I’m not going to lead with my usual narrative build-up. The seed of this post is so well-known as to be a cultural artifact for anyone below the age of 40 and over the age of 10. Indeed, no sooner will someone within this demographic hear the words “I used to be an adventurer like you…” before automatically filling “…then I took an arrow to the knee.” It’s mnemonic in that way. But why? The reasons are many. The line’s meme potential defies calculation, which is obvious by the longevity and proliferation of same. It’s also very distinct and even when heard in passing remains an earworm as one continues to gallivant around Skyrim. Instantly the phrase recalls fond memories of Whiterun and Stormcloaks and Imperials and endless, endless Draugr. There is also the obvious color that hearing the line again and again undoubtedly adds to the game world. However, in my view, the value of the phrase is none of these, save perhaps a deeper aspect of the latter. What do I mean by this? Well, let’s consider a separate type of depth beyond physical and immediate exploration.
Many, many entertainment experiences–cinematic, literary or of the gaming variety–celebrate the sheer wealth and breadth of the work on offer. Brilliant, unique characters populate fantastic (or decidedly unfantastic) settings and contain endless narrative threads for the enjoyment of the enterprising consumer. The Open-World Game–emphasis intended–was once a novelty, especially on consoles, limited by the processing power of the then-current generation of technology. Each one to drop was an event, a herald of the coming sea-change in gaming. Fable, Spiderman 2, any Elder Scrolls game, and (of course) Ever(crack)quest and World of War(crack)craft. Iconic releases that defined an era in gaming and iconic specifically for the massive sandboxes to explore and manipulate. And there is much indeed to explore and manipulate. The experience feels expansive in each case. One may plunge deep into the content and wheresoever one chooses. Few of these games suffer from the adage “a mile wide and an inch deep”, if any. That’s their claim to fame after all: depth. Indeed, what they’re lacking has little to do with depth or lack thereof, but rather age. Which is the essence of having once been an adventurer until taking an arrow to the knee. Having once been. Until.
What I’m describing is more than a plenitude of spatial distance. Rather, what brings this phrase to the forefront of Skyrim like no other part of Skyrim is its suggestion that there is a before and consequently after to the narrative. That in itself suggests that you, the player, are merely a mote passing along the diode of time. In simpler terms, the guard saying for the umpteenth number of times that he used to be an adventurer like you before taking an arrow to the knee takes the vast three-dimensional world that Bethesda has become so expert at developing and stretches all its manifold components and narratives across a fourth dimension: time.
The implication that there exists a before to your journey in any narrative likewise suggests an after, both together suggesting linear time, and that implication performs an immense amount of labor in creating a living world. Indeed, there is a wide gulf that exists between a living world and an expansive world. An expansive world, if unalive, is simply static. You are the only moving object within the world. In a sense, time does not exist in that world or at least not in a linear sense, for events (and so time) only progress whensoever you choose. Living worlds operate like this too. We have not truly found a way (no marketable way at any rate) to create a persistent world in which the player is literally merely a factor (as opposed to the mere suggestion that they are a factor). Rather it is the dimension of time that helps to bring alive an expansive world, to engender a sense of progression and movement outside and notwithstanding the actions of the player. For there is no way that the player can stop that arrow from sinking into that guard’s knee. There is no way to prevent his hobbling and thus allow for the rise of his adventuring career. The player has no control over this scenario. This derailing of his life persists with or without them.
And of course all of this is to the benefit of the player.
The respect paid to time–as to the cultures, the locales and characters–crosses a threshold for the expansive open world game that would not be crossed otherwise. Ambient time–that is, suggestions of the before and after along a linear path that are come across in the course of things–seeps in around the player like a ghost. Whispers that there was a world here before and will be a world long after. A memento mori, if you will, that the struggle of the player is perhaps not in vain but certainly not singular. This is a staggering concept, with sobering implications. What are we but the shadows of dust thrown against the wall by the light of the fire of life, briefly present and hardly remembered? Who are we; where are we going; do the matters of our lives matter in the scheme of time? The answers to those questions have occupied some of the best minds of our species for millennia and continue to do so.
The great Human Experiment remains incomplete and won’t be solved here. But we continue to explore that concept. And, at its core, this exploration of ambient time poses an existential question that I need not explain. If you’ve gotten this far, you’re probably a member of that self-selecting population who finds some twisted enjoyment in picking at the scab of their ennui. Rather the key thing is to understand how easily we might inject a little existential truth into the worlds we build for others to explore and inhabit, how easily we might deliver more than a vast material space filled with a plenitude of static entities. Indeed, the point is no more or less complex than this: All that sobering truth, that world-shattering and world-deepening, was accomplished with this simple, little line: “I used to be an adventurer like you, then I took an arrow to the knee.”