Like pretty much everyone else who owns an XBox, I got The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim around Christmas and was immediately swept up in it. After all, it’s an easy game to get swept up in, with a huge world to roam around and a seemingly endless array of quests to keep you occupied. It’s that massive scope that’s the game’s major selling point, overwhelming you with the possibility of what you can do in this world where it seems like everyone needs your help to survive.
Unfortunately, it’s also the thing that led me to save my game a month ago and turn it off so I could go play something else.
Admittedly, I haven’t finished it, but I did put a pretty respectable 50 hours into it, and that fact alone should tell you two things. First, that Skyrim is far from what I’d call a bad game. The gameplay is fun and intuitive, and I even like the way your skills advance. Getting better at something by doing it is a pretty nifty mechanic, and the fact that you can tailor your character exactly the way you want her is probably the best thing about this game. I went with a sniper type of character that emphasized sneaking and archery, and it’s a blast playing through dungeons where I creep through, silently eliminating my targets with a cold fury.
It really lets you build your own story in your head and define who you are in the game, which is something Bethesda seems pretty keen on — though to be honest, you’re far from the only one person in Skyrim that needs to have a personality invented for them by the player, but I’ll get around to the negatives in a second. It’s just another way that they draw you in, appealing to the players that really get into this sort of thing. For instance, I decided my sniper was also a shockingly murderous rare book collector the moment I saw that you could actually fill up bookshelves in your house.
Even the goofy eccentricities of the game are fun, like the fact that I can put an arrow directly into someone’s face from a few hundred yards away and only keep their attention for thirty seconds before they shrug and decide that it was a particularly vindictive gust of wind trying to give them a frontal lobotomy.
I wouldn’t have put fifty hours into this game if I wasn’t having fun doing it. But the flipside to that fact is that even after I put fifty hours into this game, it still couldn’t hold keep my attention, and the simple reason for that is that it didn’t feel like anything I did mattered.
A few of those hours were spent exploring, just wandering from place to place to see what the game was about, and again, that’s one of its strong points. As Ken Lowery said, it was up there with Red Dead Redemption in terms of capturing the beauty and danger of untamed wilderness, and the first time that a bear comes roaring out of the trees and takes a swipe at you is a genuine thrill. But the vast majority of that time was spent doing quests, talking to NPCs, hunting down better weapons, and otherwise playing the game.
And yet, even after fifty hours, I not only had no idea how close to the end of the game I was, I wasn’t even really clear on what the hell I was supposed to be doing.
Don’t get me wrong: I get that there’s some time traveling death dragon resurrecting dragons and that this is a Bad Thing that Only I Can Stop, but to be honest, I’m not even really sure why that’s the case. I mean, the very first thing that happens in the game is that a dragon showed up and kept me from getting my head cut off, so as far as I’m concerned, me and dragons are 100% cool with each other.
But even if you go along with it, it’s the basis for what seems like a tiny, tiny fraction of the quests you’re given. The rest of it is that time-honored RPG standard of just people walking up to you and complaining about their problems until you agree to fix them, which in most cases is stuff like someone who literally has an army asking you to go kill something, or in one case some batty old broad asking the prophesized Hero Of Legend who Speaks With The Voice of Dragons to go find a spoon she lost. Seriously, that happened.
And you do go along with it, because you don’t really have much of a choice in the matter. This is the game you’re given, and for a game that prides itself on letting you make the choices, those choices don’t seem to do a whole hell of a lot.
For example, let’s talk about the the first choice you’re given after you create your character. If you haven’t played it, here’s the setup: You’ve been captured by the Imperials along with a bunch of Rebels (bonus points there for originality) and even though your crime is unspecified and you’re not on the list of people that are set for a decapitation, they’re going to chop your head off anyway just to be thorough about it. Charming folks, those Imperials.
Then the dragon shows up and interrupts the head-choppings, and you’re given a choice of who you want to run away with: The Imperials, who just tried to cut off your head, or the Rebels, who — and this is key here — did not.
I have no idea why anyone in their right mind would choose to go with the Imperials, but the first time I played it, I lost track of where the Rebel guy was and ended up tagging along with the Imperial, ending up being taken to his family in a nearby village called Riverwood and then sent to the big city of Whiterun. But since I’d started that game at 2 AM after finishing Saints Row the Third — setting up a pretty jarring comparison in my head that I haven’t been able to shake since — I decided the next day to start over, and ended up going with the Rebel instead.
The end result? We went to his family in the nearby village of Riverwood and then to the big city of Whiterun. Even the motions of the initial battle are exactly the same, and it doesn’t even have an effect on which faction you get offers to join (you get both either way). The total difference in what should by all rights be a choice that defines your character for the rest of the game, which I originally assumed would determine whether you were an outlaw and who you’d be able to go to for help, is this:
If you follow the Imperial, you stop at the house on the left side of the street in Riverwood before heading on to Whiterun. If you go with the Rebel, you stop at the house on the right.
And from there, it goes on. Fifty hours, dozens of quests, and I didn’t notice anything that I’d done having an actual effect on the world around me. The more I played, the less it felt like I was accomplishing, and once that feeling started creeping in, it was only a matter of time before the whole thing felt pointless. It was like homework.
You might say part of that was my fault for choosing to do the side quests rather than sticking with the main plot, but again, that’s not how the game is built. If there are people talking to me and asking me to go wander into caves or kill the local troublemaking giant or whatever, then it’s assumed that this is something the game wants you to do. And when you get right down to it, there are some really fun pieces in there — the fantasy hero version of The Hangover was a hoot, and Matt Wilson brought up the “let’s go find a demon in this haunted house” side-quest. But in a game that’s built on overwhelming you with content, those high points are few and far between, and the vast spaces between are filled up with the standard-issue “go here and kill this” that are slightly less thought out than walking in circles in tall grass to level up your Pokemon.
And then there are the other options you can take with your character that are just pointless. Skyrim is a game where you can train to build your own weapons and armor, but in order to do so, you have to use a forge, which is almost always attached to the building where you can buy weapons and armor. So why bother? It’s not like money’s in short supply — I got 900 gold once for bringing someone a book that they lost, presumably taking my cut of the library late fee — so what’s the point? Why should you learn to brew your own potions when you can find them laying on the ground? It’s a game that gives you a thousand choices, but only three matter.
What it comes down to for me is that the biggest problem is a lack of focus. Nothing you do matters, because there’s only a tiny sliver of it that’s related to the actual storyline of the game. In the name of providing players with a vast world of endless choices, they made those choices pointless.
By comparison, let’s look at one of the games I started and finished during my increasingly extended “break” from Skyrim: Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. Aside from the framing sequences that bookend the story, this a game so tightly focused that virtually everything Ezio Auditore does is built around one goal: Bringing down the Borgais.
It’s not just the main missions, it’s the side quests too. Helping out the Courtesans? They give you information you can use to bring down the Borgias. Founding and training your eponymous brotherhood of Assassins? You’re actually raising army to use against the Borgias. The Leonardo Da Vinci missions where you have to go blow up his war machines? You’re blowing them up so that the Borgias don’t have them. Even the little hidden items you’re supposed to collect are literally Borgia flags that you’re tearing down as you go.
The theming in that game is so strong (and wrapped around a game that’s so much fun to play) that for me, it’s ten times more engaging than Skyrim, even though it’s a story that starts with the aliens underneath the Vatican yelling at you 500 years in the future.
But maybe that’s not a fair comparison. After all, Assassin’s Creed is a completely different type of game than Skyrim, with completely different goals in what kind of experience it gives the player. So how about a game that’s so close to Skyrim that it’s virtually the same in terms of gameplay, and was even made by the same publisher, but still manages to build everything around a single focused theme?
What about Fallout 3?
To be fair, Fallout 3 cheats. It’s built around imagery like this…
…and that’s the sort of thing specifically geared to elicit an emotional reaction from the player. It’s visual shorthand that plays on your emotions; you can’t help but be grabbed by the images of national landmarks in ruins.
But while the imagery might be a trick, the game built around it isn’t. It takes the idea in those pictures, the idea that something you knew is now gone, changed forever into something unfamiliar and terrifying, and ties that into every aspect of the game. On paper, that main storyline is surprisingly simple. It’s a short series of simple “go here, talk to him” missions and fetch quests, padded out with a bunch of side missions.
The difference is that it’s all part of one theme: The world has been pushed over the edge of destruction, and you have to drag it back, piece by piece, inch by inch, no matter the cost. In that context, everything in the game has meaning. Every time you’re wandering around and you get attacked by a Radscorpion or a Super Mutant, you’re seeing how the world has changed into an environment of toxic hostility. Every time the word “SLAVER” shows up in your target, you’re seeing how far society has crumbled. And every time you take one down, you’re taking a little piece back.
This is a game where there’s a side mission where you have to clear a gang of slavers out of the Lincoln Memorial. That might be a no brainer in terms of, but it’s so evocative, so much of a perversion of what these things stood for that doing that mission armed with Lincoln’s own rifle was probably my favorite video game moment of the past few years. And once it was over, the Memorial became a home for ex-slaves. That’s seeing your actions reflected in the environment.
And one of the very first choices you make in Fallout 3? Whether to completely destroy a major town. There are consequences.
That is, incidentally, one of the reasons why New Vegas is an inferior game. Aside from the odd Caesar’s Legion raid, things out West seem to be doing okay with or without you. You feel less necessary, though still far more vital than Skyrim‘s Dragonborn.
Again, Fallout 3 cheats. It has that existing framework to work from, while Skyrim was crafted out of whole cloth. Generic fantasy setting cloth, yes, but at least they didn’t have history doing the work for them. But the point is that they built a theme that was reflected in what you did, and that made that game revolve around you. I never felt that my actions were insignificant in Fallout 3, because of that theming.
So what’s the theme in Skyrim? It’s not “Choice,” because your choices don’t really matter, and other than having one group try to cut off my head, the game didn’t make me care enough about the Imperials or the Stormcloaks enough to feel like I should make a choice. It’s tempting to say “exploration” or “discovery,” but no matter where you go, there are already people there, and no matter how many Shouts you unearth from zombie-filled tombs, there’s a whole damn cult of monks on a mountaintop who already know them all and for some reason won’t just tell you even though you’re trying to save the world. And even if that is the theme, then how does it relate to finding spoons or going and killing bandits for people who command their own armies?
Again: It’s not a bad game, and it’s not even that it’s not fun to play. It’s fun enough I intend to go back and finish it — although most of my motivation comes from just wanting to be done with it — so maybe I’ll get back to the main story and be absolutely blown away by it, and have to write another five thousand words about how I was wrong. If nothing else, I respect it for its ambition. I just don’t understand why they made the vastness of it the selling point when it a smaller, but deeper game would’ve been better.
What’s the point of making a giant open world full of people, when they all have the same three voices? What’s the point of letting me choose if I want to be a mercenary or a thief, when the only result is which line of incidental dialogue those voices mangle when I walk by? What’s the point of giving you an overwhelming amount of content when none of it matters?