Skyrim Rewrite Part 2: I'm Waking Up

Published by Brosephus in the blog Brosephus's blog. Views: 152

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I wrote in the previous entry that Skyrim's Main Quest does have moments of good writing. Those who have played the game over and over again may surprised to hear I think the introduction is one of them.

The player starts the game as a prisoner of the Empire on their way to a public execution in the town of Helgen. They learn a little about the rebellion tearing Skyrim apart, as well as the religious conflict that started this whole mess. The Imperials are so callous and exhausted that one of their captains dispenses with due process and sentences the player to death.

Then a dragon shows up and sets Helgen on fire. You flee into the caverns beneath the city with one of two companions before you escape and get your first taste of the open world.

We're keeping the intro as is--the cart ride, the dragon showing up, spelunking with your friend of choice, etc. Perhaps we should start the game with a prettier vista that better showcases Skyrim's fantastic world design, but we're keeping everything else. Even the player's choice to escape with Hadvar, an Imperial officer, makes some sense. He's decent toward you despite your status as a convict and drops his grudges toward the rebels once the dragon shows up. Hadvar even considers teaming up with a group of Stormcloaks to escape the city.

I know many people find the introduction boring, but I think it manages to deliver a lot of necessary exposition and set up a number of interesting questions without being ham-handed. The introduction provides some good characterization for both the Imperials and the Stormcloaks. It even introduces Alduin in a cinematic cutscene that looks natural in the Gamebryo Engine (which doesn't last, but we'll get there.)

Part of the reason I think the introduction gets a lot of criticism is because of everything that comes after it. Once you've done a few quests and start to realize the main plot is going nowhere, it becomes much harder to enjoy. You know many of the various aspects of the world the game is introducing will have no interesting payoffs. Once the player loses trust that the story will be worthwhile, the otherwise forgivable limitations of the game's storytelling--the awkward voice acting, the limited number of NPCS, the stiff facial animation--become more irritating than they usually are.

Defining the Dragonborn

The player eventually meets up with their chosen companion in the small town of Riverwood. They meet one of the townsfolk (either Alvor or Gerdur, based on your choice in the intro) and explain what happened at Helgen.

Before we go on, we need to talk about self-inserts. From this point I will be referring to the player themselves as separate from the player character, who I will call the Dragonborn.

I've heard the assertion that blank slate protagonists in games are outdated and that main characters entirely separate from the player are inherently better at conveying characterization. While this may be true for some games, its not a universal rule.

Having a main character who is their own person allows for a more complex protagonist, but that complexity is not always necessary for a functional story. Both Gordon Freeman and Chell (from the Half Life and Portal games respectively) have received critical acclaim despite having no real character traits separate from those of the player. If Fallout 4's botched attempt at a voiced protagonist is anything to go by, its that simple characterization is much better than inconsistent characterization.

So what's the difference between a compelling blank-slate protagonist and a bland one? What separates Gordon Freeman from the Dragonborn?

Gordon is one of the most active characters in Half-Life's story. The player's drive to survive and escape--and by extension Gordon's--is what pushes the plot forward. Gordon never has his long-term goals set by an NPC, and so the story never imposes itself on the player. While other characters inform Gordon's actions, he is never defined by them.

And so we come to one of the biggest problems with Skyrim's story: the Dragonborn is a very passive character. Upon encountering the Dragonborn, most of the questgivers in the main plot either already have a plan to deal with the dragon threat or develop one on the spot. They then dump the specifics on the Dragonborn.

This is entirely backwards. Writing questgivers this way manages to create two problems that seem contradictory on the surface, but are actually related. It both prevents the Dragonborn from expressing any defined personality and destroys any pretense of player agency. We need to bring the motivations of the Dragonborn and the player closer together.

The Dragonborn needs to be the most active main character in stopping the dragons, making plans and pushing the major players of the world to action, rather than act as a cipher the other characters can conveniently assign their chores to. This will be the Dragonborn's defining personality trait, one which should ideally bring their motivation more in line with the player.

This leads to our first major dialogue change. When Alvor/Gerdur says the town may be in danger from a dragon attack, the player will be given a dialogue option, asking if there is anything they can do to help. Only then does Alvor/Gerdur mention that the Jarl of Whiterun may be willing to assist in defending the town. They player also has the option to dismiss their concern and excuse themselves from the conversation.

This seems like a small change, but its sets an important precedent: When the player reaches a new major questgiver in the narrative, they receive the choice to either press the plot forward or wait until they're ready to come back to it. There will be exceptions for certain moments in the story, but this principle will apply to most of the characters in the main quest.

This is how we can give the Dragonborn their own motivation while having them remain a blank slate. The player is the one choosing to become more invested in the narrative as they see fit.

We've laid the groundwork for our more extensive changes, which we'll examine in my next post.

Next Up: Whiterun, Jarl Balgruuf, and the Civil War Everyone Forgot
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