I was eleven years old when I first played Skyrim. It was at my grandparents house on the Xbox 360 I had there and I quickly became so immersed in the game that I begged my parents to buy it again for my PlayStation 3 at home, which they eventually did. From ages eleven to sixteen much of my gaming life was spent jumping from playing Skyrim in one place to another. And then, of course, Skyrim Special Edition was released for the Xbox One and I bought that too.
The Special Edition allowed me to experience the game in a way I never could have before; With mods. Fully modded, my love for the game grew further and the potential play time I could get out of it seemed seemingly endless. I think it’s safe to say at this point that Skyrim had become one of my favourite games.
And I continued to play it when I was seventeen. And eighteen. But not nineteen… Very quietly and gradually, I had stopped playing and I had hardly noticed the fact that I no longer played one of my supposed favourite games. So I never uninstalled it. It watched me from my hard drive but I never gave it so much as a glance. Well that was until one day, seemingly because Todd Howard waved his magic wand and sprinkled some pixie dust over me, I remembered that Skyrim existed.
So I set to play the game again, in my twentieth year, and it was the biggest playthrough I had ever done. With 150 mods installed on the Xbox One, I reached level 80 on Master difficulty for the first time and killed the Ebony Warrior – I even reloaded a save to kill him again on Legendary. I completed all the DLC, explored dungeons I had never seen before and built a character to suit a playstyle I had not tried in the past, and purchased all player homes. After all of that, when it was all said and done, I felt…
But why? This was one of my favourite games, wasn’t it? How could it have failed to evoke even a single emotion from me? Was it the fact so many of its objectives were fetch quests? Was it that every dungeon was a long straight line with no branching paths? Was it that no rewards were ever useful enough for me to consider taking from chests, most of the time not even just to sell?
Well those problems might have contributed to it, but they are minor compared to the problem I eventually found with the core of the game.
Skyrim wants to GIVE player rewards rather than make players EARN rewards, and it’s a huge problem. For instance, have you noticed how all the faction leaders die so you can become the leader in their place? But more to the point, have you noticed how poorly implimented these deaths have been? I mean Kodlak Whitemane, seasoned warrior protected by the hardended companions, the Whiterun guard and the walls of Whiterun itself just dies to some stray bandit with a silver sword? It’s nothing but a contrivance. What about Savos Aren who dies in an explosion that you and another member of the Mages Guild survive without injury? Convenient, eh? And did Astrid really think the secret service wouldn’t have her killed for telling them about a plot to kill the Emperor? Please, that twist was so lazily implemented, and only so YOU could become the leader of the Dark Brotherhood.
And have you ever noticed how you are never satisfied with being named the leader of a guild? Well the reason for that is, frankly, because you didn’t earn it. None of us did. It’s just an honorary title to fuel your power fantasy as the Dragonborn. But it doesn’t even succeed at being a power fantasy because you cannot influence your subordinates or control the direction of the guilds in any way. Perhaps if the deaths of all these characters elevated the story being told in these quests, or if being a leader actually meant something I would feel differently… But they don’t. I didn’t have to put time and effort into working for the guilds, proving loyalty or getting to know any of the other members. I just had to show up, witness the leader die and take his place because… Well, because I’m the player – Lord knows Tolfdir deserves to be Archmage more than me, that Nazir deserves to lead the Dark Brotherhood, that Brynjolf deserves to lead the theives and that Vilkas or Alea deserve to lead the Companions. I mean, guys, I was there for a week and you seriously want to make me the new leader?
A world isn’t immersive if it treats you like you’re the player of the game, it’s immersive if it treats you as a part of the game.
And what about the fact that you’re the Dragonborn at all? Why are you the Dragonborn? The game says you were born that way? And why were you born that way? No one knows, presumably it’s just to empower you, again, the player. It’s a flimsy premise compared Oblivion’s to the Hero of Kvatch who, while closely linked to a prophecy, is not the subject of that prophecy. And then there’s Morrowind’s Nerevarine, whose status as a reincarnated God-King is left ambiguous and up to the player’s discretion. By comparison, Skyrim’s “You’re the Dragonborn just because you are” seems flimsy when compared to the protagonists of previous entries in the franchise.
So no, Skyrim isn’t a great game at all… But neither is it a bad one. I mean just because I like movies that make me think, doesn’t mean I can’t also enjoy blockbuster shlock, right? Sometimes I do want to just play a casual game like Skyrim, just like sometimes I want to watch the Expendables.
But there is something tragic about realising Skyrim is more boring and repetitive that you remember it being when you first experienced it, especially when you’ve had the chance to experience other more in-depth RPG’s like Fallout New Vegas, Wasteland and Tyranny. It’s because you see what Skyrim could have been if it had that depth, the depth of a game like, say, Bethesda’s own Morrowind that is so unapologetically unique, complex and rich with ambiguities.
But I get it… Not everyone wants to look at a spreadsheet of numbers and statistics to figure out if their character is worth using before they press the play button. I might like games like that, but I’m not the only person playing RPG’s.
I will, however, leave you on this note:
I had over thirty characters on Skyrim Special Edition and I can count on one had how many were over level 20…