I Took An Arrow In The Knee

I

I have to admit to being a pretty big Skyrim fan.

I am currently on my fifth character, a Khajiit archer who is quickly leveling up his Sneak ability. Eventually I will level up his Smithing and Enchanting skills enough so that I can craft a Dragonbone bow that has both Lightning and Soul Capture abilities, a necklace and ring that gives me +40 Archery and health (each), and a Dragonbone helmet and greaves that also provide additional Archery damage and some Stamina upgrades. Naturally, after finding the Aetherium Forge I will craft an Aetherial Crown so I can have two Standing Stone perks at once, one of which will be the Steed Stone so I can wear heavy armor without any movement or carry penalty. And of course I’ll visit Gelebor at the Inner Sanctum to have some Sun Hallowed Elven Arrows created, mostly because I like the explosions when they hit.

It’s especially fun with bears.

NOTE: The following is best read while listening to this:

Earlier today I came across an article at the Atlantic entitled The Insidious Rise of the Blockbuster Video Game. Skyrim was one of the games mentioned, and so I read with some interest. The article actually raises a number of fine points, and its approach to the banality of much of Hollywood’s recent offerings is something I can agree with for the most part.

However, the article then attempts to establish a link between the movie blockbuster and the video game blockbuster, a link I find to ultimately be a conflation. The article is too lengthy to respond to completely, so here are some of my responses to choice snippets.

But first, the author’s definition of blockbuster should be noted. He states:

Blockbusters are now all about delivering more: more music, more mayhem, more action, more characters, more sound, more explosions. They are altars to the god of sensory overload. Instead of captivating viewers by allowing them to witness action and vicariously feel suspense, blockbusters now seek to replicate that action impressionistically, thrusting the viewer into a hazy experience of what it might feel like to be in the film instead of just watching it.

Interestingly, earlier in the article the author includes Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future and Ghostbusters as examples of the beginnings of the blockbuster, seemingly because they had “save-the world stakes.” He sees them as being distinct because they manage to “[trot] nicely along through linear, cleanly managed plots.”

I suppose the relation these fine films have to the modern blockbuster is thus found in the “save-the-world stakes,” which is fine, but plenty of films have save-the-world stakes yet are not blockbusters, which would seem to indicate that, for the previous films of the genre, a certain amount of box-office success must also be included in that definition. (The author seems to suggest this by previously mentioning Avatar- the highest grossing film in history- as an example.)

But then the author moves beyond “save-the-world stakes” to define blockbuster in its modern sense as comprising the bigness of scope and overblown spectacle. Now there is nothing wrong with defining the modern blockbuster in this sense, but the rather tenuous link to previous films that were supposedly in the genre would seem to be pointless, except, of course, for trying to draw a parallel between the evolution of movies and games.

As I mentioned before, however, I don’t necessarily dispute the author’s critique of the modern ‘blockbuster;’ rather, the real question is whether the parallel is legitimate or simply conflation.

This, unsurprisingly, has led to some wildly varied movies, but it’s also done some interesting things to video games, too, whose growth has roughly paralleled the development and expansion of the modern blockbuster. The adventure stories that heralded the birth of the modern home video game—Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda—were relatively straightforward action titles requiring the player to linearly progress the plot from A to B to C and so on, until things wrapped up.

Given the technological limitations of the day there was certainly a large amount of linear play to the Legend of Zelda, but what made the original stand out in its day was how precisely non-linear it was in comparison to titles such as Mario Bros. Although the game had a certain direction and goal, there was also a large amount of exploration and experimentation. Those of us who played it were always searching for secrets, such as finding those sections of the walls that could be bombed to reveal a secret entrance. You could find ways to game the game by killing enemies over and over to get more rupees to buy better equipment. And, unlike games like Mario Bros., you did not necessarily have to proceed in a linear manner. You could go from A to B to get through the game and complete the narrative, or you could take it in your own time and on your own terms.

Yet as blockbuster films began to become exercises in specific types of size and tone, video games followed suit in their own way, offering an increasing number of tangents within games that replicated the multiple plotlines and feeling of space and size found on the big screen. For instance, a movie’s pacing is out of the hands of the viewer, so video games couldn’t borrow anything like editing or special effects from cinematic blockbusters, but they could import the sense of leaving the viewer overstuffed. In blockbuster movies, you get tons of characters; in blockbuster games, you get tons of things for your character to do.

The interesting thing is that the Legend of Zelda series has in the main defied the evolution into the modern blockbuster that the author describes. While each subsequent title has become more complex and developed more tangents and such, one could certainly argue that the core gameplay is still the same. In fact, this has been one of the major criticisms of the Legend of Zelda series. Ganon/Ganondork/Demise does something bad, Zelda has to be found or rescued, Link has to go through a number of temples to find X item.

Ocarina of Time, the first of the series’ 3D titles, certainly felt big and expansive at the time. You could ride Epona across Hyrule Field and it was fun, because now you had even more to explore and more things to find. What the author seems to miss here, however, is that even though there was more to do, all those things were related to the game mechanics as a whole. Collecting the cuckoos for the lady in Kakariko Village was not an absolutely necessary task as far as the game’s main narrative was concerned, but she would give you an all important Empty Bottle, which could hold a fairy which may very well help you actually complete the game.

Very Important Bottles
Very Important Bottles

 

Other tasks and subplots and mini-games were also not necessary, but you could receive extra items, more rupees, and other things that made the game seem more immersive and less linear, even though you were going from temple to temple to temple to Water Temple (grrr…) until your final showdown with Ganon/Ganondork/Demise, just like the original.

Interestingly, even Skyward Sword, the most recent installment in the series, follows the same model, from the temples to Zelda to the mini-games that help your quest if you want them to. It is hard to see, in my opinion, how that qualifies as overstuffed.

Blockbusters are all about size, which in film equates to visual scale and in games is often represented as “options.” A movie wants to overwhelm you with images, but a game wants to overwhelm you with activity: open-world environments, customizable avatars, side quests, collectibles, achievements, mini-games, and so on. Anything to keep you busy. You can spend as much time as you want playing checkers in Assassin’s Creed or casino games in Mass Effect 3. You can pass actual real-world days of your life just golfing or watching fake television shows in Grand Theft Auto V.

I have not played the titles mentioned here, and thus I cannot comment on the game mechanics. As far as the Assassin’s Creed franchise, I have played the second title, and while I would suggest that it had a pretty tightly formed (if not really stupid) narrative, my largest critique of the game is that there actually wasn’t all that much do, since nearly every mission was exactly the same. There were some subquests you could do, but as far as I recall they were fairly similar to the mechanics of the main quest, which was drop down onto a guard, stick him in the neck with your blade, and then run across the buildings some more.

This, of course, is probably part of the author’s critique, in that the bigness of the city is meant to distract from the paucity of the game’s mechanics. And for Assassin’s Creed 2, I would probably agree for the most part. The things about the sub quests that I found annoying wasn’t that they were there or distracting, but rather that they didn’t really make a difference to the game play in a meaningful way (from what I recall).

In the Zelda series, while you can do some pretty monotonous things (like fishing), those mini-games or sub quests can actually contribute to your overall quest, either by providing additional items that make things easier or by giving you money that helps you buy upgrades and such. A good “big” game balances out the effectiveness of these extra items or money with the way one would play without them. For example, if it is trivially easy to obtain money in a game through the normal scope of play, then the mini-games or sub quests will seem pointless since they don’t give you a sense of accomplishment. But if they can really make a difference, it gives you more incentive to pursue them.

In this respect, the author’s critique is more relevant to poorly designed game mechanics than the actual scope or bigness of any particular game.

You can ride your horse from one end of Red Dead Redemption to the other, doing nothing but shooting birds and collecting flowers and saving the same town again and again from a gang of thieves who never seem to get the message. You can, in other words, avoid plot and consequence as long as you’d like and just play around with the window dressing, which is the same state of self-pleasing distraction that filmmakers want you to enter when you watch a robot that turns into a truck ride another robot that turns into a dinosaur.

I wonder if the author understands the intent of an open-world game, since he doesn’t seem to recognize that the possibility of exploration in an open-world game is part of the allure. I haven’t played Red Dead Redemption, but games like Skyrim which have a fairly massive world that is relatively unique throughout are as much about the exploration as they are about the narrative; in fact, probably even more. Riding from one end of the world to another isn’t the window dressing or even necessarily spectacle for the sake of spectacle, but is actually one of the main reasons the people who play open-world games play them.

Sometimes you climb a mountain just because it's there to be climbed
Sometimes you climb a mountain just because it’s there to be climbed

 

Video games have wound up following a similar path: Smart humor, self-aware dialogue, and deep characterization abound, but all those things exist alongside button-mashing fights and quests for MacGuffins. They can whip from smart to dumb and back again so fast it can feel dizzying. Just as a big movie can bounce you from a great scene to a bumpy one, so too can games send you rocketing from a compelling confrontation to dry bits of exposition.

The author here conflates movies and games far too much in my opinion. A movie, after all, is a linear script that doesn’t change upon repeated viewings. As correct as much of the author’s critique of the narrative-lite movie is, he mistakenly imagines that video games- especially open-world ones- are primarily about the narrative. Some of them can be compelling, some rather banal, but the point isn’t actually the narrative but rather all that surrounds the narrative, being thrust into an immersive experience where everything is meant to create its own little world.

Thus, in a game like Skyrim there is one ultimate quest (defeating Alduin), lots of main quests (the Skyrim Civil War, the Thieves’ Guild, Dawnguard, Dragonborn, etc.) and tons of side quests. However, you can complete many of the ‘lesser’ quests without actually touching the main quest, and this will probably be something you end up doing on subsequent replays. The author sees this dizzying array of choices as overwhelming one with activity, but the point of a game like Skyrim is not the plot nor the consequences but rather to explore and become immersed in the world.

Immersion
Immersion

 

When I first played, I found it fascinating merely to travel from place to place, discovering new things. The first time I went from Whiterun to Winterhold I travelled on foot, uncovering new locations, enemies and the like along the way. There was truly a sense of exploration and finding new things. Sometimes it was in service of the plot, but often times it was just traveling to see what the world had to offer. I found lots of new things when I was escorting Esbern on foot from Riften to the Sky Haven Temple, and it’s a much different experience to fight a dragon with Esbern, Delphine and Lydia than by yourself.

Of course, one of the most interesting things of open-world games is all the narratives that emerge from playing in such a non-linear and and activity full manner. These narratives are not necessarily coded into the game, but are events that occur through one’s playing and exploration. Often times it is the result of a glitch in the game, like a dragon that is caught on some seam in the world and seems to be dancing, or shooting a chicken in a town and having all the townspeople and guards chase you for miles and miles, even though murdering someone in town might only get you a slap on the wrist.

Three's Company
Three’s Company

 

For me there was the time I was escorting Esbern to Sky Haven Temple and we came upon the Karthspire Camp filled with Forsworn. I rushed into fray, shooting arrows furiously, when all of a sudden a dragon attacked. Of course he latched on to me so I had to try and kill the dragon as the Forsworn were trying to kill me. (At the time I didn’t know Esbern couldn’t die, so I also had to protect him.) As I was killing the dragon, the game decided to throw another dragon into fray, and so suddenly I was battling two dragons while trying to protect Esbern and not die myself. As I was moving around, I finally managed to kill both dragons, only to turn around and be blasted by a Hagraven firebolt, which meant I had to deal with her with very little health remaining.

This scenario doesn’t occur every time, but it is quirks like that which make open-world games so interesting.

And for those who are completionists, there are abilities and skills to master, finding the right formula to most quickly upgrade your Smithing and Enchanting and Alchemy, visiting every location and completing every quest, finding ways around the bugs that keep you from doing things. These are all “activities” that add to the replay ability of the game, rather than overwhelm.

What the author seems to miss is that the allure of the open-world game is to discover a world and become a part of it. The breadth of activities is nowhere akin to the foibles of modern movie blockbusters, because rather than meant to distract, they are meant to give a life-likeness to the world, to set it in a certain context and to give the player multiple ways to exist in this world. The sheer amount of choices and activities is a means to integrate into the world, and sometimes even the story. Granted, not all open world games do this very well, but the ones that do create a far more seamless cohesion between the story and the world, since the world is actually meant to be a part of the story, which you can only uncover by exploring that world more fully.

On a different note, sometimes the bigness of the game is exactly the point, and it simply wouldn’t be the game it is without this; it certainly wouldn’t be any fun.

The quintessential game to illustrate this would of course be Minecraft. Minecraft is almost like a much more old-school video game in that there is very little plot, if any. In fact, the plot is only revealed as night falls, since you realize very quickly that you have to survive. But as you begin to explore the world- both above and below ground, you begin to uncover the real meaning of the game, which is to build. Eventually you come to find more and more types of materials with which you can basically build anything, and this realization is important because now the bigness of the Minecraft world is set against the bigness of the possibilities of what you can create.

That hissing sound is the sound of failure

 

Personally, I found it both fun and very relaxing to hack away in my make-shift mines to find iron and coal and the elusive diamonds so I could build armor to survive the night and materials to build the things I wanted to build. Narratives of your own emerge from this process since you journey into the depths or embark across the vast world to find certain materials to reach a certain end, or sometimes just because you wanted to see what was there and what you could build. I started off with a rather modest house and eventually transformed it into a sprawling manor, complete with throne room and a throne encircled by never-ending fire from the blocks I found in The Nether. And eventually I wanted to probe the world’s limits (on Xbox at least), so I dug a straight shaft down to bedrock and then built a tower all the way to the top of the Minecraft sky, basically so I could have a world-long diving board so I could see how long it to to fall from the top of the sky to the bottom of the earth.

And there was also that giant floating walkway I built from one continent to another, and the right formula of saplings and torches to harvest trees most efficiently, and the bamboo harvesting facility, and then the wheat processing center.

I even tried several animal processing facilities, but unfortunately the rules of the world didn’t let them work, but it was still fun to experiment and think.

The point here, however, is that the bigness of the world or the amount of choices is not necessarily a distraction; rather, because of the tightly designed game mechanics they actually enable nearly infinite exploration and the chance for alternative narratives to arise out of the gamely, which rarely happens in games where the gameplay is at the service of the narrative push.

Blockbuster gaming even takes movie dialogue problems to an extreme the movies themselves can never match by having the game’s supporting, non-playable characters repeat the same odd blurbs to the player over and over: Play Skyrim long enough, and you won’t be able to go 10 minutes without hearing a sidekick complain again about “[taking] an arrow to the knee.” As a result, games can start to feel pasted together from a lot of little scenes that don’t necessarily connect or make sense together.

Granted, this is a rather inevitable limitation of current technology, but the author seems here rather unfamiliar with Skyrim, since at no time does a sidekick actually mention anything about taking an arrow to the knee (and, since we’re already quibbling, it’s “an arrow in the knee…”), since all of your sidekicks are actually adventurers like you. This is admittedly a small quibble, but it somewhat belies the author’s apparent lack of deep familiarity with the game, since only the guardsmen utter this quote, which is pretty funny and becomes a narrative of its own since you will often find yourself quoting it along with the guardsman, or making jokes about it with your friends.

(Note: there is one small quest where there guardsmen could be considered your sidekick. There is a mine overrun with spiders that the guardsmen will rush in with you to clear out. In this tenuous sense they could be considered “sidekicks,” I suppose.)

On the other hand, the beauty of a really well constructed game and game mechanic is that there be very little back story, very little connection between events and even very little dialogue, yet it can still be enormously fun. Shadow of the Colossus, as an example, was, for its time, something of a blockbuster, having an enormous world that you could explore. In fact, the bigness of the world was part of both the plot and the game mechanic for driving you forward. All you knew of your quest was that you had to defeat a bunch of Colossi to revive a dead girl. The biggest problem, aside from the bigness of the Colossi themselves and them having no other purpose than to mangle your tiny body, was having to find them.

Oh crap oh crap oh crap oh crap!
Oh crap oh crap oh crap oh crap!

 

And once you did, it was often the sheer scope of the enemy that was both impressive, challenging, and fun. There was no way to actually kill them normally; you had a bow and arrow and a sword, but those alone could not bring them down. Rather, you actually had to find the Colossus’ weak spot, which was not always in the same place. Thus, each Colossus presented its own challenges, both in finding and destroying them. After killing each one you returned to the temple to have the demon god give you a hint as to the next location, but this little plot movement wasn’t actually a movement at all. Rather, it was the sheer game mechanic and the joy of exploration the challenge of each Colossus that kept you moving forward.

And it was seriously fun, even if by the end you didn’t have a blessed clue what was really going on.

By overwhelming the player with sensation and choice and size, games can create the illusion of being a lot more fun than they actually might be.

It may be just me, but I am the type of person who immediately stops playing a game once it stops being fun, and this actually happens for the vast majority of games I play. Most of the Xbox Live Games with Gold I have downloaded but only played one or two times simply because the gameplay did not capture my interest. The reason I have played games like Skyrim or the Legend of Zelda as much as I have is that they get the game mechanics right. The story is either so-so or non-existent, but the gameplay itself is fun, which can cover a multitude of narrative sins.

Some of this is confirmation bias—if you spend 30 or 60 or 100 hours doing something, and that something calls itself a “game,” you’re going to want to justify the investment—but it’s also because we’ve raised ourselves on years of movies whose size sometimes outstrips their entertainment value, so we feel comfortable repeating the process on our game consoles.

One of my greatest difficulties with this article is that the author tends to see movies or games in the terms of investment. Speaking for myself, entertainment is not an investment, it is a service or product that I pay for. I suppose one could very loosely apply the concept of “investment” to the fact that I expect to be entertained, but that is merely a semantic shift to justify a tenuous thesis.

Video games are a product to be purchased and consumed; they offer no actual return on investment. To be entertained by a product is the result of the consumption of that product, not a return on an investment, which renders this particular analysis rather suspect.

Additionally, the author runs into the unfortunate error of conflating the size of movies with the size of games. Many cinematic blockbusters have this to be sure; for myself, I simply do not care for movies that have little to no meaningful plot, simply because I expect a movie to have a plot. There is a certain entertainment value in sheer spectacle, to be sure, and for some people that value justifies the price of admission; for myself it does not, since I do not perceive movies as a product of sheer spectacle, which is why I do not watch the types of films to which that critique is applicable.

Video games, on the other hand, are certainly not movies, and while they may have cinematic elements, have an altogether distinct purpose as an entertainment product to be consumed. Many of them tell a story, certainly, but the main point of a video game is to have a great game mechanic. An equally compelling story is definitely great, especially if they seamlessly work together, but the important point is that a game can still be really fun with a rather weak plot or even with no plot at all.

Speaking for myself, I’ve rarely run across a fun game I stopped playing merely because the plot was weak.

In fact, sometimes video games can feel quite a bit too much like movies, to the extent where the plot can very well get in the way of an otherwise good game mechanic. In the early days of the Playstation there was a rather obnoxious trend of trying to incorporate live action video segments (the plot) into the linear flow of the game. The live action segments gave you the story, but had no other meaningful link or interaction with the actual mechanics of the game itself. Sure, often there would be voiceovers within the gameplay to try and tie it all together, but it simply was not a believable segue, and ended up creating a tedious gaming experience all in service of the narrative.

Warhawk, an early PS1 game with an otherwise enjoyable game mechanic, fell into this trap. And while I suppose it was fairly interesting at first to see the live action incorporated (if for no other reason than it had rarely been done), in an ironic twist it was the story which became the bloated spectacle, and many other games unfortunately followed suit.

One of these things is not like the other...
One of these things is not like the other…

 

Fortunately, games have come a long way, but many still struggle with cut-scene glut, and it must be admitted that certain blockbuster games tend to fall into this (Final Fantasy and Halo, we’re looking at you!).

Oh great, another rampant AI having an existential crisis
Oh great, another rampant AI having an existential crisis

 

Equally fortunately, they have long enough development cycles  and enough money behind them to have their narrative bloat become nearly seamless, excepting the occasional and unfortunate quicktime event sequence.

Don't worry- there's a quick time sequence for that...
Don’t worry- there’s a quick time sequence for that…

 

Much to my particular chagrin, even a fine game like Kingdom Hearts II couldn’t quite escape the dreaded quick time sequence.

Everyone is looking for a quick time event

 

But I digress.

A video game like Dark Souls 2 is a perfect example of the way games have closed the gap between themselves and movie blockbusters: It offers epic quests built on a complicated mythology, it inspires serious devotion from its fans, and it’s mostly just exhausting. The point of the game is not to enjoy playing it but merely to say you made it through. It sprawls massively before us, bending our will to its own.

Having not played Dark Souls 2, I cannot meaningfully comment on it. However, the author seems to stack the deck from the start by opining that, regardless of any of the things that make it a world, it is “mostly just exhausting.” He then follows by mentioning that the point isn’t to enjoy playing it but to say you’ve made it through. In what ways, one might ask, is it “mostly exhausting?” Why does he perceive the point to be merely completion rather than fun? Tastes in video games very from person to person, but we aren’t really given any meaningful reason to accept these points as either more than subjective or more than tenuously linked to the cinematic blockbuster.

The author mentions that the point of the blockbuster video game is to simply exist. How is this so? Simply because it “sprawls massively before us, bending our will to its own?” What, precisely, is this even supposed to mean? How is one’s will not bent to the game’s in any video game where there is a task to be completed? In what way does scope or scale affect that in any meaningful way?

By the same token, the best video game blockbusters are those that allow for excursion and choice but always connect those tangents back to the main story, and further, those games that push you gently but firmly along a path from origin to climax.

Once again, the author seems to completely misunderstand the nature of many open-world games. Yes, they usually have a main narrative arc and often numerous sub-arcs. Sometimes those sub-arcs are related to the main quest, sometimes they are not.

The important point here is that for more open-world games the main purpose is not actually the main narrative arc at all but rather the world- coming to discover and understand it, and then becoming immersed in it. While side quests and mini-games and such can help you towards the ultimate narrative climax, often they are intended to give life and immersion to the world. In a sense they let you explore and understand the world on your own terms, to the extent that current technology allows for.

Tomb Raider is a prime example of this type of game: big, action-driven, ably balancing key set pieces with exploration and options, but always making sure that the peripherals of the experience relate to the central narrative.

I haven’t played the most recent Tomb Raider, and while it is certainly possible that the narrative makes the game, Tomb Raider has never really been about narrative. Well, I suppose in some ways it has, it’s just that the narratives have never really been that good. Ask any person who played the original why they played it, and their answer will almost certainly not be the plot…

(On a side note, I actually thought the original plot to not be completely terrible. There are enough gaping holes and unmentioned back story that my brother and I actually took to writing in some of those missing pieces. It was probably rather convoluted and dull, but it happened.)

And while there is certainly some exploration in Tomb Raider, in most respects the action moves from one set piece to another without much open-ness to it. It’s ‘big’ in the sense that the locations have a sense of being massive, but that sense is (and has been in almost every Tomb Raider title) simply an illusion, as the sense of space is generally rendered void by the nearly linear path one must usually follow to advance. Now, there is not anything necessarily wrong with this type of game or gaming mechanic, but it seems rather disingenuous to describe it as being a ‘big’ game in a similar manner as Skyrim.

This particular bit of equivocation just isn’t particularly convincing.

All that being said, most of the Tomb Raider games have been reasonably entertaining, mostly due to the gameplay. The original was great, partially because it was kind of a trailblazer and was new, but also because it pulled together the dynamics of the gameplay, pacing and difficulty together really well. Who can forget in the opening level the first time the music starts playing and you have to gun down a vicious bear. Or when you drop down into the valley and suddenly find a T-Rex bearing down upon you. The music basically created a Pavlovian response that whenever you heard it you drew your weapons and expected something to start attacking you, from raptors to bats. It was kind of suspenseful at the time.

And then there was the time you realized that the hand of Midas was completely legit…

Admit it- this happened to you.

 

And of course the rare save crystals made you really work for it. Most players probably experienced the frustration of surviving some rather delicate platforming, only to see the save crystal and blow it right before reaching it, having to reload and do everything again. There was that one that toyed with you right before you had to dive down the giant well to the end boss, only to find Natla firing some wicked weapons at you. You kill her, breathing a sigh of relief since you used up most of your health packs, only to discover that in classic gaming idiom she has another life to spend.

And after you really kill her you still have to climb and time some tricky jumps.

Without blowing it, of course.

It’s a big game, but it never feels big. And that’s the paradoxical truth at the heart of all great blockbusters: To really go big, sometimes you have to think small.

It is with this final statement that the author misses the entire point completely and belies his own presuppositions. The reason a game like Tomb Raider doesn’t “feel big” is because of the game mechanics, and the manner in which your path forward is largely predetermined. Again, nothing wrong with this, but as a game which is meant to give a more psychological portrayal of a character, the sense of not being so big is necessary to the development of the character. In this way the newest installment may certainly be more like a well done blockbuster, and more power to it.

However, more open world games like Skyrim are only about the main character in a more ancillary sense since the character is actually intended to be you. Indeed, there are prearranged story arcs (some good, some not so good) into which one can participate, but the real point of the game is to integrate oneself into the world, which is why there is so much variety and, yes, choice. The author seems to misunderstand the entire open-world genre by presupposing that the narrative is the only legitimate point or that the bigness of the world is meant to distract one from the ebb and flow of that narrative.

The actuality is the converse; the story, while it may be important in one way or another, is but one part of the greater world, another element to give that world life and essence. And that precisely is what makes it fun.

In this way an open-world game may be big, but its bigness has really little in common with cinematic blockbusters, since one is not meant merely to be passively awed by its vastness and distracted from its flaws, but rather to explore that bigness, and in some sense even its flaws.

That sense of wonder I first felt when looking down from a Skyrim mountain road into the cavernous valley below as a waterfall tumbles over was not because the narrative drove me there, but rather because the bigness of the world compelled me to find it.

And I may have even picked a blue mountain flower while I was there.

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Jason Watson

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