been games for audiences and this came across in the performative nature of several of the games, making it an enjoyable experience for a spectator as well as for the players themselves.
There was one large-scale headline game that featured at both festivals: Incitement by the Bristol-based “purveyors of fine experiences” Splash and Ripple. I want to write a little about that here because I am aware that games like these don’t get “reviewed” in the media and this means this limits the wider discussion of the work to those who have actually experienced them.
There are, of course, a number of difficulties with criticism in relation to games of this kind. The first is the fact that they are often one-off events. While plays get reviewed at the beginning of their runs and video games and novels are available to buy and experience ad infinitum, live games are often only being run once or twice. However, gigs and concerts get reviewed after the event and the consumer information element is similarly absent there. Also, increasingly, as live games gain popularity, I think we are going to find more and more of them having further lives. For example, Slingshot’s Zombie Chase game 2.8 Hours Later has been going for two years now and continues to sell-out in cities across the country.
The other difficulty is the fact that this is still a new form of urban experience, distinct from either video games or theatre, and, as such, games can frequently be works in progress, still learning from their mistakes. Due to this and the still relatively small number of people making work in this area, a very supportive community of games makers has been formed and it is therefore with some hesitancy that I would approach any criticism of someone else’s game in the public forum. On the other hand, I do feel that, for this kind of experience to move on to the next level, it does need to widen out the level of discussion and put itself on the same level as other forms of art. In doing so, my hope is that the bad habits that other kinds of criticism have fallen into can be avoided.
Finally, there is the subjectivity of the experience which is something that plagues all criticism to varying degrees and which I have actually discussed before on this blog. Each individual’s experience of a game however is significantly more divergent than it would be for a traditional piece of theatre, a novel or an album. You can see this reflected, I think, in the kinds of verbs used in a good video games review, as the critic attempts to grapple with the multiplicity of possible player experiences. For example, this is from Kelly MacDonald’s review of Fallout: New Vegas from The Guardian in October 2010:
“Head out into the wasteland with no place in particular to go and you may well get yourself killed, but you might also discover something miraculous; a closed community, a broken-down old supermarket stuffed with lifesaving supplies, a pre-apocalypse radio station with the computerised diaries of its staff at the moment of annihilation still intact.” [my italics]
This a challenge for anyone writing reviews of games and something that must be acknowledged but it should not prevent us from discussing our incomplete, subjective impressions and attempting the leaps of imagination required to envisage how someone else’s experience might have been different. It is also something that is becoming increasingly important for criticism of immersive and experiential contemporary performance.
With these lengthy disclaimers out of the way, I will say a few words about Incitement, which I played in its second outing in London, starting around the South Bank. The experience begins when you buy your ticket. You get an e-mail telling you about the world of the game. The nation is controlled by an all-powerful force called the Authority. The Authority holds detailed information about every citizen in a “profile”. At some point in recent history, the body that was to become the Authority dealt with the issue of political apathy by allowing a computer program to predict how you would vote according to your profile (based on post-code, shopping habits, newspapers you read, etc.) In time this was of course manipulated by the same body to dispense with having to choose a new party altogether. Since then, the Authority has been in charge but this is okay because the Authority “is everybody”. I got an e-mail telling me that I was a member of one of four underground resistance factions and giving me a meeting place. There were also videos to watch on YouTube: warnings from the authority. This kind of detail meant that I could begin to immerse myself in the narrative of the game world straight away.
The rules of the game were explained at the meeting point. We were competing against the other factions for the chance to have our views heard at the “Platform”. One faction was chasing us, while we were chasing a different faction. If you caught a member of the faction, you were chasing they had to give you a band. There were also activities that you could do at each faction’s base for which you would be rewarded with bands. Everyone started off with three bands and the aim of the game was to get the largest number of bands for yourself as an individual and for your faction.
The catch was that you could only claim bands off other players within the “chase zones”. These were the zones immediately surrounding each base. In order to find other factions’ bases you had to use your map to find clues. These would eventually lead you to a base where you might be able to claim bands from other players (if you found any from the faction you were pursuing) but you would also be at risk of having bands taken from you from the faction that was pursuing you.
The world of the game was brilliantly realised and each faction had its own distinct identity, which was represented by the personalities of the faction leaders as NPCs (non-player characters) and the bases became a part of that world and an extension of those personalities. The representatives of the Authority were imbued with just the right amount of cliché for us to recognise them within a gaming context (dark suits and aviator sunglasses) but the real coup was when they stopped me and knew my name and the fact that I had been in Bristol last weekend… For all the broadness and cliché of the encounter, it succeeded in making me feel for a second like I was living in a police state. I was sufficiently immersed in the world of the game to feel both scared and angry at their invasiveness.
The actual mechanics of the game were deceptively simple. It was a little frustrating being confined to the chase areas, as opposed to something like 2.8 Hours Later, where you feel that a zombie could be around every corner. The simplicity worked less well with the clues because there was a lack of consistency in these. Some involved a basic level of puzzle-solving while others were simply giving you grid references for your map. I felt that the clues were a distraction from the more interesting tactical element of the game (though this may be my fault for not working it out sooner): the second-guessing of the other faction’s moves. If I wanted to find members of a particular faction, I could try going to their base but there was no reason for them to be there because they would have left to go looking for whichever faction they were pursuing, so it should go to that faction instead. However, if the faction, I was pursuing were thinking the same thing I was thinking, then they wouldn’t be at that base but the next base along, which was actually the faction that was pursuing me, therefore exposing myself to danger. So for all the apparent simplicity in the chase mechanism, there was actually something more complex going on though the circularity of the chasing and I thought that the game could perhaps have capitalised on this more.
I am not going to reveal the climax of the game except to say that it takes place at the platform when the contest is over. In London, this was on the South Bank right outside the BFI on a Saturday night. Maybe approximately 200 players gathered there on a busy late summer evening in a very public arena in the capital. Something happens that it is an act of both solidarity and resistance. At that moment, it felt like being part of something: like each one of us had agency but that together as a collective we had power and we had a voice. For any reservations I have about the mechanics of the game that led up to that, I do feel that the brilliance of that moment had only been made possible through our shared experience of that evening, our competing against one another while avoiding the oppression of the Authority. It was a political act within the world of the game but also one that resonated powerfully with the world outside the game and its public nature was an intrinsic part of that.
I hope that Incitement continues to develop and that more people will get an opportunity to play it. I also hope that this entirely subjective account of my own experience can inform people about what the game is and encourage them to take part if it does have any future outings.
I’m very excited to be taking my game The Eschaton to Bristol as part of IgFest, the UK’s biggest street games festival, this Saturday. It’s part of the IgFest Fringe and specific timings haven’t been confirmed yet but I will post them as soon as they are. It’ll be in afternoon between 1 pm and 7 pm though. To play, you need to come along to the IgFest pop shop and get tokens. Full details on the IgFest website (see link). I’ve been developing The Eschaton for several months now after originally playtesting at the BAC with Coney as part of a Day of Play and then taking it to playARK in Cardiff and Playpublik in Berlin. There are lots of other very exciting games going on: three headline games: two from Slingshot: 2.8 Hours Later and Cargo and one from Splash and Ripple called Incitement, which I know a little about (not going to reveal anything but I think it’s going to be pretty incredible). Also lots of fantastic companies running games on the Fringe. Particularly looking forward to finally getting a chance to play Larkin About’s Hacked Off. So, if you’re anywhere near Bristol or fancy a trip down there, there’s a whole lot of fun to be had on Saturday!
The Eschaton in action at Playpublik, Berlin.
Photo: Jakob Lacour
This is me running The Eschaton at Playpublik Festival in Berlin (August 2012).
Photo by Jakob Lacour
Accent theme by Handsome Code