On the one hand, I’m really happy that video games are a part of my life again. And it’s just icing on the cake that I get to share some of my wildly positive experiences (see Mass Effect 2, Every Single Moment Of) with Unreality. However, part and parcel of the whole “getting back into video games” thing is that it’s held up a sharp mirror to some pretty unfortunate personality quirks. Quirks that have a fairly large impact on my life, above and beyond video games.
The penultimate stop on my grand tour of “awesome games I’ve missed in the last decade” was Skyrim. Being a fan of open-world games, roleplaying games, and ‘swords and sorcery’ settings, I figured I was in for a treat. And I certainly was. The past two weeks I’ve been wandering the vast expanses of Skyrim getting into all kinds of trouble and having a blast.
But… I took the time to step outside myself for a minute, and I noticed that if one had stood over my shoulder and asked “why are you doing that?”, there would be quite a few instances where I wouldn’t have a good answer. So, here’s what Skyrim taught me about myself, and why I was probably better off staying in blissful ignorance.
1. Usefulness is no bar to acquisition
Skyrim is a game where you can interact with almost any object, where “interact” is a euphemism for “murder and/or steal.” It’s an OCD heaven/nightmare (I’ve never really been clear on that). In the early game, you’re picking up every rusty sword and commemorative plate you can get your grubby little hands on, hoping to sell them to buy better swords and plates (don’t think about it too hard). Later on, as a seasoned veteran of the game, you can afford to be a bit more discerning.
However, I was never able to ween myself completely off the “oooh, shiny!” attitude that’s kind of essential to video games. Even after amassing an absurd amount of gold, I still can’t quite pass up gems when they pop up in a random treasure chest. There’s no possible need for them. Even if there was, I already have 56 of each one back in a footlocker in Breezehome.
It’s the same thing with healing potions. At this point, I’ve been able to restrict myself to only Ultimate Healing Potions. I have reasons. Justifications. “You can’t make them yourself!” “They heal you completely!” “They’re ULTIMATE.” “What if there’s an impossible battle at the end of the game and I need to completely heal sixty-seven times?”
I’m not even this prepared in real life. I’ll go out to an afternoon baseball game in the summer in Texas and think, “yeah I’ll probably just borrow some sunscreen from someone, or find some shade or whatever.”
2. The numbers game
Turns out, I’m not real big on balance. When a game has such a clearly delineated skill system with a value of 0 to 100, and using the skill increases its value, I’m going to do that. I want those 100s. I like to think I’m better than a min-maxing munchkin, but when the game takes off the kid gloves and says, “ok, no rails, do what you want,” I will scheme my little munchkin heart out trying to figure out the best way to legally break the game. It really doesn’t sound like fun. It shouldn’t be fun. But it’s kind of fun.
I do draw a line; apparently there’s some kind of bug with Fortify Restoration where you can get past the maximum allowable stats to make potions that increase Smithing and Enchanting by like 4291%. I’m not going to go there; I’ll play by the rules the game sets out. But there’s something darkly satisfying about redlining the game to its absolute limits, like getting the right perks and equipment to pull off a 30x dagger backstab for several thousand points of damage. I may or may not laugh manically while doing this.
As long as it’s part of the rules, people will take advantage. It’s easy to heap ridicule and scorn on the super-wealthy 1% who use loopholes in the tax code to pay 12% on their income, but I’m not sure that if I was in that position I wouldn’t be doing the same thing. It’s a pretty easy thing to justify to yourself.
3. Lather, rinse, repeat
As soon as I started messing around with magic, I found out that sometimes if you hit something small (like a bunny, or if you prefer something less warm and fuzzy, a giant rat) with a fireball, sometimes you’ll get a slow-motion shot of the fireball leaving your hand, traveling through the air, exploding, and sending the bunny (or rat) flying upwards of 50 yards. Needless to say, bunnies (and rats) were never safe in Skyrim again.
Sometimes it’s the simple things in life you treasure.
The interesting thing was the experience lost none of its novelty. Like a treasured book, a certain dish at a favorite restaurant, or the right dance partner, there’s no dullness in repetition.
That’s a pretty good explanation, right? However, I feel like this would be one of those times when someone standing over my shoulder watching me play would be pretty confused. They’d see me start an important quest involving dragons and the fate of a nation, and on my way to the epic confrontation, spot a rabbit hopping along the side of the road, then they’d see me let out a whoop of joy and then chase the rabbit around the countryside for upwards of forty-five seconds as it eludes the gigantic fireballs I’m lobbing at it, only for one to it hit it squarely, mid-hop, sending it flying down a mountainside in an arc of fiery death.
4. Moral ambiguity is compelling, commendable, and stupid
Moral ambiguity is for the birds and Breaking Bad. It’s the sign of a nuanced, complex drama with many layers. In short, it’s something to aspire to and something I admire. So why do I find it so annoying in video games? As hard as it is to admit, this may be one of those cases where people say they want salads, but if you want to make money you’d better have burgers on the menu.
Mass Effect had plenty of tough choices, plenty of grey situations and nuanced characters. But in the overall sense, the Reapers were this big, huge, EVIL thing that everybody could rally around destroying. And I liked that. It’s viscerally satisfying to be able to boil things down to the essentials and say, “yep, I’m against that side, let’s wipe ‘em off the map.”
In Skyrim, choosing sides between the Imperials and the Stormcloaks is a nuanced, multifaceted decision. Neither are the real enemy, and both to some degree are pawns of the Thalmor. The Imperials are all about order and stability, but are also directly under the thumb of the Thalmor, letting them bully them into going along with the suppression of religious freedom in Skyrim. The Stormcloaks are all about religious freedom, but are pretty intolerant when it comes to other races. Plus, their leader presents himself as a man of the people but seems way more interested in wearing a shiny crown.
So, when faced with this difficult choice, what did I do? Completely ignored it, and said, “Eh, I’ll go join the Thieves Guild.”
5. I’ll throw it all away for something cool
If it wasn’t clear from the first four things, I was pretty meticulous and careful going through the game. I spent a lot of time getting the gear I wanted, self-enchanting every pieces to meet my exact specifications. So please explain to me, why the hell did I immediately consign it to a footlocker when I saw how the Nightingale armor let you run around dressed as a pseudo-ninja?
I’m really trying to answer this one. I mean, I actually changed the way I played and the skills I focused on because I thought a certain set of armor looked cool.
The real-life parallels are particularly unsettling. I can think of any number of examples where I’ve sacrificed comfort or utility for a perceived aesthetic benefit. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that – after all, without that, there’d be no such thing as high heels – but to see it seep into a video game is a little worrisome. It wasn’t even a choice, either. It wasn’t “should I wear this armor?,” it was “how can I make wearing this armor work?”
What other areas of my life am I bringing this kind of results-based, justification-creating thinking to?
The mind shudders.