Skyrim is Gonzo Pornography 11


After 70 hours or so of play, I fin­ished the main quest line of Skyrim. By this point I had com­plet­ed the Thieves’ Guild quest line and a smat­ter­ing of other quests from all over the map. I had dis­cov­ered dozens of dun­geons, slain many drag­ons, and fin­ished more petty side-quests than I care to admit. When I decid­ed to stop wan­der­ing the map and focus on fin­ish­ing the cen­tral plot of the game, I was able to com­plete my remain­ing tasks in a cou­ple hours, kept slow by my insis­tence on play­ing as a Bosmer archer instead of using any of the many meth­ods of com­bat that ren­der encoun­ters triv­ial­ly easy to com­plete. As the dragon-god Alduin evap­o­rat­ed in a shiny flash of elab­o­rate death ani­ma­tions, I did­n’t feel like a hero. I was­n’t even sure I had actu­al­ly fin­ished the main quest­line, there was so lit­tle fan­fare. What I did feel like was that I had just fin­ished a cheap porno, and that I should prob­a­bly start play­ing some­thing else before some­one noticed me.

Why am I com­par­ing a game that I enjoyed for 70 hours to grotesque sleaz­ery? Essentially, I could­n’t come up with a bet­ter com­par­i­son. The key fea­tures of an Elder Scrolls game, Skyrimin par­tic­u­lar, seemed to match up quite close­ly to the most promi­nent qual­i­ties of gonzo pornog­ra­phy:

  • Highly visu­al­ly glam­or­ized char­ac­ters and scenery (It’s Sexy!)
  • Shallow details giv­ing the illu­sion of coher­ence (It’s Fantasy!)
  • Self-paced and fine­ly cat­e­go­rized con­sump­tion (It’s Yours!)
  • Exaggerated and unwa­ver­ing mood (Hit Me Baby One More Time!)

I’ll elab­o­rate a bit on what I mean by each of these head­ings in their own head­ing.

Why Gonzo Pornography?

Pornography is a fas­ci­nat­ing indus­try with an immense vocab­u­lary of ludi­crous­ly spe­cif­ic jar­gon for things which most peo­ple would prob­a­bly pre­fer never had names. In porn, the term ‘gonzo’ refers to a par­tic­u­lar method of pro­duc­tion that empha­sizes first-person style cam­era work while eschew­ing such trap­pings as dia­logue, cos­tum­ing, plot, or other fea­tures com­mon to vir­tu­al­ly any genre of film. It’s all about cut­ting right to the heart of what the con­sumer is look­ing for with­out any of the addi­tion­al fea­tures one might search for to ame­lio­rate one’s guilt about con­sum­ing the thing. It does­n’t pre­tend that you want to know that the man in ques­tion is a plumber or that there are quite believ­able rea­sons for him to be hav­ing a three­some with those soror­i­ty girl room­mates; it’s sim­ply the rawest, most base form of a prod­uct that could oth­er­wise be deliv­ered with niceties to assuage the con­science of the view­er.

So. How is Skyrim like gonzo?

It’s Sexy!

Twenty min­utes of play­ing the game will leave you floored at the visu­al qual­i­ty of  the pre­sen­ta­tion. Every flower is beau­ti­ful­ly placed. Every stone is elab­o­rate­ly craft­ed to be geo­log­i­cal­ly con­vinc­ing and topo­graph­i­cal­ly novel. All the bod­ies in Skyrim are craft­ed to rep­re­sent ide­al­ized hard-bodied north­men, hardy and love­ly women, and anatom­i­cal­ly improb­a­bly lithe elven folk. While the ide­al­iza­tion of bod­ies is hard­ly unique to Skyrim, it’s just one exam­ple of a broad­er max­i­mal­ist aes­thet­ic. Every ele­ment is designed to be as exag­ger­at­ed­ly beau­ti­ful as possible.The sheer per­va­sive­ness of the same level of detail across the whole set­ting is just stun­ning.

In fact, it’s so stun­ning, you even­tu­al­ly lose the sense of won­der at how gor­geous the whole thing is. Your aes­thet­ic stan­dard is almost pol­lut­ed with beau­ty. Your innate need to have some­thing unbeau­ti­ful to con­trast it against starts nit­pick­ing details the same way the gonzo con­sumer begins decon­struct­ing his or her expe­ri­ence. The Skyrim play­er gets irri­tat­ed at two peo­ple sit­ting at a table using the same shuf­fling ani­ma­tion, and the gonzo watch­er becomes dis­sat­is­fied that the actress isn’t wear­ing heels in this one. In Skyrim, every book full of unique sto­ries rapid­ly becomes a vacant prop that is to be ignored; in gonzo, the actress from the afore­men­tioned three­some becomes back­ground noise once she becomes famil­iar to the view­er if she isn’t the direct focus of atten­tion. Simply due to direct and con­stant expo­sure, what can be a com­pelling and enthralling dis­play rapid­ly becomes banal and insignif­i­cant by being pre­sent­ed as the nor­mal and com­mon­place.

It’s Fantasy!

Skyrim lets you do exact­ly what you want in a game world. Do you want to cook? Create potions? Hunt bears? Lounge in the library of the mages’ col­lege read­ing story books? Climb a moun­tain? Pick pock­ets? Save the world from a risen dragon-god bent on bring­ing about the end of the world as is his sworn duty? No mat­ter what sort of high-fantasy activ­i­ty you’ve dreamed of doing, Skyrim helps you do it in fine detail.

Compare to pornog­ra­phy con­sump­tion. Do you want one actress or three? Blondes or brunettes? Leather or lace? First per­son or third per­son? What posi­tions and props? The menu of options is stag­ger­ing­ly huge and spe­cif­ic to a degree that makes your aver­age movie cat­e­gories seem woe­ful­ly inept in com­par­i­son. Once you’ve made your selec­tions, the details will be trot­ted out in the same form as any other gonzo piece. Posing, teas­ing, strip­ping, sex acts to match your spe­cif­ic order, and, final­ly, the ever impor­tant fin­ish­ing shot.

In either case, the whole parade dis­plays an aston­ish­ing degree of care and atten­tion paid to the spe­cif­ic demands of the cur­rent audi­ence. They don’t real­ly need to fit into any­thing larg­er than their exis­tent focus, they exist as self-contained motes of perfectly-packaged expe­ri­ence to sat­is­fy a highly-specific appetite. The alche­my table is strewn with arcane goods, and your char­ac­ter dili­gent­ly grinds mys­te­ri­ous things with a mor­tar and pes­tle while com­bin­ing their mag­i­cal ingre­di­ents. The gonzo cam­era moves to the per­fect angle to expose exact­ly the view of human flesh per­form­ing exact­ly the motion you desire in the col­ors request­ed.

Do the props real­ly enhance the whole? Do you real­ly find Skyrim more com­pelling because you can actu­al­ly read every god damn book in the game? Do you real­ly find the gonzo cheer­leader more com­pelling because the actress threw some pom-poms away before oth­er­wise occu­py­ing her hands?

I fin­ished the game hav­ing cooked exact­ly once, for the sake of get­ting an achieve­ment (a state­ment which, in itself, prob­a­bly deserves an arti­cle). Every activ­i­ty in the game exists because some­one might want it, not because it enhances some­thing big­ger than itself. The pieces don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly come into con­flict with each other, but the fact that every­thing is option­al in the game leads all the pieces to feel unim­por­tant. Compare this to Arkham City, where every gad­get you find adds a new dimen­sion to com­bat, opens up new areas of the game world to explore, has unique puz­zles that can only be solved by using that gad­get, and is like­ly an essen­tial piece of a unique and thrilling boss fight. Everything is nec­es­sary and every­thing has a pur­pose, yet you still have choic­es about how, when, and whether you accom­plish them.

Am I wrong to think the Arkham City approach is bet­ter?

It’s Yours!

An essen­tial part of the Elder Scrolls expe­ri­ence is that you be reward­ed for seek­ing out the spe­cif­ic sub­cat­e­go­ry of the game’s options you want to pur­sue at that moment. Skyrim lets you do any­thing you want to attempt at any time. There’s no need to pri­or­i­tize. You con­trol exact­ly what you want to focus on at any time, and you get the appro­pri­ate reward for what you choose to pur­sue at no detri­ment to any other goal you could be striv­ing toward.

Compare to a gonzo porn: all the pieces you might want from it at any time are there, and can be accessed with no detri­ment to the whole piece. While it would be fruit­less and con­fus­ing to skip halfway through any Hollywood block­buster, gonzo does­n’t care what you’re there for. If you want to skip the striptease, or put a par­tic­u­lar scene on loop, there’s no integri­ty there for you to dam­age.

If I start­ed lis­ten­ing to ran­dom clips of nar­ra­tion from Bastion, I would have no bleed­ing clue what was going on. There’d be no coher­ent plot, no drama, no ten­sion, no mys­tery, no sat­is­fac­tion when a hid­den truth came to light. If I start­ed jump­ing to ran­dom scenes from The Prestige, every­thing would be mean­ing­less and con­fus­ing, and the delight­ful sur­prise rev­e­la­tion of the movie would be lost in a non­sen­si­cal jam­bal­aya of film.

Structure for these expe­ri­ences enhances their qual­i­ty. Bastion has a superb array of deci­sions built into it, such as what weapon load­out you want to use, what upgrade paths to choose, and what order to com­plete the map in, but it nests all of these in chal­lenges and nar­ra­tive points that lend them all a beau­ti­ful poignance. Skyrim sim­ply unzips its fly and says “Go nuts!’

Hit Me Baby, One More Time!

This last point is more of the aggre­ga­tion of the above points. When your sens­es are assault­ed con­stant­ly by some­thing with hyper-glamorized visu­als, high­ly spe­cif­ic con­tent seg­re­ga­tion, and no penal­ty or reward for jump­ing imme­di­ate­ly to the por­tion most appe­tiz­ing to your basest appetite, what does this make of the whole? A solid block of raw, homoge­nous stim­u­lus, care­ful­ly engi­neered to over-stimulate your most fun­da­men­tal lizard-brain plea­sure cen­ters.

Nothing in Skyrim is spe­cial. No one in gonzo is loved. Either one sat­is­fies your imme­di­ate and spe­cif­ic appetites, but are you enriched by either? Or do you walk away from both feel­ing like you’ve con­sumed some­thing that has alto­geth­er dimin­ished not only you as an intel­lec­tu­al and moral being, but also reduced a poten­tial­ly edi­fy­ing activ­i­ty to a degrad­ing par­o­dy of some­thing good? They sat­is­fy your crud­est desires but also mock gen­uine­ly enrich­ing media by mim­ic­k­ing their trap­pings while fail­ing to use them in any mean­ing­ful sense.

When my drag­onborn was in Sovngarde, let­ting loose the arrow that slew the god-dragon, the expe­ri­ence held so lit­tle drama that I was­n’t sure that was all the bat­tle and story had to offer. The com­bat had taken maybe 80 sec­onds of plink­ing on a bow-string while Alduin munched casu­al­ly on one of the three Nord war­riors assist­ing me in the bat­tle. Some wood­en char­ac­ters stood per­fect­ly still around me and played sound bites about how I’d be cel­e­brat­ed as a hero in the mor­tal realm. When I got bored star­ing at the pret­ty auro­ra in Sovngarde, I was sent back to Skyrim and told by Arngeir, spokesman of the Greybeards, that I was now free to choose my des­tiny.

It was rough­ly as thrilling as watch­ing some­one ejac­u­late, albeit not quite as creepy. Alduin’s death is sup­posed to be a cli­mac­tic moment of intense emo­tion­al and dra­mat­ic release, but instead it ran togeth­er as just anoth­er shiny moment in a game full of spark­ly objects.

Everyone Loves Porn

Pornography destroys a great deal of the expe­ri­enced value of what it seeks to por­tray by exag­ger­at­ing a sta­ble of finely-tuned details to the great­est extreme pos­si­ble. By focus­ing on breast size, noisy cries of plea­sure, and col­or­ful latex cos­tumes, it focus­es on extreme ele­ments of expe­ri­ence to depict some­thing that is larg­er than and whol­ly alien from the sub­ject mat­ter it sup­pos­ed­ly depicts.

I don’t want this to sound like I’m mor­al­iz­ing, or even claim­ing that this is a bad thing. People have appetites, and we would­n’t be play­ing Skyrim or watch­ing “Butt Battalion 37” if there weren’t some sort of desire or need we had as human beings. I’m not going to tell peo­ple what to do with their joy­sticks.

What I do want to say is that Skyrim is not Citizen Kane or a Michaelangelo sculp­ture. It’s a phe­nom­e­nal tech­ni­cal achieve­ment. It’s actu­al­ly real­ly fun, and it’s very good at pro­vid­ing a large vari­ety of game expe­ri­ences. It just isn’t very good art.


About Jarrod Hammond

Jarrod Hammond doesn't always blog, but when he does, he does it for the Ontological Geek. He spends the rest of his time gaming on his PC, or apologizing to his wife for spending too much time on his PC. He lives in Kansas City, MO.


11 thoughts on “Skyrim is Gonzo Pornography

  • Anonymous

    I get the anal­o­gy, but I think any exten­sive com­par­i­son between _____ and pornog­ra­phy has to take into com­par­i­son the addic­tive and den­i­grat­ing aspects of the lat­ter. Surely there are other medi­ums of escape, which are them­selves attrac­tive that would give a more accu­rate pic­ture of Skyrim’s lim­i­ta­tions…

  • Lifeson

    Skyrim is a quite a timesink, and if my addic­tion to Skyrim absorbs time that could be spent play­ing more artis­tic games (or, y’know, doing some­thing besides play­ing video games) then it could rein­force the anal­o­gy.

    More to the point, my com­par­i­son is drawn between art forms. My hyper­bole is intend­ed to call them both low art, not to make them 100% equiv­a­lent. Dragon Age: Origins is styl­ized, nuanced, detailed, and presents quite a bit of cus­tomiza­tion and choice, but I would­n’t call it porno­graph­ic. It has a much stronger sense of drama, rich char­ac­ter­i­za­tion, and thought­ful pre­sen­ta­tion. Skyrim is flat and vacant, but super­fi­cial­ly very thrilling.

    Dragon Age is great sex with your lover; Skyrim is an evening with a hook­er.

  • MatsVS

    A real­ly enjoy­able arti­cle, even if the anal­o­gy never real­ly con­vinced me. Perhaps if I invest­ed a few dozen hours in Gonzo porn and read it again…

    Am I wrong to think the Arkham City approach is bet­ter?”

    No, I would cer­tain­ly not say so. I’ve actu­al­ly been play­ing Skyrim in tan­dem with Arkham City and Dark Souls, and it’s quite strik­ing how much more one of these games, com­pared to the other two, makes me feel like I am sim­ply wast­ing my time.

  • Joel C.

    I don’t think the first com­ment gives enough cred­it to the fact that the given anal­o­gy employs “gonzo porn” as a poor exam­ple of “art” (or per­haps more accu­rate­ly, enter­tain­ment). This arti­cle, for the most, strad­dles (!) the “provocative/legitimate” par­al­lel quite nice­ly.

  • Anonymous

    That was worth a laught! I haven’t seen so much self-gratifying fluf since I fin­ished my B.A. in phy­los­o­phy. All I saw was you com­par­ing skyrim to gonzo porn, while furtiv­ly describ­ing gonzo porn as grotesque sleaz­ery. At this point the read­er is left to assume that porn is inher­ent­ly bad ( wich is a pret­ty debat­able) and there­fore assume that your point was gonzo porn = Bad, Skyrim = gonzo porn there­fore Skyrim = Bad. Then, toward the end you turn around and say gonzo porn is not inherith­ly bad, its just bad art … No shit! Funny last day I was telling my wife how car­rots made pret­ty poor­ly as fruits.

    And so finaly your point is now: ”Skyrim is not inheretly bad or even a bad game, its just bad art” because instead of chal­leng­ing the play­ers per­cep­tion of beau­ty, eas­t­het­ic and story telling, the play­er gets a huge medi­val theme sand­box full of toys. On this I can agree, Skyrim does­n’t push the envel­op as art is sup­pose to, but then the ques­tion I’m left with is “Was Skyrim suppossed/obliged to be art at all?”, in the end the game speak for itself. Just as Limbo is not sup­pose to be com­mer­cial and any­one who comes up and say:” That game could use more color” have equal­ly missed the point.

    Every ele­ment is designed to be as exag­ger­at­ed­ly beau­ti­ful as pos­si­ble”

    First, I don’t get it, you mean Bastion had the ele­men­tary decen­cy to not make every­thing look and sound good? Did I miss the level where all the art assets where drawn by a three year old?

    Second, the first five min­utes of play­ing skyrim are so incred­i­bly under­wheling (so much that I seri­ous­ly con­sid­ered to just close the game and return it to the video rental). The first menu is just a black screen with smoke, they picked the least inter­est­ing road in all the game to trav­el while some guys talks pure non-sence to any­one unfamil­liar with the serie.

    ” Every activ­i­ty in the game exists because some­one might want it, not because it enhances some­thing big­ger than itself ”

    Individualy they don’t, but as a whole they pro­vide a feel­ing of free­dom, the feel­ing that you can do what want and if you actu­al­ly want to to do some­thing the game will reward you for it.

    I don’t get the part were you explain how gonzo porn is sim­ply porn with­out any pre­tence of story or other fea­tures found in reg­u­lar movies, and then com­pare it to “the pres­tige”, again here you com­pare two dif­fer­ent medi­um with dif­fer­ent obec­tive.

    Also when you say:“Or do you walk away from both feel­ing like you’ve con­sumed some­thing that has alto­geth­er dimin­ished not only you as an intel­lec­tu­al and moral being, but also reduced a poten­tial­ly edi­fy­ing activ­i­ty to a degrad­ing par­o­dy of some­thing good?”. Here you sim­ply use a rhetor­i­cal ques­tion as if it was a valid point, that it is impos­si­ble for an adults to con­sume mate­r­i­al aimed for adult with­out degrad­ing your­self. Also you have the guts to say lat­ter on: “I don’t want this to sound like I’m mor­al­iz­ing”

    I would also point out the irony in the fact that the sec­tions: “It’s Sexy!”,“It’s Fantasy!”,“It’s Yours!” and “Hit Me Baby One More Time!” could be read in no per­ti­c­u­liar order and still con­vey the same expe­ri­ence, thus mak­ing your whole essay into some­thing com­pa­ra­ble to gonzo porn.

  • Eric James Soltys

    It’s a fun com­par­i­son, but in con­trast to Lifeson’s hyper­bole I could draw my own hyper­bol­ic par­al­lels between *Skyrim* and Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow”. I could argue that Skyrim is a com­plex post-modern nar­ra­tive that explores issues of race, iden­ti­ty and nation­al­ism. It requires the view­er to syn­the­size the story from numer­ous char­ac­ters and the envi­ron­ment itself ie. books and archi­tec­ture.

    *Dragon Age* deliv­ers a more lin­iear sto­ry­line can be pas­sive­ly digest­ed from Hawke’s POV sur­round­ed by com­pan­ions with numer­i­cal motives — _Anders approves +10!_ Skyrim on the other hand expects an active play­er that must invest some imag­i­na­tion to weave the many story threads into a nar­ra­tive whole.

    Skyrim is imag­i­na­tive role-playing with your lover; Dragon Age is a Girl Friend Experience.

  • Anonymous

    I kind of agree about the abundant-but-shallow fan­ta­sy expe­ri­ences (note: based not on play­ing Skyrim but on play­ing Morrowind & Oblivion and read­ing about Skyrim, which may or may not be an ade­quate basis).

    But aren’t you argu­ing that Skyrim *by itself* is a smor­gas­bord equiv­a­lent to the entire field of gonzo porn? Which is a pret­ty spec­tac­u­lar achieve­ment.

    Also, not every­one is even aroused by porn, and those who are don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly like it. Just a side note, but not entire­ly irrel­e­vant. :)

  • Anonymous

    I guess my biggest prob­lem with the porn anal­o­gy is all the neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions behind it. Despite your last three para­graphs you do make it sound like hav­ing an open and free game like this is some­how a bad thing. I agree that there’s a cer­tain shal­low­ness to Skyrim, and in games like this in gen­er­al, but that’s just to be expect­ed. To give a game this big the kind of depth that Arkham City or Dragon Age had would require an incred­i­ble amount of work and time. It’s just not real­ly fea­si­ble.

  • Alex Brown

    I think what this arti­cle is real­ly get­ting at (per­haps with­out real­is­ing it) is the very sim­ple fact that Skyrim is not well-written. The Elder Scrolls games have always been about dis­ap­pear­ing into anoth­er world where you can explore and do what you want — but Morrowind and Oblivion ALSO had pret­ty good sto­ries and char­ac­ters and writ­ing, com­pared to Skyrim. These things added mean­ing to the expe­ri­ence but the on-your-own-terms explo­ration was the real attrac­tion, and I don’t think that is nec­es­sar­i­ly “bad art” or anal­o­gous with pornog­ra­phy.

    I think you may be right about the “what you want when you want thing”, which was present in Oblivion too and boils down to the game being too damn easy. Or rather to the dif­fi­cul­ty being adjust­ed for your char­ac­ter’s level so that every­where you go you get a chal­lenge that’s rough­ly about right for you. This detracts from the immer­sion of dis­ap­pear­ing into that other world because it reminds you that it’s all there for your enjoy­ment. I real­ly miss the expe­ri­ence in Morrowind of skip­ping mer­ri­ly through a dun­geon before turn­ing a cor­ner and being face to face with some ancient demon who kills you with his lit­tle fin­ger.

    But the main thing real­ly is as sim­ple as bad writ­ing, I think. It’s years since I played Oblivion and only a cou­ple of months since I fin­ished the main quest line in Skyrim, and yet the story and char­ac­ters (Terence Stamp as the evil cult leader was a fan­tas­tic game badguy) of the for­mer is far more entrenched in my mem­o­ry.

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