Skyrim and the Radiant Engine

I’m finally getting my head around Skyrim.

The game (much recommended after I completed Red Dead Redemption) was less engaging than I’d hoped. I wondered if this was because of the graphics (pretty, but not as smooth as RDR), or the fantasy setting, but actually I think its because in the early stages, I was out of my comfort zone in terms of thumb twiddling skill. I was never the most dextrous videogamer, but RDR had a pretty perfect flow curve. (Flow here used in the Csikszentmihalyi sense, which is the say exactly the right level of challenge to put the gamer in an almost transcendental state).

With Skyrim, I wasn’t in flow. And that simply resulted in me not enjoying it, and thus not playing it for very long, as well as being reluctant to even start playing it again. Working against flow for me was the first person point of view. I’d been told that players could switch between first person and “over the shoulder” POVs, but sadly not in the introductory sequence.

There’s a reason for this, as it turns out: after a journey on a cart, talking to the other bound prisoners that share your situation, and so hearing a little of the context of game, you are eventually asked who you are. Suddenly the camera angle reverses, and you get to decide exactly who you are. Choosing your fantasy race (human, orcish, lizardman, catperson – the “usual”), sex, build and facial features. Were my daughter old enough to play this game, she’d be playing at this stage for hours. I didn’t spend quite so long, but even so I’ve ended up with a snow-leopardy fellow, which, given the fine controls one has over length and position of nose and ears, size, colouring and position of eyes etc, I like to think must be almost unique out there among the millions (?) of Skyrim players. And this is a point in Skyrim’s favour. It hardly matters how scripted the story is from here, its my story, unique to me because its about my particular cat-person. These and subsequent choices about how I develop the character will define how I play the game – cat-people are (apparently) better at sneaking about than full frontal attacks – so the resulting story will be different to the one played by someone who chooses to play (say) a barbarian. And this is why the graphics aren’t quite as smooth as in RDR. In that game, the graphics engine only has to portray John Marston. Yes, he can wear various outfits, but the games only has to cope with a limited number of graphic choices, not the near infinite possible combinations that Skyrim gives you.

Even so, once my cat-fellow was designed, I hit the non-flow wall again. Still in first person POV, I ran around with my hands tied, like a headless chicken while a Dragon attacked. Against all logic and common sense, I didn’t die, and the attack afforded me and somebody else the chance to escape the clutches of the Imperials, who must now forever be the “bad-guys.” Here was a piece of heavily scripted story, during which my actions (no matter how inept of otherwise) had no impact on the conclusion. Did I feel emotionally involved? I did not.

So when the other guy said we should split up and I headed on my own into the world to get killed again and again by wolves, or falling off mountains, I wondered why I was wasting my time, and Skyrim sat unplayed for a couple of weeks.

Eventually, my conscience (and a boring night of television) persuaded me to try again. This time, when the other escapee said “lets split up” I stayed with him, and he introduced me into the storyline proper. About 16 hours of play later, and I’m Thrane of Whiterun, Dragonborn, and a member of the Companions’ mercenary band.

What have I learned? Well, though there is a main storyline (which I think I’m following), about the rise of the Dragons and the return of the Dragonborn, there are far more “sidequests” available than in RDR. It seems possible to ignore the main story completely for a time, and build your profession and experience with any number of allies and mentors. And I wonder if I’d have still more choices open to me if I had chosen to play a different sort of character. Indeed, the number of sidequests threatens to overwhelm the main story. I’ve already been confused by having more than one quest running at the same time, and so following the GPS style marker for the “wrong” quest.

It might have been worse though. Some of these stories are apparently generated using the Radiant Story engine. There’s an interesting article about that here, which says “the Radiant Story system helps randomize and relate the side quests to players to make the experience as dynamic and reactive as possible. Rather than inundate you with a string of unrelated and mundane tasks, it tailors missions based on who your character is, where you’re at, what you’ve done in the past, and what you’re currently doing.” The article also highlights the risk of side quests, especially randomly generated ones, overwhelming the main story, and explains that (at the time the article was published, while the game was still in development) the producers of the game were engaged in reducing the risk of Radiant stories overwhelming the scripted one.

The Radiant Story engine is available for PC using Skyrim fans to play with, as part of the developer’s Creation Kit. There’s a wiki available for users of the creation kit that explains a little bit about how it works. The key component is  the Radiant Story Manager which “holds the hierarchy of conditionalized quests to start in response to Story Manager Events. Quest Aliases are the “objects” (non-player characters, props, locations) which the quest requires. What’s special about the radiant engine, is that these don’t need to be defined as the game is written. They can be defined then of course, but they don’t have to be, they can also be chosen during gameplay from a predefined list, or even selected by the game on the fly. So if the quest starts with a patron of some sort, asking the character to do something, that role could be filled by a character especially created for the task, or whoever is the most appropriate member of the local population, where ever the player-character happens to be. Packages are behaviors, actions that an alias (for example, a non-player character) will demonstrate. Most townsfolk will have a “package stack” that involves them doing their job (whatever it is), eating, sleeping etc at appropriate times of day. But if a character is called to take on the role of a patron for a quest they will be given the required packages by the story engine so that they behave in the right way (for example, crying about a missing relative).

What all this means, is that the stories seem to be more flexible than in RDR. In that game, if you killed a bad guy before he gave you a quest, you’d fail that quest (which was pretty frustrating, given that in some cases, the objective was to come back and kill the bad guy who’d sent you on the quest). It seems the Radiant Story engine, could simply assign to the roles of patron and/or bad guy to other characters on the fly.

The Creation Kit seems to be a pretty well supported toolset for modifying Skyrim. I know somebody that is planning a game that involves interpreting a lot of Roman archeology, and I wonder if she’s planning on using this software to make it. And talking of archeology, the same person also alerted me to the Archaeogaming blog, which explores the archaeology both of and within computer games.