29 Jul 2012
He is not my first dragon. He may not even be my fortieth dragon. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is, after all, high fantasy and enormous, fire-breathing lizards are par for the course. When once I ran from these beasts, now I am a veteran dragon slayer and choose to seek them out for experience and profit. My usual strategy involves throwing fireballs while the serpentine creature circles above and eventually, if it is foolish enough to land nearby, I will leap onto its head and drive my mace through its skull. Yes, it has been a long time since I feared these pinnacles of the fantasy genre and the one flying above me is no exception. In fact, it is proving to be more an irritation than anything else as I was in the middle of gathering herbs for an alchemical project that I am in the midst of. You read that right. I have reduced this beautiful and complexly layered game to a flower-picking simulator that keeps rudely being interrupted by the presence of hostile monsters.
My roommate recently requested that I take Skyrim from him and hide the disk, believing himself too weak to actively walk away from the addictive nature of a horticulture simulation. Instead of learning from his weakness and examining my own tendencies with the game, I have taken it upon myself to double my hours spent in Tamriel — video gaming for two, as it were. He does not approve, although that has more to do with my complete disregard for the actual plot of the game. “Don’t you want to know what happens?” he asks while I organize my imaginary bookshelves yet again. He does not understand.
Skyrim contains within it an entire country to explore — not a whole world, mind you, as in the prior Elder Scrolls games we already charted the deserts and cliffs of Hammerfall and High Rock; we have visited the once-uncultivated Imperial Province; and we have seen the volcanic Red Mountain of Morrowind. In Skyrim we are brought to the northern territory of a much greater continent, but at no point does it feel small. There is a history here, some of it obvious and some of it hinted, that stretches back centuries to times when ancient heroes and villains walked the snowscape, when bloody wars were fought over succession and independence, and when mere mortals ascended to divinity. This is the backdrop into which you are thrust and wherein the game asks you to usher in the next era of Skyrim province to add to the already complex tapestry that makes up past events.
While it is hardly innovative for a game to have earth-shattering stakes and grand heroes that will be remembered throughout the ages, Skyrim is so incredible because of the sheer optionality of being that hero: it asks you to save the world, but does not force the issue. Video games have a tendency towards railroading the player into the plot, demanding that they experience their stories in an entirely linear fashion with the occasional illusory choice. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with this kind of storytelling; it is no more bad than the manner in which the novel explores a narrative is bad. Open-world games like Grand Theft Auto and Mass Effect do allow the player to escape the sequential plot, but there are strict limitations on what can be done that serve to make the game world seems much smaller than the scope that it pretends to inhabit. You are, at all times, in hero mode. Even when there are opportunities for side missions, they tend to mirror the gameplay of the main plot, but in Skyrim the Dragonborn quests are but a small sliver of the possible undertakings: players are free to join various guilds and explore the relationships therein; one can contract vampirism or lycanthropy, feeding1 and hunting as creatures of the night; players can undertake the Sacred Trials or recover the Daedric artifacts or seek out the Dragon Priests or, or, or. And these are just some of the quest-based activities. Which brings us back to horticulture simulations.
I used to believe that I played video games for the same reason that I read books or watched movies: to follow a narrative, to fall in love with beautiful characters, and to experience a world unlike my own. Of those three, it is only the last that Skyrim comes close to — and even then it is only true because my in-game adventures are occasionally delayed by bandits or dragons, an annoyance that does not seem possible in the surroundings beyond my controller. While I have completed many quests and explored many dungeons, I have spent as much, if not more, time doing what can only be described as video game chores. Pursuing alchemy serves me little purpose in the game, as there are only three types of potions that I have used in the entirety of my adventures. Collecting armor and weapons seems mildly helpful, but is proven useless when paired with my stockpiles of gems and books and foods that are gathered and sorted only to sit in cabinets and on bookshelves. I even go out of my way to visit each location that presents itself for the express purpose of having a full map of Skyrim. I have, much to my dismay, become a bore.
None of this is to say that I am bored by the game. I still find pleasure in my experiences within its world and I actively choose to play Skyrim over other enjoyable activities, but I am so completely underwhelmed by the primary narrative that I have eschewed it so that I could discover one of my own, one that has been crafted between myself and the game world. This is not the passive storytelling of movies or novels, nor is it the carefully tailored interaction of most video games; this is an artistic process wherein the player is also a creator. It is the connection of found stories to form a entirely personal narrative that trumps whatever fiction Skyrim’s authors wrote.
This is similar to the procedurally generated world of Minecraft which is designed with almost no semblance of authorial intent.2 Certainly there is meaning to be found within these structures, but the stories that these video games construct are entirely relative to the people that are brought into them and so the significance is wholly subjective. While the results are similar, there is an important difference between these two games: Skyrim tried to tell a compelling story. Money, time, and energy were committed to the process. There were people hired for the express purpose of creating the definitive plot of the game, to make it meaningful and worthy of attention, but I had no qualms about ignoring their work in favor of stealing cheese from giants. Despite this, Skyrim is not a resounding failure in the sense of telling a particular story — truthfully, it is about average for a video game. Furthermore, there are wonderful plots within it, worthy of being followed and the writers have proven themselves able to evoke differing emotions. The reason that I am singling out the narrative is that it stands in stark comparison to the rest of the game into which players have sunk hundreds of hours.
Autonomy in video games is rare, because of how incredibly difficult it is to allow players the number of options that will make them feel free. Often, this is overcome by simply accounting for the most obvious possibilities, but this poor execution creates an illusion of in-game freedom and serves only as a source of frustration when players realize that they have been tricked. We come to understand that the game world is limited despite the promise of autonomy. The illusion is shattered. There are only a few edge cases where players will permit being restricted: Skyrim does not allow the killing of children, which we accept for moral reasons, nor does it allow the destruction of our environments, which we accept as a technical limitation. Beyond these examples, players are free to interact with Tamriel as they desire — until we follow the main storyline.
Skyrim tries desperately to be two different video games: in one, it is an open-sandbox that allows players to create their own story within a beautiful game world; in the other, it is an attempt at epic fantasy that weaves together dragons, political machinations, and a destined hero. These two games are not compatible with each other and, when paired together, serve only to undermine the intentions of the other. None of this is to say that Skyrim is a bad game — it is, most certainly, the best entry in the already fantastic Elder Scrolls series — but it could be so much better.
How would fans react if Bethesda were to announce that The Elder Scrolls VI would have no overarching story, no heroic and fated protagonist, and no stakes that held the entire world in the balance? What would you say if the next game took all the resources that would be spent on crafting the main storyline and transfered them into making the game world fuller? Would players still jump at the chance to craft their own stories in this next instance of Tamriel?
The answers to those questions depends entirely on what you believe made Skyrim so great. Personally? I would just hope that the collector’s edition comes with a fresh pair of gardening gloves. Look out, flowers, here I come!
It is possible to feed upon your indentured bodyguards and loved ones as they sleep, safe in the home you share with them. The sheer evil of this possibility was overwhelmed only by my curiosity as to what the consequences of such terrible attention to one’s vows and bonds. I could hardly blame these people if they were to leave me, the monster that I have become, but instead, most horrifying of all, they do not seem to think anything of it. Yes, your spouse will have absolutely no complaints if you choose to regularly sate your vampiric hunger with their flesh. A lack of regard for the details or a measure of love and devotion? Take it as you will. ↩
As I understand it, a manner of completion was added to the game in the form of a dimension called “The End” with a final boss known as “The Ender Dragon”. It is as if Notch included it simply to mock Minecraft’s detractors: “You want a reason to play the game? Here! There’s even an achievement to go along with winning the game. It’s called ‘The End’. Now go away.” ↩