Its impact was a bit blunted this time — the game relies on the intrigue of figuring out the mechanics of the world and not the world itself.
Game FAQs Ranking: #3
Video games rarely bleed over into a community event: they occur in palely lit rooms as a lone figure casts a backdrop from the saturated monitor light. Skyrim was a whole other story.
I never owned an Xbox360 or Playstation 3, but my new roommate did. I discovered Oblivion and devoured it quickly. He told me the next installment was just around the corner with the date being an easy to remember 11/11/11. When the day came, I woke up early (for my college days that is), and headed to my local Gamestop. Complete chaos. There was a line out the door, some in cosplay, as we all waited to get our hands on the next seminal event in video games.
Skyrim lived up to its expectations. I spent the next months/years exploring every nook and cranny. It has an amazing ability to get out of the way and let you do whatever ever you want. I cycled through all the possible combinations from Thief-Archer Kajhit to War Hammer-wielding Ogre. Betheseda has perfected the art of reward as you slowly nibble and navigate down an endless candy trail, always doing just “one more thing” for the next prize. Then you realize it is 2:00am. Yikes.
This time around, though, I learned something that lessened the game in my estimation, if even just by a little bit. The excitement and intrigue of this game did not come from the characters or story. The world is filled with thousands to meet, but they are mostly means to an end: to figure out how the man behind the curtain operates.
Rounded up for execution, the protagonist barely escapes death due to the proceedings being interrupted by a Dragon. The land is currently in a civil war between the Empire and the native Stormcloaks, and now the ancient threat of Dragons has returned to Skyrim to muddle things even further. After helping defeat a dragon, the protagonist learns that he is a “dragonborn:” a prophecy of human born with the spirit of the dragon.
From here, the player can decide much of what they want to do: fulfill their prophecy? join clans and guilds? build wealth? explore? It is all up to the player which direction they take from here on out.
Algorithms Not Narrative.
It can be said for any experience that it cannot live up to the first time. No intrigue is left, so naturally on the second or third go round, the emotional experience will be dampened. It should come as no surprise that this happened to me with Skyrim: I played the hell out of this game for YEARS. My visceral reaction to my first dragon fight ain’t coming back.
However, I realized on this last play through where the true draw of the game is. During the Dragonborn main quest, I didn’t care about the fate of the world, the factions involved, or the people I met. The weakest chain in a sandbox RPG is the lack of central narration. Since you can go off and do whatever you want, there is no chance to pace a story with plots and twists. As a developer, you sacrifice your ability to tell a story by giving the player complete autonomy.
To make this trade off work, everything has to be tied into the actions of the player. Instead of a top down approach, it becomes a bottom up. Skyrim does this in a multitude of ways to immerse the player:
- Random Events: player’s actions trigger personalized events. If you rob someone blind, they might just send a squad of assassins to kill you.
- NPC Responses: completion of quests at the player’s discretion changes how people interact with you. Becoming Dragonborn prompts certain people to approach or address you in different ways.
- Problem Solving: the player choses which skills to improve, and thus how you go about solving a situation. There is no “right” way to do anything, and therefore Skyrim creates puzzles that reflect this diversity of choice.
- Hobbies and Interests: since you can choose whether you want to spend your time disemboweling mummies or planting a garden, each individual activity has to be fun to perform in its own right outside of of other elements.
The excitement of Skyrim is that you don’t quite know how these things are being manipulated. Random events seem exactly that: random. But, as you continue to play, you realize everything is a direct consequence of particular interactions. Figuring out how to thrive in this world with its sets of rules in regards to combat, magic, stealth, money, interactions, and quests is the space where the entire game lives.
Once you know the algorithms, there is less to come back to.
The unlimited choice by the player means that their can’t be forceful narration by the author. We have far exceeded the permutations available in “Choose Your Own Adventure” books where you can go to page 63 to walk through the door or page 102 to instead exit via a window. Now, you have more options than are available to be accounted for, and the world plays out more like a butterfly-effect experiment than story telling.
Final Fantasy VI, with its focus being on the getting to know fourteen characters, is the perfect counter argument to what this kind of game is missing. When I replayed FF6, my spirit soared and floundered with the plight of the characters. The ending still makes me tear up because I’m so invested in everyone. Given enough period to reset, I could replay that game and still experience those peaks and valleys.
Skyrim, on the other hand, has run its course for me. The emotion is all tied up in the coding. Knowing already how to manipulate the skills to my advantage without lack of surprise due to knowing “random events,” there isn’t much reason to stick around. The Dragonborn quest was just a series of tasks with people that you neither feel obligated to help nor wanted to get to know more. It exists is to give reason for you to navigate the world’s rules and mechanics, not to build a sense of hyper connectivity to the actual people.
The most powerful story telling moments in Skyrim are the small vignettes: an abandoned wagon with wolves around the remnants of its owner; a corpse in the snow with a note on their plan to get important jewelry back. This is the scope allowed by the format — punctuated andbrief snippets, not sweeping narratives.
I’ll remember my days of Skyrim fondly, and of course everyone should play this game, but what makes the game a firecracker isn’t what I thought it was.
Other People’s Takes:
- Over Thinker Y: “Skyrim has a lot of breadth, by which I mean that there’s a wide range of content for players to explore, but it also has depth: each individual component is well-thought-out, allowing a player to make an entire game out of a single aspect.”
- Nick Pino: “The sheer amount of content Bethesda provides to the player and the feeling of contentment that comes from indulging in Skyrim’s wintry world, is unrivaled.”
- Exceptionally Bad Game Reviews: “This game seems to be the one that will never die, no matter how many years separate this game from it’s launch date it never dies. From November 11, 2011 until April 23, 2019 this game is still being played by every single one of my friends, and i don’t see that ever stopping.”