Mechanics as Storytelling: Skyrim's Open World
A Video Game Analysis by Daniel Alexander
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. The nature of an open world is actively at odds with this narrative line, 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.
On the surface, this is the same problem experienced by games 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.
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 story 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.
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.