Yesterday, during a period of downtime and tiredness, I found myself booting up the Xbox and playing a little further in Skyrim.
This game is all good fun and, at times, quite inspires me through some small detail or other: the design of a deserted tower evokes a sense of something that could be transposed into a proper roleplaying game.
And then it struck me... just that exact point: this game isn't an RPG.
Not that Skyrim claims to be, mind.
The official Skyrim website offers us to:
"Play any type of character you can imagine, and do whatever you want; the legendary freedom of choice, storytelling, and adventure of The Elder Scrolls comes to life like never before."
But you'll find it hard to see the designers of the game describe it as an RPG. But it is based on one.
"Skyrim reimagines and revolutionizes the open-world fantasy epic, bringing to life a complete virtual world open for you to explore any way you choose."
"Choose from hundreds of weapons, spells, and abilities. The new character system allows you to play any way you want and define yourself through your actions."
But it'll never truly be a roleplaying game. Here's why.
Roleplaying Isn't Limited
"Unfortunately, computer games patterned loosely after pen and paper RPGs have come to be known as roleplaying games too. This is a tremendous insult to face to face gaming. It’s like comparing watching a movie about hang gliding to actually hang gliding. Both deal with the same subject but offer vastly different experiences. The movie is a carefully crafted experience with no authentic interaction; no matter what the viewers do, they can’t change the story. No matter what kind of computer roleplaying game the user plays, the end result has been decided by the game designers long before the user started playing. Some computer RPGs offer more choices and more illusion of freedom, but ultimately, none of them allow total freedom of imagination. Nor can they. That’s what face to face roleplaying is about – freedom."
Both Skyrim's designers and Jamieson are using the word "freedom" in very different ways. Computer games like this one actually offer tremendous liberty within the virtual environment but, ultimately, it's a lie to call it freedom.
Liberty is about choices made within the confines of rules and systems; freedom transcends systems. Liberty is a fantastic thing, don't get me wrong, and for the lonely gamer it can feel pretty good. But it's not freedom.
I was really getting into slipping behind some poor, unsuspecting Foresworn guard and slitting their throat. It was a kick to run around infiltrating their stronghold and (literally) decapitate the leader. And every moment of Skyrim can feel engaging and cinematic... right up until the moment you run into the edge of the world.
With a true roleplaying game, should the players agree, their is no edge of the world... unless we choose to place one there. In an RPG we make the rules, we agree the systems, and nobody has to face the possibility of running out of missions unless we choose to end the game ourselves.
No Pre-destined Outcomes
Yet the true purpose of my musings are summed up in this: roleplaying games, when they are done well, don't have pre-destined outcomes.
If you look at the RPG market it's sometimes easy to forget, given the sheer volume of pre-designed adventures available, that good roleplaying doesn't have a pre-determined plot. Of course, loads of people will disagree with this statement... but, unless you are playing with zero imagination and totally by the rulebook of your chosen game, you're forever making at least minor adjustments to the original design.
This is the freedom of roleplaying. Whether small or large, the changes you make are possible with a pen-and-paper RPG because the real game is in our heads, not on the screen. No designer programmed the outcome: we decide it together... along with the judicious use of dice.
And, at least for me, that's the true joy of roleplaying games: you can't predict the outcome.
If you could we might as well just go and read the module. Why bother to play the game if the outcome is already written?
And that's why I get bored with Skyrim after a couple of hours: I realise that, no matter what I do, eventually I will run out of choices.