The Topography of Risk: Time and Punishment in ‘The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’

Image 1: Giant, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

“Failure adds content by making the player see nuances in the game.”1
—Jesper Juul

“I wonder if I can kill that giant…”2
—Ozrek, Skyrim player

In “Fear of Falling: The Many Meanings of Difficulty in Video Games,” Jesper Juul outlines a detailed theory of the role of failure and difficulty in tempering and enriching the gaming experience. For the purposes of outlining his theory, Juul more or less explicitly limits his discussion to casual games; however, I believe that his model of punishment and the correlation between difficulty and enjoyment requires certain adjustments to long-form gaming. The notion of punishment in game such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is heavily mitigated by elements of time, especially the save point and the nonlinear narrative. Juul acknowledges at least the first of these two gaming elements near the beginning of his essay, but redirects his attention and leaves room for further discussion.

I would argue that the introduction of temporality to a video game, particularly in the form of the save point and nonlinear goal structure, changes the tenor of the gamer’s relationship with the game. The possibility of temporal manipulability, generated by the save point and the nonlinear narrative, transforms a video game from a deadly gauntlet of obstacles into a four-dimensional map of gradations of difficulty. Ultimately, this form of gameplay (and the system of punishment that accompanies it) converts challenge and failure into an elaborate bartering of time. Skyrim exemplifies this relationship: no one truly loses at the game, but the efficiency of a player’s success will depend heavily on the temporal investments made.

At the outset of his essay, Juul outlines a breakdown of four major types of punishment in a game:

1.  Energy punishment (a countdown-based penalty, leading to 2 or 3 below)
2.  Life punishment (a forced replay of a portion of the game)
3.  Game termination (a forced replay of the entire game)
4.  Setback punishment (a forced replay of a level and loss of abilities)

Juul quickly moves on from these definitions in the essay, as the findings of his experiment redirected his attentions from the type of possible punishment to a more general correlation between failure and enjoyment. I believe, though, that Juul’s breakdown of game punishment systems requires some clarification, as well as redefinition, if it is to be considered from a temporal perspective. In terms of the player’s experience of the game, this model appears slightly problematic, particularly in the delineation of 2 and 4 as unique conditions. Setback punishment, as defined here, comprises two different types of alteration to game progress, while life punishment either qualifies as an extension of energy punishment (if the player regenerates in place) or setback punishment as currently defined (if the player regenerates elsewhere in the level or with limited abilities). Thus, it seems that a slightly clearer model would be:

1.  Energy punishment (countdown-based penalty, forestalling 2, 3, or 4)
2.  Ability punishment (reduction of gameplay abilities)
3.  Setback punishment (a forced replay of a portion of the game)
4.  Game termination (a forced replay of the entire game)

In this scenario, the setback punishment would still be a special case of game termination; however, this is arguably a crucial separation in a game such as Skyrim. A study of the different forms of punishment in this RPG will show the ways in which difficulty is articulated, and expand on Juul’s notions of gamer enjoyment and challenge.

The vast majority of punishment in Skyrim comes in the form of energy punishment—in the diminishment of the player’s health meter over the course of combat—or setback punishment—in the culmination of a “game over,” forcing the player to return to a previous save point. Ability punishment is possible within the game: poisons, diseases, and certain other combat conditions inhibit effective playing ability, while being thrown in jail alters the player’s ability to interact with most of the game’s landscape. Game termination is conspicuously absent: a player will never be obligated to redo game progress that precedes a save point, while the insertion of autosaves throughout the game guarantees that replay from the beginning is never required. Skyrim, then, overwhelmingly centers on the player’s relationship with setbacks. The rest of the game is designed to reduce the temporal stakes, as the jumps in time will be small (thanks to the impossibility of game termination) and inhibitions to interacting with the game world (ability punishments) are typically mild and/or short-lived. More importantly, any substantial energy or ability punishment is essentially subsumed by a setback punishment, since any meaningful harm to the player can be preempted by a return to an earlier save file. The additional effort (and tedium) of obligatory replay is the universal currency of failure in Skyrim. In the end, every failure is reversible, and the only thing permanently lost is time.

Thus, the player is essentially evaluating temporal investments: Will this strategy cause me to lose and replay the entire fight? Did a plot decision I made hours ago lead to an unfavorable outcome? The size of a penalty can be measured as the product of likelihood of success multiplied by the amount of time involved in replaying. Even this latter variable can be minimized by the player’s ability to save at virtually any point in the game, even in the midst of combat. The act of gameplay, then, can be reduced to risk assessment, a player’s appraisal of the likely outcome of a plot decision or combat tactic. The reward is more efficient playthrough, while failure means redundancy (as well as an accumulating sense of ineptitude). The trial-and-error process, as Juul suggests, allows the player to develop a nuanced understanding of the game. In the case of Skyrim, while most challenges are attuned to the main character’s current level, a great many others are not, and the player must adjust his or her behavior accordingly. One example of a non-calibrated challenge that appears early in the game has been immortalized by Ozrek’s oft-repeated comment: “Everyone’s first mistake in Skyrim / ‘I wonder if I can kill that giant…’”3 The placement of an extremely difficult challenge early in the game—namely the two powerful giants just to the west of Whiterun, the first major stopping point in the game—essentially demonstrates the basic level of strategy inherent to playing a nonlinear game. The foreknowledge of risk alters the player’s approach, introducing an element of strategy that can in itself be a reward for the player: the circumvention of failure as enjoyment.

This foreknowledge of risk, combined with the fact that most challenges in Skyrim are fixed in space (i.e., monsters hibernating in their lairs, quests without expiration dates), creates an interesting temporospatial phenomenon within the game. The knowledge of the monsters’ location and their difficulty effectively deforms the landscape, as players must learn to navigate around the giants’ lair until they have gained the proficiency to tackle the monsters head-on. The player, in moving about the world of Skyrim, is navigating a database of challenges, choosing a course based on his or her level of ability.

In addition to its profound implications on systems of punishment, the presence of temporality (and specifically nonlinearity) has a substantial effect on the assignment of blame. The nonlinear aspect of Skyrim takes Juul’s idealized wave model of flow, with fluctuations between easiness and difficulty, and transmutes it into three dimensions: a topography of difficulty overlaying the geographic world map, with promontories of extreme intensity (the giants) separated by troughs of low intensity (a random wolf encounter) or none at all (no combat). Indeed, in one sense, this topography of difficulty resolves the game designer’s conundrum of properly timing irregular waves of easiness and difficulty, since the player has the freedom to adjust the tempo and dynamics of the challenge to his or her liking, either interspersing major dungeon expeditions with smaller bandit camp raids or arranging several consecutive boss fights, depending on individual preferences.

This degree of player agency fundamentally alters the player’s relationship from a linear model by undercutting the potential attribution of failure to the game. Skyrim’s model largely removes the game itself from Harold K. Kelley’s spectrum of fault attribution, since any seemingly insoluble challenge (like the giants) that would be deemed arbitrarily difficult in a linear game can be placed on hold while the character levels up elsewhere. Ultimately, this reframing of the game design as a malleable, rather than adversarial, component, combined with the aforementioned reduction of stakes and removal of many possible frustrations (ability punishments and game terminations) allows the player a smooth and more self-determined experience. According to the results of Juul’s survey, which strongly correlate player-assigned responsibility with higher levels of enjoyment, it may be that nonlinear games derive much of their popularity from this self-reliant gameplay experience.

As one miscellaneous coda, I acknowledge that my discussion of difficulty and punishment in Skyrim focuses almost exclusively on combat, omitting an extensive discussion of plot. While combat and the navigation of the various quests in Skyrim are highly nonlinear, the plot within a given quest is often, by contrast, extremely linear. Most outcomes of main storyline quests are heavily overdetermined, for example, but of greater interest to me are the pitfalls of linear decision-making that many side quests generate instead. An additional type of punishment that I hesitate to add to the four-part model is one that I would call opportunity punishment. This would be a case in which a player choice precipitated the elimination of future gameplay options—for example, by killing a character who would introduce the protagonist to a potential side quest, or somehow selling a quest item that would have permitted the slaying of an otherwise invincible monster. Skyrim seems deliberately designed to prevent failure of this variety. (Items of unique value to a quest cannot be accidentally sold, while save files mostly leave the player the option to go back and make a different decision to avert an unfavorable outcome). However, in a plot-intensive game, certain decisions can have very long-term consequences. Joining the Stormcloak rebellion, for example, will lead the character to be imprisoned, a consequence which may unfold far enough after the initial decision that all save files could potentially post-date the decision, removing a course correction from the table, or simply making the time investment in joining the Imperial Legion too penurious to contemplate. This kind of missed opportunity could be seen as a variation upon the ability punishment, since it restricts the freedom of the player, albeit on a purely narrative level.

Along the same lines, though on a still more tangential note, I have always found it curious that most (if not all) video games punish a player by returning him or her to earlier in the playthrough. What if a game were to penalize a player by transporting him or her further along in the narrative, depriving the protagonist of engagement with a sizable chunk of the narrative? I do believe that this possibility, and traces thereof in such areas as timed mini-games and experimental RPGs should be explored in greater depth. This would radically expand the current time bargaining system at work in games like Skyrim and potentially open a very new pathway for narrative gameplay.

Image Credits:

1. http://zartimus.blogspot.com/2011/11/everyones-first-mistake-in-skyrim.html


NOTES

1. ^ Juul, Jesper. “Fear of Failing? The Many Meanings of Difficulty in Video Games.” The Video Game Theory Reader 2. Ed. Mark J.P. Wolf and Bernard Perron. New York: Routledge, 2009. 237-52. Print.
2. ^ http://redd.it/mbv8q
3. ^ http://zartimus.blogspot.com/2011/11/everyones-first-mistake-in-skyrim.html


Author bio:

Clifford James Galiher received his B.A. in Film and Television Production and M.A. in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA, and he is currently a Ph.D. student in Critical Studies at USC. His research focuses primarily on film production in classic Hollywood, including a current project on the history of pre-digital visual effects. His other interests include animation, narrative studies, and digital media history, and he wishes he had the money to pursue his dream of ushering full-time.

7 thoughts on “The Topography of Risk: Time and Punishment in ‘The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’

  1. Cliff -
    I think this raises some important questions, and also touches on why I found the game so frustrating. It makes it almost impossible to evaluate why I have died – was it a failure in strategy on my part, or did I simply take on an insurmountable challenge? At least with challenging boss battles in linear games, after each death there is the expectation of a possible victory, and the trajectory of progress toward that victory. But with Skyrim, after dying it often seems like rather than re-evaluating my strategy, the proper answer is to simply try again later, once my character’s diegetic skills (rather than my own real skills) have leveled up.

    • Ironically, the structure that you describe that “allows the player a smooth and more self-determined experience”, I think in the long term inexorably results in players losing their real sense of self-determination, because the statistical level system in concert with the extreme topographical latitude gives ample means at every turn to subvert tests of real skill at one’s convenience.

      Anyway, I don’t find it all that curious that traditional video game punishments always amount to “sending the player back”- unless you shoehorn gameplay into strict narrative terms. Consider it this way – a gameplay challenge is a test, and players may only proceed if they can demonstrate a threshold level of skill at meeting that challenge.

  2. Pingback: How Skyrim’s Difficulty Works, And Why That First Giant Killed You Outside Whiterun | Kotaku Australia

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  6. You bringing up temporality reminded me of a very few games where the game remembers bad things you did much earlier on in the game (it’s a game with save-points but it would be too many hours to go back and un-do the immoral act or wrong click or missed puzzle point or whatever). For some reason this bothers me whereas occasionally encountering an enemy who whoops me to pieces makes the game more fun.

    Nice essay.

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