Ralen Hlaalo is a cupboard

This was written for June-July’s Blogs of the Round Table, on NPCs in video games.

Perhaps you’re meant to have meaningful, deep interactions with characters in games that can actually speak. But they’re all just robots. Interact in a certain way, as a blank avatar, and they will love or hate you regardless of who you are. They are obviously a series of lines responding to inputs.

Or, if my avatar is a specific character, they’re responding in a story that I don’t feel is mine. I don’t have intimate relationships with characters in books either. I might like them, or admire their actions, but I don’t have deep meaningful interactions with them.

Ralen Hlaalo is different, because he is a cupboard.

Balmora, with some pretty textures.
Balmora, with some pretty textures.

Ralen Hlaalo is dead, to begin with. He lived in Balmora, a town on the south-west side of the island of Morrowind, to the north of Vvardenfell, where the Dunmer live. At the beginning of Morrowind, the third Elder Scrolls game, you arrive by boat in the tiny township of Seyda Neen. From there, you’re directed to Balmora, which is – if you want it to be – a hub area for at least the first few levels of your game. It has a Mages Guild, a Fighters Guild and a Thieves Guild; it has good transport connections and is conveniently located for exploration.

It’s also the ancestral seat of one of the three families that rule Morrowind: House Hlaalu. They’re into diplomacy and trade and sneaky business. They’re also mega-rich, which makes them targets. Ralen Hlaalo has been murdered, and his body lies face up on the carpet of his luxurious home west of the river. His maid stands in her room, waiting for you to pick the locks or acquire the keys to the house and ask her about what happened here.

Later, when your Sneak gets high enough, you can probably pilfer the contents of her jewellery box and her copies of Vivec’s sermons off her shelf, and then shut the door again, knowing she doesn’t need food or conversation or even the little luxuries the game originally gives her.

The Hlaalo manor is one of the better options for a starting house, once you can get into it. It contains a vast array of containers – crates, barrels, chests – and a bed where you can sleep in peace; it has a wall of excellent shelves you can use, if you’d like, to display the many treasures you’ll acquire over the course of your time in Morrowind; it’s full of stuff you can just take right now and fence to the Khajit down the road, and no one will stop to ask what you’re doing with all those glass bowls and tableware that used to belong to that nice Mr Hlaalo, so recently murdered. You can get a decent start in life from Ralen’s end.

But even after you’ve stripped the clothes from his corpse, his body will remain. It will be there forever. Later on, you will come to realise it is a more powerful asset than almost anything else in the game when it comes to boosting your income. Because Ralen Hlaalo is an infinite cupboard.

I've seen this guy a few times.
I’ve seen this guy a few times.

A few words on how Morrowind’s encumbrance and travel systems work: they are designed to frustrate you. They are designed to be difficult to navigate. Morrowind is a walkable game, made before “walking simulator” became a term of vague disapproval. It wants you to walk between travel points, not bamf around a map with fast travel. It wants you to plan journeys. It wants you to discover familiar paths and shortcuts, to get to know the landscape intimately, to be excited about the first time you travel somewhere. I have walked south from Balmora so many times I could do it in my sleep. Whenever I move house in the real world I start a new game of Morrowind so I can walk from Seyda Neen to Balmora and from Balmora to Hla Oad, just for the familiarity.

There are a few systems for fast travel. There are boats in seaside towns, each one of which visits a limited number of locations; you may have to chain trips together. There are silt striders, tall weird insect buses that visit a few landlocked cities each. There are Mages Guilds, each one of which has a teleporter inside to access all the others. Then there are teleportation spells: Divine Intervention, which will transport you to the nearest Imperial Cult shrine, and Almsivi Intervention, which takes you to the nearest Tribunal temple.

The map that came with the game, which is the only real way to find out about the forts.
The map that came with the game, which is the only real way to find out about the forts.

And there is a network of forts littered around the landscape, not one of which is ever relevant to the story, each one containing one teleport pylon that can take you to two other forts, and one lockstone that opens it up as a destination. Also normally they contain significant numbers of orcs. Opening them up is the sort of quest that matters only because travel is a limited, finite resource. It makes Morrowind feel incredibly dated. It is also one of the reasons why it has stuck with so many people as a game with such a powerful sense of place.

Encumbrance is a problem. A lot of the best loot in Morrowind is heavy – raw ebony, raw glass, Dwemer pots and scrap metal – and the average dungeon is large and contains many shiny things that, if you are a looter like me, you will itch to possess.

You don’t just slow down when you’re carrying too much loot for your character’s stats: you stop completely. You can’t drag yourself out of the dungeon to the teleport. You can’t do anything. You can swing your sword a bit but that’s not much good. You can’t take it all with you. You have to unpack.

But there is one other option. There is a pair of spells that you can use to actually go where you want to go, without needing to walk when you get there. Mark lets you pick one point on the map, just one. Recall lets you transport there instantly. Regardless of how much you’re carrying.

What happens at the other end? You have to unpack immediately into chests or crates or boxes, but those things themselves have a finite limit on how much they can contain. You can’t put all your things in one cupboard, because the cupboard is just not big enough. Unless the cupboard is Ralen Hlaalo.

Ralen can take as much ebony and glass and assorted swords and bandit armour as you can loot. He will even obligingly cover his nakedness – assuming you have stripped him to sell his expensive clothes – with whatever arms and armour you happen to have looted. He does not rot. He does not require gifts or moral decisions or tribute. He will not send you on a quest, beyond avenging his death, which you’re free not to do with no consequences. You can set your Mark spell within reach of his glassy eyes, load him up with your spare things on arrival, then jaunt down to the pawnbroker where you originally sold all his fancy glassware and, in a few trips with some awkward 24-hour rests in the middle, be significantly richer for little extra effort. He is obligingly calm the entire time.

A talking mudcrab.
A talking mudcrab.

In one game, I appreciated his use so much I summoned him a giant talking mudcrab friend – the mudcrab is the richest merchant in the game, and normally lives on an inconveniently distant island to the east of a Dwemer ruin, but you can use the console to position him wherever you’d like.

It is the only time I have ever cheated in Morrowind. I’d like to tell you it was so that Ralen wouldn’t be alone. Honestly: I did it all for the gold.

A cupboard.
A cupboard.

But by that time, I didn’t need the gold. I had more than 300,000 gold. There is nothing in Morrowind that costs even half that much. I had crates of alchemical ingredients and the skill to create any potion I wanted in qualities better than I could buy. I had one of every helmet in the game, carefully displayed on one of the sets of shelves. I had all 36 of Vivec’s sermons, stacked on the long dining table. I had Azura’s Star and Mehrunes’ Razer and the Fork of Horripilation. I had stacks of legendary weapons and the best light, medium and heavy armour in the game. I was the leader of the Mages, Thieves and Fighters Guilds, the head of House Hlaalu, one of the highest ranked members of both the Temple and the Imperial Cult, well on my way to being declared the Nerevarine. I had a giant, talking mudcrab filling half the space in my hallway, occasionally obstructing the door and making weird chittering noises, because I wanted more gold. My best friend was a cupboard.

Ralen Hlaalo didn’t judge me.

Ralen Hlaalo is the only NPC that I can recall having a relationship with that was sustained, reinforced, by the game’s systems. I return to him time and time again, every time I play Morrowind: I loot his house, I steal from his maid, I sleep in his bed, I strip his corpse. He is not a cipher or a character. He is a system. He is a cupboard. He is the most memorable NPC in my twenty-odd years of gaming, because he is the only one that never pretended to be human.

Every player is an author

This was written in part as a response to the current Blogs of the Round Table topic, “What’s the story?” If you want to read the other responses, please go there and use the dropdown list, because I still can’t get it to work here without breaking my blog. 🙁

Stories in games are a battleground, especially in digital & video games. I’ve had a couple of tangles in the past with folks who think games can’t tell stories, that good stories and good games just don’t mix, and that games built around stories don’t sell; others say that all games have a story of some sort, even if only an experiential one, and that narrative’s essentially built in to all games.

Reality, as ever, is somewhere in the middle, and a bit more nuanced than that. Zombies, Run, Gunpoint and Gone Home, to name three at random, are excellent examples of narrative built in to digital games from the ground up; Tetris, Super Hexagon and Peggle are excellent examples of games that don’t need narrative at all. Most games do try to tell a story, but the most successful ones let the player do the telling themselves, and give them agency over the narrative – or at least acknowledge the primacy of their play over authored and scripted elements.

Gone Home, Day Z and Minecraft, despite their many differences, are all about creating a world and letting players explore it. Each lays out the bare bones of their worlds and invites exploration, asking players to make their marks on the experience, by creating their own niche within the world or by uncovering the mysteries and reaching conclusions the game’s creators left behind. The difference is in scripted vs unscripted narrative, the difference between imposing an authorial vision on the player vs instructing and equipping them to make their own.

Cut scenes in gaming are, to be blunt, godawful ways of telling a story. So are journal pages left scattered around a landscape – pointless objects supposedly created and discarded with not even the most cursory nod to believability or the internal credibility of the game world. Players are asked too often to suspend their disbelief, not in a “this giant underwater city is (a) real and (b) full of drug-crazed libertarians” way to buy into a grand narrative, but in a “my character’s arch-enemy would definitely communicate privately with themselves through tapes strewn randomly around corridors and cafes” way that denies the internal consistency of the characters within a world. Players are asked to tolerate having control taken completely away from them by an invisible hand, for the sake of a plot point or two. They’re asked to carry out all the action most of the time, but remove themselves and watch passively when it matters most.

Sacrificing believability for delivery undermines a story, and taking player agency away mucks about with consent and identification in ways that most games don’t bother to consider (the first Bioshock game is the obvious exception here). Game stories that use the medium well are incomplete without a player – they require play as an intrinsic element of their enaction, not as a way of filling in the gaps between cut scenes, and they don’t subvert played choices with authored ones (see also: LA Noire, Nico and the prostitute in GTA4).

For instance, The Last Of Us succeeds as a story not because it is a revolutionary approach to narrative, but because it is decently written and because its play elements accord with its authored ones. It makes the player complicit in a combined act of authorship as the game is played: it doesn’t force conflict between the experienced and the authored story.

So much of the perceived conflict between game stories and game mechanics comes from an arbitrary approach of pushing story out on its own – whether it’s seen as more or less important than mechanics in a game, it’s the fact it’s seen as separate that causes problems. Sometimes it’s a decision by studios to keep story creation separate from gameplay. Sometimes it’s a broader production approach that considers them as two separate elements, when – at their most successful – they’re inextricably intertwined. Too many games fail to integrate story into the game at the mechanical level, breaking both the story and the game in the process.Story doesn’t work if it’s limited to spaces where the player no longer has agency, or where their agency is strictly limited by things like dialogue trees or morality systems with the subtlety of a bludgeon.

One of Douglas Adams’s lesser-known games, Starship Titanic, relies on both adventure-game point-and-click mechanics and on freestyle text inputs that let you converse with the robots that inhabit the ship. It was released in 1998, and has more than 10,000 potential responses coded into its conversation engine. Making the characters robots is a smart choice that lets the game get away with repeated scripted responses, and making it possible to talk to them – to say anything at all – is still revolutionary. At one point you have to persuade a bomb (played by John Cleese) to stop counting down. There’s no list of standard responses, no ‘persuade’ options, no raw skill numbers to test against. There’s you, typing, and frankly it’s some of the best games dialogue ever written.

What’s the story? The story’s a collaboration. The author’s not dead, but she’s a shifting entity made up of many others: the designers, the writers, the game’s creators, and its players too. Game makers have to give players the tools they need to do their part of the job without going against anything that’s come before. Video gaming is at heart a performative medium with at least one actor, often more akin to theatre than to cinema. Storytelling in a game is not a broadcast act with a teller and a receiver. It’s an act of authorship that’s incomplete until it’s played.

Where is the Roger Ebert’s commissioning editor of games?

warren spectorWarren Spector’s latest GI column asks: where is the Roger Ebert of gaming? He bemoans the lack of accessible, consistent writing about games in mainstream media, aimed at broad rather than specialist audiences. The key passages are a call to action:

I’m not saying reaching an audience that doesn’t know enough to take games seriously will be easy. I’m for sure not finding fault with people currently trying to accomplish this difficult goal. I’m just saying we need to continue working and harder to bring more writers and thinkers into the area between Reviewers and Academia. We can’t be complacent and say, “Aw, what we got is good enough.”

Let’s inundate the bookshelves, magazine sections and the web with work that isn’t above (or below) the heads of readers. Only in that way will we achieve the level of respect I believe we deserve. Only in that way will we create an audience more demanding of the medium, which will inevitably lead to different and, I’d argue, better games.

This kind of treatment – as exemplified by the Times articles mentioned above – would do games a world of good. Establishing games in the public mind as something good and worthy and serious, and not just “fun for kids, but not for me” seems important to me. It’s important to developers, publishers, players and maybe even to – for want of a better word – enemies who might come to a more nuanced understanding of our medium.

Frankly, if games are not up to this sort of critical analysis then maybe they are just a way to provide some thrills and chills or some time away from real world problems, as our critics (in still another sense of the word) contend.

I agree, broadly, with the sentiment of the piece – that there is not enough mainstream game criticism of explanation, rather than of evaluation – but the issue is not that we do not have one or many Roger Eberts. It’s that we don’t have Roger Ebert’s editors. In the English speaking world, we don’t have a mainstream press that commissions these pieces consistently from the many talented critics who are already doing this work. We have a mainstream press, for the most part, that commissions very short reviews with evaluative ratings on only the very biggest, most blockbusting titles, or that syndicates specialist content written for gamer audiences rather than for the general public. We have a mainstream media that doesn’t want to – or can’t – pay excellent writers properly to produce excellent work, or promote it appropriately when it does. (That’s a sweeping generalisation, of course. There are many exceptions and many outlets where this is changing. But there aren’t enough.)

Outside the specialist press, the enthusiast press and the academic press, accessible games criticism is not reaching the audience it deserves because it’s not being widely commissioned or published in mainstream publications. It’s not that there’s no demand from audiences – the proliferation of intelligent and accessible work on Tumblr, on personal blogs, and elsewhere is testament to the voracity of that demand. It’s not that there are no writers capable of such accessibility, insight and excellence; there are dozens.

It is, however, about the business and budgetary crises in mainstream media. It’s about the gradual shift away from gamer-as-identity to gaming-as-mainstream-pastime, as more people play games and fewer think of game-playing as a fundamental element of their personality. It’s about the youth of video games and video game writing alike as creative media, and their dual resistance to external critique. And it’s about the shift in thinking involved in situating video games as culture and entertainment when historically mainstream media has covered them as technology. These are all issues that time will solve, one way or the other.

This month’s Blogs of the Round Table topic over on Critical Distance asks what the future of video game blogging is, and this can serve as my response: the future of video game blogging is mainstream. At the moment – like it or not – the best, most accessible, most interesting games writers are freelancers, working for niche outlets and writing for themselves. The future for video games blogging is a mass audience. And hopefully better pay along with it.

[I can’t make the iframe link list to the other BoRT blogs work here – but you should go here and read the others too.]