The 'Skyrim on Alexa' gag is cruel because it should be real
I finally get why people hate those April Fools' pranks from game studios.
I mean, it was bad when BioWare teased a Garrus Vakarian hug pillow that didn't really exist. It was mean when Capcom teased a Mega Man dating sim then yanked it from our grasp. But Skyrim on Alexa is like, a genuinely good idea.
I have a friend who makes games for Alexa. Actually, you all know her too: it's ReadySet/Zam's former editor in chief, Laura Michet. Laura loves to make small experimental narrative games, and when Bethesda's gag promo for an audio-only Skyrim screened at tonight's press conference, I couldn't help but think she could not only really make something just like this, but better. An audio-based fantasy roleplaying game in the style of classic tabletop, with all character data, maps, and actions existing completely in the player's head and in the spoken words of a capable dungeon master? What a dream.
But, of course, the video is all about how comical this concept would be in execution. The dork husband makes a constant mess of his home, knocking things off coffee tables and dumping ice all over the kitchen floor. The message Bethesda's sending is: "No, we wouldn't actually go this far; who would? Look at how silly it is!"
And that's a shame, because that's the same dismissive tone that gets directed at a lot of unconventional modes of play, from LARPs ("It's a bunch of neckbeards pretending to be wizards!") to VR (although Bethesda has leaned enthusiastically into this one). I've been part of the IndieCade Festival for many years now, and I've seen the look that comes over people's faces when you try to explain an unusual, non-video game to them -- games like Feast, which is played entirely with food, or like Ideal Meal, where you use a pair of chopsticks the size of tree branches to manipulate giant ingredients into an oversized ramen bowl. And that's not even touching upon games developed by and for the blind -- yes, they exist -- and the manifold other ways humans have approached games that fall outside the 3D graphics studio model.
Yes, the video is funny. It's great to see Bethesda poking fun at itself in such an earnest and charming way. But it also dangles a genuinely good idea in front of us and then yanks it back as too implausible, too overambitious and unwieldy and undesirable, when nothing could be further from the truth.
I believe it was We Know the Devil creator Aevee Bee who said that game developers' April Fools pranks are awful because they show to players that they do understand what their fans want -- things that are character-driven, things that are innovative, things that explore new genres and styles -- and then mock fans for wanting it. And it isn't a coincidence that the sorts of products joked about in these pranks are games (and merch) that appeal to players outside the hardcore male demographic.
I'm not saying I want Skyrim itself, specifically, on Alexa, but I sure want more games on Alexa, period. I want Alexa to be my dungeon master. I want amazing writers like Laura to show off their talents in a medium that wholly emphasizes the strengths of the written word.
I still want my Garrus Vakarian hug pillow, damn it.
UPDATE: APPARENTLY IT'S REAL?? KINDA???