Ah-hah. The infamous Riverwood chicken.
This infuriating little avian is actually a clever piece of game design. Very clever indeed. He’s placed very specifically to teach people who aren’t used to RPGs and systems whereby you are punished for crimes to the crime system in ‘Skyrim’.
See, say you’ve picked Skyrim up for the first time and have no idea how to play the game. You play the prologue, during the first half of which you’re unable to kill anyone, and during the second half you have clear ‘Friendly’ and ‘Enemy’ characters. It’s teaching you the combat in a vacuum, essentially, also giving you a choice of faction allegiance that will teach you that the game isn’t on rails. It’s rather an effective tutorial.
Then, you escape Helgen, and are loose to the wilderness. Along the way, you may see the occasional wolf, fox, or bandit- but no civilization, until you reach Riverwood. Everyone you meet is a no-consequence kill, as they’re most likely bandits, but the game’s creators knew that new players are likely to follow either the placed quest markers, the path itself, or a mixture of both- in other words, the vast majority of players will end up in Riverwood before they see any other civilisation.
So far, you’ve never been held to consequences for killing someone. The mechanic of crime has not been introduced, so the player isn’t in the mindset that is crucial for playing an RPG; that you have to act like a character in this world would act. Without this frame of mind, the player sees the chicken, and decides “let’s kill this Chicken”.
And, why is that?
- People kill small animals such as rats and birds in games all the time. For example, in counter-strike. The average non-RPG-player will be used to shooting things without consequences. They usually explode and make a funny noise.
- We don’t want to kill people. They’re established already to be characters and aren’t hurting us.
- A larger animal like a dog or cow looks like it poses a threat, so we may avoid attacking one for that reason alone.
So, there’s a chicken there. We want to kill the chicken because it’s our first instinct as a non-player of RPGs. Your average player is going to attack and kill this chicken, at which point the town will become hostile to you, a prompt will tell you that you’re now wanted for murder. The fact that this is an obvious overreaction almost works in favour, as it makes absolutely sure that the player knows that what they did was wrong.
“Oh, bugger!” The player says internally “I’ve really annoyed them here!”
And, just like that, the player has been taught that, in this game, you are allowed to commit crimes, but there are consequences should they be caught. The prompts back it up very concisely, too. Very clever game design, that. And the same occurs when you steal for the first time- which you might do with the nearby weapons and armour lying nearby. That even comes with red text to make sure you realise you’re stealing, followed by dialogue lines that reinforce the fact that you just stole (Such as nearby townsfolk yelling “Stop! Thief!”).
But slightly larger than this, the player now knows that certain people won’t attack them unless provoked, they know how to provoke them, they know that talking to characters can yield conversation and lore, and they know that they’re free to explore as they wish. In other words, the chicken is the final piece of the puzzle that finally makes a new player realise what the ‘Role Playing’ part of ‘Role Playing Game’ means. It’s the best-hidden tutorial since Portal.
Bethesda are clever, aren’t they? It’s little tricks like this, littered throughout the game worlds of all Post-Morrowind Elder Scrolls and new Fallout titles that make the game truly accessible for an audience that isn’t used to being held to consequences for their character’s actions in-universe. In other words, the chicken teaches the player what an RPG is. The streamlined RPG mechanics didn’t make the game ‘casual friendly’. No, the better level design did.
Mamma Mia, that’s an effective tutorial.