The space between the bars
I’m in a dungeon of some sort. I don’t know why, but it’s safe to assume that it is probably to get something shiny. Around the corner, I can hear the unmistakable shuffle of undead feet. I weigh my options. I could sneak my way to score a critical hit, I could summon a nasty undead thingy of my own, I could make myself invisible and not bother with a fight at all. All perfectly viable. With a shrug, I decide to dismiss all of them and go in dual wielding axes, trusting my heavy armor to take the hits.
So why is it that after 30 minutes of this, I’m just plain bored?
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve put in over a 100 hours into Skyrim. There is no question that I love the game. Neither is there any debate on why it was game of the year (even for me). But I know I’m not coming back to it anytime soon. Like Oblivion before it and Morrowind before that, once I uninstall it, it’s never taking up space on my hard drive again.
This, I realize, is the opposite of the relation I have with Baldur’s Gate 2. A game that has been a firm favorite of mine since 1999. The battered collector’s edition CDs I proudly possess have seen heavy use across 8 different computers over 13 faithful years. Here’s the thing though: that game, by today’s standards, is a bitch to play. I know this because my cousin sister, an avid gamer and one of the biggest Dragon Age 2 fans alive, said so. After months of convincing (and ample chocolate bribes), she finally gave BG2 a shot.
She has yet to forgive me.
Serves me right I suppose, the old DnD rule set it adheres to is unforgiving to say the least. The restrictions set upon character creation alone would seem like a violation of the bill of rights today. Ditto for class restrictions. And race. And magic. And weapons. And…you get the idea. Like many RPGs of its time, Baldur’s Gate had some pretty harsh rules.
I can do anything in Skyrim. Hell, I’m a dual axe wielding-heavy armor wearing-magic using –sneaky backstabbing- wolf man thing. I can do anything. Be anyone.
That’s when it hit me. Skyrim gives me too much freedom.
Hey! Where are you going? No! Wait, come back! I’m going to make sense in a minute, I swear!
Let’s back up a bit. How much freedom should a game allow? The more the better surely? It’s not that simple though. Before I even begin to answer that, let’s start with another question: What is a game? Here is a common dictionary description:
A competitive activity involving skill, chance, or endurance on the part of two or more persons who play according to a set of rules.
Aha! Theres that word again. Rules.
Simply put, without rules, there can be no real game. Now I’m not suggesting that an open world game like Skyrim has no rules. Obviously that’s not the case. But I do wonder if there aren’t enough. It’s cool to be able to wear heavy armor, but should I really be allowed to sneak in it, even with a penalty? Having a choice is one thing, but a choice means absolutely nothing without consequence. And therein lies the rub. The scales of choice and consequence need to be balanced. That’s a whole lot harder than it sounds. You could have a fantastic idea, terrific tech, awesome developers and a hefty budget. But get that little thing wrong and the game just isn’t fun for long (if at all).
Games should allow for creating powerful characters but there should also be room for “bad choices”. That in itself is freedom of sorts. The freedom to screw up. If you really think about it, the choices in Skyrim, it can be argued, are not choices at all. Because none of them are “wrong”. It also erodes any emotional attachment that may come from making said choices. This is part of the reason why old school Diablo fans hate the new skill system in Diablo 3 (though I personally believe that is a bit extreme).
I don’t even remember the name of the dude I created in Skyrim. The names of every character I played BG with, I can spell backwards. That’s got to mean something. After all, victory can only be called a victory if there was some semblance of a struggle. How much fun would “insert name of generic shooter here” be if God mode was on all the time? Exactly.
Rules within a game world allow for calculated structure. To find freedom within that structure is (to me at least) infinitely more rewarding that having lax rules. There’s an old Zen saying that goes something like this: it’s the space between the bars that holds the cage.
Perhaps that space, at least occasionally, needs to be a wee bit smaller than we think.