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Opinion:  Skyrim  And Gaming's Old School Myth And Legend

Opinion: Skyrim And Gaming's Old School Myth And Legend Exclusive

December 29, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander

December 29, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Exclusive, Design, Business/Marketing

[Remember what game culture was like in the weird old days, before information was plentiful and the internet connected all? Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander looks at what Skyrim reminds us we've missed.]

When we think about the leaps video games have made in the recent decades, we rightly consider technology advancements, increasingly large-scaled and sophisticated products, and refinements in game mechanics. But thinking about the culture around games, our experiences as fans have certainly changed a lot since we were younger.

Likely the largest swath of folks currently working and playing in the games space were hooked into the hobby as kids of the 1980s and early 1990s, an era of hyperbolic brand and console wars, "radical" mascots, and -- most importantly -- the aura of a sort of secret society that traded in playground banter, strategy guides and tips magazines.

Back then, games were much more oblique, frequently temperamental and stuffed with Easter eggs and the unique signatures of individual designers. And in this pre-internet environment, information was exponentially harder to come by than it is today -- no games blogs, no RSS feeds, no forums, no GameFAQs.

You learned strategies and secrets through social play, the kind that well-predated Facebook and online multiplayer: Good old-fashioned jam sessions gathered around a console at a friend or neighbor's house after school and through long sessions. For most kids, game magazines were delightful luxuries bursting with pictures of new games and tricks for old ones that weren't available anywhere else. They were clutched and prized, wrinkled and shared in school.

Being a gamer meant living in a world of imagination and experimentation, and often of conflict and conjecture. I still remember fierce, polarizing recess shouting matches of groups of kids, some of which declared for Mario and others for Sonic. Accessibility was not nearly as valued as it is now; in fact, opacity and hostile complexity was often something to be desired.

Instead mastery, both of gameplay itself and of the information world, was such a highly valued commodity that it wasn't unusual for rumors to run rampant. Kids would tell one another of made-up secret levels and hidden characters, and were happy to lie about whether or not they'd conquered this or that title.

More than one of my gamer friends has told me about entirely inventing imagined endings for games they could tell others about, just to propagate legends and make others believe they'd achieved something no one else had. The enormously complex culture of myths and secrets that was part of the experience of being a gamer when we were young just doesn't exist anymore.

But with Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, gamers seem to be getting a little of that cult storytelling back. Indeed, I've a hunch that therein lies much of the game's appeal: Skyrim certainly isn't successful because of its degree of polish, its cohesion or even its originality (I see it having none of the above in notable quantity).

It's mainly that the massive, sprawling RPG with all of its quirky, broken bits gives gamers an unprecedentedly enormous canvas for telling personal stories.

The Skyrim community is fascinating. On YouTube alone, there are countless funny videos related to horses floating, disappearing or tumbling out of the sky. Comedy crew Mega64 recently had a field day with some of the game's most common tech burps -- and then, of course, there's the bizarre permeation of that "arrow to the knee" meme.

And it's not just Skyrim's off-kilter bits that are making it a hub for humor, legend and conversation in a way few games have done in years. The sheer volume and complexity of the game's world and the overwhelming number of options mean that no two players will have a remotely similar journey. Most abandon the main quest fairly early on, in favor of following whims. Want to be a nude bandit struggling beneath the weight of hundreds of pieces of useless crockery? Be that, man.

That enormous diversity of experience is giving players stories to tell one another, shorthand and secrets and artifacts to share once again, just like when we were younger. Myth and dialogue is a beloved and important part of gamer culture, and it's nice to have a little bit of it back.

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