A Medieval Storytelling Machine: Crusader Kings 3 Review

I’ll preface this review by saying that I have not played any of the previous games in the Crusader Kings series. The full extent of my experience with the grand strategy genre begins and ends with Civilization V and VI. That being said, the past few weeks of playing Crusader Kings 3 have been a blast as I’ve tried and failed and tried again to establish my dynasty’s dominion over the medieval world.

For my fellow newcomers to the Crusader Kings games, the latest entry in the series feels a lot like what might happen if you put Stellaris, medieval history, and various RPG elements into a blender and set it to puree. The result is an absolutely incredible experience, one where you play not as the immortal concept of a nation as in the Civilization games, but as real people with their own motivations, traits, and beliefs. Crusader Kings 3 does a wonderful job fulfilling the fantasy of guiding your dynasty through the ages, which we’ll get into more in depth now.

Gameplay: 4/5

Crusader Kings 3 has a mixture of gameplay, seemingly drawn from a variety of genres. Most apparent are the events that occur on the game’s map, where you can see the borders of your territory grow and fluctuate. This is also where battles happen as you direct troops to fight other armies and lay siege to enemy holdings. Beyond the map, there are dozens of menus linking together the complexities of medieval society, allowing you to interact with members of your court, grant titles to vassals, manage your council of advisors, and deal with matters of succession.

On top of all that, the game heavily features RPG elements, which manifest in a few different ways. Most obviously are the skill trees that each character possesses where you can spend skill points to unlock new abilities and effects. Certain events will also often crop up, either organically from the interactions between characters or just at random. These events will shift the way the game is played as they can provide new information for you to work with or give you free skill points, should you pass a few ability checks.

The disparate parts of the gameplay do work very well together, though not always in the most transparent of ways. I had some difficulty figuring out the finer details of warfare beyond “the bigger army wins” and was very confused when my massive force was routed by a company half its size. It doesn’t make the game unenjoyable, but it does mean that newcomers especially will often find themselves in unexpected situations with no idea how they got there.

Originality: 4/5

I’m given to understand from what I’ve heard on the internet that Crusader Kings 2 did a lot of work paving the way for Crusader Kings 3’s hybrid grand strategy/RPG formula. Still, Crusader Kings 3’s execution is absolutely splendid as the various systems feed into each other in wonderfully unexpected ways.

Compared to other strategy games of its ilk where players often act as omnipotent gods, directing their forces for centuries with singular vision, Crusader Kings 3 has you play as real people, continuing on as your heir after death. This means that your strategy may have to change dramatically at a moment’s notice. One such instance from my game saw a silver-tongued diplomat get replaced by his shy son. With the realm descending into chaos since my new character couldn’t bring himself to talk to anyone without getting stressed about it, I elected to start waging some wars, executing prisoners, and investing heavily in the Dread mechanic, which let my socially awkward king intimidate his rebellious vassals into submission. This one course of action involved everything from war declarations to the intrigue system to the skill trees, combining all the elements of the game to create a wholly unique experience.

Accessibility: 4/5

I’d heard of the Crusader Kings series before buying this installment, and while I’d considered buying it before, the thing that always turned me away was the perceived complexity inherent to the games. These are dense titles, difficult to parse for newbies and unforgiving to beginner mistakes. Crusader Kings 3 is arguably just as complex, but it circumvents this by employing a variety of useful features, such as its tutorial and an ingenious tooltip system.

The tutorial takes place on the island of Ireland, and walks new players through most of the mechanics and features needed to understand how to play a game. Even after the tutorial proper has finished and you’re into the main game, windows will pop up every time you encounter a new system that may need some explanation. It does make for a lot of reading, but it also does a very good job of explaining the basics of the game. For deeper complexity, the tooltip system is a great help, as hovering over a highlighted concept brings up a window explaining it. You can then hover over any terms inside that tooltip, which will bring up another window, potentially building a tower of tooltips onscreen. It’s an excellent way to dispel confusion and answer questions, as it is completely determined by the player’s own inquisitiveness.

One area that the game does fall short in is accessibility for disabled players. While not requiring the same twitch reflexes that many other games do given its generous pausing mechanic, I couldn’t find any options for things like a colorblind mode or control remapping. It does let you scale the size of the menus, which could benefit players with poor vision, but it is largely devoid of these accessibility options.

Look: 3/5

Crusader Kings 3 looks fine. It’s better than previous games in the series, which featured static portraits and cruder graphics, but it also won’t be winning any awards for its visuals or breaking any video cards. The animated character models are nice and they allow for a stronger connection to the events happening onscreen as you can see the expressions of the characters as they react to all manner of things, from stillborn children to hosting a feast.

The map also looks quite good and does fine job of scaling its detail depending on how close you zoom into it. Zooming in close gives you a detailed look at your holding, including all the castles, cities, farmlands, and forests contained within. Zooming all the way out turns it into a paper map without much detail save for the names of the nations. All told, the games is visually pleasing – just not in any particularly noteworthy way.

Story: 4/5

This category is a little trickier than the rest. Crusader Kings 3 doesn’t really have a story, per se, but rather exists to help you tell your own story. The game sets up the stage, then sets you loose to forge your own path. Will you reign as a tyrant king who seizes land from all his vassals? Will you employ diplomacy and kind words to mask the dagger held behind your back? Will your dynasty prosper and spread across the world, or will you tumble into obscurity and be forgotten?

The story of Crusader Kings 3 is, ultimately, unique to every player. All of the systems and events and characters in the game work to help you tell that story, be it one of triumph or defeat. While it may not be as affecting as a written story that’s been plotted out and designed to evoke certain feelings, it’s still a special sort of experience, and it’s one that I personally can’t get enough of.

In Conclusion

Crusader Kings 3 is a good game. It effectively combines the grand strategy and RPG genres to create a unique experience, is more accessible than previous games in the series, and lets you tell your own individual story. While it does stumble in a few places, it’s never bad enough to distract you from the absolutely incredible game you’re playing. I whole-heartedly recommend this game to anyone looking for an interesting new twist on some classic video game genres.

Final Tally: 19/25

Gameplay: 4/5, Originality: 4/5, Accessibility: 4/5, Look: 3/5, Story: 4/5

Mechanics as Storytelling: Doom’s Silent Protagonist

Is there any trope more specific to video games than that of the silent protagonist? The device has become so ubiquitous in the medium that it’s something of a running gag as games will often poke fun at their steadfastly mute heroes and heroines. The trope exists for a reason, though, as famous examples such as Link from The Legend of Zelda or Chell from the Portal games prove. Silence, it is generally accepted, allows the player to better immerse themselves in a game’s world as the character’s reactions are their reactions. We get to decide how Link interprets the world around him based on how we interpret it, and when we’re frustrated with a tricky level or triumphant at having finally beaten a boss, we imagine that’s what he’s feeling, too.

A silent protagonist can be more than just a vehicle for player reactions, and in some cases can even contribute to a game’s story. For proof, look no further than Doom (2016), where the main character’s tight-lipped attitude gives greater weight to the significance of the events that transpire. True, his silence is perhaps more due to tradition than anything else (the classic games featured a voiceless hero as well), but it’s still a part of this world and therefore is still a part of the story being told.

Talkative NPCs

The first thing to take into account is that Doom isn’t set in a world in which all the characters are mute. Take games in the Zelda series, for example – people in these titles rarely have actual voices, and those who do often just get a few lines of dialogue during a cutscene. Speaking is represented by text boxes that appear on screen alongside some gibberish sounds to give them a bit of personality. Link shares the same system (minus the gibberish) as his dialogue is simulated by dialogue text options that can be selected. He’s as silent as the rest of the world, with only the implication of a voice.

Doom takes a different approach. Every character in the game has a voice, no matter how major or minor their role. The only real exception is the Doom Slayer, who ostensibly never talks to anyone, not even the artificial intelligence VEGA that chimes in with the express purpose of helping him defeat the demons. There’s not even so much as a dialogue box to represent the Slayer speaking – for all intents and purposes, he spends the game truly and completely silent. As mentioned before, there are some obvious reasons for this bit of design, as tradition holds that the Doom Guy doesn’t speak and immersion is easy to achieve when the player character is silent. The question, then, is how the silent protagonist impacts the game’s story.

The Road to Hell

The plot of Doom is pretty straightforward – the UAC, in their attempts to leech energy off of Hell and weaponize the creatures found there, inadvertently caused a full scale demonic invasion of their facilities. Now the Doom Slayer has to come fix things – violently. Exploring the levels fully and watching the cutscenes reveals some additional details regarding Olivia Pierce getting corrupted by the demonic energy and how the UAC treated its employees, but the most significant plot point is the demonic invasion. It’s a simple tale of mankind’s hubris – after all, who in the world could have had the arrogance and audacity to think that drawing energy from Hell itself was a good idea?

Enter Dr. Samuel Hayden, chairman of the UAC and architect of the project to extract power from Hell. At various points throughout the story, Hayden tries to influence the Doom Slayer to work with him in order to curb the invasion while leaving the infrastructure of harvesting Hell energy in place. He proves useful at times, giving you vital information on how to proceed, but he also betrays you at the end of the game and exiles you to Hell so he can salvage his operation. From his actions and dialogue in the game, we can safely conclude that Hayden’s fatal flaw is an inability to admit failure. True, he wants to stop the demonic invasion, but his priority is getting the system back online. He constantly focuses on the fact that he was trying to do something good and that if he could just give it another go, he’d definitely be able to do it right.

Paved with Good Intentions

It’s important to note that this is the person who the Doom Slayer interacts with most during the course of the game. His silence is therefore directed mostly at Hayden, insofar as silence can be directed. The distinct lack of engagement with Hayden’s arguments and reasoning tells us exactly what the Doom Slayer thinks of the points he makes – and of Hayden himself. As we see time and time again throughout the story, Hayden is not going to change his mind. No one and nothing is going to convince him to accept his failure, and so our energies are better spent elsewhere. Sure, the Doom Slayer will accept his help when it’s provided and he’ll listen when he can glean some valuable information, but he’s not here undo Hayden’s failings or assuage his ego – he’s here to kill demons.

This is the reasoning behind the Doom Slayer’s silence. He doesn’t speak because even if he did, no one would really be listening. Anything he said would be worse than useless, as it would draw energy away from the more important task of killing the demons. The Doom Slayer is above all a pragmatic character – if something cannot help him, it is discarded or ignored. And in Doom, events have moved far, far beyond the point where words could help anything.

Further Reading

Inside the Doom Score: Mick Gordon Interview | Bethesda.net

Doom: The Definitive Interview | VentureBeat

The Struggle for Freedom: An Analysis of Hollow Knight

**SPOILER WARNING**

The topic of free will is always an interesting issue for a video game to tackle. The most famous example of games exploring the subject is the Bioshock franchise – notably Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite. Each of these titles discussed the nature of freedom in a space where players were constrained, their actions limited. Bioshock did this by examining linearity in games, confronting players with characters who told them where to go and what to do. Infinite took a different approach as it introduced alternate universes while showing that certain events always happen regardless of players’ choices. Each of these provides a fascinating take on the nature of freedom and independent action in their own right.

Hollow Knight behaves differently in its examination of free will. Instead of asking you to consider whether or not protagonist the Knight has freedom, it makes an assumption from the beginning that they do not. Despite the open ended and exploratory nature of the game, the story itself is characterized by an expectation of service from the Knight – but it’s one that can be turned on its head, if players are willing to overcome great challenge for it. In order to understand this struggle, we first need to take a brief look at the story of Hollow Knight and its major actors. The lore of this game is rather daunting, so we’ll be covering just a short summary of the events by looking at four of the most significant figures: the Radiance, the Pale King, the Hollow Knight, and the Knight.

The Radiance, the Pale King, and the Infection

The Radiance is the secret main antagonist of the game, effectively a deity of light. She is depicted as a moth-like being who, long ago, held sway over the minds Hallownest’s bugs, bringing them together in a hive mind. This gave the bugs unity, but at the cost of any individual free will. The Pale King was a Wyrm on par with the Radiance in terms of power, and is also depicted as a being of light. Years before the events of the game, he shed his Wyrm form to take on a shape more like the bugs of Hallownest and granted them all individuality. The bugs, now with minds of their own, turned their backs on the Radiance, and she faded from the world until she existed only as a distant memory within the Dream Realm. While the Pale King’s gift may seem preferable to being a simple drone, it came with strings attached – he expected worship from Hallownest’s denizens, which he received aplenty. Many references to his deific status can be found in the game, from the King’s Idols to the residents of the White Palace.

After a time, the Radiance attempted to be remembered by the citizens of Hallownest. She began to encroach on the bugs’ minds, which clashed with the Pale King’s individuality. This led to the Infection, a disease that spread throughout the kingdom and brought it to the brink of ruin. The Pale King used the ancient force of Void, a natural enemy to the Radiance and light, to create a Vessel capable of containing her. Vessels were developed by combining his own offspring with the Void, and in time he created the Hollow Knight – a completely empty being, without free will. This Vessel became the Hollow Knight and the Pale King somehow forced the Radiance into them, intending for her to be trapped there as there was no mind to bend.

The Flawed Vessel

The Hollow Knight was, however, flawed. The Radiance was able to find purchase in their mind, which allowed the Infection to continue spreading, ultimately destroying Hallownest. The game’s story begins after these events, as the Radiance is on the verge of breaking free, and the Knight arrives in the kingdom. The Knight is one of the Pale King’s children, a discarded Vessel who was thought to be imperfect. They are now the last hope to contain the Radiance and preserve the remains of Hallownest.

The Will of the King

When examining the story of Hollow Knight, one might be able to accurately say that neither the Radiance nor the Pale King are heroic figures. They each seek to exert a form of control over the residents of Hallownest – the Radiance through a hive mind, the Pale King through worship. In fact, it wasn’t specifically the Radiance who caused the Infection, but rather her influence reacting poorly to the individuality that the Pale King gifted to the bugs. Their status as beings of light connects them to the theme of power and dominance that runs throughout the story.

The player character – the Knight – is a Vessel built to contain the Radiance. If players just progress through the game, without seeking out any secrets, then they will embody that purpose. The story ends with the Knight defeating the Hollow Knight and absorbing the Radiance themselves, fulfilling the Pale King’s directive. This is a rather bleak ending – but it’s not the only one.

Another Choice

The secret ending sees the Knight overcome a wide array of obstacles, many of which are hidden away in the world. There are several hidden boss fights, a tough-as-nails platforming sequence, and some lore to parse through in order to access a fight with the Radiance herself. This is definitely not what the Pale King had in mind, and it is a true challenge – the battle is one of the hardest in the game, with multiple stages where attacking is nigh impossible and the Radiance deals twice as much damage as regular foes.

It is in these two endings that the question of free will arises. The first asks you to follow the path laid out for you and enact your role just as your creator envisioned it – and if you do pursue this ending, it can be argued that the Knight is a Perfect Vessel, one with no will of their own. The second ending, however, lets you choose for yourself to save the kingdom, and it punishes you for it. Everything about the second ending – the boss fights, the platforming challenges, the Radiance herself – is unusually difficult, forcing you to endure harsh punishment as you push forward. In this game, freedom is not natural to the Knight. It’s something that they need to strive for.

With so many games that treat their discussions about free will as rhetorical questions that are almost always answered in the negative, Hollow Knight poses a different dilemma. Freedom is possible, it tells us – but it’s not free. The only way we can really, truly be free is if we’re willing to fight for it – and to not give up until it’s ours.

Further Reading

Mechanics as Storytelling: XCOM 2’s Time Limits

To say that the turn timers in XCOM 2 were received poorly would be an understatement. A quick glance at the

forums

makes it plain that a significant number of players didn’t want to be rushed through missions. This led to the rise of mods designed to remove those timers rather than play through the game in the way the developers intended. Two appropriate descriptors for the mechanic would be unpopular and controversial – but not necessarily bad.

The Best of Intentions

Turn timers were introduced in XCOM 2 in order to lead to more interesting and engaging experiences. The idea was that players would be forced to make difficult decisions as they rapidly advanced while encountering challenges that would require them to think quickly and take risks. This was meant to counter the slow, methodical, and often boring gameplay from the previous title, XCOM: Enemy Unknown. While it may have been good game design in that it facilitated intended play, the fact remains that it made a significant group of fans enjoy the game less.

Regardless of the quality of the feature or how it was received, the turn timers do contribute to the game’s story in an interesting way. In order to get a clearer picture of how this mechanic plays into the narrative, we also need to consider the other time limit introduced in XCOM 2 – one that received less attention and far less controversy. We’re referencing, of course, the Avatar Project.

The Avatar Project

The Avatar Project is a game-wide timer that advances periodically. It functions as a limiter on the entire game since if it finishes the player instantly loses. While the timer will advance automatically at times, it can be countered by pursuing main story missions and destroying special alien facilities. This incentivizes players to put greater priority on taking out Avatar sites as they represent the greatest threat in the game. Doing so will often divert attention from other tasks, such as obtaining supplies or recruiting new staff, and can throw off players’ rhythms at crucial moments.

The turn timers in individual missions function in a very similar way to the Avatar Project’s timer, albeit in a more short-term manner. Just as Avatar forces you to make difficult choices, so too do the mission clocks. You’re made to move your squad into risky territory without full knowledge of what’s waiting for them, reacting to the threats as they appear. Taking a chance could mean losing a valuable soldier, but it could also be the only way to succeed.

Change of Pace

Contrast these systems to Enemy Unknown, where a slower paced narrative and the absence of turn timers led to a more methodical game. You were encouraged to preserve your soldiers’ lives in the field.  Back at base, there often wasn’t much choice to be made regarding which missions you’d follow and which research projects you’d pursue. It lacked the urgency and desperation of XCOM 2 and felt much more like you were in control of the situation.

This schism between the two games is where the story is told. Enemy Unknown saw you take charge of a highly advanced military outfit with every country on the planet providing you resources and support from the word go. XCOM 2 puts you in the role of resistance leader, forcing you to scavenge and scrap for resources and establish connections in regions before you can get any supplies from them. You’re no longer the global organization funded by well-connected donors, but an underdog who’s been on the back foot for a while now. As the game’s intro informs us, the aliens have already won. This means that from the very beginning, the player is at a disadvantage. Nowhere is this feeling better encapsulated than in the game’s time limits.

Desperate Times

Turn timers in missions force these encounters to feel meaningful and impactful. They make you carefully weigh the consequences of every decision as you now have much more to lose, regardless of what action you take. The Avatar Project as a whole is a looming presence, constantly nagging at the back of your mind. It forces you to spread yourself thin as you race to reach areas with alien facilities and destroy them. Every second counts, and it portrays the experience of resisting a vastly superior foe extremely well. The desperation and urgency of your actions in the narrative are made real through the gameplay consequences of the time limits.

This story is not one told through cutscenes – the XCOM 2 lore and the cinematics are all pretty straightforward and don’t have much emotional weight. What it does manage to achieve is something that only games can really do – it tells a story using not words or images or sound, but using the systems you interact with and the feelings they elicit. You’ll never see your soldiers share your own frustrations and apprehensions through their dialogue or animations, but you’ll feel it all the same. It’s a story you feel instead of read or view as you do everything you can to hold onto the last hope for humanity’s future.

Further Reading

Cosmic Indifference: An Analysis of Outer Wilds

**SPOILER WARNING**

Outer Wilds is a very different game, with a very different play experience. Its handcrafted solar system and beautiful landscapes are not quite like anything else as they shift and move around the player without any sort of input. This is a world that doesn’t revolve around the main character, something that separates it from every other major title and lends itself very nicely to the themes of exploration, isolation, discovery, and the absence of control.

Time Loops and Space Adventures

To summarize briefly, Outer Wilds puts you in the role of a Hearthian alien who’s part of their people’s space program. You set out early on to explore the world around you, from your home planet of Timber Hearth to the treacherous oceans of Giant’s Deep to the dubious physics of the Hourglass Twins. After a little less than half an hour of this, the sun explodes in a brilliant supernova and you’re sent back in time to the beginning of the day. This time loop forms the core mystery of the game, and while players never pick up new abilities or upgrades, they do learn valuable information that guides them through the game.

The first major difference between Outer Wilds is that the world you explore doesn’t care about you. Most game worlds tell a story – whether intentionally or no – with the systems that player characters use to shape their surroundings, be it through shooting enemies or jumping platforms. Outer Wilds’s world is dramatically different, as very often you’ll find that you can’t affect your surroundings in any meaningful way, but your surroundings can easily affect you. The most obvious examples of this phenomenon are on the planets Brittle Hollow and the Hourglass Twins. Brittle Hollow is literally hollow, with a black hole at its center that will slowly consume the surface, creating a landscape dotted with holes and pitfalls. The Hourglass Twins are actually two planets – Ash Twin and Ember Twin – and true to their name, the gravitational force between them draws sand from Ash and towards Ember, revealing structures on the former while concealing tunnels on the latter as time passes. These events happen regardless of what you as the player character do, which contributes to the overall feeling of helplessness cultivated by the game.

The Eye of the Universe

The actual story also builds on this theme of powerlessness. It’s centered around the mysterious Nomai, ancient aliens who lived in your solar system many thousands of years ago. Exploring the world reveals fragments of their knowledge and their quest for something called the Eye of the Universe. As part of their endeavor to locate the Eye, they created the technology responsible for the time loop, intending to randomly launch a probe on each iteration which would eventually find the Eye simply by sheer luck. The only problem was that in order to power the time loop, they would have to trigger a supernova, and so they built the Sun Station in order to perform this task.

At this point in the story, the problem seems clear. The Nomai were obviously messing with forces beyond their control, and this led to their demise and the player’s current predicament. The solution, then, is to board the Sun Station and find a way to stop it. It’s a logical conclusion to reach, and we’ve been trained by hundreds of other games to expect this sort of narrative. We see something going wrong, and we know that by the end of the game, we’ll be the ones who fix it and save the day.

Helpless in the Face of Calamity

Outer Wilds flips that expectation on its head. Once you actually reach the Sun Station, you learn that the Nomai never managed to make it work. It is incapable of causing a supernova, which means that the death of your sun isn’t some malfunction or mishap – it’s just the end of its natural lifespan, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. In fact, the entire universe is dying out, which you can see on your map as dozens of stars burst and go dark in the distance. All you can do in the face of this inevitable calamity is finish what the Nomai started and find the Eye of the Universe. Even then, this doesn’t save anyone, not even yourself.

Ultimately, Outer Wilds is a game that confronts you with cosmic indifference. The world around you doesn’t care about you, and will go on regardless of what you do. The universe is dying and there isn’t anything that can save it. Even the Eye of the Universe, when you finally reach it, initially presents as a cold, dark, and inhospitable place. It’s a terrifying idea, and it’s one that the game forces you to reckon with.

Hope in the Void

Despite this rather depressing subject matter, Outer Wilds still manages to feel hopeful and optimistic at the end. Throughout the game, a question is repeated – what would happen if the Eye of the Universe were to be witnessed by a conscious observer? This is a scientific query, as the Eye is a quantum anomaly, one that has no defined state of being. It’s also a thematic question – what do you see when you confront cosmic indifference? The final section of the game answers this as after tumbling through a vortex and entering the Eye, the player finds themselves in a forest, sitting at a campfire. Music can be heard on in the trees, and exploring deeper reveals friends and allies who you met throughout your journey, who join you by the fire. You can even find one of the Nomai, if you took the time to figure out the mysteries of the Quantum Moon. At this point, at the very end of everything, in the face of the uncaring universe, your character cares. They care enough that when they observe the Eye, what manifests are versions of their friends.

This is what matters when confronted with a world we can’t control. Outer Wilds seems to say that we have to accept this cosmic indifference, because we can’t change it. What we can do is hold onto those we care about, because even if there’s no greater purpose or meaning behind it, they matter to us – and that’s more than enough.

Further Reading

Mechanics as Storytelling: Skyrim’s Open World

The challenge of telling a story in an open world game comes down to time. The main quests of these titles often revolve around urgent problems needing immediate attention – think Calamity Ganon in Breath of the Wild or finding your lost son in Fallout 4. This narrative line is very often at odds with the nature of open world gameplay, as such a setting encourages getting lost, following up on trivial side quests, and generally just exploring the vast landscape in front of you. It often feels as though you’re delaying the main quest, which can lead to some cognitive dissonance when you realize that there are no consequences whatsoever for putting off the primary conflict of the game for as long as possible.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, perhaps the ubiquitous open world game, avoids this problem entirely simply due to the kind of story it tells. The main quest follows the Last Dragonborn, a mortal with the soul of a dragon, as they seek to defeat Alduin the World-Eater. This ancient dragon is a being straight out of myth, a terrifyingly powerful force who means to consume or enslave all the world. It is absolutely a quest of dire importance and one that should not be delayed in the slightest – and yet that’s exactly what you’ll do. Skyrim is chock-full of distractions, diversions, side quests, and opportunities to get off track.

Hero Out of Legend

On the surface, this is the same problem experienced by game like Red Dead Redemption or Shadow of Mordor – you have an urgent quest that needs to be completed, and yet the game design seems to direct you away from it and towards less significant matters. However, Skyrim does not suffer from its scattered narrative because this isn’t just any story – it’s an epic. The tale of the Last Dragonborn and their fight with Alduin is a grand adventure full of sidetracks and pit stops that don’t detract from the story being told, but instead contribute to the mythos.

The Dragonborn is not a modern hero – they’re more like Theseus or Heracles out of Greek myth, figures who had major triumphs and notable moments but whose stories are characterized by the multitude of feats they accomplished. Heracles had his Twelve Labors, Odysseus encountered trouble literally every time he visited an island, and while Theseus may be best known for conquering the Minotaur, that was hardly the only heroic feat he performed. These are classical heroes, known for the breadth of their achievements. The Dragonborn shares that status, and the journey through Skyrim reflects that.

The Hero’s Journey

This is why the open world works so well. The Dragonborn needs to go on many adventures in order to fit into the archetype of a classic hero, and the setting provides heroic feats aplenty. Yes, they will eventually also defeat Alduin and save all mortal life, but they’ll also join the Thieves Guild to gain fortune and plunder, fight alongside the Companions for honor and glory, help guide the College of Winterhold into a new future, and may even bring an empire to its knees as part of the Dark Brotherhood. An epic story demands an epic hero after all, and by the time the game is done the Dragonborn will be just that, having ventured to the furthest corners of Skyrim and accomplished many great deeds, the likes of which will be immortalized in song and prose.

Other open worlds don’t quite manage to capture the same feeling as Skyrim. Fallout 4 takes place in the post-apocalypse, Red Dead Redemption is a western, and Shadow of Mordor is a revenge plot. These stories require more specific heroes, with more detailed motivations to propel their narratives forward. The open world then dilutes that main plotline, mixing in side quests and optional objectives that are not a part of the core problem in the game’s story. It doesn’t make these games bad by any stretch of the imagination as they’re all fun to play – they’re just less focused in their storytelling.

A Hero Defined by Their World

Skyrim solved this problem by featuring a hero who is wholly defined by the expansive world they inhabit. Not every game needs to follow this pattern (Breath of the Wild is an excellent example of an open world game with a singular focus), but it would be interesting to see more in this vein of storytelling. We’ll just have to wait and see if The Elder Scrolls VI keeps up the tradition of epic heroes in epic tales.

Further Reading