Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Formal Review: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

"Probably a commentary on the mid-life crisis"

I went to a graduation ceremony this past week, most of you probably have been to one, and I'm sure most have had the same experience with a commencement speaker. After a long monologue of their college career and some stories of their life, they reach the part that's "for the students", giving some words of wisdom and and "cheerio" off the the soon-to-be graduates. Of the graduation ceremonies I've been to (three thusfar), they all have at least one point in common: "Approach each day as a new adventure".

The next day I woke up with a hangover, an hour and a half long drive ahead of me, and a general distaste for everything in the world. With a recollection of the speaker's words reverberating around my head, I only now really thought about how little he really cared what he meant. He was a former NFL starter, a CIA protection agent, and an entrepreneur. I could only imagine as he said those words to us it sunk into his head that the majority will spend their days working dead-end 9-5 jobs that they really don't enjoy doing, and will likely go through the much talked about "mid-life crisis" that occurs from the monotony of those jobs. With
my hangover and grumpiness I was already going through one. I wasn't looking at the day with bright eyes and an optimistic glare; I was looking at it as another boring day I spend doing roughly the same tasks I did the day before, and the day before, and so on.

Naturally my mind slipped to Skyrim...

I remember creating my character in Skyrim. It was a couple days after going through a couple of Arrested Development episodes, so I decided to make Carl Weathers, a strong, predator-hunting Redguard with a love of stews. I follow some rebels to get my head lobbed off when this dragon comes and wrecks all those glorious plans of removal. I follow some dude (I didn't really care who it was, as little in that scenario would) around for a bit, following his words and on-screen prompts, and came to a choice to follow guy A or guy B. At this point, I still didn't care who I was following... I choose Guy B because he was closer. So, so on and so forth, I go through the tutorial dungeon and make it to the the world.

Ah yes freedom. More than just the idea that I had a free world now, the game has (literally) taken off my shackles and given me all these options to explore, so naturally I continued to follow this guy to the near town and main quest mission. I meet these people and they tell me the main struggle of this world, I'm to help  this rebellion or crush it, whatever I want.

So let's pause there. It's obvious at this point that what I choose is going to be the "winning" side, and I'm going to be the main catalyst for it. But it's not just because "that's the way a game is", but there's a narrative reason for it (seemingly): I am the DOVAHKIN (sp? idc) of lore; a mythical man and dragon tamer/translator. I've been given the role of the chosen one, destined to make some sort of change and whatever. Why is it that a game that so admires freedom puts a "destiny on you"?. Well that's pretty pointless anyway, the "destiny" is supposedly up for you to decide. What's more important, is why does every game have to make sure the player is special? Why do I have to be a destined warrior? Why am I the one all these duties fall upon? Is it just so I won't be bored?

The game makes you the NFL starter CIA agent badass that gives the commencement speech. You're allowed to look every day with a bright new glare because you're given the world and everything you can imagine to do with it... until you realize that it's as dead and decrepit as a 9-5 desk job.

In that first town I was at, I decided to walk around, pick some flowers loot some barrels... if I was going to have stew I'd have to get some ingredients... and I found a cooking pot. "GREAT" I thought to myself, "now I have the tool I need to make this stew". Well, I would if i didn't know from the start that it had no actual use, and was just given to make the world more "lively" and give it that "lived in feeling" (why is someone putting cooking pots out no where near their house?). So I sold it for some chump change and went on my way.

But let's talk about the economy of Skyrim... there is none. Each town needs approximately one store: "Things the main character needs". You get coins and you sell them to a shop, then you get potions and weapons and other assorted goods. That is, until you're midway through the game, have looted the much better special items from dungeons and have no need for the iron helmet the store is offering. The "liveliness" of the towns and stores diminishes once you realize you are the only one using it, and the items you aren't buying are just props trying to trick you into thinking the quest givers of the town have a personality.

They don't, btw. The quests are largely bland, and the dialog is certainly not top quality, but this is actually not a bad part of the game. Aside from the seemingly pointless "go kill these things" or "collect these things", they aren't terrible, and even the pointless ones have the point of making you explore.

Wait, no that is a problem. There is no reason to explore the world, for every type of player. There are some people out there that may just get satisfaction going out and looking at the different dead areas of trees and mountains. Maybe you'll come upon a cave with some bandits and a good sword.. maybe you'll get a quest. The problem is that those aren't the highlights, the highlights are finding small houses in the middle of nowhere with no one living.

Jason Rohrer once thought of a meta-game to use in minecraft. He started it by creating a file on a usb drive, and making a simple set of rules"
1.No writing boards
2.Once you die, you give the USB drive to someone else
The idea of this game is that you'd see the creations of previous players, and you'd create stories around it. You'd imagine them mining and you'd see the destruction from the different enemies of the game and this and that, and you'd think of the times they had in the world. The liveliest Skyrim ever felt to me, is when I found an Alchemist's Shack out in the middle of nowhere. Among the flowers and ingredients and stuff, there was nothing more than a note. I forget what it said, don't really care, but it left no conclusion to the story, no quest, and nothing to attack that shack to anything else in the world. I let it be after that. I thought of the idea of this alchemist, what could have happened, and where he could have gone. That was the only time I ever felt the wonderment of discovery in Skyrim. The only time I felt I was playing in a world that was lived in.

It wasn't soon after that that I approached a big spider creature I needed to get out of my way to go to the next portion of the main quest. I tapped the button to slash my sword, step backed and used some spell to attack, drank a potion as I was losing a bit of health, and carried on after looting some venom from the corpse. Every battles is basically like this. No enemies really react at all, and there's no crunch or friction in the combat. Sometimes you're not even really sure if you hit the enemy, the only clue is the little health bar moving down a bit. Well, as you go along your power attacks will occasionally cause different effects, but there's still nothing that really promotes interplay throughout the characters. I'm not asking for GOD HAND, but give me some sort of game within the combat. I don't enjoy fighting these creatures, to me they are just distractions for the walking and completing quests.

And this is where my real problem with the game lies. I don't feel compelled to explore the lifeless world, I don't feel compelled to go out fighting, and all I really feel compelled to do is just complete. This is my mid-life crisis. I don't enjoy what I'm doing, but I continue doing it on the premise that I'm getting better, and I'm getting closer to the end. I want to go get this sword, because it's going to make me stronger (even tho by getting it I'll unlock stronger enemies... thnx for that levelling system bethesda), I want to finish this quest because it will advance the storyline, etc. But as I am now, after taking a step back and looking what I was doing, I have to wonder "why?". If this is a game about discovery, the only one I've made is that I am easily distracted. That I can easily be asked to do something I don't like just to make myself fit in to a system. Skyrim is my dead end job and this endless struggle for power that comes with it is my lack of vertical, economic mobility. I've had my mid-life crisis and it's resulted in me shutting off my game.

SCORE: 2/5


  1. You make some extremely valid points. I completely agree with your comparison of the game to a dead end job, for that's exactly what it felt like for me, and probably why I stopped playing. In fact, the most fun I had with the game was when I decided to take advantage of a leveling glitch and essentially play god for a while. It allowed me to instantly gain full access to the skills etc. but as expected, such antics are rarely gratifying for prolonged periods.

    It's funny, because I've played Oblivion and I feel completely differently about it than I do Skyrim. I don't know if I simply liked the world, characters, and quests more, that I myself was a bit more imaginitive and entranced while playing, or that it was due to the fact that my cousin and I had great fun discussing our adventures in the game. What's even funnier is that he also did not enjoy Skyrim, the very same man who put in 150+ hours into Oblivion.

    I'm totally digging the review formatting too, it's sweet.

  2. You know, I actually played Oblivian a decent amount too. I have the same gripes with the combat and the world, but idk, I guess maybe it was just a bit better designed world. Or maybe I just got burnt out with the style. It's been super long since I've played it, and really I only played probably 50 or so hours with vanilla (maybe 30 more messing around with mods), which is really chump change in Elder Scrolls games.

    And thank you and feel free to write reviews and use whatever sort of rating graphic you want (even if you want to do scores out of 4 or 10 or 100 all are welcome)