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.