Fucking Skyrim. It seems every damn person on the planet has played or is playing Skyrim (This may be slightly exaggerated.) If you like to read Game of the Year lists, Skyrim was the clear consensus GOTY. As I write this, a friend is IMing me to tell me about her love of Skyrim. This game is drowning in the combined sticky affection of both popular and critical reception.
There is a reason for all this love. Without a doubt, the game is a staggering achievement. This is the singleplayer computer equivalent of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign that has shipped 10 million units. That just doesn’t happen unless something special is happening. Skyrim gives you a giant open world absolutely stuffed with things to do, and gives you the freedom to explore that world as you see fit. Never has the illusion of the open world been so beautifully realized.
I hate Skyrim. I think it is a terrible video game.
The first twenty five hours I spent playing this game were amazing. The second twenty five were increasingly dull, frustrating and awful. Finally, I yanked the game out of my Xbox in disgust and mailed it far, far away from my physical body. Angry for the hours of my life it had stolen. Why did things go sour? This game presents an absolutely amazing world. Unfortunately the people who lovingly crafted that world did not make an amazing game to play within it.
This is a game with hundreds (thousands? Almost certainly thousands. Fuckloads.) of “quest objectives.” “Quest objective” being nerdtalk for “shit to do.” Every one of those objectives boils down to either “go somewhere and press the action button”, or “kill stuff”. Of course the act of going somewhere in order to press the action button often involves traversal through geography filled with hostile things that need killing. Most of this game is killing stuff. That’s pretty normal for a video game. The tragedy is that killing stuff in this game just isn’t fun. Well, not fun enough.
You fight a lot of dragons in this game, and the dragons that populate this world are big and scary and graceful and they feel well and truly dragonny. The first time I fought a dragon, it was amazing. The second time I fought a dragon, it was amazing. The third time I fought a dragon, it was amazing. The fourth time I fought a dragon was pretty damn similar to the first three times.
Skyrim actually has some very fun combat situations. The first dragon you kill is an exciting and unique encounter. The first dungeon you clear feels great and nails the atmosphere of a good dungeon delve. However, since this game lacks any depth at all to its combat, clearing out one dungeon is much like clearing out any other dungeon. Once I learned how to effectively sneak up on things and shoot them in the head, I had basically solved the game.
Everything about this game that doesn’t directly contribute to worldbuilding lies somewhere between mediocre and bad. The game has systems for “crafting” that make it very easy to create powerful and valuable weapons, armor, and potions. Crafting makes it so easy to earn money that the only problem with getting coin is that nobody has enough cash to buy your wares. This should break the game’s economy, but the solution seems to have been to not stock stores with anything worth buying.
Even worse, the best weapons and armor in the game are the ones that you make for yourself. This means you don’t need to loot dungeons for treasure because money is no object and you don’t need to loot it for gear because the stuff you make will be better. Skyrim is a dungeon delving game that takes away your motivation for looting. That’s some cripplingly bad design.
As for the game’s story? There is a ton of it, but it is all utterly uncompelling. Stiff and linear, most of the story beats involve listening to generic characters traveling down long expository paths of dialogue that all seem to arrive at “go kill this thing/dude.” The game’s systems of dialogue, combined with an adherence to doing everything in-engine in real time cripple the ability of the game’s writers, who are clearly trying to tell interesting stories but are unable to escape the constraints of the game.
Bad story, bad combat, and bad looting. It all leads to a hollow experience. But for all it’s ugly machinery, the world of Skyrim is a joyously beautiful one, and I tromped around it for over a full day’s worth of playing before the magic of the worldcraft started to wear off. I kept on playing it for another full day before I quit. And I quit pissed.
Fifty hours in, I had not completed a single major storyline. I had explored a fraction of what the game had to offer and I had no desire to see any of the stories through. I wasn’t invested. I wasn’t engaged. It was so unfulfilling. I felt owed an epic adventure but the game couldn’t keep me interested enough to get to the epic part.
I am aware that in this age of six-hour blockbuster games, complaining about a game that gets boring after fifty hours of play is crazysauce. But there is more to the worth of a work than it’s length. (In fact, video games are pretty much the only major medium where length is a significant qualitative factor.) Payoff is important. A game where you dick around until you get bored had better provide a complete experience in the off-dicking. I don’t feel Skyrim does.
No payoff, but still, this is a game that provided me with twenty five hours of great, compelling exploration. Can a game that does that possibly be bad? I’ve given that question a lot of thought and y’know what? Yup. Skyrim is a shitty game. It’s also an amazing game. Despite decades of review-score mentality, there is no reason a game cannot be both. Very few things are either “great” or “awful”. They contain facets. Unfortunately for Skryim, the more I played, the more the awful came to the fore.
Clearly, my opinion is in the minority. This game topped a lot of “best of” lists. Most people seemed to not have my issues with this game. I’m still trying to suss out why. Maybe I approached it in the “wrong” way. Maybe I’m less charmed by the endorphin ping of numbers ticking up than others. Maybe I’m just a grumpy old bastard. Whatever, the reason my takeaway from this game is largely negative.
There’s this moment in the game where I’m hunting a dragon. I’m letting the dragon fight with the local fauna while I slowly wear it down with a flurry of arrows from as great a distance as possible. I’m doing a pretty good job of ruining this dragon’s day, when I stumble over a resting grizzly bear, waking it up. And at this point I could care fuck-all about dragons because, this bear is going to kill me. I immediately start backpedaling furiously, dumping arrows into the bear as fast as I can. It doesn’t matter, this thing is going to close the distance and kill me with a single swipe. But before death can come, my view is filled with scary fucking scale and wing as the dragon I had been fighting lowers itself directly behind the bear. Right before the bear can kill me, the dragon spouts fire straight at both the bear and myself. The bear takes the brunt of it, shielding myself from a fatal blast. And the bear forgets about me, and goes to attack the dragon, while I get the hell out of dodge.
That encounter with the bear and the dragon is what I will take away from Skyrim. Not the tedious dungeon slogs, not trying to unload my vast potion overstock, not failing to give a shit about any of the quests. Ten years from now what I will remember is the moment the dragon saved me from the bear. And a moment like that is why video games are worth playing.