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Body Talk: The Best Stories are Built on a Pile of Corpses

Alex Spencer | 27 Jul 2013 09:00
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Tirdas, 12th Day Of Last Seed: Frostflow Lighthouse, Skyrim

Dead horse outside residence a bad omen. Inside, it gets worse. A woman's body splayed out on the bloodstained floor, a Falmer axe lying next to her. Murder weapon, or attempt at self-defence?

There's also a diary, which introduces yet another family: Romati, whose body this is; Mani and Sudi, the children; and Habd, author of the diary. One day Habd came home to a monstrous creature ransacking his home, Romati dead, and the kids missing.

An objective pings up on the screen: "Find the source of the murders in Frostflow Lighthouse".

A trail of blood leads down the stairs and to the cellar, revealing a monstrous Chaurus, alive this time, and a hole in the wall. Going through it leads into Frostflow Abyss, where battles with Chaurus and Falmer await.

Following the path leads to the rest of the family, one by one: Mani first, placed ceremonially on a raised rock, his grave marked by two shovels and a small fire. Sudi, trapped behind a gate, clutching two notes and a knife close to her chest. One note is bloodstained, but it's possible to pick out phrases: "captured ... others led off ... all we heard were the screams ... I think know why Father gave me this dagger." Finally Habd himself, just a skull, literally in the belly of the beast - the body of a defeated Chaurus Reaper.

There's another ping: quest completed, mystery solved.

It's all a bit of an anticlimax, frankly. Our first real whodunnit, and the culprit turned out to be a few giant bugs.

But what's really interesting about the case of Frostflow Lighthouse in Skyrim is how it takes this simple story, and spreads it out over a full dungeon. The setup here isn't too dissimilar to the other two - a domestic scene, disrupted by tragedy - but rather than two or three minutes, the experience lasts for twenty or thirty.

The idea of players telling themselves stories is deep in the DNA of games

With pieces of the mystery being fed to you so slowly, there's time to chew over red herrings: the fact that Romati's corpse was stripped of clothes; the mentions of Mani's dissatisfaction with his family and home; the apparent human farms set up by the Falmer.

These red herrings suggest stories much darker, and more interesting, than the answer finally presented by the game - but in a way that's exactly the point.

"You're reverse-engineering a narrative crime scene for [players] to then re-reverse-engineer it," says Stern. "But instead of what actually happened being told through flashback reenactment, it all takes place in the player's mind."

This is where the magic happens. The idea of players telling themselves stories is deep in the DNA of games, stretching all the way back to pen-and-paper RPGs. Having to link up these frozen moments turns the story into an interactive process.

Deep in the southernmost part of Skyrim, you can find the ruins of a house. It's clearly burnt down, leaving only blackened masonry. Inside, there's a cluster of candles, arranged in a rough circle, and a charred corpse, with one hand outstretched to... a Scroll of Conjure Flame Atronach. A spell to summon a fire demon. Ah.

It's the simplest thing in the world, just a bit of scenery and two carefully-chosen props, but it feels thematically rich - a man reaching beyond our mortal ken, the Elder Scrolls games' answer to Icarus, Prometheus, Frankenstein.

Because this method of storytelling makes you an active reader, rather than a passive viewer, it not only forces you to think, but fits much more naturally into games than any cutscene. After all, these stories are themselves a sort of game.

In the case of Frostflow, the mystery is actually integrated with the action of playing. But even if the player is only required to look around a room, the game is presenting them with a puzzle. Not in the traditional gaming sense of the word, maybe, but the formula remains: examine, put the pieces together, solve, and get rewarded. The solution might be reached without touching the keyboard or controller, and the rewards might be purely narrative, but it requires the player to make the same mental leap.

That leap makes us write our own stories, and in doing so it flips the player's default role on its head: not taking away life, but creating it. Bringing the dead back to life.

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