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Opinion:  Skyrim  And Gaming's Old School Myth And Legend
Opinion: Skyrim And Gaming's Old School Myth And Legend Exclusive
December 29, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander

[Remember what game culture was like in the weird old days, before information was plentiful and the internet connected all? Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander looks at what Skyrim reminds us we've missed.]

When we think about the leaps video games have made in the recent decades, we rightly consider technology advancements, increasingly large-scaled and sophisticated products, and refinements in game mechanics. But thinking about the culture around games, our experiences as fans have certainly changed a lot since we were younger.

Likely the largest swath of folks currently working and playing in the games space were hooked into the hobby as kids of the 1980s and early 1990s, an era of hyperbolic brand and console wars, "radical" mascots, and -- most importantly -- the aura of a sort of secret society that traded in playground banter, strategy guides and tips magazines.

Back then, games were much more oblique, frequently temperamental and stuffed with Easter eggs and the unique signatures of individual designers. And in this pre-internet environment, information was exponentially harder to come by than it is today -- no games blogs, no RSS feeds, no forums, no GameFAQs.

You learned strategies and secrets through social play, the kind that well-predated Facebook and online multiplayer: Good old-fashioned jam sessions gathered around a console at a friend or neighbor's house after school and through long sessions. For most kids, game magazines were delightful luxuries bursting with pictures of new games and tricks for old ones that weren't available anywhere else. They were clutched and prized, wrinkled and shared in school.

Being a gamer meant living in a world of imagination and experimentation, and often of conflict and conjecture. I still remember fierce, polarizing recess shouting matches of groups of kids, some of which declared for Mario and others for Sonic. Accessibility was not nearly as valued as it is now; in fact, opacity and hostile complexity was often something to be desired.

Instead mastery, both of gameplay itself and of the information world, was such a highly valued commodity that it wasn't unusual for rumors to run rampant. Kids would tell one another of made-up secret levels and hidden characters, and were happy to lie about whether or not they'd conquered this or that title.

More than one of my gamer friends has told me about entirely inventing imagined endings for games they could tell others about, just to propagate legends and make others believe they'd achieved something no one else had. The enormously complex culture of myths and secrets that was part of the experience of being a gamer when we were young just doesn't exist anymore.

But with Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, gamers seem to be getting a little of that cult storytelling back. Indeed, I've a hunch that therein lies much of the game's appeal: Skyrim certainly isn't successful because of its degree of polish, its cohesion or even its originality (I see it having none of the above in notable quantity).

It's mainly that the massive, sprawling RPG with all of its quirky, broken bits gives gamers an unprecedentedly enormous canvas for telling personal stories.

The Skyrim community is fascinating. On YouTube alone, there are countless funny videos related to horses floating, disappearing or tumbling out of the sky. Comedy crew Mega64 recently had a field day with some of the game's most common tech burps -- and then, of course, there's the bizarre permeation of that "arrow to the knee" meme.

And it's not just Skyrim's off-kilter bits that are making it a hub for humor, legend and conversation in a way few games have done in years. The sheer volume and complexity of the game's world and the overwhelming number of options mean that no two players will have a remotely similar journey. Most abandon the main quest fairly early on, in favor of following whims. Want to be a nude bandit struggling beneath the weight of hundreds of pieces of useless crockery? Be that, man.

That enormous diversity of experience is giving players stories to tell one another, shorthand and secrets and artifacts to share once again, just like when we were younger. Myth and dialogue is a beloved and important part of gamer culture, and it's nice to have a little bit of it back.

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Travis Johnson
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I have friends who consider the "kind of broken but almost more awesome for it" games like Fallout: New Vegas, Skyrim and Alpha Protocol almost a genre to themselves. I think it's the Roguelike mentality: that it's worth putting up with low-quality graphics, unbalanced gameplay and general glitchiness if it means you have the freedom to just DO. Some people would rather find a glitch than hit an invisible wall, every time.

Bisse Mayrakoira
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From what I've read, the new Fallouts and Skyrim emphasize gotta-catch-em-all mentality, having lots of *stuff* at the cost of consistency, and little to no consequence or meaning to anything you do. Roguelikes emphasize freedom of action in a consistent world, and your actions having consequences. Furthermore, I associate roguelikes with polish and covering the edge cases - the polar opposite of glitchiness. I don't see why you'd consider them to be even remotely the same.

Jen Bauer
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New Vegas is about collecting and a lack of consequences? What? Did we play the same game?

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Tiago Raposo
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Controversial, but I personaly agree. Maybe not to the topic or details brought by you, but to the feeling of nostalgia of an unpolished-but-amazing game, where immersion is never broken because you know it's buggy and ugly.

No wonder Skyrim did not win any single specifics-award (graphics, sound, etc), but wins hands-down almost everywhere Game Of The Year awards. Very, very well deserved.

Kevin Patterson
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Developers that make these open world games should take a good look at what Bethesda has done with Skyrim. Yes, the game isn't perfect, but it's so much fun to just say "I think I will go left and see what is on that hill in the distance" and then go there and explore. The Elder scrolls series has done that so much better than everyone else.

I have played most of the open world RPG's out there, and none of them have quite captured wonder of exploration as well as Bethesda. Some are very beautiful games, but the quest lines leads you from place to place, and doesn't really let you explore as you want, unless you just like killing things.

Skyrim is a single player game where combat is really 2nd to the thrill of adventure and exploration, and I love that. It's difficulty isn't that hard and as you level it gets easier, it rewards your patience early on. Plus, Elder scrolls is a first person game, and most of the open world games are mainly meant to be played in third person. I personally feel it kills the immersion to go into third person, and from Skyrim's sales, I think many agree with me. It can be played in third, but no one I know seriously plays the game entirely in third person. For those games, Dark souls is probably more what they want since third person focuses on combat.

I'd love to see a single player scifi game use this formula. Think Mass Effect meets freelancer, where you can travel to different worlds/places, use a ship, customize it, a B5 or star trek game like this would be amazing, but very expensive to make, but if made well, it would easily make its money back.

Joe McGinn
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Good article, it certainly jives with my experience. A lot of water cooler conversations with people telling very different stories, gameplay experiences the other had no idea were in the game.

Bart Stewart
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Why all the twitchy complaints? If all I'd heard about Skyrim was that it was unpolished, incoherent, derivative, broken, buggy, unbalanced, and ugly, I might have missed out on the fun bits mentioned almost as a grudging afterthought. (People talk about the three Stalker games the same way.)

Skyrim isn't fun despite its rough edges. And it's not fun merely because of them. (Although some of the unexpected system interactions are pretty funny.) Skyrim is fun because there are a ton of entertaining things to do at the player's whim in a large open world filled with interesting and attractive architecture and moderately detailed representations of people.

Yes, Bethesda could have spent more time improving this or that part of the gameworld. And they also might still be polishing it five years from now -- any sign of the no-doubt highly polished Half-Life Episode 3 yet? -- without any meaningful improvement to what makes Skyrim fun.

Bart Stewart
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Anthony, the problem I have with that argument is that it's subjective.

Anyone who's been a developer of any kind of software knows that positive comments are always far outweighed by negative comments. It didn't include this feature I personally wanted; it does include a feature someone else wanted but that I don't care about; that feature doesn't work the way I (silently) expected it to work; this other feature I demanded wasn't there even though including it would have added two years and a lot of money to the development costs; and so on.

In a few cases these actually are real bugs, where something important doesn't work as intended. But in a lot of cases -- and this seems to be particularly true for games where gamers don't see the developers as human beings -- gamers are quick to declare damn near anything to be a "bug" when in fact it's no more than a question of personal taste.

I'm not saying that's true in all cases for Skyrim. Some people have had real technical problems. I'm saying that I think most claims that Skyrim is substantially "incomplete" or "broken" are subjective views, which I believe unfairly ignore the reality that all the parts of Skyrim that actually matter are working as intended and add up to a very good game.

For gamers I put this "I have to say something bad" down to the common attitude that it's fun to pile on when someone else mocks something. Gaming journalists and pros, however, I hold to a higher standard -- for these folks, I have to wonder if the negativity comes from "I have to say something bad or someone might accuse me of being on the developer's payroll." If so, that's a fetish we can do without.

No game is perfect, or it would never ship. There's always something that can be criticized in any game. It ought to matter, though. If there's something real (not subjective) that's important enough to merit criticism, be constructive about it: give examples. Otherwise, be secure enough in your opinions to be positive about a great game without including vague curbstomps because you're worried about how a glowing analysis might sound.

(That, incidentally, is why Yahtzee is -- and I don't say this lightly -- the best game reviewer working today. He gets what's important; he acknowledges his subjectivities; he gives specific examples; and he's capable of giving a completely positive review [e.g. Portal] without worrying what anyone else might think.)

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David Serrano
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@Bart Stewart

I think how players respond to a bug or glitch comes down to which part of a game is affected. I think when a bug or glitch only affects random and non-critical side quests, tasks or actions, most players give developers the benefit of the doubt since the problem occurs "off the beaten path." They understand the bug could have been missed during play testing. But players have little tolerance when developers release a game with bugs and glitches that affect main quests or core game play. Since they occur on the path all players will travel, it's inconceivable the bug or glitch could have been missed during play testing. Experienced players know the developer knew about the problem, shipped the game and couldn't be bothered to have a patch ready by the release date.

For example, during my first Skyrim play-through, I had two separate incidences where I started a quest but couldn't complete it because the NPC needed to end the quest was killed during a dragon attack. At the time I didn't know if these were main quests or side quests since I wasn't using a strategy guide. Poor execution by Bethesda but in the big picture, they were non-critical side quests so no big deal. But a 360 bug which really pissed me off prevented me from purchasing one house in Markarth. Purchasing houses is one of my favorite core features of the franchise. What really pissed me off was Oblivion had a similar, well known bug that could prevent players from purchasing the house in Skingrad. The bug was discussed in practically all user forums and Bethesda knew it existed. So it's inexcusable that they would release Skyrim with a bug that caused the same problem and not have a patch ready for download when it released. The fact that they didn't reduced the overall fun factor of the game since it took 5 to 6 hours to figure out a work around.

Tomas Majernik
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Very nice article. Btw I gathered a few of my old friends during holidays and we all played Skyrim (well one of us playing, others telling him what to do, which skills to pick and so on, discussing all the possible combinations of skills, just like the old days), which hasn`t happend since... since the days of Baldur`s Gate and Diablo I think ;)

Luis Guimaraes
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For me it's just a huge part of what makes gaming nice. My console almost just gathers dust if there's nobody to play with, I prefer PC when alone, but friends and console are the best combination. To bad there's this trend towards online only multiplayer.

B Reg
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I totally agree, Skyrim's immersion is great. But personally I'm still waiting for that big leap in open world gamedesign. Yes, there are individuals and factions and somehow things change along the way, but the AI still has it's limitations and many missions still feel like "look for item over there" or "kill person X". I feel a lack of mechanics that make my actions really have impact in the 'world'. I want whole factions to act hostile when I join a rival gang. I want to see soldiers suffer when I cut off there food supplies. I want to see a kingdom in dispair when I rush in the throne room and kill the king.

If I compare Skyrim to games like Vampire The Masquerade and especially Outcast (from 1999!), even to Morrowind, I just wonder why the industry has not made anymore progress design-technically. I even consider some of Outcast's open world mechanics superiour to Skyrim.

Daniel Olsson
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This article reminded me of the reasons why I play video games, and why Skyrim is one of the few that really brings back that imaginative feeling. Good stuff :)

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Omar Gonzalez
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You can say the same about almost every other field, industry, professional practice, entertainment etc.. Internet changed all that. There is always a trade off, Yet I strongly prefer the post-internet word.

As for the sense of discovery and the power of capturing your imagination, I would rather praise Bethesda design choices, stunning art direction, writing and the sheer amount of deep to the in-game word than some misguided notion of old vs new school, because that can be related to a personal perspective.

Nathaniel Marlow
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I think Dwarf Fortress at least merits a mention while we're on the subject, there aren't many games with websites and forums dedicated solely to retelling the emergent stories that wept from the cracks of its terrifyingly jumbo-sized procedural cauldron. Procauldron, if you will.

Jim Murphy
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Open world gaming in the 1st person / 3rd person prospective beats any linear storyline (you told where to go and what to do ) gming which infests the mind logic of bioware, EA and activision.

I want a game where i decide what i do and how i play not the developer , and certainly Not steam .

Bethesda achieves this , its not perfect , but hey i make the decisions when i play .

The next step is Sci fi sandbox style a huge universe like colony wars from 1997 but able to enter a worlds atmosphere from outer space , land the craft , then in 1st person take out the enemy , and bugger off to another world and do the same process as well as space combat, repair, retieval , rescue and discover new worlds etc etc

Perhaps bethesda should have a go at that for the next console cycle , this is the challege and it would sell !

imagine how good assassin creed , witcher and others would be if it had a 1st person prospective included .