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.
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.