1. Introduction

This article evaluates the practical limitations and dramatic possibilities of modding (which means modifying) the commercial role-playing game Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim for the visualization and exploration of literature. The latest version of a twenty year old game franchise, Skyrim has inspired various writings and musings on its relation to Digital Humanities. Digital Humanities has moved to a more immersive, participative, tool-making medium, a recent report on digital archives has proposed digital tools integrate with history curriculums (Sampo, 2014) and that “digital history may narrow the gap between academic and popular history”. Can games also be used to promote traditional literary mediums as well as experiential and immersive archives?

Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim does have some interesting new features. Like the previous version of the game, OblivionSkyrim features books containing minor narratives to help game-play. Librarians also play an important part in the meta-narratives and minor quests, as does a certain dragon archivist. These books can be stored or traded but now they can also be modded via the game’s Creation Kit. The game can be modded and videos can be inserted as cutscenes, but the books can also feature text and the text can be automatically read by new voices.

Figure 1: A typical outdoor scene in Skyrim.

Fig1_Skyrim_outdoorscene

Even though Skyrim is an action-based game, books contain narratives to advance game-play, and can be stored and traded. Can books convey aspects of literature in a game setting to students and the general public who may lack the initial inclination to read the great classics of literature? To visualize new and engaging aspects of literature; can it induce them to read the text? As it is single player, and requires the use of another application, Steam, is it worth the effort? Most importantly, how much effort is required of a mainstream humanities scholar to develop his or her own mods in Skyrim?

  1. Are Skyrim’s book-embedded stories of interest and use in conveying literature to new generations?
  2. Can Skyrim be used as a learning-through-modding tool by a classroom? Would it offer any advantages or disadvantages over a generic game engine, say the Unity game engine?

2. Background

While many commercial computer games are predominantly based on violence and evasion, Skyrim has some additional features that may interest literature teachers. Skyrim’s Creation Kit natively helps builds game levels for medieval settings (Skyrim) or for modernist settings (Geck: Fallout) but all sorts of virtual environments can be created, even for urban visualization and tourism.

Skyrim follows on from Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and they share similar features. There are seasons and changing weather patterns, a large and varied landscape, hostile creatures, inventories, and various types of possible interaction that are not just typical adventurer violence (praying, healing, reading, tool and material creation and repair skills, persuading and charming, causing fear, creating followers, recognizing and collecting flowers and animal specimens for alchemy experiments, buying and selling, sneaking and thievery, inducing disgust or revulsion, fermenting frenzy and chaotic behaviour, trapping souls, and so on).

Figure 2: A typical NPC encounter in Skyrim.

Fig2_SkyrimNPC

The Non-Playing Characters have a life of their own, are of different ‘’ and professions, can detect players, speak dialogue, and can be persuaded, charmed or repelled. All these features are modifiable. Skyrim has a more developed feature for inducing people to become followers, but Oblivion featured a bribe wheel where you could attempt to induce a Non Playing Character (NPC) to become more helpful. It was clunky and that is probably why it was dropped, but it was an interesting alternative to violence.

Figure 3: Bribing a NPC in Oblivion.

Fig3_Oblivion_bribing

3. Theoretical Limitations

Learning about a culture involves role-playing (Hallford & Hallford, 2001, pp. 231-236) and it is an important genre in computer games (Tychsen, 2006). Although rituals date back millennia (Shapira, 2014), how roles interact with and enrich rituals and vice versa has not been extensively explored in the academic literature on computer games (Gazzard & Peacock, 2011) even if it has been extensively discussed in anthropology (Hoffmann, 2012). Even the concept of what ‘world’ means in this context and how world’s roles and rituals are thematically intertwined is seldom discussed. I have written about these three terms in an upcoming book (author 2015) but I will reduce it here to a proposition that role-playing in Computer Role-Playing Games (CRPGs) is limited because the NPC (Non-Playing Character’s) understanding of profane and sacred space, of personal devotion, of dedication as interpreted in facial expression and posture, as well as in social proxemics is limited or even non-existent. These CRPGs are not culturally interpretable worlds.

Current CRPGs seem to offer more opportunities to support deeper cultural aspects of role-playing, but they aren’t a deep and rich experiential medium for roles and rituals. We could say this is because games like the Elder Scrolls series are not multiplayer, and they don’t feature other people. Social presence does not necessarily require multiple players –although single-player social presence is definitely much more difficult– and cultural presence does not have to be alive. One thing that is required is hermeneutic richness, the depth of interpretation available to understanding either oneself, or others through artefacts and other cultural remains. Here ritual can play an important part, if it does not become too tiresome, if observing and performing it provides in-game benefits and as long as it does not seem laboured or cheesy.

Even archaeologists might not have noticed how the virtual simulation of culture is missing the genuine and discernible imprint of human creators. In a guest blog post on media archaeology, archaeologist Sara Perry (Perry, 2014) noted "…one of the [conference] attendees with an obvious media archaeological bent lamented the difficulties of studying abandoned virtual worlds wherein direct identification of human beings was essentially impossible (for all that was left in these worlds were fleeting digital traces)… [However] we have accumulated massive epistemological and practical toolkits, honed over centuries in collaboration with a variety of interdisciplinary agents—both human and non-human.”

Yes it is true that archaeologists are forensic experts of the dead, discarded and buried, but physical remnants tell tales because they are moulded and shaped by human traces. Virtual worlds are not actually inhabited in any physical sense, and they are not culturally inhabited. Virtually simulated culture can exist without worship, without participation and without any other aspects of direct human care. CRPGs such as Oblivion and Skyrim are not cultural worlds. So there are theoretical limitations in attempting to develop and mod (modify) these game environments for digital humanities, and especially for literature- the actual ways in which roles, rituals and cultural behaviours interact can be imagined from books. However computer game-based interaction and the limited expressivity of keyboard and joystick as discrete digital input cannot hope to simulate the physically embedded and inscripted nature of culture as a continuously designed and inhabited activity.

4. Practical Limitations

How are games like Skyrim limited? After all, they simulate changing climate, landscapes, hostile creatures, inventories, player and NPC interaction (such as praying, healing, reading, tool creation and repair, persuade, charm, cause fear, gain followers, collect flowers or specimens for alchemy experiments, buy and sell, sneak and pickpocket, induce disgust or revulsion, ferment frenzy or chaotic behaviour, trap souls). The NPCs have properties and roles, vary in ‘race’ and profession, can detect players, speak dialogue, and can be persuaded, charmed or repelled.

Figure 4: Alchemy in Skyrim.

Fig4_Skyrim_alchemy

5. Skyrim Modding Community

The Skyrim modding community is extensive and prolific. There are numerous active modding communities and various freely available mods online (http://www.nexusmods.com/skyrim) but this actually turns out to be a problem. There are so many mods out there to download that finding a suitable mod (with the required features for a humanities classroom to further modify) is actually a logistics challenge. Luckily there are critical reviews that rank the top mods (http://www.pcgamer.com/the-25-best-skyrim-mods-2).

In addition, the mods tend to be aesthetic modifications, there are mods that improve gameplay or adherence to mainstream mythology, but there are fewer levels made from scratch. We really should distinguish between mods that are simple modifications of existing game level assets and mods that are basically completely new games, with new feedback and reward mechanisms, new level design, and new scripts (author 2012).

While there are fewer mods that are new games, there are some interesting additions to modding tools and modded levels. Popular Skyrim mods include a Followers mod, which creates a social hierarchy of NPCs that can be trained to follow and obey the main player. There are also mods that ensure NPCs dress according to the local climate (entitled Wet and cold). And there are mods that direct NPCs to rebuild towns (Helgen Reborn).

There are also mods that retell or allow the player to interact with imaginative reconstructions of canonical literature, for example, Macbeth:

Macbeth: Skryim Version.

There are also machinima “retellings” of the Gallic wars:

Skyrim has been deployed as a mod editor for heritage research and archaeological visualisation (Goins, Egert, Phelps, Reedy, & Kincaid, 2013) and it also been used to teach concepts of geography (http://geoskyrim.blogspot.com.au). There have been articles on how to mod Skyrim for history and education (Mummert, 2014) and discussions on the design of archaeology-oriented mods (http://theskyrimblog.ning.com/group/character-building/forum/topics/character-build-the-archaeologist). It has even been deployed in an American university classroom (Donnelly, 2014), in a course “aimed predominantly at students interested in psychology, politics and history.” So Skyrim can be used in classrooms and similar settings as is, to develop an understanding of literature, geography, and politics. Can it also be used to mod literature into a playful visuals-supported medium?

6. Skyrim as Ludic Literature

If we pragmatically considered literature as written works (books) of lasting value and artistic merit, to transfer some the communication of these written works via a commercial game engine runs the distinct risk of raising the question as to whether such an endeavour is possible, let alone advisable. Could we even create a ludic book that is a fair reflection of a piece of literature? Perhaps this is asking the wrong question: could there be a book-like game and if so, what would it look like?

Given that most game assets and game-based characters are really designed as affordances and constraints to relatively clear and generic goals, can game-play artefacts and NPCs create meaningful play? Obviously some academics believe this is possible given there are even conferences with this title (http://meaningfulplay.msu.edu), but there are others who are more sceptical (Van Eck, 2006).

So we may have to change the name, if “meaningful play” is defined as requiring awareness, gameplay consequence, reminders, and permanence (Morrison, 2013) then the definition does not seem to go far enough for our purposes. Here meaningful play must mean either being faithful to the written work, provocative in relation to the spirit of the literature depicted while capitalising on the interactive medium, or instrumental in enticing new audiences back to the original work. So perhaps we should limit our objectives to something more realistic: we don’t have to be trying to recreate the power and precision of the written authorial view. We can be merely trying to better utilize the interactive and immersive potential of computer games.

Here the Elder Scrolls series does appear to have some immediate appeal. For example, Skyrim features books that contain minor narratives to advance game-play: they can also be stored and traded. Books can also be modded via the Creation Kit. Librarians and academics (wizard teachers) play an important part in the meta-narratives and minor quests, as does a certain dragon archivist.

Despite the fantastical and D&D styled setting, could these books be used to convey aspects of literature in a game setting to students and the general public who may lack the initial inclination to read the great classics of literature? Can the game-play either help them to visualize new and engaging aspects of literature; or induce students and the general public to read the original text again?

I don’t have completed projects that show modded Elder Scrolls examples that answer these questions, and the examples I quoted earlier don’t have fully realized evaluations. However I have supervised an archaeological/cultural heritage project in Oblivion (author, date) and I can attest that the student level designers did become well versed in both the archaeological content and in issues of level design and usability, and they built a fully functioning game level within a twelve week course. Skyrim offers even more power and sophistication than Oblivion so the rest of this article will concentrate on ideas that leverage the power of the game, and will conclude with an appraisal of the usefulness of Skyrim for teaching via modding, and as a platform to build interactive humanities content.

Figure 5: Ancient history modding in Oblivion.

Fig5_to_be_added

NOTE: Due to issues of anonymity, if this article is approved I will reference this project and provide a further figure.

7. Books as Keys, Event Triggers or as Training Cues

The books in Skyrim can become gameplay keys: when collected together, text from books adds to map information or provides more abilities or gateways to different places (portals). Books can also double as triggers: The designer or placed could place books to trigger specific events, to activate features in the game or the capabilities of the items carried by the player. The player’s memory could also be tested to see if they have learnt and remembered to how identify important events or characters.

We could deliberately leave out information to encourage players to take in multiple perspectives. In games such as Skyrim we can split narrative between NPCs or between in-scene books. Books don’t have to be complete, they could be text fragments, which need to be found and placed together in the right sequence for the entire book to appear. It is also possible to import RSS feeds as images (PNGS) so one could have dynamically uploaded book content from the RSS feeds. So rather than think of books as carrying linear scraps of literature, they could communicate different interpretations or editors or character points of view. The order or location or timing of when books are collected and read could even affect the message or the player.

There are mods allowing people to create their own book covers, and a mod that allows books to be automatically read aloud, so modders can create their own books and assign their own chosen recorded voices:

Skyrim Mod: Read Books Aloud

So it should be possible to include fragmented oral histories as well.

Figure 6: Read Books Aloud mod (screenshot from video above).

Fig6-SkyrimBookCover

7.1. Books to Train NPCs

Books could be collected and used to train NPCs. By opening books to specific pages certain events or other forms of knowledge could be communicated to the NPCs. Skyrim has more NPC options, including the ability to collect followers. One great benefit of incorporating training of NPCs by players is that an external person can judge how effectively a player has learnt about the content by how accurately they convey information in the training of NPCs (learning by teaching).

Figure 7: A Book in Skyrim (screenshot from the game by author.)

Fig7_BookContentsInSkyrim

Another option might be charade playing with a receptive audience. For example, collected books could enforce a change into certain clothes to transform the player immediately into a performer (one level of Skyrim already does that) and NPCs watch you and try to guess what you are doing.

7.2. Memetic Drift

There could also be a version of memetic drift. The player could be required to trade specific books in order to see a progression of ideas or counterfactual worlds could be triggered depending on which books are collected, traded or stolen. Books could detail past key quests that are now solved; books could record their owner characteristics or update the player’s map (in fact this already happens in the Skyrim game). Perhaps trading specific books affects the NPCs or the books change the social dynamics between the NPCs or even affect their understanding of history.

The player could trade books to see progression of ideas or the relative value or popularity of ideas, and how different characters/ cultures create or understand ideas in the books. For example: imagine playing an academic librarian. The player must trade books in order to work out their relative value or to find out the regional or class-based popularity of the authors or how far the authors’ influence extended. A more humorous example might be to create an academic spoof where the player must attack, scare or ridicule (or be ridiculed or complemented) depending on which books they are carrying or have traded or have read or have placed, destroyed or consumed.

A more advanced idea is book-based role-playing. If the player decides to place, trade, destroy, give away, incant or cast spells from a book; the player is transformed into a character described in the book, with that character’s abilities and weaknesses, and their tendencies to believe could affect player control. Nightmares and illusions could also appear based on the player’s new character. At the end of the game level the player could be asked if certain beliefs were actually in the original text, and if the beliefs were historically accurate. Some of these features have been foreseen by a mod that can dynamically age the appearance of players (http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=15566&searchtext=legacy).

7.3. Speak Words of Power

Using the Xbox Kinect or a similar device, it is possible to teach players a limited vocabulary in order to control the gameplay. The Xbox versions of Skyrim allow players to speak ‘words of power’ to execute commands. One could adopt this by teaching key words and pronunciation to players, they learn key words of power to advance the game, but at the same time they could be learning ancient vocabularies and dialects. Consider as an example a gamic version of an Icelandic saga; players might learn sacred words to protect a monastic library. This learning could help pronunciation, improve memory recall and develop the appropriate use of words. It would also allow players to develop an understanding of the oral power and nuances of literature.

We could extend the above idea to create a game level that features dialogue theft. The player has to pickpocket books in order to learn dialogue and to learn when or where to say the lines of dialogue and to whom. Or the player could learn dialogue through eavesdropping on the NPCs. If the NPCs think someone may have sneaked up on them then they could give red herrings or other misleading information, to set traps for any potential spies.

7.4. Travel Guides and the Augmenting Storyteller

The books could include screenshots and possibly pre-rendered movies to create a picture book of Skyrim history or instructions or travel guide. Skyrim could easily be used as a type of travel guide, which could be used in tandem with literature read in a humanities class to give students an idea of the setting of the written work. Or the students could be task to create screenshots of game level locations that match scenes described in famous books.

A related idea might be that of augmented storyteller. For example, the player is asked to find flowers and herbs and connections or metals or crafts, and match to descriptions that they read in books in the game. With some modification, the game could add player-created screenshots and insert pre-rendered movies into the books to create alternative histories, individual travel guides, or personal memory collections.

7.5. Roleplay an Archivist or a Librarian

Archivists and librarians are seldom described in terms of role models, but their dedication and care are central to the successful preservation and dissemination of cultural memory. In Skyrim much of their function has actually been transferred to magicians. I could imagine a scenario in Skyrim where the player has to play being an archivist.

Their role could be to file books, but in doing so they might have to recall or even develop different classification systems, and create preservation and data management plans (depending on what one might call data management in a medieval setting). Perhaps the more efficient classifications could lead to more powerful auras, which in turn create more powerful recipe books, treasure finding books, or spell books. The NPCs could be used as customers: the archivist might have to learn not only how to classify books but also how and when to recommend them, and how to find them quickly for the NPC customers.

7.6. Stylometrics-Author Discovery

A more complicated idea would be that of author discovery. The player’s task here would be to find specific book authors. Players could be required to match the style of the written dialogue in the books to the spoken language used by NPCs, the NPC authors are hidden in the game, disguised as typical NPCs. Matching texts to characters or professions could lead to interesting combinations.

8. More Advanced Potential Interaction Ideas

Here are some ideas for using the new book modding tools in Skyrim.

8.1. Social Role Playing Mimicry

I will expand on this idea in an upcoming book (author 2015) - and there I call it a reverse Turing test -, but the idea is not new (author 2005). I mention it here as it has specific significance for CRPGs even though it would require elaborate spatial awareness, hero expressivity and natural language processing. Essentially the idea is to convey cultural knowledge through an impostor-style game where the player has to adopt, steal or change (via a spell) their appearance and try to infiltrate a local community through effectively imitating certain professions, races or individuals. The player must endeavour to disguise himself or herself as an NPC or take over an NPC’s role in society and see how long they last before being discovered. Unfortunately, Oblivion and Skyrim currently do not clearly and consistently distinguish between NPCs in terms of race, locality, profession or voice, and it would require more spatial awareness to allow for a rich role-playing experience.

8.2. Gesture Control

Using cameras and other forms of gestural detection (such as a Leap sensor) we could ask the player to mimic certain physical movements or hand gestures in order to open, close or invoke aspects of a Skyrim level. The input could also be based on postural changes; there is middleware (http://ict.usc.edu/prototypes/faast) available for Windows that can also track the player’s skeletal movement, which might be handy for anyone wanting to set up Skyrim in a Virtual Reality facility or at home with a Kinect sensor. A more advanced example could track the gentleness of movements and formality of posture when the player approaches sacred environments or characters more highly ranked in the simulated society. Social proxemics is very hard to capture in virtual environments but an important part is understanding how social relationships, appropriate ritualistic behaviour and the symbolic division of architectural spaces.

8.3. Multi-player Staggered Quests

Neither Oblivion nor Skyrim are multi-player (Bethesda Softworks, 2006) and the company has stated it will remain that way (Onyett, 2006), but there is a community mod that says it allows two players (and in future up to eight players) to visit the same Oblivion game world (Atomic Staff writers, 2006; Paulsen, 2006) and another mod is in development for Skyrim.

In future versions of Skyrim there could be added staggered quests to increase the sense of a lived-in world with characters that have full social agency. Fans of the game have designed voluntary role-playing activities, so there does appear to be interest in more social role-playing. This may take the burden of believability off the polygonal shoulders of the NPCs. NPCs in Skyrim are NQCs (Non-Questing Characters), which means they become far too predictable.

With a quest that is too difficult for one player on a certain level, the quest could allow for the player to wait until another player appears and helps them solve it, or they have to wait until another player solves a related quest before they can complete theirs. Or depending on their race and profession, players could meet other players on different quests. If a player finds someone else has solved a quest such as stealing a magical stone, perhaps their own quest could then change to bringing back the magical stone.

The solitary player travels through the Oblivion game world, solves quests, perhaps buys houses and fills them with acquired weapons, clothing, books and artefacts, but that is the extent of inhabitation. Social presence is more advanced in Skyrim, which features NPC followers and various mods allow all sorts of new NPC commands (and I will publish some of these ideas in an upcoming journal publication).

Another option is the online multiplayer version of Elder Scrolls. I don’t know if Elder Scrolls Online offers this, but if there were multiple players entering the game world at different times and engaging in different quests, they could decide to settle in a town, learn a local role and slowly try to fit into the local AI-directed culture. When these ‘settled’ players discover human-directed characters they could decide to enrich or divert the human players’ world-knowledge, or play an elaborate game of confusing them as to whether they are an NPC or not.

As a humorous side note, there is a blogger who ‘inhabits’ rather than plays Oblivion, he has documented his day-to-day existence and his attempts to fit in as an ordinary inhabitant rather than as a player: www.screencuisine.net/section/livingin. He has also undertaken a similar ethnographic task with Skyrim (http://www.screencuisine.net/the-elder-strolls).

8.4. Digital Film-making, Machinima and Cutscenes

Although widely used and cited in the humanities, digital film making by participants seldom uses split narrative to convey other perspectives, missing info to encourage people to navigate and clue-find and repeat, or biofeedback to change the story pace according to audience response. Machinima can be defined as the use of the in-game real-time camera (and often also the native game assets) to create an animated film (Lowood & Nitsche, 2011). Skyrim has also been used as machinima:

Skyrim: How to make awesome machinima!

and images can be inserted into books:

Skyrim Creation Kit - Creating a Custom Book

or videos can be inserted into Skyrim and used as cutscenes, loading scenes or even as instructional videos − there is much to explore here. As a teaching tool, students could be asked to create machinima to describe their take on historical events or their visualization of a written work.

9. Conclusion

For designing historical simulations and transmedial literary creations, I have listed practical and theoretical limitations to Oblivion and Skyrim, and my investigations lead me to suggest that despite its increased power Skyrim requires more learning time in order to develop a modded level from scratch. The game can be used in class to discuss social dynamics, and perhaps even Feudal, Medieval or Viking/Nordic societies. It is also relatively easy to add new designed 3D assets, or change the texts in books. But for complex mods that deviate from standard Skyrim quests and levels, the Papyrus programming language will probably have to be learnt. While Oblivion levels could be made fairly quickly, with the addition of a new more sophisticated programming language and as it is a more sophisticated game engine, Skyrim levels appear to require more time.

So for complex modding I would probably recommend a dedicated game editor/engine such as Unity or UDK (Unreal), they are more flexible, more powerful, and can publish to a web plugin or as a standalone game available via phone, tablet, Windows, Mac, game console, and (in the case of Unity) Linux.

I have also suggested eight ideas for developing interactive missions and stories that could accommodate or refer back to humanities content, especially to literature. The further three ideas I have described are more complicated but would have long-term benefits for interactive environments in general and could be used in virtual environment designs as well.

The books in Skyrim could be further incorporated into the gameplay, there are many mods that can be downloaded to extend their customizability; and books do seem suitable vehicles to develop either transmedial adaptations or create adventures and visualisations that either add to the literary imagination of students and the general public, or encourage players to return to the literature that inspired the game levels.

To summarize, as games, Oblivion and Skyrim are not fully-fledged cultural worlds for they lack cultural presence. The in-world books are not fully integrated into the games. NPCs are not as reactive and expressive as actors, and the roles are really categories for point accumulation, one doesn’t role-play in any deep sense of the world. But here we are more interested in Elder Scrolls games for their editors, and the community mods and tools to develop new mods from scratch. While the in-game medieval, Western or apocalyptic settings can quickly modified to some extent, for other types of levels Skyrim and Fallout modding is no faster than designing from scratch. That said, we can learn from the way in which Skyrim create its levels and quests, and we can apply these ideas beyond Skyrim.

References

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Donnelly, J. (2014). How Skyrim is teaching university students about the decline of US empire NewStatesman. Retrieved from NewStatesman.com website: http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/11/how-skyrim-teaching-university-students-about-decline-us-empire.

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Mummert, J. (2014, 15 January). Modding Skyrim: the Value of Myth and Metaphor. Blog Retrieved from http://www.playthepast.org/?p=4333.

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Shapira, R. (2014). Carmel cavemen used plants in rituals 13,000 years ago, archaeologists find: Israeli archaeologists find new clues to elaborate Natufian burial behaviors and rituals, and diet. Haaretz. Retrieved from HAARETZ website: http://www.haaretz.com/archaeology/1.570106.

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