Clione, Chapter 2

Kiwitest

The first chapter of Clione was made in Twine. Since I do not really know much CSS, I am trying something new for this second chapter. I made it in Construct 2. I’m interested to know which (if either) format readers prefer.

Chapter 1 – In Which Clione Prevents a Drowning
Chapter 2 – In Which A Toucan Is Justifiably Angry

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Clione, Chapter 1

Now for something a little different. This is the first chapter in an ongoing, serialized Twine story. Clione is inspired by years of reading the Moomins, Bone, Pogo, Uncle Scrooge and other comics and stories that mixed whimsical cartoon worlds with adventure. I’d like to release a new chapter every week or two.

You may recognize Bucky from my recently released game Bucky’s Poem Adventure. The story of Clione can be seen as something of a prequel to Bucky’s Poem Adventure.

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Chapter 1 – In Which Clione Prevents A Drowning

If you enjoy my work and wish to help support this and future games, stories and blog posts, please visit my Patreon.

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A Guide to Monster Love

Valentine’s Day is approaching, and that means young fancies invariably turn to thoughts of love. Of course, “love” can mean many things. This Valentine’s Day, many will turn to literary sources of romance. Of those people, many will turn to romantic monsters. Of those monsters, many will be undead creatures rather than just abusive humans written by people with weird ideas of intimacy. But if you are one of the many people drawn to the allure of the monster, what does it really mean? How can you be sure monster love is right for you? Well, like all fantasies, monster fantasies are inherently selfish. What monster you want inside you says a lot more about you than about the monster.

sotn-predracVampires
What is a vampire story REALLY about?
Vampires are parasites in every sense of the word. They live on the blood of others, but are also parasites in other ways. Vampires are inherently aristocratic. The first romantic vampire was a COUNT for a reason. Vampires surround themselves in finery stolen from the lower classes. Vampires produce nothing, and take everything. Vampires will even rob you of your free will if it suits them. Oh they love to play the victim, to cry about how misunderstood and lonely they are, but that is because they are narcissists. A vampire is ALWAYS the victim in their own mind, and therefore they are always justified in what they do. Kill someone and drink their blood? Oh, its just an example of how tragic THEIR life is. Vampires are the monstrous representation of the fear of the aristocracy and privileged.
So what does it mean if I want to fuck a vampire?
Vampire romance is invariably a fantasy of being “uplifted” from your class and being gifted with power and control. It is a story not of true love, but of class conflict. Vampires never give up their status to become “common” humans. Rather, it is the select few “chosen” humans that get to raise in status and join their betters. To long for a vampire is to long for someone to give you power and status. You are merely fetishizing the aristocracy, and revealing your desire to attain social rank at any cost. Will you really become a parasite, feeding on the blood and production of your own class, just for love? No, you’re not doing it for love. You’re doing it for the power and prestige that comes with your dream partner’s family. Sure, you’ll justify all the horrible things you do by telling yourself that you DESERVE that blood more than the rabble do, but enjoy it while you can. You will be first staked against the wall when the revolution comes.

sotn-zombies Zombies
What is a zombie story REALLY about?
Zombies are a mindless horde. They are an unwashed mass that exist only to overrun everything we have built, or to be convenient targets for gun-filled power fantasies. Zombies represent the fear the establishment has for the masses. The fear that everything you have “earned’ can be taken away in an instant if those people you don’t ever think about or acknowledge suddenly revolted. More often than not, zombies are disdained more than feared. They’re “weak” monsters as well as mindless. They’re both the fear of losing your identity in the constant deluge of mass-marketed homogeny and the fear you have that those pop songs you despise might actually be fun and catchy. They’re the “sheeple” who don’t realize they’re all the same while YOU are unique and special. They’re what every bigot believes immigration or multiculturalism is. They’re humans robbed of humanity for your convenience, and you know that if they all woke up and came at you at once you’d be screwed.
So what does it mean if I want to fuck a zombie?
Like the vampire, the zombie is really a monster of class. Your fantasy is not just a romance, but a revolution. A world where everyone is united with a single purpose, but still love and individuality exist. You and your partner are proof that the fear of what zombies bring is unwarranted. The elimination of class is not the end of the world or of individuality at all, not as long as you can love and bring out the love in your fellow undead paramore.
Or maybe you just want to fuck a dead body, I don’t know. Weirdo.

werewolfWerewolves
What is a werewolf story REALLY about?
While there have always been animal people and shapeshifters in folklore, the modern werewolf has a specific origin in literature. Medieval romances such as Bisclavret portrayed the werewolf in a sympathetic light. They were penitent humans trapped in bestial form for various sins, but capable of overcoming that to win love or help knights. Wolves weren’t the only animal forms these cursed heroes took either, as in the case of Hans My Hedgehog. But as medieval theology developed, the stories took on a darker form. Rather than stories of humans overcoming their bestial urges, the satanic werewolf was a human who gleefully wallowed as a beast. Modern werewolf stories try to combine the two, making for violent sociopaths who we’re supposed to sympathize with because they feel kind of bad about the horrible things they do. So in other words, like nearly every other fictional pop culture figure, only they also are a wolf sometimes. Look, werewolves are actually kind of boring these days, ok? Once we studied actual wolf behavior, it turns out werewolves don’t even act like wolves anyway! Did you know the alpha wolf thing turned out to be bs? Or that wolf “packs” are amorphous societies that individual wolves wander in and out of all the time? Basically most werewolf stories are the transgression fantasies of a witch but wrapped up in the aristocratic fantasies and justifications of the vampire.
So what does it mean if I want to fuck a werewolf?
You fear or hate something inside you. Maybe you’re scared of hurting someone, maybe you’re just scared of what people will think. What you want is an excuse to let it out. A scenario where you can take all that pent up emotion and let it explode out onto the world in an orgy of beast metaphors. But you’re not REALLY ready to either take total responsibility or to completely ignore what the world thinks. Your fantasy isn’t about fucking and becoming the Incredible Hulk and having no limits or remorse. Werewolves are pack animals with their own rules and societies, and since wolf packs don’t look anything like what we assumed they did when we created werewolves, that means werewolf packs are a lot more like human societies than any hippie dippie “be like nature” crap. You wouldn’t WANT to return to nature anyways, you just want a society and family where it is ok to either cut loose or give in without hating yourself. But when that cutting loose involves preying on those “beneath” you, lycanthropy just puts a fuzzier face on the aristocracy of the vampire. You don’t just want to run wild, you want a world that justifies you doing so. You want justifications, and you want a lover that will give you plenty of them.

Akmodan2Mummies
What is a mummy story REALLY about?
Mummies were never monsters until Europeans came into the picture. Mummification was just how you honored and prepared the dead. When the British burst into the pyramids, eager to rob the dead AND the living in the name of their empire, the mummy became a representation of what they feared: that one day they’d find something their mighty empire couldn’t beat. Even after the sun set on the British empire, the mummy remained a monster in the mind of every colonial power. The mindless mummy, a reanimated corpse powered by nothing our science could understand and filled with a rage none of our clever words could talk it out of. We convinced ourselves that the people we conquered were “primitive” and “savage” and so their knowledge and ways of life were beneath acknowledging, much less understanding. For our hubris, we were rewarded with a monster fueled by that same knowledge we disdained, and impervious to everything our own knowledge could throw at it. We can’t reason with it, we can’t understand it, its going to destroy us, and if we had only not committed cultural genocide there might be someone who could help us.
So what does it mean if I want to fuck a mummy?
Unlike the previous monsters, being intimate with a mummy doesn’t end with you becoming a mummy. As the mummy is a monster representing the empire’s fear of those they have conquered and abused, to love a mummy risks fetishizing and othering a culture for your own gain. Are you drawn to the mummy just because its power is “exotic” and ancient? Are you hoping to conquer through love what couldn’t be conquered through colonialism?

thecreature Frankenstein
So what does it mean if I want to fuck a Frankenstein?
Either it means you’re attracted to nebbish academics with little common sense, or you’re actually talking about fucking a golem made of reanimated flesh. See, the monster wasn’t named Frankenstein, he was always just called “the creature.” Am I being pedantic? Perhaps, but this is an article about the politics of monster fucking so I kind of have to be. If you meant the reanimated flesh guy, see ‘Golems’ below.

automatonzx26 Golems
What is a golem story REALLY about?
Whether its the original Golem of Prague or a modern day robot, golems are the fear of what we think and create. This can be a fear of science gone too far, as in the Frankenstein novel, or a fear of art destroying the artist as in Galatea or Dynamite Headdy. Perhaps it is even a fear of the future and our own offspring and legacy. As a monster representing the act of creation, the golem can be created in any form needed.
So what does it mean if I want to fuck a golem?
Perhaps you are something of a narcissist, like Dr Frankenstein or Pygmalion. Your fantasy lover is a creature of your own creation (or even worse, you lazily pine for a mass-produced sexbot or creation of someone else that you can still program and dominate). You are fantasizing about an aspect of yourself it is possible to love without being just masturbation. Don’t fuck your golem, that is gross. If it is someone else’s golem you fantasize about, remember that its a being itself. You don’t get props for remembering that either, its just basic common courtesy. A lot of gross people assume they are owed robot sex just because they treated the robot with respect. You’re not owed sex for being respectful of a sentient being, that is what you should do normally. The biggest irony of the golem fucking fantasy is that even when you fantasize about a romantic relationship with someone else’s creation, the act of fantasizing about it MAKES it a product of your OWN creation. Moreover, this technically makes ANYONE OR ANYTHING YOU FANTASIZE ABOUT FUCKING A THOUGHT GOLEM. But if you go down THAT road you’ll start wondering if every thought or creation is therefore a golem and if you actually have any thoughts of your own of if each one is just spawning a separate metaphysical entity and honestly that’s not going to do you any good. If you want to fuck a robot so much, just remember that its ok to love yourself AS yourself. You don’t need to create an excuse to love yourself.

witchWitches
What is a witch story REALLY about?
Witches exist to transgress. The label of “witch” is political. Who gets labeled a witch? Those that society deems too smart, too powerful, too learned or too intriguing. Magic is, by definition, the changing of reality, and so those who wield magic are a threat to those who do not want to see reality (and the political status quo) changed. Those who live outside the community, who know enough about the world to live and thrive without everything society tells you that you NEED to live, they are called witches to keep you too scared to learn from them. Of course, witches CAN threaten the status quo through means such as eating babies, brewing poisons and cursing people. Still, you should always question what the person declaring someone a witch has to gain.
So what does it mean if I want to fuck a witch?
You’re interested in the taboo and the powerful. You don’t mind having a partner stronger, smarter or more sensual than you. Either you don’t care what society thinks about you as long as you’re in love, or you specifically want to give society the finger through your choice of loves. You see your dream partner as someone who can remove you from your station in society, but unlike the vampire fantasy you don’t want to just be elevated above people you think should be beneath you. You want someone to take you out of the entire system. You want to make love at the outskirts of civilization, feel the eldritch power of things beyond your understanding burn away everything you once were but never should have been, transform into a car so your lover can drive you off into apocalypse. Ok, so there might be some overlap with other fantasies, but you get the gist.

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Several Thousand Years of Reploid Aesthetics: An Ethnography of the Mega Man Universe

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I’m really interested in fake realities, how we think about them, how they emerge, how we decide what is a “real” fake story and what isn’t. We’re the nerdiest species in evolutionary history, obsessively connecting things that were never necessarily supposed to be connected, and then obsessively playing with those connections until they make sense. We just LIKE obsessing over pointless stuff, it makes us feel good on a chemical level. Its a mental game that, for whatever reason, we’ve evolved to be particularly good at. Maybe obsessively playing with ideas and abstractly smashing them together until it creates something useful served us well as semi-hairless apes desperate for new ideas about how to get food and avoid predators. Maybe once we settled those basic problems, we couldn’t stop obsessively playing with whatever ideas were around us.

So now we’re a species that has convoluted fictional mythologies WITHIN convoluted fictional mythologies. People today obsess over minutia of the Marvel universe like ancient monks obsessed over scripture. Corporate interests picked up on our obsessions, and we see apocalypse marketed to us on a daily basis. Buy the official book and learn the LEGIT CANON ZELDA TIMELINE! Sonic the Hedgehog’s world has been rebooted, BUY NOW AND LEARN WHAT STORIES ARE REAL STORIES AND WHAT STORIES ARE MADE UP FAKE STORIES! Who will be the new cinematic Spiderman and how will it effect movies coming out six years from now WATCH THESE TWELVE MOVIES TO FIND OUT! And without being too much of a snotty agnostic, is any of that oh so different than ancient humans going “Check it out true believers, a NEW Testament! EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN! BUY A COPY NOW TO SEE WHICH GOD STORIES ARE STILL CANON!” We like our carefully crafted obsessions, and someone intentionally shaking them is an easy way to get us to spend money and pay attention.

Its also a good way to get people to do horrible things in the name of defending said obsessions. I’m not just talking about religion or philosophy. There’s plenty of secular nerds who have done horrible things the last few months alone in the name of defending an abstract and fictional view of the world defined by what stories they consume rather than what people experience. A religious jerk harassing people about god and an atheist jerk harassing people about games are both victims of that same evolutionary and cultural trend towards obsession, and both are dangerous people because of that rather than the topic of their obsession.

If this sounds a little bitter, that is possibly because its yet another example of a delightful little evolutionary quirk within our mind becoming a commodity to be exploited. That may seem hypocritical coming from a guy who writes about made up Koopa paleontology and is about to go into a huge thing about Mega Man, but bear with me here. The problem isn’t the obsessions, its what we do with them. Like it or not, we’re the nerd species. We’re Homo nerdus. We can’t stop inventing convoluted bullshit anymore than an aphid can stop secreting sugar from its butt or an ant can stop gorging itself on the sweet, sweet aphid plops. Whether it takes the form of super heroes, fairy tales, video game mascots, economics, religion or politics, we’ll jam random shit together until it makes internal sense to us, and then angrily shout at people whose random shit jamming came to a different conclusion than ours did.

So why talk about the accidental continuity of the Mega Man series? Well, its a series of seemingly unconnected stories and were intentionally put in the same world only separated by centuries. But since the text of the games is nothing but “robot boy goes pew-pew-pew at bad robots” everything that happens between and around the edges of those stories is open to interpretation. Since the games cover several thousand years, there is a LOT of possible subtext and fake history to obsess over and connect. Therefore, it is fertile ground to actually just talk about whatever I really want to talk about.

If we can’t help ourselves when it comes to obsessing over stories, is there at least a way to do so in a way that helps us in the real world?

Continue reading

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Bucky’s Poem Adventure

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My first game of 2015 is a poetry-creating platformer. Guide Bucky the Weasel as he seeks inspiration for his next poetic masterpiece. Explore the forest and surrounding areas (some of them secret!) and choose what to base your poem on. Once you have enough lines written, head to the recital and present your work!

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Controls:
Left and Right Arrow Keys – Move Bucky left or right
Up Arrow Key – Make Bucky Jump
Space Bar – When you see a lightbulb over Bucky’s head, he has the potential to be inspired by whatever triggered it. Press the Space Bar to write a line of your poem.
The Space Bar is also used for a few context-specific purposes like starting the game or reciting your poem.

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This game was funded by my Patreon backers. Special thanks to Anthony Burch, Joanna Pushee, Matthew Marko, Jonathan Wright, Ian O’Dea, Malakoopa, Jackson Tyler, Katy Ellis O’Brien, Daniel Parker, Seb Atay, Dustin Deckard and Michael Macielak.

Download it for Windows and OSX at itchi.io

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The 2nd Annual Games of the List of the Annual List of the Games of the Year

2014 was a pretty terrible year for everyone. In fact, I’m going to take this opportunity to revoke 2014. It didn’t happen. History will go from 2013 straight to 2015. This means we all get another year in exchange. If you turned 30 in 2014 congrats, you are 29 again. If you turned 100 in 2014, you get to select any age between 96 and 105. If you turned 20 in 2014, I’m setting your age back to 17. You could really use another year of school. You’ll thank me later.

So to bring the year that is now no longer exists to a close, here is an arbitrary list of the games made in 2014 that I enjoyed but didn’t have enough to talk about for an entire blog post each. Also, for the record, these games now came out in “2013 and a half.”

The Floor is Jelly, Hohokum, and Gay Cats Go To The Weird Weird Woods
Recently I won a copy of Hohokum in a Twitter trivia contest. Its the story of a little space-sperm with an illuminati eye who flies between different worlds and looks for their siblings. It’s colorful and charming and the simple controls give you a lovely sensation of flying. There aren’t any real requirements, other than the option of exploring an environment long enough to find another little space-sperm to fly around with. The main goal of the game is less to solve puzzles and more to enjoy the experience of your little avatar looping through the sky and making round patterns in the air.

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It brought to mind another game that felt less about its puzzles and challenges and more about playing with digital motion. The Floor Is Jelly follows a little jumping thing on its journey across a world where everything is bouncy. There are physics-based platforming challenges and simple logic problems to solve, but they mostly seem there to give you an excuse to play with the sensation of bouncing.

In some ways, these games feel a bit like digital dancing. The player is given a series of stages (theatrical stages, not just game stages) and a character with a very specific style of movement.

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Another game in this style does not even have the pretense of “puzzles” at all and instead allows the player complete freedom to explore its movement. Anna Antropy’s Gay Cats go to the Weird Woods is much simpler in scope than either The Floor Is Jelly or Hohokum. You control two cats at the same time, who can only move in four directions and move one tile at a time. Like her previous game, Emotica, it feels reminiscent of the old homemade ZZT adventures. The graphics are more advanced than ZZT, but there is still the limited and deliberate tile-by-tile movement. Despite the lack of “puzzles,” the game offers the same feeling of exploring movement and environment. When one of the cats touches the right part of the woods, things change and the map reacts. As each movement you make involves both cats simultaneously, this can lead to unexpected discoveries as well as deliberate choreography by the player.

I like games that play with limited movement, whether it is the very simple four-directional movement of Gay Cats or the complex bouncing of The Floor Is Jelly. Not all games require you to explore a space with an avatar, and not all games should. But those that do always feel like they’re letting me explore another world while wearing a digital diving suit of sorts. I project myself into the little puppet I control, and experience a world of alien physics and perspectives. These three games all allowed me to do so through different means, and playing with space and movement in those games felt rewarding as a result.

Freedom Planet

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We have too many nostalgia-obsessed games. Worse yet, too many of them are lazy, soulless and banal. “Download our 8bit mobile platformer! Its totally like living in the 80s! Remember how pixels exist?” screams the social network ad. “Relive the joys of not having anything better to do with our selection of 200 90s-inspired jrpg! Each complete with the same story about someone with amnesia and an evil empire!” they shout at you. It is increasingly rare to find a game that trades of nostalgia and homage that also manages to be interesting, loving and fun. Freedom Planet is one of these rare games. It is unabashedly a celebration of Sega Genesis platformers from Sonic to Ristar to Rocket Knight, it even started life as a Sonic the Hedgehog fan-game. But early in development, the creators decided they would rather use that nostalgic inspiration to create something new and genuine, and what came from that is much stronger. Not to downplay fan culture too much (I mean, I’d be screwing myself and my Yoshi-paleontology obsession over), but its clear how much this original story means to the creators, and that enthusiasm shines through in a way I don’t think a straight forward fan-Sonic would have.

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Freedom Planet follows the adventures of three unapologetically girly best friends as they race across the planet. The game controls perfectly, taking inspiration from classic games but refusing to be slave to them. Every piece of the game is thoughtfully and deliberately designed, including tons of little ways to interact with the world around you. The only real downside is that the story scenes are LONG and numerous, but even that is tolerable considering how likable the cast and acting is. If more attempts to recreate a perceived lost magic of the past were this thoughtful, the industry would probably be a whole lot less bitter and cynical.

Realistic Kissing Simulator

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Every time I’ve seen this game on display at an event, it dominated the crowd’s attention. There’s good reason for this. It is simple to grasp and control, inherently funny and visually interesting, and it connects you to the other player(s). Each player controls one mouth, and your goal is to kiss. How you do so is up to you, and the battle between each player’s desires (and tongue) creates all kinds of interesting results.

Shower Sim
Shower Sim is, frankly, the single most accurate simulation I have ever played.

Conquest

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Conquest places you in an interstellar graveyard for people who died in space. You wander around and look at the gravestones (some of the broken). You can also take on the role of the cemetery’s caretaker, and take perform a few tasks while your unseen boss sends you insulting messages. Conquest has a pleasantly simple aesthetic that suits its tone well. All you can do is wander the cemetery, do your thankless work, and think about those who died to get you to where you are. What stories were left behind in the quest for space, and what does it mean to be someone reaping those benefits in a menial job like yours?

Octodad: The Dadliest Catch, Goat Simulator

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Despite how you feel when you’re drunk or on twitter, comedy is not easy. Comedy is actually quite hard and complicated. Very few attempts at being funny are actually funny, especially in video games. This year we got two indie games that are both INCREDIBLY funny, and each funny for a different, but related, reason. Octodad takes a ridiculous, ludicrous premise (an octopus tries to disguise his true identity from his human family and society at large) but juxtaposes it with humor largely drawn from normal family dynamics and everyday life. On the opposite scale we have Goat Simulator, which takes an extremely mundane, non-ludicrous premise (be a goat) and juxtaposes it with a world full of complete insanity. Both games then involve you creating a gigantic mess of the world you’ve been given, but even then the humor follows those patterns. Octodad’s humor comes from the world accepting your destruction as normal (to a point), and reacting accordingly. Goat Simulator’s humor comes from the world being thrown into complete chaos by your actions. Octodad rewards you for trying to limit the chaos and fit in despite your ludicrous origin, while in Goat Simulator your goat will cause incredible destruction even if you tried to walk around like a “real” goat.

You even cause chaos when you don't do anything. Here I was just standing still when a man walked nuts-first into my horns, passed out, woke up and ran screaming into a crowd who panicked in response.

You even cause chaos when you don’t do anything. Here I was just standing still when a man walked nuts-first into my horns, passed out, woke up and ran screaming into a crowd who panicked in response.

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Skyrim

The_Elder_Scrolls_V_Skyrim_cover I was a console gamer growing up. The only PC games I played extensively growing up were Commander Keen shareware. I didn’t even have a PC capable of playing modern games until recently. So when I finally got one, I decided to take advantage of it and catch up on games people raved about but I was never able to play (well timed Steam summer sales helped as well). I’ve now put several months worth of time into Skyrim, the fifth game in Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series. For those unfamiliar, The Elder Scrolls is an epic fantasy that takes place across the world of Tamriel. Each game in the series explores a tiny part of a huge world, and it is a series famous for having more content than players will know what to do with. There are tons of books to read, history to learn, dungeons to explore, people to meet and items to make. Skyrim technically has the smallest map in the series (the second game, Daggerfall, had a procedurally generated map roughly the size of Great Britain), but even so it is over 14 square miles of digital mountains, forests, seas and marshes to explore. Its also the worst “game” I’ve put months of time and effort into.

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A game where climbing a mountain to get a better view of the night sky is often more fun than fighting monsters AND THAT’S OK!

Let me explain what I mean by those scare quotes. I don’t mean that Skyrim isn’t a game, or that its some kind of “non-game’ as the kids like to say about things that are games but they don’t like. Rather, I think its incredibly interesting how poorly Skyrim does when measured by many traditional game metrics, and yet still how fun and compelling it is. Skyrim’s challenges are terrible and unbalanced. Combat is nothing but two opponents bonking each other repeatedly until one of them dies. Occasionally, one will block or make a power attack, but none of that elevates the combat beyond “bonk until someone dies.” Archery and magic are more interesting, but still simplistic. The dungeon layouts are endless, identical corridors and traps. Puzzles in these dungeons are nothing more than “match the pictures.” Despite how huge and varied the terrain is, you will constantly see the same sights and fight the same animals and monsters. There is very little variety in the opponents you encounter, and very little else to encounter aside from opponents. It is also an incredibly easy game to break. Before level 50 I was able to create a bow that could kill the final boss in two hits. Even going about the game WITHOUT focusing on archery, smithing, alchemy and enchanting is a simple task. As long as you focus on SOMETHING you will be nigh-untouchable. That final boss, by the way, was functionally identical to every other dragon encounter in the game, despite the creature supposedly being a legendary “eater of worlds” who consumes the souls of dead viking warriors to power the end of the universe. That is a cool idea, so why is dealing with him identical in strategy to the first dragon I fought?

So why is the game still so fun? Is it the feeling of immersion so many Elder Scrolls fans praise? I don’t think so. Frankly, the “immersion” of the Elder Scrolls world is a joke. Nothing you do really matters, nor do you ever really feel part of the world unless you make an effort outside the game to feel that way. After you kill the underwhelming final boss… everything is the same. You can pick a side in the ongoing civil war… but the game simply continues after without any real consequence. The environments don’t feel alive. There is no “immersive” ecosystem or food chain beyond “this animal runs from you, THIS animal runs at you.” It is far easier to diagonally roll up mountains than it is to walk around them like a “real” warrior of Skyrim would. The people of Skyrim have very simple AI and will react in fascinating, but utterly inhuman ways to various things you do. For example, people will try to murder you for accidentally picking up the wrong cup. You can buy a home, farm and get married, but all this amounts to is getting an extra place for stuff rather than feeling any kind of connection to the world. The marriage system in particular deserves mention. What happens is you wear a necklace which lets marriable NPCs know that you are willing to get married, and then you can decide to marry them. No relationship, no romance, no development. The dialogue and actions of every possible spouse are functionally identical, and none come with a story.

Thanks to mods, my second wife is a deer-tree-lady full of magic glowing bees. To hell with immersion, give me more of that!

Thanks to mods, my second wife is a deer-tree-lady full of magic glowing bees. To hell with immersion, give me more of that!

The WORST anti-immersion thing Skyrim does is train you to expect a specific world and then punish for it. When I played, I would often approach people I met on the road or wilderness who seemed harmless or interesting, only to suddenly have them try and kill me. There are very few neutral encounters. Nearly everyone wants to kill you, no matter who you are or how you play. It doesn’t matter if you act like a bandit, other bandits will still want to kill you on sight. Doesn’t matter how dark your magic is, stumbling upon a wandering necromancer means they will try to kill you. Its easier to just assume everyone dressed in robes or armor and hanging around a camp or ruin wants to murder you, so you might as well shoot first. Problem is, there is at least one place where a completely nondescript bandit-looking asshole in front of a cave is actually a friendly, named person who wants to give you a quest. So after hours of Skyrim punishing you for trying to talk to people or do something other than murder, it punishes you for giving in and murdering. Nothing breaks immersion faster than something like that.

So again, why is this game so fun? The story is pointless, boringly Tolkeinesque, and unsatisfying. The rules of the game are banal and broken. The game itself has an overwhelming amount of bugs (when I first turned the game on, the horse cart you ride during the prologue took off into the sky like a rocket, with everyone spinning around in midair while politely continuing their conversations before crashing into a town and being unable to continue). Why would I put so much time into the game? Why would I create no less than four individual characters with hours of playtime each and take them through their own individual adventures across Skyrim? While Skyrim fails when judged by the standards we’re “supposed” to judge video games with, it succeeds in other, far more interesting ways. While I already said that the stage design is terrible, the STAGE design is fantastic! I’m purposely playing the the fact that “stage” has a dual meaning for both video games and theatre here. The dungeons are all pretty boring to walk through because the video game stage design is just “corridor, corridor, room where you fight things, corridor, corridor, fork that leads to dead end or other corridor…” but the theatrical stage design makes them fun to explore. Objects and characters are deliberately arranged to tell stories. What differentiates two locations is not the layout (and CERTAINLY not the visual aesthetic) but rather the story you are allowed to uncover on your own. A random body may hint at a random murder, but exploring further and analyzing the objects may reveal a more specific and tragic story. A stray letter on a table may start you down a path that reveals amazing secrets about a seemingly boring townsperson. Sometimes these are obvious stories, some of them are even darkly funny, like the burning house in the wilderness which when explored reveals an untold story of a novice wizard summoning a fire elemental beyond their abilities. Others are subtler, like the grand ongoing mystery of what happened to the “dwarves” or the small mystery of just who Cristophe was and what Maven Blackbriar did to him. Some even straight up contradict themselves depending on what choices you make, such as the story of Saadia and the Alik’ir mercenaries after her, and the small details that emerge AFTER the quest is long over to intentionally confound whatever story you chose to believe. Skyrim is full of quest and side-quests, but oftentimes its the stories hidden within all those larger quests that are the most intriguing.

The theatrical stage-craft gives the other-wise banal Tolkein-ripoff world one interesting piece of unique lore, and that is the undercurrent of horror. Strange, supernatural beings known as the “daedric princes” lurk behind the corners of reality and they can be genuinely creepy and off-putting. Skyrim is basically a horrible place to live where everyone is a sociopath and beings beyond comprehension can end your life or your sanity without you even knowing it. The trappings of standard epic fantasy seem more like a way for the inhabitants of Skyrim to ignore just how shit a hand they were dealt, which actually makes it interesting.

An unseen being, speaking through a graven image, who exists only to answer the wishes of those most in need in the most terrifying manner possible.

An unseen being, speaking through a graven image, who exists only to answer the wishes of those most in need in the most terrifying manner possible.

While the downside to the lack of balance and the open-ended story is that there’s no challenge or consequences, the upside is that you can create anyone you want. The huge prevalence of mods available adds to this, especially those which change the start of the game like Live Another Life or that allow you to apply normally rigid rules to everyone like Advanced Follower Tweaks or Marry Anyone. My characters included Olm, an amphibious reptile man who escaped wrongful execution and was force to live as a bandit and thief to survive, only to find love with a fellow thief and eventually become head of a vast criminal enterprise and semi-divine assassin guild. There was Nimue, the wood elf who left her home to hunt and eat strange new creatures and ended up accidentally stumbling into Skyrim and founding a successful meadery. Neither of those characters ever started the main quest or saw a single dragon. Kimnara, a member of Skyrim’s disenfranchised and indigenous Breton minority, was a novice necromancer who did become the Dragonborn savior of legend, but only after graduating two colleges, founding a crew of polygamist lesbian pirates and converting several bandit gangs into productive miners and farmers. I still want to go back and play a Khajit (cat person) trader and explore the vampire side-story some day.

The fact that every choice is inconsequential means that you have the freedom to tell any kind of story you want. The only reason to pick a choice is based on how it makes YOU think about the character and the world. You can marry a ton of possible people (or with a mod you can marry anyone) and they’re all the same. So why do you pick the spouse you do for your character? The long-term outcome of every conflict, from the large-scale battle involving the Stormcloaks vs the Imperials to the smaller local scuffles, is the same, so why does your character pick the side they do? You can ignore the entire story if you want, so why does your character do ANYTHING? If you have fun telling stories, Skyrim gives you a chance to tell all kinds of stories, each unique despite the fact that they’re all stuck in the same setting.

Ok, so most of the screenshots I took were of my wedding to an eldritch plant monster. What of it?

Ok, so most of the screenshots I took were of my wedding to an eldritch plant monster. What of it?

I find it somewhat ironic that some “gamers” who would praise Skyrim would in the same breath condemn a game like Gone Home. Ironic because the tools used to make Skyrim fun an interesting are the same tools used to make Gone Home interesting. Both games have more in common than people realize, as both are made rewarding through their use of space, set design and allowing the player to become an actor and story-teller. I think its really hard to argue that Skyrim is a “good” action or adventure game, but its still incredibly easy to argue that Skyrim is a good game. If what makes Skyrim (or any game) rewarding or interesting is not the puzzles, controls or explicit story, then what can we as developers learn from that? Does Bethesda really need to spend a lot of time trying to make a grand, epic story fit an open world, only to have it fall flat, if the stories people care about are the ones they make themselves? Can you still create a specific, meaningful explicit story and still leave room for the player to create their own implicit stories? If the idea that immersion is based on lore and plot is an illusion, how can we better create space for players to successfully create their own sense of immersion? If puzzles, or even combat, get in the way or slow down the real meat of the game, do we even need them at all? I’d argue that Skyrim’s terrible combat offered room for stories and fun, but that none of the dungeon puzzles offered anything of value and seemed to exist only because puzzles were “expected.” So if the reason we have fun is NOT because of what we are supposed to, why pretend otherwise? What gets in the way of being honest and saying “Skyrim succeeds only through the same ways Gone Home succeeds.”

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