Testing the limits of Role Play in Skyrim

I often here from Skyrim fans and fellow gamers how enamored they are with the "role play" capabilities of Skyrim.  I tend to agree which it no real surprise for anyone who knows me.   I have invested a lot of time in the game and have still not completed all the quest-lines.

This line of thinking got me to wondering what IS it about this game that makes it so compelling for a role player?  I am not talking about definition in an anecdotal sense, I mean if we were to try and quantify in quasi-scientific terms what it was about Skyrim that make it special how would we do that and what would it look like?

In order to understand any complex or multi-faceted issue I have always found it helpful to build a model, this is just how my brain works. Professionally, I am a consultant in the software development business.  I often find myself in the challenging position of having to describe complex systems to clients in the clearest possible terms.  Quite often, critical business decisions depend on their understanding of the systems we are discussing and any confusion can lead to bad business policy or investments.

In this case, I elected to apply a fairly simplistic model but one that I think will serve us well in many podcast conversations to come.  It's based on the might triangle! There is more power in the triangle than you might think and in this case it seems to apply perfectly.  In order to build the model I first had to consider this question, "What are the general attributes that make Skyrim a more capable game for role players than others?"  After much consideration, these are the attributes I came up with:

1. Appearance - We can make our character look like we want them to look and no two characters need look the same. I tend to lump into this category anything that makes our character a distinct individual included some less obvious attributes such as weapon choice, skill selections and even player home.

2. Choice - In nearly all the quests presented to us in game, we are allowed to make choices.  The choices we make at these intersections tend to reveal our character's overall approach to life.

3. Action - While in game there are many things we can do, what we choose to do when NOT presented with an options further defines who we are. In other-words, when presented with downtime, how does our character choose to occupy it?

When I was attempting to come up with the points of the model I had to identify, in the most basic terms, what are the things we can control and players.  Appearance, Choice and Action represent those aspects of the game that are ours to manage.

How does this model work anyway?

In the classic triangle model we start by plotting each of our three attributes on a corner of our triangle.

ACA Triangle

You may we asking, "Why the heck do we need a model if we are going to simply use these three attributes to determine why Skyrim is a superior game for role players?"  There answer is that, in order for us to discuss why Skyrim is superior we must be able to draw objective comparisons to other games.  There is really nothing to "scientific" about an of this however, models, especially visual ones, are great at helping the human mind understand and quantify things.  This model will help us do just that!

To really make this work we must also have a standard scale for each point of our shape. In this case I am using six "degrees of fitness".  By fitness I mean, the degree to which a game is good at delivering a particular facet of our model.  I am defining our six degrees as follows:

  1. total
  2. high
  3. some
  4. low
  5. none

When plotted on our model it would look like this:

ACA Triangle 2

With the points plotted on our ACA triangle we are ready to do an evaluation.  One important point to understand is that the value plotted furthest out on the point of our triangle is considered to be the highest or most perfect score.  The other thing to remember is that this is a purely subjective exercise but if the values you attribute to a game conform to your preferences and play style this will serve you as well as it serves me...or anyone.  

In this case we are measuring against Skyrim and given my high opinion of this game, in my model skyrim would rate a nearly perfect score.  Here is my evaluation:

1. Appearance - Total - The game gives the player a nearly limitless combination of race attributes, clothing options, weapon options, player home options and even travel options.  When considered with the addition of mods, the individuality that a player is able to achieve with a character is stunning.  There are not too many games that can boast this.

2. Choice - High - In quest choices are pretty good for the most part.  Generally we have options to go the good route or perhaps a darker route.  We also have and option to not engage at all which sets this type of game apart from many others in which the choices are black and white.  To not engage equates to not finishing the game.  In some ways that same holds true for Skyrim but with so many question options it's a factor of lesser concern.

3. Action - Total - There are so many opportunities to make your own way in this game that I had to give it a "Total" in this category.  It's possible to never do any of the main quest-lines in Skyrim and still have a rich experience.

Given this evaluation, my model for Skyrim looks like this:

Skyrim ACA Chart

Skyrim ACA Chart

Skyrim ACA Shape

Skyrim ACA Shape

If a game were perfect or scored a "Total" value in all three categories we would see a perfect triangle with three equal sides.  Conversely, if a game were perfectly horrible and scored a "None" in all three categories, then too we would see a perfect triangle, however a much smaller one.  In our Skyrim evaluation we are very close and the while a bit wonky due to our "Some" choice score, the model is right about where I want it to be.

The objective is to look at this as a measure of a game's ability to provide the framework required to do the deep style of role play we plan to discuss in this podcasts series.

In this way we are able to create a quick visual representation of a game's capacity to meet our role play preferences and determine rather quickly if this is a game we will enjoy of if perhaps we need to adjust our expectations.

In reality, we play different games for different reasons but given the intent of this web site and podcast is to bring the role play opportunities of games such as Skyrim into sharp focus, I feel this model help frame future discussions rather well.

Let's look at another example. One of my favorite games of all time is Mass Effect. The story, the style, the combat, everything about it sucked me in. What happens if we apply our model?

1. Appearance - Some - While not a flexible as Skyrim, the customization features in Mass Effect were great. Over the course of the game there were many different types of gear you could acquire and nearly all of them could be pieced together in various combinations and with many color options.

2. Choice - Total - The Mass Effect story was split into many interconnected quests with a wide variety of choices during dialog. The consequences of these choices has a big impact on your relationships with crew members and your reputation across the galaxy as a "Paragon" of wholesome goodness or a "Roguish" bad-boy. For this reason, I gave Mass Effect a maximum or "Total" score on my choice scale.

3. Action - Some - On the surface it seemed like Mass Effect gave you a lot of choices but in reality you were working your way through a set of very prescribed quests, purchases and upgrades. Once you had these items you had them, and that was it. As Shepard I was able to buy all the ship models to adorn my quarters but filling it with as many cheese wheels as I wanted was not an option.

My Mass Effect ACA model looks like this:

Mass Effect ACA Chart

Mass Effect ACA Chart

Mass Effect ACA Shape

Mass Effect ACA Shape

In the end, our objective is not to evaluate games to determine if we should play them.  The model simply gives us a clue as to weather or not a game possesses the characteristics required to do the in depth style of role play we will be discussing here at Character Crusade.  It's also a great way to introduce the concept of ACA to listeners as I will be referring to it frequently in episodes as we discuss play theory and character builds.

While the model will not always be helpful, the concepts of Appearance, Choice and Action will be present often and will be the concepts we cleave to as those key attributes that allow us to individualize our characters and impact the world that is Skyrim.

Go forth and experience!