When Life Gives You Dragons, Make Dragonade: Scenes From Skyrim

It’s night.

A light snow falls.

I’m on a quest with — well, I forget his name. Farklas? Firkas? Whatever it is, we’ve just exited some skanky hoarfrost grotto after cleaning the place out of whatever assholes lurked within.

Then I hear it — thwip — the sound of an arrow narrowly missing my skull.

I see Farkleberry run off. Which means, of course, he’s running towards danger.

Next thing I know, we’re ascending some steps just as some bandits are descending and oh, it’s on, it’s on like Donkey Kong playing Ping Pong while eating Egg Foo Yong. I’m targeting shadows in the dark with my bow. Notch an arrow. Time slows. Pop. Bandit’s head snaps back with an arrow in the cheek. Eat a dick, bandit. Eat a big old arrow-shaped dick.

I’ve no idea where Tackleberry is.

But then I hear it — a shriek.

It’s familiar but I’ve little time to think about it. I’ve got some blue-glowing magic-slinging knob-gobbler all up in my grill, trying to chill my bones with his ice-doom magic.

Then: the shriek again.

The shriek is no longer distant — it is upon us.

FWOOSH.

The screen lights up with fire! What the fuck? I stagger backward out of the flame, see the wizardy knob-gobbler is being roasted right there on the spot by a whooshing plume of flame.

Flame coming from a dragon’s mouth. A dragon that landed, ohh, about ten feet away from me.

Oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit.

I backpedal. Screaming like a little girl that just got peed on by a tiger at the zoo (and yes, I’ve seen that, and it is indeed a story for another time). I let fly with arrows, many as I can sling into the dragon’s skull.

The dragon takes flight once more. My arrows find no purchase as he soars into the sky.

And suddenly all is quiet: the bandits are gone or dead. Fucklas is gone, too — I’ve no idea where he is.

But one thing I know: I’m not letting this dragon get away. Because if I kill this dragon, I can eat his soul like it’s a big bowl of dragon-flavored ice cream. And from it, I can gain power: the power to breathe fucking fire. I want that. I need that. So, I spy the dragon in the sky, and I give chase.

The dragon lands in the distance. The beast illuminated by his own fiery breath, breath that blasts against some lone warrior standing against the draconian wretch –

Oh, holy shit. It’s Scott Farkus.

I bolt toward him in time to see him fall.

The dragon spies me. Takes flight. Circles. Again evading my arrows. Thwip thwip thwip.

Then — boom.

Beast behind me. I’m burning. On fire. All parts of me, going crispy.

I run. I’m not ready for this. I’m almost out of health potions. My life dwindles. But the dragon, ohhh, he’s quite persistent, and this motherfucker is up again and soaring above my head, and here I am stumbling around in the dark, panting and out of breath, and suddenly the dragon lands directly in front of me –

And then I see two shapes. One to my right. One to my left.

Huge shambling shadows.

I’ve stumbled into the middle of two massive wooly mammoths.

As an aside, it appears mammoths care little for dragons. I don’t know why this is, precisely. Perhaps because mammoths received swirlies from said dragon in elementary school? Maybe the dragon ate all the mammoth’s candy, or stole his keys, or pooped in the mammoth’s chafing dish. Maybe it’s just because mammoths are flammable as fuck and see dragons as a natural enemy.

Whatever the reason, the two mammoths — both high-powered Snuffalupaguses each — decide to get in on the action. Much to the chagrin of the dragon. The two mammoths tear the dragon a new asshole as I sit comfortably ensconced between my two shaggy impromptu bodyguards, flinging arrows into the hell-lizard. And my final arrow pierces the dragon’s head. The beast falls. His body catches fire and his essence is vacuumed into my body.

That, to me, is the essence of Skyrim.

The game does what I like games to do in terms of storytelling: it lets me assemble the story of my own telling. I don’t mind a game that has its own story to tell, but the games to which I really respond are the ones that give me all the pieces and let me put them together according to my own style of play. It cedes some narrative authority to me.

It’s in this way that the Elder Scrolls games have a lot in common with Minecraft, actually — both say, “Hey. Here’s a giant world. The map you have is incomplete. Feel free to wander around. Do the things we suggest. Or don’t. We don’t care. This is your world — we just put it here. Build. Craft. Fight. Run. Oh, and watch out — the monsters come out at night.” Hell, both games have dragons, now. Minecraft obviously takes the Elder Scrolls freedom and amps it up, but is also removes all external narrative elements. Skyrim has a story to tell; it just doesn’t care if you participate. Minecraft is rudderless, an entirely unregulated narrative experience.

If Minecraft is Skyrim’s spiritual cousin, then in a sense, Dragon Age I & II is Skyrim’s opposite — not in a bad way, mind, but in a way that’s worth noting. Where Skyrim puts before you an open world whose every physical and geographical component is a story-building element, Dragon Age (and other Bioware RPGs) offers a closed world with limited pathways whose game is in how you piece together the pre-defined story elements. In Dragon Age, the story is the game. (Which is its own kind of awesome.)

Skyrim says, “We have this big story and all these little stories and you can weave in and out of them or avoid them all day long. The map is big. Your legs work. Go find adventure.”

Dragon Age says, “We have this big story and all these little stories and you cannot escape them but what you can do is fiddle with the pieces and put them together in the order and fashion you desire. The map is small and the path is limited but the story is rich, so wade in and we’ll give you adventure.”

Both approaches are brilliant.

But right now, I’m excited by the overall openness of Skyrim. As evidenced by my account above. The above example is by no means the only random thing that occurred. Every session, a new weird adventure I stumble into. Some guy runs up to me on the road and tells me he wants to give me something for safe-keeping, but then a bandit chief descends from a steep hill and cleaves the dude in the head with an axe, killing him in one blow. Or I’m trudging toward an icy mountain temple and there on the path is a howling, pissed off ice troll and he chases me down toward one of the mountain altars and there at the altar is a pilgrim praying and suddenly she’s up and chopping into the troll with an axe that crackles with electricity. (She dies, of course. And I pillage her zap-axe.)

So grows the wonder of an open world with seemingly endless corners of things to do, monsters to slay, stories to experience, and wooly mammoth gangstas who will help you fuck up a bad-ass dragon.

22 comments

  • You make Skyrim sound so awesome (well, more so, it sounded pretty awesome to begin with). Curse my longstanding rule against paying full price for video games! Ah well, perhaps I can score it as a Christmas present or something. And at least I have Minecraft commercial release to look forward to rebuilding myself a giant creeper proof house. When I finish the daily word count of course.

  • I must avoid this game at all costs or it will consume my heart and soul like some betentacled and squamous Cthulhu beastie… but I wants it… oh how I wants it…

  • Craaap.

    See. I didn’t get the hype over Skyrim. I never played a game from this franchise before. But I LOOOVE RPGs in every single sense of the word. But sense I didn’t get Skyrim, I didn’t want it.

    Now I get the hype.

    Now I want it.

    Thanks. Thanks alot.

  • Bethesda sucked me in with Daggerfall and they haven’t let go yet. Skyrim just feels staggeringly huge in terms of freedom, and I’m just having fun wandering around, trying odd things and going ‘cool, I CAN do that!’

    I still want to see one of those longships set sail and vanish over the horizon, but I think they might be static scenery.

  • Goddamn ice troll scumbags. 7,000 steps? More like 21,000 thanks to all the dying they made me do. I haven’t any companions as it’s a rough world and I fear for their health. I punched an elk and caught butterflies. This is a good game.
    And you’re lucky, I was showing the giants and mammoths off to a friend when a dragon came down and fucking flash froze a mammoth! I punched that dragon good, just like I showed the elk.

  • I’m right there with you. Be it crafting or wandering or dragon-slaying or running an errand for a jarl, I’m making it part of my story. Bethesda gave us the pieces, we’re the ones putting them together.

    Frost-covered high-five between dovahkiin.

  • As Listener of the Dark Brotherhood, I get people coming up to me and asking if the rumours of my station is true. One time, a guard started talking to me (“What they say about you and the Dark Brotherhood, it’s not true, is…”) and then he turned around and hurried away before finishing his sentence. I can only assume my terrifying Dark Elf visage of all that is evil terrified him too much to stick around and hear the answer.

    Skyim, oh how I love you. And your wacky murderers who are just too darn loveable.

  • And it’s because of all of that *flourishes hands toward the post above* that I was overjoyed when Bethesda took on the Fallout franchise. Bethesda knows who to hand the player a world – a true sandbox – while leaving most everything else up to the player. A lot of developers that want to do similarly open games should take some notes.

    Also – I’m the one player in the world that didn’t fall in love with Oblivion. The “let’s go close an Oblivion gate!” repetitiveness wore thin on me. I’m glad that there isn’t that sense of the main quest being a chore in Skyrim. Although, some crazy amount of hours in (I’d get depressed if I looked it up, ’cause it’s probably kissing 60 by now) I’ve barely scratched the main quest at all.

    Anyone else burning through followers and hirelings like Spinal Tap goes through drummers? It’s like following my blond, Nord, one-eyed butt around is an instant death sentence for people.(Doesn’t help that they like to run right in front of my spell. Idiots.)

  • @Kate… neither my wife nor I were that fond of Oblivion. Solid gameplay core but the structure of story and Gate-closing was a bit of a letdown. Skyrim blows it completely out of the water. Even now, sitting here at work waiting for videos to convert, I’m eager to find myself a pickaxe so I can mine my own ore to continue working on my smithing… I want to slay dragons, not just with my own hands, but with weapons MADE by my own hands.

  • I’m all over Skyrim right now (and I’m a pretty huge fan of the Bioware DA/2 games too), so love this post.

    Also? I love how you can completely dick with things in Skyrim. Don’t want to get caught stealing? Throw a bucket over that bartender’s head and pillage away.

  • I want this game oh-so-badly. Luckily, so too does my husband. I’m going to buy it as an early Christmas gift for him. Then I get to be an awesome wife AND enjoy playing a kick-ass game.

  • So far, my favorite thing to do is run into Dragonreach when all the Jarl’s men are eating dinner, then jump up onto the table and run across it, scattering their plates and goblets before me. Then I pick them up off the ground and throw them across the room.

    The epic moments are awesome, but the little, weird ones I create for myself keep me hooked.

  • Skyrim is the fantasy RPG I have been waiting for for a very long time. As I’ve noted to a lot of people, this is the first time I’ve been able to play a spellcaster the way I want to play them: sneaky, spec’d for good armor, and able to use multiple schools of magic with equal aplomb.

    Spellswords have been fun to play in Elder Scrolls games past, but I never really liked the way that you had to switch betwixt spellslinging and melee. Now you can easily do both at the same time! Also, dual-wielding bound swords makes me giddy.

    All that said, the mechanical stuff that I’m digging is gravy. The fact that the main storyline (as far as I can tell at this point, anyway) is epic without the fate of the world/universe/multiverse obviously resting entirely on your shoulders is a pleasant change of pace. The fact that a massive military campaign is a damned sidequest is very amusing to me. There’s just so much to do and see. This is one of the first video game RPGs that I’ve played where I can believe that nearly every side character could potentially carry an engaging story of their own.

    Now if only it wouldn’t make the PS3 heat up and cause the graphics to stutter.

  • @alison
    That kind of logic is exactly like my tabletop gaming experience. The kind of thing that meant someone could use encumberance rules as a reason to carry nothing but ladders in their inventory, or pickpocket a water elemental. The bugs almost make it more like a tabletop game.
    I didn’t know the bucket trick, and might have to see if I can ‘bucket’ a whole town now…

  • me and Skyrim have an interesting relationship right now. It is a good game, I’ll give it that. Very solid and even fun. But with games like that I don’t see the spark that a lot of other folks do. I know it is there, but it seems just out of sight, just out of reach, for me.

    Someone above said that Bethesda does Table Top RPGs, but I think that is part of the problem. The freedom is CLOSE to that, but not quite there. and maybe that is what I am hitting my head against.

    That said, Skyrim is slowly starting to show me, and posts like this are giving me a reason to look back over what I’m doing and see about threading it my way. I’m still young (only like level 7) so I’m sure there’s plenty of time and things to see. No random dragon attacks yet, but maybe soon? I’ve already killed the one at Dragonsreach.

  • The dragons are sweet, the fighting is epic but honestly what keeps me going are the small things. I’m all about full immersion, and to accomplish this only takes some additional effort on the designers’ part. For example, back in the day Doom was great but extremely repetitive. Then came Duke Nukem 3D and you could click on arcade games, talk, and look at badly pixilated boobies. It’s a minor thing, has no real IN game effect, but makes the world seem more real.
    The Eldar Scrolls games have always captivated me because of how open they are, but the technology has been lacking. Hearing the same voice actors for every guard, terrible AI interactions, and recycled dungeons ruins that veil of realism. Skyrim is a marvel in this regard and although there are some bugs and crazy things like Mammoths who fall from the heavens, it’s the small details like playing hide and seek with the towns kids, hunting animals who bob and weave, and rivers with an actual current that really set it apart from any other gaming experience I’ve had to date.
    Skyrim, I heart you.

  • Can’t read a post about player stories and not mention Dwarf Fortress. That game produces the best stories out of players’ experiences.

    Bravemule is extensive, and is written as if penned by the dwarves themselves (can be a bit hard to get through)?:
    http://www.bravemule.com/

    But the KING of DF stories is Bronzemurder, which is a wonderful illustration of the kind of things that can emerge form the game:
    http://df.magmawiki.com/index.php/DF2010:Stories/Bronzemurder

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