The Madness of Roland

The Madness of Roland is an early example of interactive and branching narrative. It is written with multiple perspectives of a single event. For reference it can be found at http://www.hyperbole.com/full/serial/roland/roland.html

To start, The Madness of Roland looks and feels very dated. Its navigation and styling makes understanding and following the story very difficult.

Beyond its organization and technological shortcomings lies a relatively engaging story. What is interesting is that while the different characters use the Siege of Paris as a background for their narrative, the story arc is focused solely on the character of Roland.

The Madness of Roland’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Each story, or perspective of the story, has a very unique feel that is in many ways in direct opposition to other accounts. Normally the fresh perspectives would improve the dynamic story, however the different accounts lack adequate introduction which can confuse the reader.  Without knowing the setting for the account, the characters involved, or the time frame; connecting the ideas from one account to another can be difficult.

The Madness of Roland uses good language and strong dialogue. The individual stories themselves not only provide a different account of the Roland character, but the manner in which each account is delivered literary unique. The first account is given by a minor character who narrates his interaction with the major character Mandricardo. This is in a way a second-hand account because the perspective is Mandricardo’s viewpoint, but it is chronicled by his companion.  Roland gives his side of the story in a narrative form as though he is retelling the account to someone or logging it in a journal. It’s clarity and insightful nature provide a completely different view of Roland’s character than all other accounts. Charlemagne’s fevered and rambling account gives small pieces of background while maintaining the focus on Roland. The account from Angelica was given as a stream of conciseness narration of a very brief event.

Separate perspectives give an understanding of not only Roland’s character, but of the mindset and personality of each person giving an account. Readers can recognize different biases and irregularities from each character and it will facilitate the formation of a clearer understanding of the Siege of Paris and Roland’s involvement.

The Madness of Roland has strong writing and a good foundation for branching narrative. However its obsolete and troubled system of delivery (and acting) make enjoying the story more difficult than necessary.

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Music as a Metaphor

Language tells us that music is a tangible object, beyond a simple experience.

The comparison is often drawn that, music while being mere air pressure fluctuations, has a tangible nature that can be manipulated and  experienced by the listener in a manner that they would interact with other physical objects.

People often say:

‘The music washed over the audience.” As though the music were water.

“The musician wove a masterpiece.” As though the music were a fabric.

“The composer built a beautiful symphony.” As though the music was a monument or structure.

All people who have heard or listened to music agree that the experience possesses physical attributes similar to other human sensations;  and its composition and structure shares qualities with common constructs of society/humanity.

Take for example the oft remarked observation that, “The music washed over the audience”. Music possesses qualities much like water. Music has peaks and troughs like the movement of water. People relate the moments of quiet and calm punctuated by quickened tempo and climatic crescendo to the tides of water. Continuity in music mimics the continual motion of water.

People often liken the composition and writing of music to the different constructive exercises, the notes and melody of a song must be timed, placed, and positioned to create a cohesive tune. This practice is much like the interweaving of fabrics and threads when creating clothing. Similarly composers must properly utilize different sections of his symphony to piece together a concerto. Each section has qualities and strengths that when tempered with others work much like the building blocks of a super structure.

Music also has a very visceral mental/physiological stimulation for listeners. Listening to music (that one enjoys) has many neural responses; many of which are similar to the sensation of touch (due to not only the actual air pressure variation, but the mental connections associated with sound) and genuine elation. Such elation is often compared to relaxing and pleasurable sensations, similar to the feeling of water over the skin. Music illustrates the Descartes’ duality of merging physical sensations of the body to mental and ethereal experiences of the mind.

Music is in many ways an abstract experience, for listeners with limited understanding of language or vocabulary it is often hard to describe what they are feeling when the listen to music. This confusion leads to simpler and more relatable explanations for music.

That often means using other real life examples as a comparison or metaphor.

What SOPA, PIPA, and ACTA are really about.

Disclaimer & Citation- A lot of the ideas and arguments that I will be discussing in this post are positions and arguments that I have heard from a number of sources, but the one that deserves most of the credit is Jim Sterling.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Jim Sterling, he is a semi-notable video games journalist. He does extensive Reviews for Destructiod.com (one of the best places for balanced and thorough game reviews). He also does a lot of Op-Ed pieces around the web for sites like Destructiod.com and The Escapist Magazine. He has some truly interesting view points, a stinging wit, and tremendous persuasive ability.

In one of the recent most Destructoid Podcasts he discusses the true motivation behind the recent rash of Intellectual Property (IP) related legislation, and it provided a view point that I hadn’t previously considered.

Most proponents of the current IP legislation whether it be SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act), PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act), or ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement); will claim that their goal is to stop the illegal distribution of copyrighted material. That they wish to stop the illegal distribution of said material in order to protect the property rights of those that created it, and to ensure the successful/profitable sale of that property without illegal competition.

Now that seems just fucking peachy, but unfortunately, the measures through which that property is to be protected could aptly be described as draconian. I will assume at this point that most people understand that full power that legislation like SOPA and PIPA could have wielded. That the government and corporations could effectively remove certain sites from the web through server takedowns, DNS blocking (making your webpage unreachable), or restricting cash flow. If you are still unclear I would point you to this brief video which is one of the best and simplest breakdowns of the bills (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EBy7yooz3MM).

So while many may understand what the bill is capable of doing, many of us don’t understand fully why it is being lobbied so fervently.

The publicized position for most publishers, producers, and corporations is well known. But Mr. Sterling accentuated a very real ulterior motivation for supporting such legislation:

These publishers want the ability to stifle potential IP owners who they don’t directly control or who are not connected to them. Most publishers will claim be protecting the rights and property of the creative artist, but in fact they are protecting themselves because more often than not: they own the rights or licensing to IP created by others. These publishers, recording companies, movie studios, and printers are scared shitless of Artists who can effectively cut them out the equation.

The internet has made it possible for a single person with no backing or large distribution company to reach an audience of millions, making these very powerful companies obsolete. These distributors fear that obsolescence and are fighting tooth and nail to stop artists from circumventing them. This is a prime example of middle men trying to hopelessly to remain relevant, with destructive results.

Indie video game developers (like Team Meat and Mojang), musicians (like Trent Reznor), and comedians (like Louis C.K.), have made thousands and millions of dollars on media that was not controlled or managed, simply delivered to the audience and payment was asked for up front.

That type of business model involves a direct dialogue and interaction between the artist and the consumer is the exact reason why major publishers and distributors support legislation like SOPA and PIPA. It destroys the feedback loop that they use to entrap most creative artists.

You can talk to nearly any person well versed in copyright and they will tell you the same thing: while copyrights and patents were invented to protect an individual’s ideas and intellectual property; that is no longer the case. IP laws have created an environment where copyrights are used by corporations to leverage each other in business dealing.  Publishers and Recording agencies convince unwitting artists to surrender the rights to their ideas for the ability to spread those ideas. Most artists are trapped by these distributors, paying off ever accumulating debt and service charges, while retaining no rights to their IP should they choose to walk away.

Now that the internet challenges the current paradigm, everyone with a stake in exploiting the work of artists (or selling someone else’s intellectual property) is scrambling for the nearest telephone to whisper sweet nothings in the ear of our Legislature. To convince elected officials that this open environment of communication must be regulated in order to prevent ‘theft’ and to uphold the rule of law.

The bottom line for most of these pieces of legislation is that entertainment groups and organizations like the MPAA, RIAA, and ESA are seeking to extend their control over the IP licenses that have accumulated and to ensure that other people can’t freely share the IP that these companies don’t yet own.

For those of you who think this is over, you would do well to pay attention. We haven’t finished this argument yet.

Edited Podcast

**I have cut the original podcast for those who just want to listen to the discuss on IP. I do not own the rights to said podcast, I am just simply trying to give credit where credit is due, and to spread ideas that are valuable.**

Original Podcast

(IP discussion starts around 53 minute mark)

9% is not enough.

This is a speech I recently gave a school. The purpose of which was to persuade my audience to take an immediate and personal action. If some of the phrasing seems awkward or out of place, that may be due to the fact that it was delivered to classroom of 20 people.

What if I told you only 1 person in this room was satisfied with the way that this class was being taught? That only 9% of this class was happy with their choice. What if I told you that if you were unhappy with how class was being run, you have the power to change that? What if I told you that it wasn’t just us here in the classroom who were dissatisfied, but that there were another 260 million angry Americans out there as well?

At the end of 2011, 9% of Americans approved of the job being done by the United States Congress. I currently study political science and I have firsthand experience in local government. That passion and experience  has led me to actively follow and participate in congressional politics. By the time I finish here; hopefully you will follow more closely the activity of Congress and you will exercise your influence over it.

CBS and the New York Times found in a 2011 survey that more than 84% of Americans believe that the Congress isn’t doing their job. 9% think they are doing their job. Another 7% don’t even have an opinion.

Do you know who in the federal government can declare war? Or who can institute a draft for said war? How about who sets the tax rate that you pay on your income? Do you know who writes criminal laws you are subject to?

Congress: Your Senators and Congressman are the members of the most powerful branch in the Federal government. Yet somehow the group given such an enormous power over our lives seems to fall short of expectation. How many of you, know the names of your 2 Senators and your Congressman?  If you do, do you know what their party is? Their voting record?

Much of the discontent with congress comes from the apparent disconnect between your representatives and you. Why is there such a disconnect? According to the same CBS poll, Americans at-large gave their local congressmen an approval rating that more than triples the national average. So what Americans are saying is “Congress is broken, but my Congressman is doing fine.” This logic illustrates a problem with voter perception of the Congress. We are electing officials that we may not fully understand or support.

Each and every one of us, excluding convicted felons, has the ability and the right to change this. The Constitution guarantees the right to vote of every citizen. Many younger citizens approach voting as a nuisance and waste of time, believing in their mind that their vote does not impact the overall race. Students from the ages of 18-24, according to the Census Bureau, have the smallest voter turnout rate of any age group by about 5-10% (depending on the year).

If you feel that your vote doesn’t count. Think about this for a moment: Congressional races have only a few thousand voters, just the people who live in your district. As opposed to the 120+ million voters that vote in the presidential election. The concentrated voting pool empowers each vote; you have an amplified impact in Congressional races. Senatorial races are similar; most states base senate races on a county by county basis. So your vote can help determine which candidate your county will go to.

While all you have this influence of Congress, not everyone exercises it. According to George Mason University analysis, voter turn-out during non-presidential elections, called midterm elections, is almost half of turnout during presidential elections. Many of you may have an issue with Congress, yet no one is voting to express their concern.

In order for you to be represented properly, it is your responsibility to understand the people who represent you. You must form an independent opinion of the candidates and evaluate whether that candidate accurately represents your interests, or if they think they are qualified to make decisions that impact the entire nation. How can you evaluate these candidates? There are a score of resources available to all citizens that provide clear information regarding politicians. A quick Google search of my Congressman, Rodney Frelinghuysen brought me to his website. There I found a page that listed his stance on issues, legislation he has promoted, and contact information. Using that information, I personally called my congressman’s office during the House consideration of SOPA to express my disapproval of the bill. You can do the same.

If a candidate already holds office, you can examine their voting record. Nearly all votes in Congress (and State Legislatures!) are available online (http://thomas.loc.gov/home/thomas.php), you can see exactly what your Representatives are supporting or opposing. Most Congressional races and all Senatorial races involve a debate between candidates. Watching these debates can be useful to see where each candidate stands, but also seeing how skilled they are at debate. Debating skills are essential to your representative choice. Congress is a deliberative body and your representative’s job is to make a persuasive case for your needs, and to convince others to support those ideals.

2012 is a General election year, 435 Representatives, 33 Senators, and 1 President will be elected.

How many times someone asked you ‘who you are voting for?’ Do you have an answer? If you tell them, do they ask you, “why?” Maybe you have not paid close attention to the elections, and you don’t have an answer. Now imagine that before election week you checked out each of the candidates in the race, again someone asks you for who you are voting. You can not only tell them which candidate you support for president; but Senate too; and even the House of Representatives. Not only that but you could tell them why you support those candidates. And you might even be able to convince them to support those candidates too, so now your vote (which you may have thought useless) has now doubled in its impact. With a Congress that is supported by more than 9% of the people, we can expect more success in Congress. Perhaps a different type of representative will arrive in Washington if you pay closer attention to these Congressional/Senatorial races: A representative who is truly connected to you. With a return to a more independent and self representative people there will be a stronger confidence in government and more satisfaction with its actions.

Becoming more involved with Congressional and Senatorial races is simple, there are many things you can do to participate:

  • You can register to vote if you have not already. You can register by mail, or at your local town hall or court house.  (http://www.eac.gov/voter_resources/register_to_vote.aspx)
  • You can become more educated about candidates by researching them using web and public records.
  • Contact your Representatives! If you don’t like the way your representative is voting you can call them and their office will take down your opinion. Senators and Congressmen honestly listen to feedback from voters. If there is an overwhelming opposition or support of a bill, they may change their vote.
  • You can donate to or volunteer for a Congressional or Senatorial campaign. These campaigns are always looking for enthusiastic people to help spread their message.
  • Vote. You have a voice and a say in the way that your government is run, if you won’t stand up for your rights and beliefs, why should anyone else do that for you?

James Wilson, the unsung writer of the Constitution, mused about popular representation saying that:

“Oft I have marked, with silent pleasure and admiration, the force and prevalence, throughout the United States, of the principle that the supreme power resides in the people, and that they never part with it… There is a remedy, therefore, for every distemper in government, if the people are not wanting to themselves; if they are wanting to themselves, there is no remedy.”

 

 Sources:

Voice Over: Not a button you can simply push.

(DISCLAIMER: So I have written this post about 3 separate times. First it was disjointed, so I scrapped it, and then it was about 4500 words. So I started once more… So bear with me. )

Sound is one of the most criminally underappreciated elements of game design. Sound design, game music, musical scores, sound effects, and voices all of these pieces make up the whole that is a cohesive game experience. When one of these elements lacks polish or is simply nonexistent a game can flop.

Voice over is one of the oldest parts of sound and game design. Before 3D graphics were considered in games, people were stepping up to the mic and giving speech and form to the in game characters and experiences.

Voice over is critically important to numerous aspects of any game. When it fails everyone seems to have an opinion on it; when it is delivered perfectly, most people overlook it.  When a player is immersed in a game, chances are that they do not realize what exactly is creating the experience, for to realize the ways in which they are being drawn in would render the effect useless. When players can’t find themselves enjoying or being enthralled by a game, they will begin to catalogue every issue they notice with the game. Voice over is usually pretty high on that list of problems. Voice over is categorically overlooked except when it fails.

As mentioned in a previous post (Why Skyrim isn’t Racist Enough) I explained the ways in which a voice can provide for subconscious character development by drawing upon user’s understanding of existing cultural identities. Take a look if you are interested how VO impacts in character design.

There is a way of producing Voice-over, but before you can address the quality of VO you must understand how voice over is created. It must be clear how an idea on a page can transform into thousands of lines of polished dialogue.

1. Ideation

Ideation is the process through which the designers/developers create and brainstorm the project. They will develop the setting, mood, atmosphere, theme, and game play. When they have outlined the basic information and they have sketched out a story, the process can continue.

2. Character Sketches / Bios

During the second step, developers will begin to create characters for the story. They give the characters names, faces, imperfections, personalities and backgrounds. All of the information cultivated by the designers and writers is broken down into character sketches, approximately 1-2 page summaries. This is used as a template for the production team in casting decisions. I’ll elaborate later.

*After Step 2, this is where production begins in earnest. At this point responsibilities shift hands. Step 1 and Step 2 usually fall squarely on the shoulders of a smaller group of writers and designers. There are a few different ways voice over can be done: 1) in-house 2) on contract or 3) a mixture of both. Each method has its benefits and drawbacks, but I won’t get too heavily into detail on that.*

3. Casting Research/Celebrity Searching

Research is a combination of a few different processes. Primarily, this is the stage where the casting crew will pore over the character sketches and try to understand the characters as best as possible; the process ensures that they can make the best casting decision. Most AAA games call for at least 1 celebrity appearance to raise the profile of the game and bring strong talent to the project. The rest of the roles will fall to other non-‘A List’ actors.

4. Casting

Casting can be conducted in many different ways. There are 3 general types that can describe casting practices.

  1. Celebrity Casting – As I stated before, celebrities are often casted for video game roles in order to elevate the caliber and marketing profile of a game. When dealing with these celebrities, they are not to be handled like normal actors. Unlike normal actors, won’t be calling a celebrity in for an audition; you will simply offer their agent/manager the role. After the manager and agent discuss it with actor, the production crew may be given the chance to open a dialogue with the actor. Once questions are answered, and if the actor accepts, negotiation starts. The negotiated contract will cover everything from how much they will be paid to how many copies of the game they will receive, even including what beverages will be stocked in the car that transports them to and from the studio.
  2. General Casting- This is targeted casting where the casting director and crew will contact agencies and actors directly for auditions. These actors will range from mid-profile film and TV actors, to high profile voice actors. These actors will usually audition for the role; if they perform well they will be asked to return for ‘callbacks,’ a second round of auditions with a selected pool of actors. These actors may negotiate contracts or be paid according to *scale (*See below).
  3. Cattle Call – This is what people think of when they think of casting. First, the production team will publish a casting call for each role. The call will typically go out to small time or unknown actors. Then actors will schedule auditions. The casting director or associate will sit in a room for the better part of a day doing back-to-back auditions with all the actors. If one of the actors performs well they will be offered a callback (*See above). If they get the part they will be paid on *scale.

Scale – Think of scale as minimum wage for voice actors. Scale is established by AFTRA (an actor’s union), and starts at ~$800 a day. One day of performance (a ‘day’ is a 4-hour session) will earn the actor just under a grand. Depending on the reputation of the actor, they may be paid overscale, which is simply more than scale. Usually overscale is paid in increments of scale. So a C-List actor or a big name VO actor will get Double Scale for a session. A 4-hour day will net them pay equivalent of two 4-hour days, ~$1600. On the surface, a $200/hr wage may seem excessive, but most actors will finish their recording in only 2 or 3 days of performance which means they receive only 2-3 scale payments.

5. Writing

*Clarification: Writing can happen at any point during the development cycle of a game. Some studios prefer to write at the start of the project, while others prefer to write dialogue well into the game production.

With the roles and story solidified the writing team (either the studio’s writers or the contracted writing team) will develop dialogue for the characters and weave a ‘screenplay’. The game script will determine not only what actors will say what but when and the manner the lines are to be delivered. Additionally, all games have ‘throw away dialogue’. This dialogue is something that takes place outside the scope of the story and with no player interaction. A prime example would be the Elder Scrolls series: in the game you will notice that as you pass NPCs within a certain distance they will spew a nebulous piece of dialogue at the character. The purpose of that speech is to deepen immersion for the player.

6. Organizing

Tied in with writing is the organization of the script. Each line for each character must be organized into categories by actor and by role (*Note: some actors play more than one role in a given game). If the primary character has 2000 lines to read, those lines must be put into a single organization. During recording, the actor and staff can read a line; mark it done; and move on efficiently.

Writing is often done in-house and production is done on contract; as a result organization between companies can break down and cause undue delay. Uniform and efficient organization is critical for a timely production schedule. 

7. Recording

Recording is what first comes to mind for most when they imagine voice over production. However, it is probably much different than most people assume. Recording is a small and intimate process. There are only 3 people necessary for a successful recording session.

  1. The Talent: The actor is the pivotal part of recording and without them everyone else is recording an empty booth.
  2. Voice Director: This is the primary support for the actor. The director’s job is to prep the actor before each line. If the line delivery was not spot-on, the director will provide some direction to push the actor more towards a more perfect delivery.
  3. Sound Engineer: This person is responsible for controlling the technical side of recording. They manage the sound board, run the software suite that records the session, and update the line count after each delivery.

Voice Over is a very strenuous on the voice actor. It involves a large amount of repetition, speaking in unnatural accents, straining of the voice (to either create abnormal sounds or loud vocalizations called ‘efforts’), and it is fast (relentlessly so). This type of activity can be both physically and mentally exhausting for actors. Many screen actors who are new to voice acting will soon find they struggle to keep pace. Newer actors with little experience find that delivering lines with little preparation is difficult, that may mean a recast will be necessary for certain actors if they can’t keep up.

If some lines don’t get recorded before the session ends, or if an editor can’t salvage any of the takes, the actor will be called in for pickups. Pickups are simply when the actor returns for another session to record the lines that weren’t completed.

8. Editing

Voice Over editing is a two part process. First, during the recording session the director will denote which of the recorded takes was best delivered. Second, it is the responsibility of the editor to examine the indicated take and cut it accordingly. When a line is recorded, all the takes are recorded to one audio file, the good take is surrounded by bad takes and aimless talking. The editor needs to cut the good take cleanly from that file and polish it up. ‘Polish’ is adding any number of voodoo type post production magics to the line: cleaning up audio artifacts, removing excess noise, and cutting out sounds unintentionally made by the actor. If in the good take the actor stumbled on a single word, the editor may take the problem word from a different take and overwrite the mistake in the good take, creating what is known as a ‘Frankenstein’. These edits will be the final production quality version of the line with background noise and voice problems cleared out.

9. QA (Optional)

Some producers choose to perform Quality Assurance on the dialogue before it gets sent off for good. During QA, production employees will comb over every line that has been edited to check for: consistency with the script (Does the actor say what they are supposed to say?), audio clarity (Are there distracting background noises or artifacts that the editor missed?), and accuracy of labeling (Is the line labeled and named properly? If not the developers will add the line based on its label and the wrong character will spit out the wrong line). If they find errors they mark them to be sent back the editor. If the mistake is bad enough, a re-record will be needed and the line will get sent back to the director for inclusion in the pickups (*See Above: 7-Recording).

10. Delivery

So now that the lines have been recorded, cut, and checked: they are ready to be added into the game. Lines still in the hands of the production team need to be delivered to the development team in order for final implementation. Both teams will have to designate uniform method of delivery so that the developers can anticipate when the lines will be delivered, how many there will be, and what lines are in each delivery. This usually means delivering in bulk organized by: recording day, character, actor, and scene.

11. Implementation

The developer receives the polished lines that have been delivered and inserts them into the game. The developers are responsible for taking the deliveries and decomposing them and then taking the parts and placing them properly throughout the game. This step shows how critical it is for reliable Editing and QA. If a line is cut or labeled improperly, the developers may not catch the mistake, and the may player will hear a character speak someone else’s line.

So that’s Voice Over production in the tightest nut shell I could squeeze it into. I have attached the original full (and relatively unedited) 4500 word post. It goes into much more detail about why certain processes are important or the problems that can arise in each step. If you are interested I ask you to download it and take a look.

As always, comment if you have thoughts, praise, criticism, or objections.

I would ask that you keep in mind this post is based off of my personal experience, and I fully understand the each game publisher and developer goes about VO a different way.

Original:

Coming Soon (I have to clean it up a bit).

Why Skyrim isn’t racist enough.

So for those of you who have been living under a rock: I have wonderful news! The Elder Scrolls dropped its fifth installment 9 days ago. So far it has gained critical success and sold millions upon millions of copies.

Gotta love vikings and dragons.

I have personally dumped in about 40 hours into the game, and I barely scratched the surface of what exists in the game. My quest log is overflowing with things to do and not enough time to do them.

I have a few game play/bug problems I’d love to chat with BethSoft about, but bugs are bugs. It’s hard to avoid them.

One bone that I have to pick with the design of the game however is this: it’s not racist enough.

Now before you call the ACLU, I assure you if anything that is meant to be very inoffensive.

Before I continue, I will say this about Skyrim: this is the perfect exercise of video games as an art form. The countless moving pieces of Skyrim fit together to make a perfect picture of a world that is compelling and enthralling. It forces the player to think and at times, feel.

With any art form it has a powerful story, much of Skyrim’s events are focused around large scale conflicts. The overriding conflict is the civil war between the Aldemeri controlled Empire and the Rebellious Nord Stormcloaks. Now, when working with such a divisive issue as a civil war, the people will be seething anger and discontent for each other. As you walk through the Province of Skyrim you can hear people shouting at each other down city streets damning the opposition and swearing vengeance. People will approach you to help one faction or the other. This conflict runs deep through the game and it creates an atmosphere of overbearing pressure and uncertainty, which parallels and compliments the Dragon threat nicely. So the civil war represents the political struggle in this game. However, tied into the Imperial occupation of Skyrim is the second conflict, the worship of Talos. The Aldemeri Dominion has sent a detachment of the Thalmor, a group of devout Elven warriors who can be most accurately be compared to a Secret Military Police. The Thalmor are present in Skyrim to help keep order, but also to ensure the end of the worship of Talos, the 9th Divine. Talos is a divine of specific importance to Skyrim, not only was Talos born a Nord, Tiber Septim, but he served as the uniting force that established the Empire. So this conflict with the Aldemeri Dominion serves as the religious conflict in Skyrim.

These cultural, political, and religious conflicts help define and shape the world of Skyrim. A world that feels as though it is tearing apart at its very seems, and there are only a few honestly trying to keep it together.

One qualities of Skyrim that is unique to the series is very well defined races. Each of the races has an extraordinarily unique personality that is a result of both superior design and years of refinement.

The Elder Scrolls: Arena released in 1994 and featured 8 of the now 10 races in Tamriel. Since then The Elder Scrolls has released 13 Games and Expansions. Each installment further contributing to the racial identity and history of these 10 cultures.  This rich history provides a cultural understanding of each race that, I can say with strong confidence, exists in almost no other game.

(For those that don’t know what the Khajiit here’s a sketch – Khajiit sketch)

The races of Tamriel are not only beneficiaries of a long history in games, but they all draw their distinctive identity from their impeccable design. Each is designed with features and nuances that allow the player to embellish their understanding of each race subconsciously. The Elder Scrolls races all have a connection to real life races and creatures allowing the player to take their understanding of those parallels and apply it to the Tamriel race.

I’ll take for example one of my favorite races, the Khajiit.

The Khajiit are a cat-like humanoid race. When you first see a Khajiit, your first thought is probably,

‘Holy shit, that cat is standing up and talking to me’.

Once you get past the initial strangeness of having a chat with Mr. Fluffy, you’ll start to make assumptions about the race. First, the feline nature of the Khajiit makes the player think that perhaps the Khajiit share similar attributes to cats. Is it possible that they are quick, graceful, quiet, and mysterious like felines? All of these thing are true, and as such the Khajiit have always had bonuses to speed, sneaking, and agility. If the player is a seasoned RPG veteran, they will begin to form ideas about the role a Khajiit could play. Quiet and light classes come to mind: thieves, assassins, rogues, warriors of speed, and so on.

Beyond their physical appearance is their voice. When you listen to the Khajiit, it is true they have a unique way of speaking that lends itself to what one might expect a cat would talk like if it spoke English. However upon closer examination, you will notice the Khajiit’s accent is actually Arabic in nature. This may seem unoriginal or irrelevant in some regard, but it is actually the greatest strength of some races.

In other games, alien and foreign speech usually has a layered sound effect to make their voice sound unique. Sometimes the actor’s pitch is higher or lower than is normal for a human speech. Effectively accomplishing nothing more than establishing that: Yes indeed, this creature I am speaking with is not human.

(Brings a whole new meaning to cat burglar)

However, Tamriel’s race connections to the real world help players establish race identity subconsciously. As a clarified earlier before, the Khajiit have an Arabic speech pattern, many players may not immediately recognize it consciously, but unconsciously it begins to conjure up many different pieces of cultural identity.

Geography: arid lands and dry climates. It just so happens that Elswyr the province from which the Khajiit hail is:  “harsh badlands and dry plains,”.

Culture: Intelligent, sly, and clever people with battling factions and classes. Upon examination it turns out that there is a class hierarchy in Elswyr based on the vast wealth disparity.

Economy: A strong trading economy with the entire world for its unique resources. Elswyr is known for exporting the psychotropic drug Skooma made from resources unique to Elswyr. Not to mention Khajiit caravans can be seen throughout Tamriel and Skyrim.

It startlingly how many comparisons can be drawn between the Middle Eastern cultures and that of Khajiit.

Taking in mind the time setting, and I begin to imagine an ‘Arabian Nights’-esque scenario with warring Khajiit Families vying for control of the region, sending rooftop thieves and assassins to undermine each other. What follows from such behavior is a reasonable measure of distrust, these trade-conscious (aka greedy) merchants and foreigners simply can’t be trusted.

Clearly the essence of this race’s characteristics is now being shaped by the mind of the user without ever having to see a piece of information to confirm it, but it is all true.

That is incredible character design at work, it’s refreshing and new to players well acquainted with the Tamrielic races; and it is easily identifiable and unique to players unfamiliar with the series.

Seeing how the different races of Skyrim benefit from the design creating more complete identities; it follows that the developers have more to work with. They can address racial issues in game, and they do! Sort of…

Throughout the game there are several cases in the game where NPCs are attacked or berated based on whether they have hair, fur, pointy ears, or scales. These moments are great. They illustrate further a world filled with strife over politics, religion, and race that is tearing asunder.

However these sequences are squandered, the player can seldom interact with the exchanges either by entering the conversation (and telling the bigots to sit and spin on a sharp icicle) or knocking some manners into the racial ignoramuses (which currently has no street justice value because the guards arrest you just the same). So the racism in Skyrim is only seen and not felt.

If you are going to develop rich cultural identities and races, and if you are going to bring racism into the game (for better or worse): make it impactful.  Don’t make racism a set piece for the player to watch and quietly comment,

‘Aww, that’s terrible! That mean drunk is yelling at that strange cat person.’

What needs to happen is the player needs to interact with the racism.

If the player character is a Khajiit, I want the game to restrict me from entering Whiterun just like the rest of the Khajiit merchants camped outside the city walls. Make me work for it. If the Khajiit player wants to enter the city, force them to pay off the guards, sneak in, or get the Jarl’s attention for an audience. Make an adventure of proving yourself  as above the racist element in the game. There already exist parts of the game where you must work hard in order to gain acceptance, why not add a new dimension to that? (This has been found to take place when non-Orc players encounter Orc encampments).

Challenging the player empowers the player.

Make it so that when the Khajiit thief I am playing is finally made a Thane of a Skyrim Hold; I can approach the city guard who denied me entrance and chew him out, or simply smile as he says ‘Good day, Thane! Anything you need?’ (Thane is an official title in Skyrim, equivalent to a Lordship or a Knighthood)

Furthermore, extend this racism to companions. My first time entering Windhelm I encountered two Nords harassing a Dunmer, blaming her for one thing or another because she was a Dark Elf. At the time my companion was the Dunmer priestess of Azura (Aranea Ienith). She sat there doe eyed and spoke not a word of it.

This is where BethSoft can take a page out of the book of Bioware. Common in BioWare RPG’s is when companions in your party challenge your moral standing if you overlook some sort of violence or discrimination.

Why didn’t my companion jump to the defense of her fellow Dunmer and harangue the racist Nords? Or couldn’t she at the very least have said something to me about her discomfort in a place where Dunmer hate was unabated. If upon entering a city I am stopped and asked to leave my unwanted companion outside, that’s going to make me angry, I am going to right that wrong.

Making conscious decisions regarding race makes the ugliness of the racism more apparent. It sticks the issue in the face of the player and tells them to deal with it. In the real world to deny that racism exists, is idiotic. If that is so, why not use a safe medium like video games to educate about the nature of racism? If I had to choose between forcing someone to be the victim of real life bigotry or in-game bigotry, I would certainly choose the latter if the same understanding could be gained. I don’t believe the experience of real life bigotry could ever be captured in game, nor should it. But if players can be shown the vileness of racism and discrimination in a game, while adding depth to its racial and cultural environment; shouldn’t we do that?

By forcing the player into racist scenarios you’re going to get them thinking about racism. Chances are whatever they choose to do about in-game racism will stick in their minds after they finish their play through.

Making Skyrim more racist actually creates a environment that makes players intolerant of racism.

...Then they seek out that racism. And kill it with fire that they spew from their hands.

A victory worth noting.

If you follow the Supreme Court (or video games for that matter) like I do; then you have probably seen the recent Supreme Court decision that overturned a California law which criminalized the sale of violent video games to minors. Found here: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/10pdf/08-1448.pdf

For those of you who see the 19 page wall of text and feel an overwhelming sense of confusion, that’s what a Supreme Court opinion looks like. For those of you who fancy yourselves constitutionalists, and feel qualified to weigh in on such matters as Roe V. Wade, McCulloh v. Maryland, and US v. Nixon, and you are still unfamiliar with Supreme Court opinions. I urge you to restrain from weighing in on such matters until you familiarize yourself with such opinions.

But I digress. The reason I bring up this court case is because it is an issue that is very salient in my mind. The reasoning is two-fold. Firstly, it is of great importance to the video game industry, which is of great importance to me. Secondly, this decision impacts the political issue of censorship, which has always been an issue of contention in my mind. Censorship is in many ways more offensive than any piece of literature or art. Censorship is the act of preventing the dissemination of ideas. Pundits can sputter and guffaw, but by restricting people from accessing an intellectual work, simply put, you are preventing the spread of ideas and knowledge. For anyone who has drawn breath for more than a decade, one truth should probably have become clear in their mind: truth is bred by diversity and varied perspective. Human beings are unique. Unique in two fashions; first that humans possess a level of diversity found in few other species on earth, second that no two humans are identical. Even identical twins who share the same DNA at birth will in every case have traits, behaviors, and ideas that their kin do not share. The sheer diversity of our race is what engenders our intellect and success. From the multiplicity of people in our population, each person provides a unique perspective that forces those exposed to it to reexamine their own preconceptions. Many people avoid different perspectives to shield themselves from being forced to evaluate their beliefs and ideas on any other basis than that of the gospel truth. This simple fact is why censorship is so dangerous; it places blinders on our minds. Censorship eliminates options, alternatives, and opportunities. Censors control information and release it as they see fit, controlling and manipulating the minds of a culture, and in every case: hindering progress and understanding. As someone who tries to seek understanding wherever it may hide; being told by anyone that certain areas are off limits to my exploration: it is not only an affront to my intelligence, it is an affront to my judgment. And I don’t suffer such insult lightly.

I often invoke the Framers of the United States in argument. I don’t do so out of some misplaced and misunderstood sense of patriotism. I do so out of a strong understanding of what ideas were used as the framework for our country and government. Ideas that I identify strongly with as truths and understandings that are timeless.

Censorship plays a role in our foundation, that is impossible to avoid, and it plays an enormous part in our history. These United States of America were founded on the principles of self determination, republicanism, and liberty of the enlightenment. These principles were not discovered by our founders, make no mistake they did not sit down at a pub on night and over a pitcher of ale think up the idea of ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’. Far from it, these ideas and concepts were extrapolated from reading the works and writings of (in)famous European political thinkers. The reason I visit this is because of the one simple fact, most of these works were squelched as seditious. The writings upon which our country was founded were in heavily censored across Europe. John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government were published anonymously so that he would not suffer blowback from his writing. Such works provided a perspective and understanding that disrupted the governmental and cultural mores of the time. They threatened established understandings, and for that these ideas were smothered, slandered, and hidden.

To say that our country was built around concepts that were both unpopular and heavily suppressed says something about These United States. Firstly, it says ‘we do things our way, fuck the rest’ (because that just how America does things). Secondly, it makes it clear that our country is founded on a basis of free and unrestricted expression of thoughts, ideas, and perspectives.

As if you needed further proof the First Amendment of the Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Keeping in mind the legal, intellectual, and historical basis of a country that casts out censorship as a dangerous practice; we move onto the cultural and societal underpinnings of censorship.

One of the primary arguments in favor of censorship stems from our societies necessity to defend children’s innocence. Now this is a lofty and understandable goal. It’s born of a very real threat against the future of our society. A child that suffers severe emotional trauma has a stronger chance of developing undesirable behavior. As a communal society, the emotional and behavior state of children will be reflected as that generation matures. As a result, our society sees fits to dictate what information will be filtered through and ultimately reach our children. At first this would seem like a reasoned approach to the problem. Unfortunately, modern American society is nearest establishment to a direct democracy in existence in America. What that ultimately means is that the passions and urges of society will ultimately dictate the legislation of a societal problem. This should immediately be raising some flags. Our country was founded in republican ideals for explicit purposes, as Publius stated in the federalist papers,

“The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished; as they continue to be the favorite and fruitful topics from which the adversaries to liberty derive their most specious declamations.”

The Federalists were ever vigilant against the dangers of popular passion ruling a country. They acknowledged the duplicitous nature of liberty: that it breeds ideas that groups and factions are drawn to, and they are the first target of said groups and factions. The united passions of or population would ultimately determine what ideas are considered acceptable, and as stated before, it is often the unpopular ideas that are those most important. But why do so many people with such fickle an understanding of right and wrong have control the sanctions on information. So if the majority cannot be trusted to address the issue of childhood innocence; who then? Does the government appoint some sort of moral official? This official dictates the moral understandings of a generation and implements policies around that? Tyranny of one can be dangerous. So what possible alternative could there be? Who will care for our children?

What about Parents? Shouldn’t the direct guardians of a child be responsible for that child’s well-being and safety? If a parent had the faculty and ability to feed a child, but chose not to, they would be charged with negligence and child abuse. Should the same not be true for willful abandonment of their other parental duties? Is it not their job to evaluate and decide what sources of information a child has access to? If a parent is competent enough to raise a child, their judgment should be sound enough to filter the information that reaches their child. And as such there should be no fear having that child develop behavioral issues or other conditions society fears. But this does not seem to be an issue in America, it seems to be an ever increasing trend that parents don’t really want to ‘parent’ their children. I have had large amounts direct exposure to parents who are utterly unwilling to step up and fulfill their parental duties and roles. They would sooner pass the buck to someone else, have a stranger raise their child, and then complain and cry foul when their child emerges from adolescence a troubled and confused person. It sickens me to see these same parents turn around and clamor for federal and state level censorship.

I will digress momentarily to make something abundantly clear. Video games are quickly becoming one of the most important forms of art in the modern age. It taps into a near unlimited creative and artistic power, that is the power of control. One thing that can be said of nearly every major art form: literature, film, tv, fine art (drawing, sculpting, painting, photography), even architecture. All of these forms are passive. In almost every case the piece of art does not allow, or does not change according to, user input. Art already expresses and attracts a multitude of varying perspectives and opinion. Imagine if you will, that every time you went to the Uffizi that guests of the museum could mold their David. Change its proportions and intricacies, now not only would each viewer see a different view of the same work, but they would actually see different versions and mutations of the same work. The pure power of possibility is incredible. It is why video games are such an interesting topic of conversation to me, because every person can bring a different opinion or perspective to the table, not simple because they are people with varying interpretations of the same experience, but instead because they actually experienced something genuinely different.

That is why I make a point to fully play through games with divergent and branching narratives/gameplay. As an individual to be able to compare two different experiences of the same piece is a truly unique practice.

Simply put video games are an art form that is struggling desperately to be leveled with its artistic predecessors. Art has always been given staunch protection under the first amendment of the US Constitution as a form of self-expression. Censorship and the nature of close-minded people is subduing the advance of a truly unique form of expression and exploration. Returning back to the genesis of this article, the Supreme Court ruled that video games as an creative electronic medium were granted the same protections as other forms of art and expression. This was a resounding success. The Supreme Court has, perhaps inadvertently, leveled video games with its artistic predecessors. Not to mention they have defeated redundant and restrictive laws. It is worth noting that while it is not illegal to sell violent (or MA rated games) to minors, it is against the policies of every major distributor of electronic media. If someone were to legally purchase a MA video game, they would most certainly have to be of the proper age, and that is a testament to the power and domain of the private sector. A society can influence the private sector to construct the necessary barriers and filters, without burdening the entire country with unnecessary legislation. Finally, the Supreme Court succeeded in batting down a legislative piece of censorship and allowed for the continued open access of ideas and information.

Certainly a victory worth noting.