Saturday, July 22, 2017

Dawnguard: Adventure Found Me

This is not my Skyrim review. I hope when I get to that it will be a little more organized than this. This instead is an exploration of ludonarrative in the emergence of a character arc from meta-textual elements.

Or, in short, how a young Breton with dreams of becoming a bard was pulled into a conflict she didn't even know existed, became a legendary hero and saved the world.

So, Skyrim. It is a RPG -- Role-Playing-Game -- from Bethesda, brought out in 2011. It is the fifth game of the Elder Scrolls series, meaning the backstory is extensive and the world fleshed out to a nearly unheard-of degree even within RPG's. An RPG, in computer-game terms, means you explore the world in the form of one or more avatars but have a certain amount of choice in how you approach interactions; dialog choices with NPCs (non-player characters), choices in which skills to develop, choices even in your character's appearance and how you dress.

Many of these have direct impact on play. Some do not. But it is my thesis that in all games, even something as seemingly mechanistic and devoid of larger context as Monopoly, one ends up constructing a narrative. We humans are instinctive story-tellers. It's one of the ways we try to impose sense on the world.

In addition, in any game that gives you an avatar to interact with the game world, one finds oneself role-playing. For most of us, this isn't just projecting ourselves into the world. It is choosing a distinct inner life and playing (as much as possible) consistently with that specific set of beliefs and preoccupations and personality quirks. One can play the same game multiple times but experience it differently, thanks to a different (and evolving) personal narrative.

There is an ongoing element of disconnect in doing this, however, an aesthetic distance that -- when the game makes poor choices -- turns into ludonarrative disconnect.  I've spoken before, as a for-instance, on how Tomb Raider 2013 urges you to think of Lara as a scared college student and reluctant fighter, but the gameplay rewards a brutal, risky, up-close approach to problems.

(The two approaches I've tried for Tomb Raider 2013 are; to play the character as presented and ignore the gameplay opportunities for more loot and faster character progression, or; to play against the character as presented in the cutscenes and be overall angrier and more willing to engage in well-warranted savagery against her opponents.)

There's a huge meta-textual dilemma any time you replay a game (or have made use of online hints). You the player know there's a booby trap around the corner. "You" the character you are playing does not. My experience is that generally one tries to paper over the disconnect; you play the character as having an instinct, some foreboding, that causes them to round the corner in a circumspect fashion that just so happens to bypass the trap. Or you enforce the player/character barrier, play your ignorance, and walk right into it.

Skyrim of course presents many such opportunities. One specific example is that once you've played the early game more than once, you realize that if your character picks up the Dragon Stone and gives it to the Court Wizard of Whiterun dragons will start spawning across the land and attacking people (mostly, in fact, attacking you.) So if you want to do a Bard build or just peacefully pick flowers to buff up your Alchemy skill for a while, you keep the Dragon Stone in your backpack!

Alchemy, particularly, provides some potentially game-breaking exploits. The game controls creation of the most valuable potions by making recipes hard to find. Much of Alchemy involves mixing random ingredients together until you stumble on something that works. However, if you the player already know that glowing mushrooms and blisterwort makes a potion that improves Smithing...

But back to my Breton. I'd just installed a gift PC with a powerful graphics card and I stuck Skyrim Special Edition on it. Special Edition comes with the three official DLC's (Down-Loadable Content), including Dawnguard, which by itself adds a new scenario and 10-20 hours of gameplay to the already extensive options of the existing game.

I started a new character to try out a couple of random mods. Skyrim has a huge modding community; a dedicated group of outside artists and writers and programmers who have added extensive new (free) content to the existing game.

I was trying out the "Become a Bard" mod; which adds abilities to play musical instruments, the option to play for money at a tavern, and it's own internal skill system.  I also had "Camping" installed. One of the popular mods is called "Frostbite" and adds a Survival aspect to the game. With that mod you can no longer walk all night in the howling winds of the snowy peaks without getting yourself dead of exposure. The "Camping" mod makes it possible to light a fire and put up a rude tent so you don't have to get to a village to find a warm bed for the night. But it is fun enough to play on it's own, with a little internal skill system and some unique crafting options.

Of course I was also using "Skyrim Unbound," which removes the standard opening of the game. This means you can chose whether to be offered the first quests that lead to fighting to stop the return of the dragons and/or taking part in the civil war that is wracking the land.

So my backstory on this play-through was that I was a stranger to the area and was going to live off the land earning a few coins playing at taverns until I could make my way to the Bard's College and then...  But, of course, life is what happens to you while you were making other plans.

The first hiccup was that I couldn't find a lute. Turns out musical instruments are rare. Oh, yes, and even with the "Camping" mod, living off the land is hard. There's a basic problem in Skyrim for non-traditional play. And that is that essential materials for buffing your skills or improving your gear or just plain earning enough coin to buy a house are designed to be fought for.

Now, people have done it. There have been Pacifist builds who buff Sneak skills until they can creep unseen into Bandit hideouts and steal the things they need to advance. My Breton actually started this way. See, the random start mod had dumped me into a dungeon that was way above my level. I grabbed some high-value loot and snuck the heck out of there as fast as I could. (This was nicely knuckle-biting play, as all I had was a worn tunic and hide shoes -- not even a weapon.)

So these both gave my Breton a start in the wrong direction. She didn't have a lute, but she had some nice gear, a bit of gold, and had (reluctantly) gained some combat experience.

Then she met Sophia. I'd forgotten I'd also put this original Follower in my Mod stack. Followers are NPC's that, well, follow you. They are your friends and companions on your adventures. One of the first easy followers you can get is Faendal, the Bosmer archer working at the mill in Riverwood. If you help him with his girl trouble by carrying a forged letter for him, he will agree to join you on your adventures. Lydia, who becomes your housecarl in Whiterun after you've been made a Thane, will swing a sword by your side the moment you say, "Come with me."

Anyhow. Sophia is an amusing creation and snarks quite a lot at the world. She's also a wee bit overpowered at lower levels. So we were cleaning house on bad guys. My Breton was kind of floundering at that point; mostly wandering around experimenting with Alchemy recipes and learning the basics of Enchanting and Smithing. And not exactly a knight-errant, but good at heart and willing to help out when asked.

("Helping out," in the combat-centric, quest-oriented world of RPG's, usually means, "Fight your way through an underground lair full of monsters to find and return this random item to me." Which means you inevitably gain experience and loot on the way.)

Then vampires showed up in Whiterun and killed my favorite blacksmith. Actually, they killed several of the people my Breton had come to know and frequently interacted with. (I'd kinda forgotten by this point I'd installed the Dawnguard DLC as part of the original purchase, and Dawnguard starts with a rise in vampire activity.)

Anyhow, this was personal. It shook up my Breton enough to make her join the Dawnguard and work to stop the plot by Vampire Lord Harkon to put out the sun (or I think that was his plan -- the way I played through it, the evil plan never really got explained to me).

(It also caused me to install the "Immersive NPCs" mod, which besides making the NPCs a lot more interesting in their behavior and routines also gave them the smarts to run away when vampires or dragons attack their village.)

The Dawnguard sent my Breton on the usual round of Fetch Quests. Skyrim, like most RPGs, doesn't make it clear which quests are going to advance the main storyline and are mandatory, and which are side quests and optional. So I ended up running all over the place, delving into Bandit camps, ancient Nord barrows, and Dwemer (Dwarven) ruins.

And this is another place where the metatext became problematic. I was already playing on the Easy setting. I'd gotten an early boost with some fortuitous loot, and another leg up with Sophia's help to let me tackle situations otherwise too hard for my current level. By mid-game I had a nifty set of Vampire Lord armor (maybe not the best light armor in the game, but certainly the best looking, plus buffs your Magika regeneration by a whopping 125%) and a Dawnguard Crossbow -- actually, the Enhanced Dwarven Crossbow with Exploding Bolts of Fire (because I'd done what turned out to be a bunch of sidequests for the Dawnguard's resident Tech Geek).

Oh, yes, and all that time messing around with crafting skills meant I'd buffed armor and weapon to something like 300% of base value. Meaning I could walk right up to a dragon and let it take a bite at me. Or one-shot anything smaller than a Giant.

(Skyrim gives a couple of perks designed to make a Thief build plausible. Instead of spending points on getting good with a sword, it lets you do double or triple damage with a bow if you can do it from hiding. With enough points in the Sneak skills, you can snipe your way through half the dungeons in Skyrim.)

(An amusing result of this that came up more than once; one of the Falmer enemies, the Gloomlurker, specializes in Sneak skills as well. For all her graces, Serana the full-blood Vampire follower doesn't have great perception skills. So there were several times down in the Dwemer ruins she'd be oblivious to a Gloomlurker not three feet from her. Who was equally oblivious to me crouching right there three feet from him. Cue a Dwarven crossbow bolt in the face. And Serana saying, "Where'd you come from?")

Sophia is as I said is less than serious, and that somehow helped paper over the disconnect of my 5'6" Breton girl being able to punch out a Nord twice her size back in the early game. By the time I was deep into the Dawnguard plotline (and switched followers to the more serious Serana, the vampire princess with daddy issues) my character had won enough battles and was wearing enough magical gear that it didn't -- quite -- take away from the grim nature of the fight that she was so ludicrously tough she could punch a dragon in the snout.

Skyrim has a scaling system. This I find game-breaking in a couple of different ways. In the early parts of the game (when your character is at a low level) the ruffian who accosts you in a dark alley has a hide shirt and maybe a stolen sword of good steel. But if you travel that same alley at level 40, that self-same scruffy-looking mugger is lurking inconspicuous-like in full Dwarven plate with a glowing War-Axe of Ultimate Dismay over his shoulder (and toting a few thousand gold worth of gems and scrolls in his pockets.) Credulity gets a little strained.

In another way, it is almost a disincentive to level up, especially if you've chosen to specialize in non-combat skills. Another disincentive towards buffing your crafting skills; by the time you can Enchant a weapon to +20, there's +30 gear tucked into the treasure chests of the nearby Ancient Nord ruin.

So it creates a disconnect from the reality of the game world. And it creates a problem in the meta-game, where the character may be desirous of improving themselves but the player is afraid to let them do so least the enemies become too tough to tackle.

In Skyrim the latter at least is a mid-game problem only. Enemies, and regions, have a level cap. If you are traveling in a wilderness that has wolves, it will still just have wolves. They will be crunched up against the top end of the bell curve, but the toughness range of wolves just isn't that great to begin with.

By the time my Breton was finishing up the Dawnguard campaign, the game had already maxed out my chief enemies. I was meeting exclusively Vampire Lords (and Elder Dragons, and whatever the top Draugr are). And they were still easy prey. Anything lower on the bell curve I could one-shot with Soul-Sucker, my heavily improved crossbow of doom. In fact, I started depending on my Elven bow and leaving the Dragon Priest mask in my pack just to make things more fair (that, and a Diadem of Improved Archery looked nicer with my hair than the full-face Tiki-like scowl of Krosis, my best Dragon Priest mask).

The biggest difficulty I had at the climax of Dawnguard was keeping the other Dawnguard from getting themselves killed in the final assault on Lord Harkon's forces. In fact, I played through the assault twice; the second time shooting the sun with Auriel's Bow to wreak havoc among the vampire forces before my idiot allies could close to melee range. (I tried to tell the Dawnguard to stay home and let me and Serana handle it, but the fight wouldn't trigger unless they came along).

The end of my Breton's character arc was finishing off Harkon and bringing some measure of peace to the land (I'd also completed the Civil War, at one point bollixing up an infiltration mission by falling down the wrong cliff and ending up giving a one-woman demonstration of why you don't mess with the Archmage of the College of Winterhold when she has two staffs and the high ground).

Which meant I could finally complete the Bard's College quest I'd been putting off. I finished the game -- and probably that character -- with her standing among her fellow bards as a new admittance to the College, with the revelries of the solstice-like ceremonial burning of King Olaf around her. I even pulled out a flute I'd found (finally!) and gave an impromptu solo performance.

If I continue with this character, it will be to divest of most of my weapons and wander the lands on foot with camping gear in a backpack and a good bow hung on the shoulder across from the lute. But in any case, as Serana (close companion and possible future life-partner) said, as we left the ruins of Castle Volkihar, "The adventure continues."

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