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. Continue reading “The Topography of Risk: Time and Punishment in ‘The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’” »