Computer- and console-based role-playing games owe a lot to pen-and-paper tabletop games of yore; this is fairly obvious. Having only recently dipped my toes into the d20 system of Dungeons and Dragons, I’ve begun to notice a lot of the more subtle connections and conventions that turn up as survivals in video games (Kingdoms of Amalur bears many of the hallmarks of a game that comes, perhaps too closely, out of the D&D tradition). Naturally it’s more evident in older games – as is the case with most media, video games started out copying what was already established and are only recently growing into their own territory, making greater use of what the platforms allow.
Part of that growth has involved a growing understanding of what certain conventions are there for, and whether they are still necessary or even useful. In some cases video game players can do without them; in others, electronic games provide a much better way of handling the same issue. I want to consider this in terms of Skyrim, a game I am still enjoying immensely and one whose atmosphere I have come to really appreciate.
First, let’s look at pen-and-paper RPGs that were the basis for role-playing video games in general. The archetype is, of course, Dungeons and Dragons. Players create their character and through them navigate a fantastic world created for them by someone else. The DM (Dungeon Master) plays the role of storyteller, designer, and arbitrator for his or her players, also handling a lot of the mechanical stuff that is hidden behind the scenes in video games. Players make decisions, DMs tell them if and how their actions work out – but a random element is included. Rolling dice for important actions or tests of skill takes some events out of everybody’s hands, while at the same time ensuring that not every character has the same chance of completing a task (i.e. a skilled thief has a much better chance of picking a lock than a scholarly wizard). The numbers and dice are intended to simulate what a character is attempting: more skill means a greater chance of success, but there’s always the possibility that something will go wrong.
This kind of mechanic is easily handled by a computer, more quickly and accurately than by a human (or worse, group of humans) with a handful of dice. More numbers can be involved, and more “rolls” factored into a single task, when a computer generates the numbers – and the players doesn’t even have to know what’s going on. A video game can simply calculate and tell you that you hit that goblin, or you missed. The theory in a video game is the same though – a character’s level and stats are factors, as well as the player’s skill in more action-oriented games, but there is also an element of chance. In most older RPGs, the computer is still basically rolling dice for us.
There are a number of little things in Skyrim which made me think about how we’ve come from tabletop to electronic RPGs. Take traps. In a D&D type game, characters that pass into the area of effect of a trap have a chance of setting it off. Dice are rolled, the relevant skills (dexterity, reflexes, watchfulness, etc) are factored in, and the result determines what happens. Stealthy characters or those actively looking for traps might get a bonus, making it easier to stay safe. This level of abstraction works to simulate a character wandering down a trapped corridor. In Skyrim, there is one sure-fire way to avoid traps: watch for them. If you expect a trap, you might examine your path more closely and cleverly catch the tripwires or avoid the pressure plates. If you barrel in without caution, you’re much more likely to walk right into them. Simulation isn’t required here as it is in a pen-and-paper setting, because as a player you can actually do what your character should do.
This does a great job of building atmosphere. Sometimes making slower progress through a ruin is worth it to avoid the traps, not to mention how clever you feel spotting and disarming them first. Sometimes you just run in, and mentally kick yourself when the trap slams you; you should have expected that, but you didn’t think to watch the floor. With more senses engaged in the game, abstract simulation becomes less necessary, and chances can be less in the hands of the computer’s weighted random number generator and more in the player’s own actions.
Another atmospheric touch I’ve grown to love in Skyrim is the chanting sound that signals a Word of Power is nearby. It starts off quiet and grows in volume as you get closer or turn towards the inscription. Every time I hear it, I interpret it as simulating a feeling: you sense a Word of Power is nearby. I’m Dragonborn after all, aren’t I? Why shouldn’t I have a supernatural sense for these powers? This kind of feeling is easy to instil in players of a pen-and-paper RPG – the DM just tells them what their character feels. That requires imagination on the player’s part, of course, and is very abstracted. Skyrim does an excellent job of instilling this feeling through sound, and in fact the use of atmospheric sound in general is something I love about the game. After a while, the chanting becomes a familiar sound, instantly signalling the presence of a Word and lingering at the edge of your awareness even if you turn aside and search the room first. It’s a great bit of simulation that works much more strongly that it ever could around a tabletop.
Keeping the goals of simulation in mind is important for designing games, and it’s something which has been foremost in my mind when playing with RPG mechanics (electronic or, for my own ideas, pen-and-paper). Abstractions should work to accurately represent what’s supposed to be happening – say, stabbing a dragon – with what’s actually happening – rolling dice, description, flipping cards, etc. Skyrim takes a few great steps in using what it’s got to build atmosphere and immerse you in a scene – especially if you play a sneak thief like me.
Detect Life is a spell for those who don’t like to be startled in their dungeon crawls – pah!