Like, apparently, 90% of the blogosphere’s gamers, I, too, have been spending some quality time with Bethesda Game Studios’ latest addition to the superb Elder Scrolls series: Skyrim. As there are already countless reviews of the game, I thought that I’d muse on something more specific: the immersive qualities of Skyrim and the previous games in the series.
Skyrim differs from most other RP video games in that it is ‘open world’. Instead of focusing on a relatively narrow linear plot, it opens the entire eponymous geographical area for the player to do whatever they will. You can perfectly well simply wander around, from mountains to rivers and the sea, pick herbs and mushrooms and deal with the occasional aggressive animal, bandit or a stranded traveller in need of help. You can craft things. You can buy a house and decorate it (although your options seem somewhat limited here). You can enlist in the army, join the rebels, study to become a wizard or a bard. You can get married to an NPC (of any race or gender). My husband fully intends to take over the College of Magic from the current Archmage (he also did this in the previous installment, Oblivion) and I am working my way up the ranks in the Imperial army.
Writing about virtual worlds and literature, Marie-Laure Ryan (1994) early on included the amount of choice available as an important factor of interactivity in a virtual world. She argued that while in the case of text interactivity – the power to modify the environment, i.e. to be aware of the environment as external and modifiable – reduces the sense of immersion, this is not the case with virtual worlds. In the time of her writing, virtual worlds were conceived as full-body 3D environments and MMOs and high-detail single-player games had still some way to go. Considering literary text alongside virtual worlds, her essay placed interactivity and immersion against each other as mutually independent elements. I doubt anyone writing about games these days would consider them separate elements. A strong interactive dimension in a game – the ability to move around freely, to talk to the NPCs and get different responses based on your conduct with them, to handle objects in the game in a realistic manner – acts as one element of the whole immersive experience. This is something in which Skyrim’s Havok engine excels, although perhaps less so now than when it first appeared. I remember first encountering it in Morrowind and being astonished that your character could actually move the corpse of a troublemaker off to one side of the road and hide it.
There is, of course, an argument that too much manipulation of the environment does break immersion… but at the same time it can demonstrate the high level of the interactivity, like in the by now famous case of How To Steal In Skyrim (answer: put a bucket over the NPC’s head so they can’t see you and raise the alarm).
What else makes Skyrim the kind of game that should be played in a dark room, with the door closed? Our technology doesn’t allow for the full disappearance of the border between the actual and the game worlds, so the player must try to forget the existence of the XBox or the computer in front of them. Ryan’s immersive qualities include an in-depth environment and characters, awareness of the world extending beyond the current point of view, sense of control, high detail in description or environment, adoption of another identity and transcending the boundaries of ordinary human experience. Ryan makes the interesting point that our own actual reality is the least suitable for immersive narratives and real events in it are the least likely to induce mental participation. Perhaps narrated events in our own world always force a certain distance, while it’s easier to ‘let go’ and fully dive into an imaginary world.
For an imaginary non-MMO visual world, Skyrim is huge. Elder Scroll games have each focused on one province of the Empire of Tamriel, but even so, the province of Skyrim is richly populated with towns, monuments, other structures, landmarks and geographical features. The graphics, particularly representations of water, which is what I use as a measuring point for the overall quality, are excellent. The NPCs are encountered in their daily routines, which change according to the time of day. They work, they gather at the table to eat, they lock up the house and sleep. They argue between themselves. The player character can choose their side and their career. In the Elder Scrolls games, the player character starts out as a prisoner and on their escape emerges into the game world proper. This reflects the player’s freedom to choose their own playstyle and, by this, to forge their in-game identity. In Skyrim, the quest text on completion of the initial quest to escape the destroyed fort of Helgen emphasises this: ‘I am now free to explore Skyrim as I will’. The player transcends the boundaries of their actual world by casting spells, dealing with different intelligent races and by engaging in conflict with fantastic creatures.
The immersiveness of Skyrim is not only the result of its freeform play, but it also draws from the highly detailed world and characters and the ability to create not only a character but an identity. I look forward to my part in defeating the Stormcloak rebels, even as my husband, in his own version of the same world, plots the overthrow of the Imperial oppression and the freedom of Skyrim.
Marie-Laure Ryan (1994), ‘Immersion vs Interactivity: Virtual Reality and Literary Theory’, Postmodern Culture 5:1