Some Thoughts About: Skyrim

When I first started playing Skyrim, I was extremely underwhelmed. The beginning is, as I’ve now learned, the worst part of the game. It does do a pretty good of introducing the world–where you are, the political situation, and the coming of the dragons–but linear story-telling does not seem to be Bethesda’s strong suit. At all. The moments that were supposed to be tense were the opposite, and I found it to be quite confusing. They tried to introduce some key characters, but it was only when I watched my girlfriend play it that I realized who those characters were, and that was mostly just because the subtitles were on to tell me who was talking. But after getting through the linear beginning, a very interesting and stunning world opened before me. And I was glad to be there.

The failure of clarifying characters at the beginning accidentally led to something that I found very compelling. To escape the town-razing dragon, you have to go through the barracks. There are two doors, and at each door is a character: one is someone from the Imperial legions, the other is a rebellious Stormcloak. Thus you are presented with a choice; you can either (for the short and awful introductory dungeon) team up with the Imperials or the Stormcloak rebellion. For the first dungeon, you’re helped by members of the faction you chose, and fight against members of the opposite faction. The problem there, however, is that at that point you know almost nothing about either faction. But I like that. Unless you’ve already read all about the game, your decision is going to be arbitrary, but you’re forced to make a decision regardless. My decision, however, was even more arbitrary, which made it even better. I didn’t even know that I was supposed to be listening to people talking and making a choice at that point: I just saw two objective arrows appear, and I picked one at random. Thus I was forced to murder a bunch of people not based at all upon their views–assuming that all peons share the views of their masters–but rather based entirely on a completely arbitrary decision. This is something that I wish Bethesda had intentionally incorporated into the game. I think having seemingly small decisions invoke major outcomes would be a lot more interesting than the scale of decisions being almost always equal to their outcomes.

After escaping the first dragon and the awful beginning, I soon started to really enjoy the game. I’ve never really played an open-world game before, so it’s been an interesting experience. Obviously the storytelling is not going to be nearly as good as a linear story driven game; but where, say, Alan Wake is a story, Skyrim is a world. A world for the player to explore, and to make or find a story in. Which is not say that it’s better or worse than story-games, but just on the opposite end of the spectrum. Graphically, linear games are obviously going to be superior: the developers know exactly that the player will see at all times, so they can cater everything. At first I was very unimpressed with Skyrim’s graphics, but after exploring the world a bit, and installing a few beautification mods (Skyrim is definitely a game to be played on PC), I starting to become impressed. Many of the environments are simply stunning, owing a lot to the excellent design work. Working on a game with a lot of outdoor environments, I’ve had a hard time figuring out how to make them look nice. Bethesda did a great job making some stunning scenes, and, importantly, making the environments make sense. I guess this is old news for people who have been playing open world games for the past two decades, but I’m still amazed by the fact that you can see a mountain far off in the distance, then choose to go climb to the top of that mountain. The problem is, however, that when you get close to things they turn from being stunning to being ugly, besides the water which turns into jagged polygons when viewed from afar. The textures are nice, but when you get fairly close, they turn into a pool of pixels. But considering the huge amount of information the game has to process at all times, it’s understandable.

The game’s architectural work is also excellent. Rather than having a bunch of stock buildings thrown around, you can tell that a lot of work went to it the layouts of cities and villages, as well as the interior and exterior design of buildings. All the cities have a different look, and everything looks like it was built by the people in the area. Well, sort of, as I started saying before, characters are definitely the weakest part of this game. One of my favorite parts about the game is the plethora of ruins in the environment. Not only do they look cool, but they make the world feel extremely old.

The dungeons, outside of some of the main story arc ones which they obviously spent a lot more time on, are bland. They almost all look exactly the same, and have the same enemies in them. Most of them play as a straight line: you walk straight and make turns and kill things and sometimes do a trite puzzle. Some of the more prominent ones at least are more interesting, with rooms to the side and places to explore. But the identical look of the majority of them quickly make them quite stagnant. At first I really enjoyed wandering through the world and finding random ruins and dungeons to explore, but I quickly started only going into dungeons if the story or quest required me to. Even the boss battles feel almost identical for each one. You finally get to a generic big room, and a boss wakes up or busts out of a coffin then more things bust out of coffins and you kill them and get the kool item. The end. The dwarven ruins, at least, provide a refreshing respite, especially when you end up in areas long ago (re?)claimed by the goblin-like Falmer.

I still think that although it’s an open world game, there’s a lot more that could’ve been done with the story. Skyrim feels like it was written by people who play Dungeons and Dragons rather than by people who write. Not that I have anything against Dungeons and Dragons, but almost every quest (i.e., mini-story) is just “go fetch this item from the boss at the end of the dungeon”. If you took any one as a standalone, they range from great to awful, but when you repeat that type of quest over and over again, it quickly becomes boring. Some of the characters are interesting on paper, but in the game they become a flaccid virtual puppet. And seriously, I’m pretty sure there are two faces used for every single female character in the game. One is young, and the second is the old version of the young face. Supposedly Skyrim was going to have an unprecedented amount of emotional content. The first thing I did in the game was to steal a bunch of stuff from the people who just helped me escape from certain doom at the claws of a dragon. I don’t care about anyone in the game at all (well, I was touched by Narfi’s story), and I’m not convinced that any character in the game cares about anyone, even themselves. Character’s have one of two “personalities”: They are either determined to get something done, or they’re sitting around doing nothing. Emotions range from standing to fighting to blacksmithing. And I still don’t understand why Every character in a game has to be good looking. The population of Skyrim would be so much more interesting if it had a lot more variety; fat people, ugly people, even tall and short people. But the only real variety is that there are some cat people and some lizard people and some orcs (who are just piggish looking humans).

But even with all of its shortcomings, Skyrim is a very impressive game. The world is simply stunning, and exploring that world and fighting things provides a lot of entertainment. The sense of [i]world[/i] is where Skyrim really shines. It may get repetitive and lack interesting characters, but just exploring the world and seeing the sights is often rewarding. Most of my time spent playing, that’s what I did: ignore the soulless polygons formed in the shape of a human, and just wander around. Overall I’ve played about 25 hours of the game, and I feel as though I’ve hardly even made a dent into the world. I still don’t really understand how blacksmithing or alchemy work, and I’m pretty sure I haven’t even discovered, much less explored, 75% of the game’s locations. At first I was kind of ashamed at how much I’ve played it, but knowing that most people have put in at least 60 (or 100) hours by now makes me feel better. And/or it disturbs me. But whatever. I think I’m done playing it. Currently I’m at the end of what was a extremely boring dungeon, fighting a boring boss. I feel like I’ve seen basically all of what the game has to offer, and I don’t really care about mastering blacksmithing or alchemy. But overall, I’m glad that I at least stuck through the beginning to experience the wonderful world of Skyrim.

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