I have been spending a good chunk of time lately playing games made by Bethesda, like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Fallout 3. While they are generally great games that I would recommend, they do have their weaknesses. Bethesda games are notorious for being buggy and the bastardization of the Gamebryo engine they use is nearly broken. Also, the stories of these games tend to be fairly weak upon analysis. However, they do excel at two things, the latter of which is the subject of this week's article: Bethesda games tend to have interesting gameplay and character development, but more importantly, they are great at telling stories and informing the player about the world and the characters that inhabit it without bogging the player down with text and unnecessary dialogue.
One example of what I am referring to comes from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. For the uninformed, Skyrim is a game that was released last November. In takes place in a medieval fantasy setting very heavily inspired by Norse mythology. There are nine holds in Skyrim, each with a capital city of its own. Each capital, and each hold by extension, is ruled independently by their own ruler and each ruler is assisted by a knight captain, a court wizard, a political adviser, etc. The court wizard of the city of Solitude in particular is a pretty interesting character to those who pay special attention to her. Small conversations the player can overhear suggest the wizard is particular skilled at magic and possesses training that her rather young appearance would suggest she would not be able to have. When the player talks to her, she gives him/her a typical quest to go into a cave and kill vampires. She says that she hates vampires and considers them monsters who need to die. The interesting part will not be visible to the player unless he/she took the time to train and invest in Alteration magic. When casting the “Detect Life” spell, she does not exhibit the glow that all the other characters do. However, when the player uses the “Detect Dead” spell, a spell used to highlight undead enemies, like vampires, she lights up like a Christmas tree. Put this all together, and the player gets the picture of either a self-loathing vampire trying to hide or deny her true identity or a vampire trying to avoid being caught by abstaining from feeding on humans and pretending to be a vampire hunter. Either interpretation adds depth to her character that could have been ruined if the game had explicitly made it obvious to the player through dialogue.
Another excellent example comes from Fallout 3. For those of you who do not regularly read my articles, Fallout 3 takes place in post-apocalyptic Washington, DC, lovingly(?) referred to by the local populace as “The Capital Wasteland”. This particular example comes from the village of Andale, located in the southernmost part of the Capital Wasteland. When the player first arrives to Andale, they are greeted by an unassuming and rather innocent-looking town. When the player talks to the people there, that is the first indicator that something about this town is slightly “off”. When talking to the husbands of the two families, they talk about how they “work to feed their families”. Considering there is no official institution of jobs and wages in wasteland (at least on the East Coast, but that is another conversation for a different article), the player is confused as to what the characters are talking about. Talking with the wives is even more unsettling. The wives go on about how they take care of the house and that “Andale was voted as the best town in the US for 150 years in a row.” Just like with the husbands, the player already knows the no such contest exists in the wasteland because most people are more interested in everyday survival and no form of nation(or even state)-wide communication exists, so this statement does not make a much sense. The player can go even further and talk to one of the kids, who says something interesting that can potentially be missed if the player is not paying attention. He says that he has liked the other kid (who belongs to the other family) “since before Mr. Wilson (who is the neighbor) stopped being my dad's brother”. This sheds light on the fact that they are severely inbred. While this fact is creepy and disgusting to think about, it is understandable given the nature of the wasteland and does not quite explain why the town is “off”. The creepy part can only be seen if the player decides to stick around and investigate. If the player steals a key and enters either the basement or the backyard shack of one of the houses, he/she will see the true horror of Andale. Both of these rooms have deceased wastelanders on operating tables with bonesaws and chainsaws around them. Refrigerators around the room are filled with a unique food item called “Strange Meat”. After exiting the room, the player is confronted by the adults in the village. The player can either speech them, convincing them that he/she is also a cannibal (this speech check can be bypassed with the Cannibal perk). They could also shoot, maim, or otherwise slaughter the adults in the village to stop them and gain good karma. This is one of the most interesting areas in the game and a pretty good short story in the compilation of stories that is Fallout 3.
Telling a good story without forcing endless exposition upon the player is a feat and Bethesda is a developer who excels at this. It is important to note that neither one of my two examples are forced upon the player. Both stories are completely optional fluff that Bethesda put in the game to make the world feel like an area that is inhabited by people instead of robots (even though Fallout 3 actually has robots). Most players probably will not see these little nuggets of content. It is the little details in a game like these two that immerse the player in the experience. Future game designers should take this into account when developing games. While an excellent story is also important, it is more important to have a fully envisioned and realized world than an excellent story.