Realistically, this post should have come two months ago; most of the inspiration for this came while beating Skyrim until it was long past the dead horse stage. If you are unfamiliar with the Elder Scrolls franchise of RPGs, this may cause you to feel bored. I won’t be offended if you turn back now.
This game devoured my time in a fashion not unlike that of a blue whale consuming krill. I purchased it the night it came out, and having been stricken with viral bronchitis, it proceeded to consume a full 110 hours of my spare time over the next ten days. I will credit this ferocity primarily to the bronchitis, rather than the game. In any case, I left the game utterly beaten and broken. I completed every quest line, owned every property, blah blah blah. Point is, I utterly exhausted its content. It held no secrets from me.
The first few hours are delightful – Skyrim is filled to the brim with things that you wish were in more video games. It’s a high fantasy interpretation of Grand Theft Auto. This idea alone has caused dignified men and women to drool for socially unacceptable periods of time. It’s natural that everyone would want to love it, that it would receive rave reviews across the board. Yet, the better I got to know Skyrim, the less I loved it. I even began to resent it very deeply. I am no Scrooge. I do not dislike things simply because they are widely enjoyed. I do, however, feel agony at missed opportunities and misguided endeavors. The ES franchise, I have come to conclude, is one long story of these very things. Looking back, I realize that they’ve all failed to accept some very basic facts of life. Each of them have been an ocean wide and an inch deep.
The fundamentals of the RPG are the following: leveling up; learning cool abilities; acquiring equipment and treasure. Advancement paths are placed on a log scale to provide rapid progression early on but greater challenge over time. Ability sets are made thematically and mechanically distinct, each favoring different types of playstyles. Equipment provides tangible statistical and aesthetic rewards by enhancing personalization and specialization. Package this into an alternate universe of some sort, and you have yourself an RPG. If it sounds formulaic, that’s because it is. The FPS genre is much the same way; the formula there is probably less complicated, too. The devil, however, is in the details.
There’s a lot about the game I could single out. The completely braindead nature of the AI, wherein you can expect mudcrabs, bandits, and skeletons to behave in the same manner (they charge directly at you and path awkwardly around terrain). Or the absurdly bland lore that has been used and re-used since the second game of the series (let alone the hilariously awkward voice acting – arrow in the knee, anyone?). Or the laughably bad interface that was actually a step backwards from the previous game, and perhaps even Morrowind, too (it consists only of menus that have to be traversed linearly and cannot be sorted in any way). Or the lack of any worthwhile mechanisms of travel (it was actually faster to sprint than to ride a horse!). These are the kinds of oversights that can be forgiven when the game has something truly lovely to offer, such as a compelling story, creative mechanics, challenging gameplay, or an immersive presentation. Skyrim does not.
Anyone that played WoW from BC to WotLK knows what a great talent tree looks like. A good talent tree enables specialization into different styles of play and forces tough choices between competing but appealing enhancements. Yet, for the most part, the skill trees in Skyrim are filled with nothing more than steroids – “become 20% better at” and “deal 20% more damage with”. The few that contain mechanical enhancements will almost never change the way the game is actually played. The top tier talent for archery was a percent chance to proc paralysis on shot – think about this. Doing exactly what you did before (shooting arrows at the enemy), you now cause your enemies to flop down on the floor, where you will continue to shoot them until they remain flopped on the floor permanently. How thrilling. In some cases, mastery over a skillset didn’t even require placing any points into the tree (unless you wanted to waste points). This is nothing but absolute horseshit.
But then there’s the problem of challenge. RPGs rely on scaling difficulty in order to ensure that the game stays interesting. It’s not fun to walk around one-shotting everything in the game, but that’s what I did after 15-20 hours. I’m a min-maxer, and it didn’t take me very long to find an optimal combat strategy that meant I never died unless I made some grave error. Part of this is a result of the aforementioned stupid NPC AI. Part of it’s the fact that all of the dungeons were linear and all but a handful of encounters were exactly the same. Ultimately, though, it was a result of fighting the same enemies, endlessly. The majority of mobs will be encountered within the first 2-3 hours of the game, and from that point, nothing but adjectived, higher HP variations of those same mobs will appear.
Of course, even if there were a decent challenge, there wouldn’t be any reward. A whopping 10(ish) different sets of equipment exist in the game, and they’re divided in half between heavy and light. On top of that, it’s a flatly tiered system. Aesthetic preferences go out the window as you replace one piece at a time every few hours, garnishing those handfuls of armor points. None of them offer any kind of abilities or ability modification (+%skill does not count). Most of them don’t even look good. Some of them even look patently ridiculous. They’ve clung to glass armor for so long now, but it appears they missed the memo that it is simply not cool to waltz around coated in glass, no matter what sort of adventurer is being played. Weapons never manage to surpass anything more complex than dealing damage at a varying time period after left-clicking. Spells are worse than derivative, being poorly balanced from a numbers perspective while never bestowing a sense of satisfaction or power.
I hear your question. If it’s so lame, why did I play it? Well, there’s two circumstantial factors. There was the bronchitis (doing anything but sitting in a chair lead to lots of coughing fits), and I have a bit of an obsession with 100% completing games once I’ve started them. I get a certain satisfaction knowing that I covered all the available content. Outside of that, however, I’d probably say it was based on the hope that what I hadn’t seen yet would change my mind. For sure, some of the environments were really pretty – particularly the Dwemer dungeons and the subterranean nexus cave with the glowing tentacles and whatnot. Those might have even been worth the price of admission; it’s a tough call. I’m certainly a sucker for artistic grandeur.
In any case, here’s my point: Skyrim is a game that fails to advance its genre in any way. So many games have developed excellent solutions to the problems that plague the Elder Scrolls series, but it’s a series that doesn’t seem willing to move on from where it was ten years ago. Given the fundamentally derivative mechanics and presentation, it leaves me to wonder if the designers have spent much time playing the games that other folks have made. My interest in games these days is in creativity. I want puzzles that force me to think in ways I haven’t thought before. I seek out mechanics that enable novel playstyles. I crave alternate universes with lore that goes beyond elves and orcs, and crafts a world that I really haven’t seen before. I want to be challenged, such that I’ll be forced to learn and adapt long after I’ve mastered the fundamental mechanics. Games shouldn’t be about forgetting reality. Games should enrich our lives, such that reality becomes a better place, more filled with creativity and ingenuity.