There's this rather sad fact about Skyrim: its designers don't always seem to actually think like players. You realise this if, like me, you really enjoy both the house-buying and the crafting aspects of Skyrim play (look, ma! It's not all about the violence, promise!). I get personal
about my houses. Many of them are rather lovely spaces, and it's easy to become emotionally invested in the idea of living in them in between bumbling off slaying bandits and dragons and undead, oh my! I get an unreasonable kick out of games which actually expect you to sleep at night. There are no real penalties if you don't, but there's this sense of ineffable satisfaction (probably not unrelated to my ongoing state of real-life fatigue) in having the "Well Rested" message pop up on the top of the screen.
What I don't enjoy is coming home after a hard day's adventuring, laden with loot, and having to dash across half the town in order to access the blacksmith's forge to upgrade the weapons and armour before I sell them. And then, when you lug them back home to enchant them at your nifty enchanting table (which the Whiterun house doesn't have, what's with that, dammit?), your storage for soul gems and what have you is upstairs in another room because the designers couldn't be arsed to stick a chest or strongbox or barrel next to the place where, you know, you'd actually use
it. Ditto with alchemy and your ingredients stores. And the barrels are full of apples, anyway. I have eaten a quite ludicrous number of apples in Skyrim, just to get rid of them. The country's fruit industry must be rolling in it. (And you find the wretched things down in sealed dwemer ruins, locked up for centuries but still perfectly fresh. Undead apples. Explains a lot).
In short, the designers construct the houses without much thought given to the most likely activities a player will pursue within its walls. How difficult could it be to put a grindstone or armouring table in a corner? A chest next to the enchanting table? Instead, houses are filled with an awful lot of pointless "decorative" guff, most of which you can't alter in any way; the things you can alter, like baskets and bowls, are pretty much useless for storage because it's such a royal pain to put things into them.
The quest for Sensible, Efficient Living Space led me to my first encounter with Skyrim mods. Someone
has expanded the basement of the Solitude house, which is my favourite anyway, to include a full smithy and lots of storage, plus an update on the currently rather brutal sleeping arrangements for your housecarl (she has a pallet on the floor in a cellar). It's beautiful. I installed it no problem, and wandered around blissfully storing everything, and then left the house, took two adventuring steps, and hit a crash-to-desktop bug which was completely insurmountable. It's a known bug with this mod, and was mostly resolved with the latest patch, but even so still affects a minority of players for inexplicable reasons. I got unlucky. Growl. (And I shall not inflict on you the righteous rant about Skyrim bugginess generally, and the evident cardboard-and-string construction of a game when modding the interior of a house causes save and fast travel crashes a day later at the other end of the world map. But it's a righteous rant).
However, as another inevitable step, this whole debacle has led me to discover the developer console. In fact, half an hour of research on the web
and some judicious fiddling, and I have managed to fill my very own basement with smithy tools and barrels and chests galore, my very own self. (The "placeatme" command, and using "help" + keyword, chest, barrel, whatever, to add it where you're standing). It's fiddly and trial-and-error bound, but actually not that difficult. You would not believe
the degree of empowered satisfaction this causes. It wriggles right down and pointedly prods the particular and personal button which makes me rejoice in the correct utilisation of system for good. (As an added bonus, the basic object/NPC interactions are nicely done; you stick a grindstone into your house, and your spouse promptly starts using it as part of their wander-around-vaguely domestic routine).
But it also interests me, inevitably, on a broader cultural level. As with Dragon Age
, the Skyrim
developer console is perfectly accessible, and the web is rich with how-to pages giving codes and tips. This is a base level of player empowerment which is quite a lot more universal than the far more complex and technical toolset available to the much smaller subgroup of players who actually write mods. But the interesting point is the same: while a computer game is a commercial product, it's not, like a movie, a monolithic product. The base assumption of interaction which a game has and a movie doesn't, is expanded outwards: you are not simply expected to interact with the game, you're expected to interact with its construction. To, in fact, adapt it to your own needs via creative input. Compare this to the attitude of film producers to their product - thou shalt not
, in their book, do anything other than passively consume it; they frown on excerpting clips, creating mash-ups, using stills - hell, they don't even like their trailers to turn up on YouTube, which is inexplicable to me. A computer game, on the other hand, actively enables the use of the game as the basis for personalisation, adaptation and play, on a meta level quite above the freedom of your avatar in the game world.
It becomes inevitable to put this aspect together with the other striking aspect of Skyrim
, which is its community. This is the first time I've ever played a computer game the instant of its release, i.e. at the same time as the rest of the world - hitherto I've played the Evil Landlord's hand-me-downs, sometimes years later. It has been something of a revelation to find out how many people on, for example, my Twitter feed, are hacking through it at the same time as I am. You end up contextualising your own play experience across a very broad spectrum of shared play, whether it's amusing tweets, tips, discussions on wiki pages and forums, or silly Skyrim memes (viz. my subject line).
All of which is leading up to saying: gawsh, computer games, while commercial products, also have a component which speaks to folkloric functions. They are communal, and they actively encourage not just consumption, but production in that communal sense. The fact that they're communally created even at the commercial level probably contributes to this - DRM and bloody Steam authentication notwithstanding, the idea of creative ownership is already distributed. And, of course, in the interaction between you and a game, you are already putting your own storytelling stamp on it in a way you can't with a movie (unless you're a mad fanficcer, and that doesn't really give you access to the images
And it's fascinating that this personal-production element is reflected on the level of actually stuffing with the game's construction in the same way that a designer does, not just re-shaping on the level of play. That is, the production company doesn't just allow tailoring of game elements, it actively encourages them through the accessibility of the tools. It's a clever commercial move, because it facilitates investment and a sense of ownership, and thereby builds a loyal following, but it also neatly mimics, even in a limited sense, far older, pre-literate patterns of production and distribution within a communal context. And it also suggests, to go full circle to the whinge with which I started this, that some of the omissions and logical thoughtlessnesses in house construction may be a sort of designer shrug - why bother, if the players will sort it out themselves? Thereby increasing their investment and loyalty. Sneaky.
Then again, I'm a fairy-tale theorist, and therefore by necessity a bit of a folklorist. Give a fairy-tale theorist a hammer, and everything looks like a glass slipper.