Saturday, March 24, 2012

Revision #2--Blog #6--Ben Fellows

True Interactivity: Cup of Death vs. Skyrim

The concept of interactivity is rooted in two separate entities responding to the choices made and options presented to one another. When it comes to interactivity associated with books and video games, the quality of interaction can be judged based on various qualities. The key quality here is how well the medium is responding to choices made in such a way that the user feels as though they are actually a part of the story’s world. From this, one can judge the interactivity based on the quality of choices presented, and the quality of the responses the user receives from the medium. Two such mediums that engage the reader are the “choose your own adventure” book, Cup of Death, by Shannon Gilligan, and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim developed by Bethesda Softworks. Although both of these mediums certainly engage in interactivity, by comparing these two forms of interaction, one can develop an ideology about what defines true interactivity, and what simply simulates it. True interactivity must not only respond to the user’s actions, but respond in such a way that immerses the user into the fictitious world, acting as an augmented reality with a unique diegesis that is believable.

Shannon Gilligan’s Cup of Death advertises on its cover, “The classic series is back! Choose from 23 possible endings”(Gilligan, cover). While this statement may be technically true, of the 23 endings presented, there may not be a single ending that actually allowed the reader to be immersed in the plot of each storyline. If anything, the endings presented are strictly to frustrate the reader into finding one that at least lets the reader succeed in finding “The Cup of Death.” When going over the endings, I found that there were three endings that resulted in injury to a protagonist, seven endings with death, seventeen endings that result in no bowl, and only six endings with actual success. With that said, these endings are a success only in the fact that you safely have the tea bowl returned. One of these successes can hardly be considered that since the ending results in a phone call to the police, saying, “If you come to the following address within half an hour, you can catch the criminals, and probably recover the bowl”(Gilligan, 113). This ending blows my mind with how absurdly vague it is. Not only does it lack a resolute ending, it actually uses the word “probably” when referring to your success. In a novel where there are many fakes, this ending leaves the reader completely in the dark as to what actually happens here. None of the other endings are much more satisfying. They consist of: A fortune teller predicting the bowl being returned, three endings deal with Akiko and her grandfather, and the bowl simply being returned with no explanation TWICE. Of the three endings with Akiko, the reader’s character is scolded with ruining a ceremony and must sacrifice the national treasure you are searching for as a result. With the dare I say, “variety,” of endings presented in this book, the question arises, “Is this book truly interactive?”

In order for a medium to be truly interactive, it must guide the user into the world of the story. If it appears to be forced, the interactivity is constricted. Cup of Death quite frequently forces the reader to choose upon not only limited choices, but ones which often result in completely unforeseen or unrelated consequences. It would appear that in some instances, Shannon Gilligan wrote the endings first, and then worked backwards, trying to find a way to link the endings together through choices. Unfortunately, this does not always come together cleanly. While reading this story, I did not feel as though I was actually a part of this world as a character, nor did I feel as though the choices I had made were the real deciders of my fate. As a result, I do not believe that this “choose your own adventure” story truly allows you to do just that. Instead of appearing to be choosing my own adventure, I felt as if I was simply picking one of the few options Gilligan puts before the me, and from there being led down a path, rather than taking steps through it.

Recently, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was awarded many Interactive Achievement Awards. One such award was the “Outstanding Achievement in Story” award. This award is:
“Presented to the individual or team whose work has furthered the interactive experience through the creation of a game world -- whether an original creation, one adapted from previously existing material or an extension of an existing property which best exemplifies the coalescence of setting, characters and plot”(Achievement Awards).
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim exhibits true interaction in various aspects of the game, but as the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences states, the world presented to the player in this game goes above and beyond the call of standard interaction in a video game. As with most Role-Playing Games, or RPGs, the player begins the game with character selection. The player selects gender, race, and appearance. While gender and race affect gameplay, the appearance of your character is an option that holds no significance aside from aesthetics. However, I believe that even this seemingly insignificant aspect of character selection is very telling of the type of game the player is about to encounter. The degree which the player can customize the appearance is magnitudes higher than any other game I have played before, with literally dozens of options to choose from, far surpassing the basic options presented in other games like hair color, face options 1-15, weight, height, and skin color. After this, the character goes through the tutorial and begins training skills. This is expanded from its predecessor, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion in that instead of having to choose your skills from the start; one may choose them as they progress through the game, with some options being better than others based on the race and gender selected. So from the very start the options are almost limitless considering there are 2 genders, 10 races, and 18 skills to level up. With these skills the player has the option to level any of them up in any combination of rates. This means that if one were to compare hundreds of level twenty characters, they all could have achieved level twenty in completely unique ways. Although this level of customization throughout the game eases the user into immersion of the fictitious world, the way the world responds to each player’s unique presence is much more fascinating and telling of the degree of Skyrim’s interactivity.

In Skyrim, the main role of your character is that you are Dovahkiin, or Dragonborn. This special ability means that your character possesses the blood and soul of a dragon. In the world of Skyrim, dragons were thought to be long gone, but they have returned, wreaking havoc, and as Dovahkiin, it is up to you to decide what the fate of the world is. While this storyline is certainly the basis of the game, the story that your character develops twists through this plot and hundreds of others through provided quests. Every character has a humongous list of quests they may complete as they progress through the game. While this massive list is standard for all players, many of the quests can be completed in any order that the player wishes, with exception to those that form a quest-chain. In fact, in an article released by PC Gamer, Todd Howard, Game Director at Bethesda, revealed that there are in fact, infinite quests. Tom Senior writes,
“There’s a series of scripted quest lines, of course, which will follow the main plot and a number of subplots…but once you’ve completed these, Howard says that the Radiant storytelling system will continue to generate tasks. These can involve stealing gems for the thieves guild, or assassinating NPCs for the Dark Brotherhood”(Senior).
Perhaps one of the more fascinating aspects is the fact that the character obtains these quests is a multitude of different ways. Among these are speaking to people such as travelers, barkeeps, those requesting favors, etc. Searching various locations may result in finding quest items, while random events such as bandit raids or dragon appearances can trigger new quests as well. This complete randomness of quest availability further emphasizes the true interactivity presented by the game. A less interactive game would perhaps simply give the player a list of quests to choose from, with no real background as to why you are doing this task in the first place. Although completing quests certainly accelerates the rate at which your character advances and becomes more and more customized to the player’s liking, simply traversing the world offers many interactive elements with rewards and consequences.

As your character wanders across the map, finding one of the 350+ different locations, you will interact with Non-Player Characters, or NPCs, as well as other creatures and devices. With every conversation you strike up with the seemingly infinite NPCs, you are given a variety of options. Many wish to sell you things, some will accompany you on your journeys, and others will wish you harm, or some may have little to say to you at all. However, just because each NPC may have their own pre-set purpose, the reactions your character can get out of each individual one can be completely different. You are given multiple options on what to do, whether it means befriending someone, tricking them, stealing from them, killing them or whatever. Each option has a different consequence that has the potential to impact various aspects of the game. One particular example of a situation that is surprisingly interactive involves stealing from a woman in a cabin. The way the game works is, if you steal from someone but are not seen, you will be able to walk away without being pestered or even having a bounty put on your head. What is surprising is that the Non-Player-Characters are able to realize if something has been stolen from them later on, and from there think about potential suspects. In one such case, stealing from a woman’s cabin on a cliff led to bounty hunters meeting your character in another distant town. Because she lives in the middle of the wilderness with few visitors, she is capable of narrowing the suspects of theft down to just you. These enemies start attacking you for what appears to be no reason, until your character kills them and searches their bodies. One of them carries a note from the woman you stole from, asking these hunters to teach you a lesson. This kind of situation can happen with anyone you do wrong to in the game, where there are literally hundreds of people to do so to. This level of interactivity is amazing and gives the player seemingly infinite options. Perhaps the reason why this is so surprising to the player is that they are so used to other games giving your character free reign with the consequences applied to the player limited to those dealing with vital aspects of the main plot.

With that said, I believe this game presented by Bethesda Softworks is truly interactive. The character selection process and the dialogue presented offer a means to guide the user into the diegesis of the fictitious world, while amazingly realistic graphics only help reinforce this. Once immersed into this world, Skyrim presents itself to the user in a way unlike average video games, allowing them to take a very nonlinear or indirect approach if they wish to do so. With every interaction come a choice and the programmers clearly worked hard to create consequences to these actions which were both believable and seemingly important.

Is it fair to be comparing a children’s book with a major video game that has been upgraded over time with new releases? Probably not. However, this comparison helps explain what is necessary in order for a work to be truly interactive. Shannon Gilligan’s Cup of Death severely limits the reader’s actual true interactivity. Instead, the book answers the reader’s choices with an ending that had very little to do with the decisions made. Thus, this is fake interactivity. True interactivity responds to the choices with situations and conclusions that are achieved due to choices made. This is why Skyrim works very well with interaction, as it is programmed to respond to the choices the user made with a customized outcome. In order for a medium to be truly interactive, the choices and resolutions absolutely must work hand-in-hand, complementing each other, while simultaneously giving the user a sense of accomplishment. Bethesda certainly has achieved this with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, while Shannon Gilligan’s Cup of Death fails to truly interact with its readers.

Works Cited
“15th Annual Interactive Achievement Awards.” 2011. Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences. 23 March 2012 <>.

Gilligan, Shannon. Cup of Death. Waitsfield, Vermont: Chooseco LLC, 1985. Print.

Senior, Howard. “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has infinite quests, says Howard” 9 November 2011. PC Gamer. 23 March 2012 <>.

Skyrim. Rockville, MD: Bethesda Softworks, 2011.

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