Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Plague of Arrows: Yes, I’m Actually Explaining the Joke

Skyrim GuardLook at this guard. What do you know about him? He doesn’t have a name. He doesn’t have a face. You don’t know him. You don’t know his friends or family, or if he even has either. To you he’s background noise as you navigate the city-scapes of Skyrim, with no more history, hopes, or dreams than the shrubs. Well, except for one thing (all together now):

He was once and adventurer like you, until he took an arrow to the knee.

There’s a lot of information in that statement. Now you know that this guy lived a life of danger. He raided burial mounds, fought bandits, and collected piles of treasure. He was living the medieval fantasy equivalent of the good life. Then one fateful day, a single arrow shattered his knee. The injury was too severe for the healers to do anything about. His bum knee is too much a liability to keep up the adventuring life. Now he’s a lowly town guard, the equivalent of the desk job, never to see the adventuring life again.

That’s a hell of a specific story, even with a lot of those details being assumed parts of the standard narratSimpsons McBain bitive. As far as character backgrounds go, it’s not bad. If you learned that detail about Guardsman Greg, you’d think, “tough luck, Greg.” Then you’d steal all his shit, ensuring that he’ll never get that promotion. Normally that would be the end of it.

But life in Skyrim is not that kind to guards. You walk down to the end of the street to find Greg’s pal, Guardsman Steve. And you learn, strangely, Steve was also once an adventurer. And he also had his career stolen by an injury. And wouldn’t you know it, it was also to the knee. And you go to a third guard, and it’s the same. And a fourth. And so on. And before you realize it, there’s only one of two explanations:

1) There’s a serial sniper out there, looking to ruin the lives of adventurers.

2) You’re playing a video game.

Now, I know I’ve said in previous blogs that the player always knows they’re playing a video game, and we aren’t going to fool them into thinking otherwise. I’m not trying to contradict that. Where the Arrow-in-the-knee bit is problematic is that it is an unintentional break in the agreed parameters in the player’s reading of the game. The player understands that the compass and quest text and the unsustainable bandit population are all part of the game’s conventions. These mechanical elements are not immersion breaking because the player understands they’re part of the media.

The same is true with interacting with the game world and NPCs. Bartleby the ScrivenerIf an NPC has a specific name, he is a particular individual in the world of Skyrim, and his dialogue and place in the world are therefore allowed a good degree of specificity. Bartleby the Blacksmith can have a birthday, a social security number, and a tragic, unfulfillable balloon fetish. If Bartleby dies, that’s the end of Bartleby and his temporally-inappropriate looner desires.

If the NPC’s name is actually a job or archetype, he’s a faceless mook, interchangeable with anyone else with the same name. Assassin is just a jerk that kills people for money. Kill Assassin, and it’s completely okay if you encounter another Assassin five minutes later.

That is, so long as the fidelity on Assassin’s written content is dialed back. “I’ve got you now!” and “I sure do like money,” are just about the right sort of innocuous tone for an infinitely repeating faceless mook. It’s in line with his place in the world as presented to the player, while creating no incongruities. Now, if every third Assassin yells, “I have a lazy ovary!” then suddenly there’s a dissonance.

Ezio from Assassin's Creed

And players are smart. They know how that shit is supposed to read. It’s like in the difference between noticing the seams in Kermit’s face and seeing a boom mic drop down into frame: The viewer understands to ignore the physical reality of the seams, and invest in the character being portrayed; but that boom mic, that was an unintentional goof by someone on the crew, and now the viewer is just watching a manufactured piece.

No player seriously reads Skyrim as being plagued by handicapped guards. If the same reading convention for all the other mook lines—that they’re safe to take at face value for everyone of batman BAM!that archetype—is applied to the arrow story, then the world of Skyrim contains an element of farce at odds with the rest of the work. (Here I’m ignoring M’aiq the Liar and other smaller, clearly intentional elements.)

To be completely fair to Bethesda, by and large they were spot-on in avoiding this problem with their dialog. Bandits and assassins say appropriately mean but generic things. Named NPCs have varying degrees of backstory and personalities, with no blatant repetition. Given the scope of the game, this is impressive as hell.

It’s the high level of control on the rest of the game dialogue that made the arrow-to-the-knee meme take off. The fidelity is too high, too specific. It creates dissonance in the narrative. That dissonance is the source of the humor in the meme. Nearly every Reading is Fundamentalpermutation of the joke revolves around X being a Y, until X takes an arrow to the knee. It’s that specific detail, “arrow to the knee”, that is the punch line. We laugh (maybe) because the joke is presenting the narrative exactly how Skyrim suggests it should be read.

So if you find yourself writing barks, mook dialogue, or any other repetitive content, take care you know in what context your words will be read. Details can enrich a narrative, but careless detail can just as easily break it. You can’t always rely on your game being a runaway hit to redeem it.

Spawn's Redeemer