Friday, June 29, 2018

The Forgotten City (Skyrim mod) as dense quest

This post kind of spoils (but not really) some of the Skyrim quest mod The Forgotten City.

Bethesda open world RPG games have developed certain quest tropes. One trope is the conflicting stories quests like Two Sides of the Coin (Oblivion), In My Time of Need (Skyrim), and A Business Proposition (Elder Scrolls Online) which present two NPCs with conflicting stories and no real way to discern who is right, so you just have to pick a side and hope you feel good about it. Naturally, this provokes heated debates among fans, such as this epic two year 500+ post multi-thread argument about which NPC was ultimately truthful in Skyrim.

I heard about the popular Skyrim mod The Forgotten City after their E3 2018 retail remake announcement. After playing it, I think The Forgotten City exists within a different open world quest tradition of complex "dense quests" with many characters and possibilities in a small space. It reminds me a bit of Whodunit (Oblivion), Tenpenny Towers (Fallout 3), Beyond the Beef (Fallout New Vegas), and Diamond City Blues (Fallout 4)... the retail version of Skyrim conspicuously doesn't have any comparable dense quest, so The Forgotten City sort of fills this gap.

The mod adds a large underground city with ~25 fully-voiced NPC inhabitants, all with their own backstories, houses, and AI schedules. If you haven't played a Bethesda RPG, 25 NPCs is a lot; that's about as dense as medium-tier city in Skyrim. It takes a few hours of wandering and talking to learn about each character's reason for being trapped, and about half of them have problems and relationships to solve.

I won't go too much into detail about the story or plotting; I also wasn't really impressed with it. It's a philosophical thought experiment that ends up being about nothing, boiling down to "decent writing for a video game", but I'm more interested in its small innovations and quest design techniques.

Here's the general premise of the mod: this underground city lives under strict capital punishment / martial law. If anyone "sins" by attacking or stealing anything, then the city's ancient robots mysteriously come to life and incinerate everyone. It escalates Skyrim's existing crime systems, where normally you can murder non-essential NPCs freely if there's no witnesses, and even then, you just pay a cash bounty or go to jail. But in The Forgotten City, if you murder anyone, even without any witnesses, then your crime will always unleash total apocalypse and fail the entire mod.

So you begin wondering, what counts as a "crime" or "sin", and what's the difference? This is a political question the mod almost embraces, with disappointing results. Would it be a sin to deal drugs? Is it a sin to be a homophobe? Is threatening someone with violence, itself, a form of violence? What justice is there for sexual assault survivors? The mod invokes these questions only to shrug it off, but honestly I doubt any video game could seriously address even one of these topics. Still, this is probably the only Skyrim mod ever that critiques the total inadequacy of Skyrim's crime system.

screenshot of The Forgotten City quest stages, as seen in the Skyrim Creation Kit editor interface
The Forgotten City also does some interesting stuff with presenting progression and choices to the player.

If you're not familiar with Bethesda's narrative design tools, every quest is internally made of numbered "quest stages". A quest can only be in one active stage at a time. So a player might start on stage 10 ("go to the dungeon"), then progress to stage 20 ("kill the vampire in the dungeon"), and end on stage 40 ("the vampire is dead"). The exact numbers are a bit arbitrary and sometimes the player skips stages, but you generally don't go backwards, e.g. from stage 20 to 10, which would obviously not make sense for most of Skyrim's quests anyway.

In this way, the design of the quest stage system encourages linear quests with shortcuts, but it would be hard to get a make big multi-branching non-linear quest with lots of different state combinations fit into this system. (See this cumbersome quest state chart for "Pheeble Will" (New Vegas) where they need a quest state for every possible permutation.)

But a big multi-modal multi-state dense quest is exactly what The Forgotten City is! So how does it get around all that?

The Forgotten City does two clever things with its quest systematization:

1. In the game, the quest is actually split into two quests: "The Forgotten City" and "Forget-Me-Not". The Forgotten City functions as the framing quest, with your main objective of escaping the city. Forget-Me-Not deals with your tasks in the alternate universe of this underground city, where you can reset the city by using a time portal. Lesson: if a quest is complicated, split it into multiple sub-quests.

2. Forget-Me-Not doesn't make much use of quest stages. Instead, it communicates possibilities with a pile of two dozen "optional" objectives. This brilliantly maintains Skyrim's quest progression norms while signposting all these bushy branches to the player. No other Skyrim quest would let you sit anxiously with 6-7 different optional objectives at a time, and it feels deliciously radical, as if the mod author is hacking / exploiting the game editor itself. Lesson: using an "optional" tag for a quest objective lets you present dense branching in a simplified "flat" way.

To me, this represents the highest virtue of a mod maker: ingenuity, the repurposing of what's already working and understood, and using it slightly differently for a new effect.

screenshot of The Forgotten City's many optional objectives, as seen in the Skyrim Creation Kit editor interface
Of course, working within the heavy burden of Skyrim has its disadvantages.

The first time I completed The Forgotten City and rescued a woman's brother from a deep bottomless hole, her brother couldn't actually navigate the terrain surrounding the deep bottomless hole... and so the AI just fell down into the damn hole all over again! And since he was now trapped at the bottom of the chasm, and thus too far to talk with me and his sister, she just kept waiting for him to speak and the conversation was permanently frozen, so I had to reload the game and try for a different ending.

This bug reveals the secondary metagame wrapped around every Skyrim mod: to play in a way that doesn't break the game / corrupt your world state / maim your save file. It adds considerable depth to the whole experience, where fire-breathing boss dragons are the least of your concerns. Instead, pray you never get stuck between two rocks or trapped inside a stray wall, or worse, locked in a cutscene conversation that never ends.

Perhaps that would be the ultimate Skyrim mod! An avant-garde mod that weaponizes and gamifys the game engine's inherent self-hatred and instability. How long can you survive without a game-breaking bug?

Imagine a Skyrim mod where random rocks and floors lose their solidity. The resulting maze of virtual quicksand transforms every footstep. The wiki guide also says steps 52-99 are tricky. "If your current system time is a prime number, then don't walk on GRASS_TYPE_3," the wiki page warns, "the malformed sound files might spawn a MediumStoneCastle inside your inventory, with an estimated weight of 65536 kg."

After several hours you finally figure out how to bypass the dangerous game tutorial, only to discern some shapes in the distance: a herd of TallPineTree02B all with the voice of NPC_Child_Boy06, repeatedly begging to play hide and seek with you. The wiki is very clear on the danger: "If the trees successfully talk to you, their AI scripts will dispatch a SetIntermediateStage() physics buffer overflow on HoneyHam(id:925ba2), a Food (normal) type item perched at the top of Bloodskull Mountain."

(Dragonborn! No one is safe until you eat the hacked honey ham at the top of Bloodskull Mountain.)

The Skyrim game engine exercises its only inalienable right as software: the right to break. Its entropy shall chase you across the tundra, and you pray its hunt will never end. You keep running. Is that bridge ahead still solid, or will it drop you into the canyon below? (Is 12:59 PM or 1259 a prime number?? Think!!)... You hold your breath and take another step, but it's too late.

The last thing you hear is the scream of a wood chair in Winterhold, divided by zero.