This article was originally published in PC Gamer UK 236.
Skyrim's alchemy system asks players to combine ingredients based on their statistic-altering properties. Once you've found out what ingredients do, you can make them into potions. The best way to find these properties is by jamming them into your gob, masticating for a while, and scribbling the results down in your poisoning journal.
My Skyrim character - a beardy Breton - was stood on an ice floe to the north of Winterhold when I decided to taste a few of the more exotic ingredients I'd picked on my travels. Imagine 90s semi-celebrity wine-taster Jilly Goolden, except six and a half foot tall, covered in hair and blood, and backed up by a monstrous ice-beast.
I chewed on some garlic to start. Not bad, but a bit pungent. I moved onto honeycomb. This was better, I was getting sweet notes of summer, sugar, and FORTIFY BLOCK. A handful of snowberries were slightly tart, but bursting with both flavour and a general feeling of FIRE RESIST. Histcarp gave a lovely fresh fish taste and the ability to breathe underwater, sashimi-ed with a side of aim-enhancing juniper. I munched on River Betties and Cyrodiilic Spadetails, wheat and whitecap mushrooms, each one delicious and stat-nourishing. I started to get careless, cramming anything and everything alchemical into my gullet.
Daedra heart. Bit chewy, but it's got to be full of iron. Iron's good for you, right? The statistics bore me out: daedra hearts 'RESTORE HEALTH'. Sure, they also cause 'FEAR', but what's a few minutes of panic compared to OH GOD WAS THAT A BEAR?
I kept clicking. Hawk beak. Always goes down smooth. Sabre cat tooth. Swallowed with only minor blood loss. A handful of pearls. Just call me Johnny Oysters. Spider egg. Wait, I don't want them hatching inside me. Vampire dust. I should stop now. A set of fully grown elk antlers. I'm going to need a running start.
I clicked once, and immediately froze. My character did the same, staring silently out to the frozen sea. Somewhere in my imagination, a gob of man-muscle was worming its way down my character's oesophagus. Bits of person were caught between his teeth. I had stood in front of him, guiding foodstuffs into his mouth like a demented parent. Open wide for the bee thorax! Here comes the ectoplasm aeroplane! Eat this human flesh! My careless clicking had made my man a cannibal.
I continued to stand stock still, expecting to be overcome by a wave of revulsion. Instead, I got minuscule decreases in my red health bar, increases in my blue magicka bar, and a heightened desire to creep around in peoples' houses. I checked the forbidden meat's effects. Damage health, restore magicka, fortify sneak, and - wait a second - paralysis. Paralysis is one of Skyrim's most useful abilities. Once applied, you can smash away at enemies as they roll around on the floor like toppled statues. Few of the game's alchemical items bestow this property, and this meat was only the second guaranteed source I'd found.
I'd had my first taste of human flesh. Up at the top of the world, I resolved to get more. I needed it, after all, for my experiments.
Yesterday, Bethesda PR guru Pete Hines teased an imminent Skyrim DLC reveal. That could come as early as next week but, as CVG point out, fans have already been doing some investigating. Players on the Skyrim forums have pulled out a series of strings hidden within a recent Skyrim patch that makes allusions to a crossbow, a snow elf prince and new vampire feeding animations.
These files were apparently part of a subfolder labelled "DLC01," which does rather suggest that these will be part of the first Skyrim update, though Bethesda have yet to announce their plans. I do quite like the idea of a crossbow, what do you reckon?
A quick heads up from Bethesda PR and marketing vice president Pete Hines suggests that we might be getting our first sniff of the official DLC pack for Skyrim soon. He's currently "working on getting a little more info out" for next week, but it's not a sure thing. "We'll see," he says.
Last year game director Todd Howard said that Skyrim DLC would be "more substantial" with an "expansion pack feel." Oblivion's Shivering Isle expansion offered players a weird, wild new world to get stuck into. That was released a year after the core game, though, so the first Skyrim pack isn't likely quite that meaty. What would you like to see from the first chunk of Skyrim DLC?
2) I am working on getting a little more info out on Skyrim/DLC. Maybe next week? We'll see. Also trying to confirm Kinect release date.— Pete Hines (@DCDeacon) April 26, 2012
If you can't wait, the Steam Workshop is still overflowing with Skyrim mods, which should tide us over nicely until details of the first DLC pack emerge. Check out our Skyrim mod collections for our favourites.
Something's up at Bethesda. A terse tweet from the Bethblog account appeared yesterday with one word, "tomorrow," and a link to the above picture of a man in much need of a bath, and a shave. But what does beardy man signify? It's a high fidelity shot, which looks like it could be a frame from a CG trailer.
Could it be an announcement of the first chunk of official Skyrim DLC? Maybe we'll get to see more of Dishonored. The man's dishevelled appearance and dim surroundings suggest that he may be a prisoner of some sort. Corvo, the master assassin you play as in Dishonored, starts off imprisoned, charged with the murder of the Empress he was supposed to protect. What do you reckon?
The Xbox version of Skyrim will be getting a free update that'll add Kinect voice support in the coming weeks. It'll let console players scream dragon shouts at the screen, bellow commands at followers and open up levelling screens with a quick word. It all looks quite neat, as long as you live alone, but why wait for the opportunity to yell dragontongue phrases into an expensive console camera when you can do the same thing for free right now with a standard microphone? The ThuuMic mod will let you do just that.
The mod's still a work in progress, but it'll already let you activate dragon shouts using your voice alone. You'll also be able to control followers and, eventually, call over your horses by name. Personally, I'd request support for a "CARRY MY BURDEN" command when dumping spare weaponry on Lydia, or perhaps a "SILENCE" command that shuts up NPCs mid-sentence.
The mod hasn't made it over to the Steam Workshop yet, and it'll take a bit of extra time to get it up and running. You'll need to install Script Dragon before downloading the mod itself. There's lots of info on how to get the mod working correctly on ThuuMic's Skyrim Nexus page. For more Skyrim mods, check out our collections of the best Skyrim mods.
Bethesda owners, Zenimax, has filed several trademarks for the famous dragon shout, according to Fusible, giving their lawyers the leeway to deliver a stern Fus NO Dah to any profiteers hoping to use it to brand their new range of miscellaneous merch.
Three of the trademark applications are for games-related uses of Fus Ro Dah, which is expected. The other trademarks, though, list "bags, namely, backpacks, duffel bags, knapsacks, book bags, athletic bags, and cosmetic bags, sold empty." Does that mean we're okay to sell a Fus Ro Dah bag if we stick a bowling ball in it first?
Another trademark protects Fus Ro Dah "toys and action figures; playing cards, dice, and board games; bobble-head dolls; sporting equipment." Ah, so we're good to sell the Fus Ro Dah bag as long as we don't fill it with a Fus Ro Dah bowling ball. That's clear now. This scuppers my plans for a range of Fus Ro Dah hockey sticks, however.
"Clothing, namely, T-shirts, shirts, sweatshirts, fleece pullovers; headwear, namely, hats" will also fall under the trademark if the application is successful. That's quite a precise list of products. It's likely a move to block would-be competitors sneakily trading on the Skyrim brand, but it also prepares the land for some Bethesda sanctioned products in future. A range of Fus Ro Dah T-shirts would probably do quite well, don't you think?
Bethesda haven't commented on the trademark, or the possibility of future Fus Ro Dah products. Bethesda tell Game Informer that they're "just protecting our brand."
We love mods at PC Gamer. Earlier on today, Tom posted about the two Steam Workshop collections we've assembled for anyone who wants to quickly and easily enhance their Skyrim experience. All good stuff, but now it's time to model some armour, and showcase some of the best, most detailed sets currently available for download.
Skyrim’s initial wardrobe of armors is fine - splendid, even - but after a dozen hours looting the same sets began to get monotonous. Praise Talos then, because modders are on hand to deck you out in a wider range of garments. There’s an emphasis on “lore-friendly” sets; gear that's fitting with the icy setting of Skyrim and not, say, the world of an JRPG (though there’s plenty of those outfits, too). We've hand-picked eight of them. No Space Marines here.
Don’t be worried about any of these unbalancing your game. Most require the very best smithing perks to make, which you can only access after a solid weekend’s playthrough. Their stats have also been matched to the Bethesda-crafted armors too, so they have the same credibility as Nightingale or the Blades’ sets.
Some of these mods come from the Steam Workshop, while the rest are downloaded via the Skyrim Nexus. For the Steam Workshop tools, all you have to do is log in and click the "Subscribe" button. Next time you boot up Skyrim, there'll be a short wait while the launcher downloads the relevant files. Skyrim Nexus' equivalent service is the Nexus Mod Manager: a free download that links up to the website. Find the mods you want on the Nexus, download them, then install them via the client. Simple. Warchief Armor
Our pick of the bunch is the Warchief option, a fur and metal combo with a saber cat helm. Touted by its creator as a “fusion of Orcish brutality and Nordic resilience”, this set is packed with small touches, and flexes its considerable muscle at high resolution. It’s available in both light and heavy variants, with no difference in appearance between the two. Skulls, pouches and hanging teeth all feature, and the sets can only be crafted if you are in possession of some elusive materials. Hedge Knight
If the Warchief set smells like Warcraft, then there’s a very precise scent to the Hedge Knight one too: Game of Thrones. While it doesn’t bear any explicit reference to George RR Martin’s conniving, scheming saga (there are shields that do, though), it definitely looks like you could use “Winter Is Coming” as a Shout while you play. Your character will appreciate being kept nice and snug under a long cloak, but they might abhor wearing the rather unfashionable helmet. Perfect for stamping through cities on your way to a fiery meeting the Jarl. Vagabond Armor
The Vagabond set is slightly more presentable than the armor Skyrim’s kamikaze bandits don, but it still cuts a coldly threatening figure. Its gloves look more like bear claws, while coned spikes protrude out of the shin-pads. Unfortunately, this armor is currently no good for female Dragonborn, and the helmet isn’t wholly compatible with Argonians and Khajiit. A shame, because it looks great. Redguard Knight Armor
With the Redguard Armor, you can finally look as cool as the Alik'r, the Redguard soldiers who wander around Skyrim searching for traitors and Thalmor sympathisers. This is a heavier variant to the one found in the vanilla game, with a chainmail jacket and a tough helmet underneath its cloth coating. Again, detail drives this mod: hoth has outfitted the set with a belt-pouch, runed cufflinks, and a natty cloak. There’s even a craftable scimitar! Ponty’s Chainmail Armor
Here’s a relatively light but still trustworthy option: chainmail. There wasn’t much of it at all in the unmodded release of Skyrim, but for those who prefer their armor to be made out of small metal rings rather than slabs and chunks of iron and steel, then Ponty's Chainmail Armor might be for you. It’s still early days for the mod, and Ponty the creator is intending to add in female versions, as well as coifs and mittens for both genders. As with all other Workshop mods, these will be downloaded to your game automatically, so sit tight. Viking Spawn Shield
Technically, this weighty wooden shield could never be found in Tamriel, as it actually belongs to the world of Todd McFarlane’s Spawn. We include it in this list, though, because without knowing that you’d be none the wiser: it’s a barrier any Stormcloak would be proud to hide behind (KIDS! This is not an example of civil war bias!). Rounded, and jagged at the edges, this shield makes cracking open heads extra satisfying. It’s all a touch ironic, really, since McFarlane worked on Skyrim’s EA-published rival, Kingdoms of Amalur. Scout Armor
Bringing a bit of refinement to Skyrim’s world of furs and bear heads is DoODABoOM, who has used the official Blades armor as a base for a dark brown outfit that’ll make your avatar look very dapper even as s/he massacres the living contents of their 212nd cave. DoOB has even embedded a pattern on the chestpiece, adding an extra layer of prestige to your appearance, even if you have no idea what the significance is. Horse Armors
Have you ever read from the Scroll of Frenzy in Skyrim? It sends your target into a blind teeth-gnashing rage. In their apoplectic state, the afflicted views friends as enemies, and wishes only to throttle the necks of every last soul around them. I think that spell might be based on what happens when you mention ‘Horse Armor’ to an Elder Scrolls aficionado. Ha ha.
Anyway, Skyrim's Horse Armors mod (user-made and free!) enables you to strap protection to your horse of choice. The unique steeds - Shadowmere and Frost - are even bestowed with their own armored liveries, which look suitably heavenly or hellish.
No doubt you'll want to show off your Dovahkiin now that they're kitted up in such trend-setting threads. If you're clueless on how to take the best screenshots, give our console tweaks guide a quick read.
If you haven't already seen, we're pulling together all our favourite Skyrim mods from the Steam Workshop into two collections. Collections are just lists of mods, but they make it super easy to install them all at once: we check they're good and that they all work together, and you just click a 'Subscribe to all' button. They'll all be downloaded and added to your game the next time you start it up, and they'll even be updated as the creators improve them.
To give you more choice, we've split our favourites into two collections. The Improvements collection is full of mods that just tweak the game, round out rough edges and add useful features. The New Content collection is about mods that add something substantial to the game, new areas, or more significant features like camping.
We'll be adding to both collections continually, so you know any mods you think we should add, let us know in the comments and we'll check it out. Here's what we've put in both collections so far, and what it does.
I've always had a weakness for player home mods, and The Asteria is one of the best. Instead of the rather dull selection of houses available in the vanilla game, the Asteria gives you a gigantic flying ship to make your own. It's not just the dramatic location that makes The Asteria stand out though, it's one of the most complete and carefully constructed player homes I've ever seen.
There are herb gardens, weapon stands, mannequins, a forge, and alchemy station and even an archery range. All these amenities are laid out beautifully, with tastefully themed rooms that are not only convenient and gorgeous to look out, but give the player a sense of a functioning, real home. To find The Asteria, simply travel to the map marker you get from the start, and touch the statue to be teleported aboard. Check out the stand next to your bed for a lore book on the ship's history.
Elvenwood is one of the most beautiful and original player made cities Skyrim has seen. Built as a network of treehouses, it nestles in the forest between Helgen and Falkreath. The town sports an inn, a blacksmith, a general store and a full population of Bosmer inhabitants, including several mercenary followers. It's a lovely little construction that's like no other village in the game, and well worth your visit.
Moonpath to Elsweyr
This mod gives you a taste of Elsweyr, the home of the Khajit. It adds a quest that takes you through two types of terrain you've never seen in Skyrim: lush jungle caverns, and wind-swept deserts. Those who fancy a change from snowy mountaintops can find the entrance between Twilight Sepulchre and Crask Tusk Keep. The waypoint is already active, so you can fast travel there at any time.
Ever got jealous of all those bandits and their spiffy campsites? Well why not make your own? This mod lets you purchase camping equipment such as tents, tinderboxes and cooking pots from general stores across Skyrim. Drop a tent to put it up, drop your tinderbox to consume firewood and make a fire, instant campsite! There's a lot more you can add to it too, including the using a cooking pot on the fire for some nice outdoor cooking. Perfect for all those realism lovers who can't always find an inn in the middle of the night.
Enhanced High Level Gameplay
Most of Skyrim's monsters only go up to level 30, meaning high level players rarely find themselves facing a major threat. This mod addresses this problem by introducing levelled versions of current creatures and bandits that are carefully introduced as you level, sustaining the challenge all the way to the endgame.
Midas Magic was a fantastic magic overhaul mod for Oblivion, which added flashy, powerful new spells to make high level mages even better at setting people on fire with their minds. The Skyrim version is just as good, with spells that summon mini dragons and call down meteor strikes. You can also summon a player house, just because. It's not exactly balanced, but it is hilarious.
Unrelenting Force Spell
This hilarious mod turns Skyrim's famous Unrelenting Force shout into a spell that can be learnt from a tome in Jorrvaskr. It works as long as you hold down the button, making it totally overpowered but utterly brilliant to use.
Next page: The Improvements Collection explained
The Improvements collection comprises of all the little tweaks and adjustments that make Skyrim just a little bit better. There's no big mechanical changes, and no major new content, just seamless improvements. This collection is designed so you can just hit the 'subscribe all' button and enhance your game without changing the fundamental experience.
We should also mention an excellent enhancement not included here. SkyUI is a terrific interface overhaul that fixes all the problems with Skyrim's dodgy inventory. The only reason we didn't include it is because it requires you to install the Skyrim Script Extender, which isn't hard to use, but we didn't want to complicate the one-click install that makes these collections so easy to use.
Mark and Recall
Fast travel in Skyrim can be really useful, but it can also be very frustrating when it doesn't go where you want it to. This mod adds Mark and Recall, two spells from back in Morrowind, to give you full control over your fast travel experience. Mark sets a destination, and Recall teleports you to it. It's a great way of getting around, which makes it puzzling that Bethesda ever decided to remove it. The spells will randomly appear at stores once you've reached a high enough conjuration or alteration level, but Brand Shei in Riften will always stock a scroll version.
Follower Map Markers
You there, have you ever lost your Lydia? I know I have. If so, then I'm sure you'll be interested in this fabulous product. Simply speak to your follower and select 'get Map Marker', this will add a mini-quest to your journal which points at your companion. Toggling this quest on and off will result in them being highlighted on the map. The marker works whether they're currently following you or not. This is especially useful for Kharjo, the nomadic Khajit, who is easily lost as he guides his merchant caravans across Skyrim.
Sounds of Skyrim
Not one mod, but two, the Sounds of Skyrim sets out to improve your audio experience by adding a huge variety of lovely sounding new sound effects to the game. The Wilds focuses on the outdoors, concentrating heavily on animal noises. The mod adds different sounds depending on the weather, giving the player the sense that the Skyrim wilderness is teeming with birds, insects and other creatures, just out of sight. The Dungeons meanwhile adds atmosphere to Skyrim's caves and ruins, depending on the enemy type that inhabits the dungeon you might hear the moans of zombies or the screams of captured victims. Journey there with the lights off for maximum creepiness.
Faster Vanilla Horses
Faster Vanilla Horses is a mod that makes Skyrim's horses faster. The horse's speed has been increased. The horses, that were previously slow, are now fast. That's all it does. There's not really any more ways I can phrase it. It just makes the horses faster. Sorry.
House Map Markers
A nice, simple mod that adds map markers to all possible player houses. This means you can fast travel direct to your house, instead of always running from the city gates, taking some time off your frequent journeys to and from your storage locker.
Hunter's Discipline 100%
Hunter's Discipline isn't good enough. Half way up the archery tree, and all it does is increase your chances of getting an arrow back from a corpse? Rubbish. This mod changes it so it lets you get back every arrow you fire (assuming you can find the body).
Next page: Less Condescending Guards, less sass from Lydia
More Dragon Loot
Dragons have hoards. Everyone knows this. Remember that scene in the Hobbit when Bilbo sees Smaug for the first time? It would have been a lot less impressive if he was snoozing on fifty gold coins, an elven bow and a half eaten Whiterun guard's uniform. More Dragon Loot makes sure that each Dragon you slay has a sizeable and interesting hoard to loot, with each one including at least one magic item.
Less Condescending Guards
Guards in Skyrim are some real smart alecs. Always ripping into you by praising your low level destruction magic. This mod nips their sarcasm in the bud by forcing them to only mention skills beyond a certain threshold.
Remove Lydia's Trade Dialogue
The second most popular meme about Skyrim is just how sassy Lydia gets every time you hand her something. This mod removes the offending line. Sadly it doesn't do anything for other characters, like the horribly whiny Marcurio.
This mod is terrific, it gives you a power that lets you whistle for the last horse you rode. If your horse is nearby, it'll run to your side. If the horse is far away it'll appear a short distance behind you and run up. The result is a simple and natural way of ensuring you always have your trusty steed ready when you need it.
Skyrim's version of the enchanting system has a lot of restrictions on it. Certain enchantments can only be added to certain items. This is silly, if it was intended to stop playing from being overpowered by stacking enchantments, it failed - high level Skyrim characters are absurdly powerful anyway. This mod takes away all those restrictions, letting you put whatever effect you want on an item. As an added benefit it also lets you disenchant extra items, meaning you can use awesome enchantments like 'backstab damage' and 'muffle' that were previously inaccessible.
The Werewolf ability in Skyrim is a lot of fun, but it often gets overshadowed by high level weapons and armour. This mod scales your lycanthropy up as you level, increasing your health regeneration and melee damage for extra moon howling goodness. Plus you can now eat animals! Fun!
That's our lot folks, hope you enjoyed them all. I'll be back next month to summarise the newest additions to the collections.
If you have a GeForce card you might want to grab the latest batch of beta drivers from the Nvidia site. Nvidia say they'll deliver a performance boost in Skyrim of up to 20%, which is nice, but the Nvidia FXAA functionality is perhaps a more interesting addition. That'll allow us to force a faster form of anti-aliasing across hundreds of games from the Nvidia control panel. The new shader-based antialiasing function should help to smooth out edges at speeds "60% faster than 4xMSAA."
The new drivers also add Adaptive Vsync. This monitors your framerates and switches vsync off when they start to dip, helping to maintain a consistent framerate with less stuttering. The update also makes performance improvements to a few specific titles, including Batman: Arkham City, Bulletstorm, Civilization V, Just Cause 2, StarCraft 2 and Shogun 2.
If you have a GeForce series 400 or 500, Nvidia promise some significant framerate boosts at high and ultra settings on top resolutions for Skyrim. Check out all the benchmarking graphs, and the full list of improvements made by the new drivers on the Nvidia site.
To address some fans' feedback about the game's ending, BioWare has said it’s working on "a number of game content initiatives” for Mass Effect 3 in addition to existing DLC plans. The possibility of BioWare modifying the game's ending has stirred a conversation on Twitter, message boards, development blogs, and elsewhere: would changing a game's final moments based on feedback set a bad precedent for video games' creative integrity? Or is it actually a way of taking advantage of the unique ease with which games can be edited?
One voice I wanted to include in this dialogue was that of BioWare's fellow writers and designers throughout the industry. To find out what they thought, I talked to Chris Avellone, Gary Whitta, Greg Kasavin, Jesse Schell, Chuck Jordan, Paul Taylor, Steve Gaynor, Susan O'Connor, and Bobby Stein. They've worked on Fallout: New Vegas, Bastion, Far Cry 2, Frozen Synapse, BioShock, BioShock 2, and other games. I’ve presented their opinions here, which are only edited for clarity.
Looking to improve your ending? Check out our in-depth guide to Mass Effect 3's War Assets and Readiness before reloading your save.
I asked each person the following question: Do you object to the idea of developers changing a game's narrative based on player feedback after release? Or do games (especially games that promote player agency) present a unique opportunity for "story collaboration" between users and producers that designers should take advantage of?
Here are the responders and their responses.
Chris Avellone Avellone is Obsidian’s Creative Director, Chief Creative Officer and a co-owner at the studio. His game credits include Fallout 2, Icewind Dale II, Star Wars: KOTOR II, Neverwinter Nights 2, Alpha Protocol, Fallout: New Vegas, and F:NV’s DLC.
"Games should take advantage of feedback and using it for DLC changes and sequel changes. I feel BioWare does this from game to game already, and it’s the reason that some companions have achieved the prominence and romance options in the games that they do because the players strongly responded to those characters—and I’ll be blunt, we as narrative designers have no idea how a character’s going to be received, and “breakout” characters we envision may end up not being that at all once the game is released into the wild.
Most importantly, game development is an iterative process. Our goal is to entertain our players. No one knows more about what they consider “fun” than the player themselves. While you can’t please everyone, there are iterations that make sense to do in DLC content and sequels. As a case study, the DLC process from Fallout: New Vegas allowed us to collate all the weapon feedback from FNV and adjust it, and it also allowed us to take a long look at what gameplay elements and mods people were making for New Vegas and incorporate that into the narrative and quest lines. The best example is we noticed that people were making a LOT of homebase mods. So, we designed a good chunk of Old World Blues to specifically revolve on you making a new homebase in New Vegas with all the improvements people were pointing out. Even better, we were able to make it part of the story and the characters. Everybody wins, and people seemed to really enjoy it based on the fan (and press) response—but the catch is, we never would have thought to do that without analyzing the fan response and taking that into account."
Steve Gaynor Gaynor was a Level Designer on BioShock 2, then Lead Designer and Writer of the Minerva's Den DLC. He worked on BioShock Infinite for a year before leaving Irrational to go indie.
"There's great value in thinking about the story of a game as a collaboration between the player and the developers. In the collision of fiction and game mechanics, my experience of a game is never exactly the same as yours; the more systemic and divergent the results of the player's contribution, the better. Much of the player's experience of Deus Ex or Skyrim is the story of how the player played that game, and how they shaped the gameworld to express themselves; the experience of Minecraft is entirely that. It's incredibly powerful.
But things like "cutscenes" and "endings" are completely authored by the developers, and the developers altering the authored content of a game after the fact has nothing to do with the systemic player-developer collaboration described above. It's no different than a movie or book being released and, upon fan outrage, being edited and re-released to pander to the most vocal dissenters in the audience. It's not unique to games; it is unique to a certain type of entertainment media that attracts fans who feel entitled to dictate exactly how the product should bend to their desires, instead of standing as a unique experience to be enjoyed, or not, on its own merits."
Gary Whitta Whitta was Editor-in-Chief of PC Gamer for four years. He wrote the film Book of Eli. Whitta is currently a story consultant and writer for Telltale’s The Walking Dead game, for which he’ll write the fourth episode.
"I'll be interested to see how BioWare will respond to the fan reaction in terms of future content—clearly they intend to do something, but what remains to be seen. As much as it left me with many questions and ultimately feeling kind of uncomfortable, I really hope they don't attempt to retcon or in any way "undo" the ending they presented. I've always felt that games like Mass Effect are all about living with the consequences of your choices, no matter what they may be, and I think BioWare should do the same thing here and stick with their original choice, trust their original creative instinct, rather than allow the fan response to cause them to second-guess themselves. My gut feeling is that they will add new content to help clarify and resolve some of the questions that are out there while sticking to their original creative intentions and I while that's less bothersome than calling a complete do-over, as a storyteller it still bugs me.
I read an op-ed which argued that since videogames are a "malleable artform" that get altered and patched all the time people shouldn't be bothered by this. Well it bothers the hell out of me. Games usually get changed for technical reasons like bug fixes and multiplayer balancing. Altering one of a game's artistic cornerstones—story—merely to appease the malcontents is wrong. While I'm sure George Lucas would agree about the malleability of art, I think changing the ending of such a high-profile title would set a very disturbing precedent for games."
Chuck Jordan Jordan is an independent game developer. He worked at LucasArts in the late ‘90s, wrote dialogue for Telltale’s Sam & Max adventure games, and did game design and writing for Disney Imagineering, an interactive development arm of the company.
"Considering how much time people have spent trying to advance the idea that video games are works of art, it's disappointing to see so many people defending the idea that games are product. It's almost enough to make me think that writing thousands of words about the nature of artistic expression in interactive entertainment on my own low-traffic blog were a waste of time.
There's usually an outcry whenever a movie's obviously been focus-grouped into mediocrity, or when a pop star is clearly targeted at a particular demographic. And when a video game gets a console release with a UI tailored to controllers, we have to listen to incessant complaints that the game's been "dumbed down" just to appeal to a larger audience. Apparently the value of ‘audience feedback’ can fluctuate.
Products are made to the specifications of customers. Art is supposed to be an expression of creativity. If you're invalidating your team's ‘vision’ to appeal to the demands of players, then you've crossed the line from art to commerce. That's no different for interactive entertainment than it is for anything else.
It's frequently framed as ‘empowering the player,’ but pandering isn't empowerment. People seem to have forgotten that "give the people what they want" was always intended to be a pejorative expression. If the goal of a game is to provide the player with the tools to create her own story, then the developers need to actually give the player those tools. Not just a series of scripted events based on what the developers think their audience wants.
Essentially, BioWare created the problem for themselves by, to be blunt, promising more than they or any other developer could deliver. They've sold the Mass Effect series on the premise that the player can completely customize his character and his character's story—entire planets with complex storylines that some players will never even see! (And also sex with aliens). But even the largest team of writers and content creators won't be able to deliver an indefinite number of conclusions that all have the same level of impact, satisfying enough to conclude a multi-year, multi-game epic series. People have been spending years trying to come up with a way to create systems that generate compelling narratives, and no one's cracked the problem yet.
That's probably because it's not really a problem; developer-created narratives still have plenty of value in interactive entertainment. And they can be collaborative: the developer and the player work together to complete a story. The player's interaction with the system is what gives the story meaning. When I'm playing games, I prefer to be surprised, to be shown something I wouldn't have come up with on my own. And it's hardly a collaboration if one of the participants can always get his way just by complaining loudly enough."
Greg Kasavin Kasavin was Editor-in-Chief of GameSpot for a decade. He’s currently Creative Director at Supergiant Games. Supergiant released Bastion last year. Kasavin mentions that he has played and completed Mass Effect 3 (and both previous games) and that he’s “a longtime fan of BioWare, ever since Baldur's Gate. BioWare's classic games are a big inspiration to me.”
"I think developers are well within their right to make positive changes to games post-release, and in the vast majority of cases this is seen by players as a good thing if not an expected thing these days. For example, a high-quality multiplayer game needs to be nurtured and maintained over time by its developers as its player base grows more experienced and inevitably discovers exploits or other issues. I'm always willing to give developers I trust the benefit of the doubt when it comes to making changes post-release.
Making narrative changes post-release can be tricky because story is seen as canonical... history can't be rewritten, and so on. But I think it's important to note this type of thing does happen sometimes. Fallout shipped with a time-sensitive main quest that gave you a really bleak ending if you took too long to finish that quest. In the first patch, the developers eliminated the time limit, removing what could be seen as a major aspect of the ending. Years later, Fallout 3 got patched so that you could continue playing post-release. Many movies, including classics like Blade Runner, got director's cuts with major narrative changes said to reflect the true authorial intent.
Whether it's appropriate is a judgment call. I don't think these cases are just a matter of the creators of these works buckling to pressure. I think they wanted to do the right thing, for the sake of their work and their audience. Likewise, in the current case of Mass Effect 3, I fully expect BioWare will do whatever they think is best. I think BioWare has accomplished an incredible achievement with Mass Effect, and I'll be interested to see how it evolves from here."
Jesse Schell Schell is a Professor of Entertainment Technology at Carnegie Mellon, founder of Schell Games, and a former Creative Director at Disney. In 2010, Schell got a lot of attention for a speech he gave at DICE about gamification in the age of Facebook. He’s currently working on the Kickstarter-funded Puzzle Clubhouse.
"It's an interesting question. My feeling is that it's their story, they can do what they want—there isn't much to object to. Now, the question is, will it make people happy? This is a much more difficult question. So, here are some facets:
1) If people really hate the original ending, maybe changing it will make people like the game more. If so, good idea—change it!
2) People want the world of Mass Effect to seem real and solid. When you change the world like that, it robs the world of its illusion of reality. Uh, oh, don't change it!
3) This could be an awesome publicity stunt, designed to get people to talk about and pay more attention to the game. In that case, create controversy, act like the old ending will be "replaced" but then change the game so that depending on your actions in the game, you get two different possible endings!
I predict number three..."
Bobby Stein Stein is ArenaNet’s Lead Writer on Guild Wars 2. He formerly worked as a freelance writer and editor for developers including Microsoft Game Studios, Nintendo, and Tripwire Interactive.
"It all depends on the game. In Guild Wars 2, players have agency to push their personal stories in different directions, while also creating their own experiences by simply exploring the world and participating in dynamic events, dungeons and other activities. There’s so much content that it’s hard to say that there’s really an ending to it, just discrete conclusions to many related stories.
We believe that the success of our game will come from our investment with the community. It’s a respectful partnership. We’re not simply releasing a game and then moving on to the next project. We’ll support it for years to come. We already have ideas for future content, but we’re constantly listening to our players to see what resonates with them. So, it’s never wrong to listen to your community’s feedback, but ultimately you have to take all those ideas and opinions and weigh them against what’s best for the world you’re evolving."
Dave Grossman Grossman is a LucasArts alum. He co-designed Day of the Tentacle with Tim Schafer. With Schafer and Ron Gilbert, he's considered one of the creators of the Monkey Island franchise. Grossman is Design Director at Telltale, at which he helped write and design Tales of Monkey Island and other games.
"As a writer in an interactive medium, I think the idea of collaboration with the audience is really interesting. We get a little taste of it at Telltale, where, because we work episodically, we can respond to fan feedback (usually in small ways) in the later episodes of a season. But the possibilities become more and more intriguing as the whole gaming world gets used to content that updates more or less constantly, and developers get more adept at reacting to audience feedback that comes back instantly. In theory (in theory, I said) you could get close to that conversational Dungeons and Dragons experience, where the game master and the players are sitting around a table spinning a tale together. The developer essentially trades, at least to some degree, the role of author for the role of...'curator' might be a good way to put it.
Of course, what I’m talking about there is a situation where collaboration with the audience is an aspect of the experience which is included by the developer on purpose. It’s part of the plan from the get-go, presumably because the developer believes there is entertainment value (or some other value) in doing it that way. It’s a bit different when collaboration was not part of the plan, and an author makes revisions to a finished work because some portion of the audience responded in a negative way. I have no hard-and-fast objection to that either, indeed, I wonder whether the idea of a “finished work” is even a concept that has much validity these days. I update my website all the time, why not my game or my story? What I would ask about is not Whether an author changes a narrative, but Why? Is it done in pursuit of quality? Of a better representation of the message of the original? Or just because people complained?
My brain now insists on traveling back to 1991, when my comrades and I released Monkey Island 2. That game had a fairly bizarre ending, for which I personally bear some responsibility, and about which a significant portion of the audience expressed displeasure. During development there was a lot of discussion over whether the ending was a good idea, and I have to say that in retrospect it’s not my favorite, but I was into it at the time. If we made that game today it would be easy to revise the ending after release—but I still wouldn’t. We had our reasons for including it, and I wouldn’t change it, never have wanted to, and I suspect Ron and Tim would both say the same. Frankly, a great game with a contentious or unpopular ending is not necessarily a bad thing.
But I’m also moved to consider The Curse of Monkey Island, made by my friends Larry and Jonathan a few (okay, six) years later. Here again there were complaints about the ending, in this case because it was absurdly short. I happen to know that they had planned a much more elaborate end, but ran out of budget (a good example of how reality sometimes prevents you from doing the best thing). I’m pretty sure that, given the chance, they would revise that—but not just because the audience raised its voice, because it would be a genuine improvement on their vision for the game.
And in the end, I think that’s where I land: Listening to the audience is important, but it’s when you agree with them that you should make changes. If you’re going to revise stuff, by all means go ahead, but be sure you’re doing it because you want to, not because you think you should."
Paul Taylor Taylor is Joint Managing Director and one of the co-founders of Mode7. He wrote Frozen Synapse. Earlier this week, Taylor revised the ending to Frozen Synapse “as a stupid experiment,” he says. “The community requested ‘more ponies and dinosaurs’ so we gave our artist free reign to fulfill that brief. This ending should only be around for a couple of weeks before we revert back to the original ending and restore the integrity of our creative work! It was quite liberating to trash the end of the story completely, it definitely made me think about a few things.”
"I don't think you should revisit the ending of something after it’s been released. I've not seen anything to suggest that BioWare were actively considering doing that though.
I'm all for taking player feedback on stories, especially with a branching narrative, because there the player definitely has some kind of ownership of what's happening. However, that should definitely be done during development. Once it's out, it's out: you're trivialising your own decisions by messing with them.
It seems to me that game developers are still battling with story in general: it's rarely executed in an elegant way. Even something like Dear Esther, which I love, has some severe limitations on what it's able to do with narrative. It does intrigue me that text-based interactive fiction has had this incredibly rich history of gameplay and narrative innovation (which continues with some of the stuff people are producing in that form today) but none of that as really crossed over into more mainstream gaming."
Susan O’Connor O’Connor is a professional game writer. She’s written for BioShock, BioShock 2, and Far Cry 2, among other games. She founded the Game Writers Conference, now part of GDC Austin. In 2008, she shared the GDC “Best Writing” award (for BioShock) with Ken Levine, Joe McDonagh, and Emily Ridgway.
"Whoever said 'Dying is easy, comedy is hard' never wrote for video games. I haven't played Mass Effect 3 yet, so I can't speak to that game specifically, except to say that my heart goes out to those guys on the team, who I am sure worked incredibly hard on that project. This whole experience has got to be a punch in the gut for them. Speaking more generally, this issue feels like one of player expectation. The takeaway, for me, is that if players are promised player agency, they're going to want to see that promise delivered all the way to the (bitter) end.
If players know from the get-go that they're playing an authored game—or if they're lulled into complacency with the illusion of agency—then they'll accept an authored ending, as we've seen with other successful games. The trick is to know up front which kind of game the team is making, so that they can set player expectation—AND TEAM expectation as well. If the creatives know up front that they're not the ones telling the story—that their job is to give players the tools to tell their own story, and then get out of the way—then they'll come at the work from a completely different place. And the end result will be dramatically different. Better? That I don't know. Only time will tell. (I'm a sucker for a good story, myself, so I'm a little biased.)"
Top-of-page Mass Effect 3 illustration by PATRYK OLEJNICZAK. See more Mass Effect illustrations on Patryk’s blog. http://garrettartlair.blogspot.com/