a review of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
a videogame developed by Bethesda Game Studios
and published by Bethesda Softworks
for Microsoft Windows, Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
text by Veles Svitlychny
Let’s talk about Skyrim, since apparently everyone under the sun is playing it. All of the quests are FedEx stuff, as if the secret fantasy of everyone who plays video games is to be ordered around and make deliveries. There are no meaningful choices or consequences, since I can do everything in a single playthrough. Even when presenting me with some small quest that contains a branching path, it doesn’t matter to me. Either choice I make has no effect.
The game began terribly. I was trapped in a cutscene, listening to terrible voice actors line read context-free fantasy politics. Eventually, a dragon began destroying the surrounding area. I hoped I could play a game at this point. In trying to see if I could do anything besides follow orders, I waited for the dragon to land and attack me. Its attack threw me clear across the town, yet I was unharmed. It breathed fire a few moments later. Even though I was engulfed in flames, I was again unharmed. The entire opening was full of action and violence, but it was an empty illusion. This was the first time I was unable to engage with the game.
After the introduction, I wandered. Every character I met was irritating. They would all tell me their life stories after a single hello, and they would entrust me with their deepest secrets; yet I was a complete stranger. This was discomfiting, but at least some of them told me lies. This was a mild improvement over Oblivion.
Besides wandering, most of my time was spent fighting. Over two thirds of the mechanics describing my character were combat oriented. It would not be unnatural to assume that this would be an area Bethesda would have improved since the series began. It has always been a criticism of the series — that fighting felt like nothing of the sort. Despite this, it has remained relatively unchanged. The plenitude of choices of earlier titles have eroded to just three types of weapons in Skyrim. If engaging in melee, I can use an axe, a sword, or a mace. There are four maneuvers I can perform given all combinations. I can block with a shield, bash with it, attack with a weapon, or perform a “power attack.” A power attack is a slightly different animation that does slightly more damage and (depending on how I’ve built my character) can have a special effect on an enemy. This should be enough to build a good combat system. From Software’s Souls games have more varieties of weapons, but about the same number of possible maneuvers. In practice, it is the same combat as found in Morrowind, but with my variety of choices sacrificed for prettier animations. There are no “beats” to the action. It is always a flurry of button mashing until I or my opponent dies. Underneath the visuals, it is just the computer rolling dice to see who wins. Magic and Archery follow the mechanics outlined above, but work at different ranges and have different special effects. The end result is the same.
The crafting in Skyrim is a method of slowing the game down. It is busy work so that I have something to do when I don’t feel like having the game try to dazzle me. Despite the intention, the crafting is the most exploitable portion of the game. It is the single reason Skyrim has no resource management. With a few quick menu manipulations, I have given myself the means to limitless wealth and the best equipment in the game. With these things, the motivations to explore the game’s world have disappeared. All that is left is admiring the visuals.
The game world is beautiful, but shallow. Even when I tried to sincerely engage with the fiction, the game undermined my efforts. In Skyrim’s constant attempts to impress me, it made me wish for a slower, better paced game. All of the big quest lines expected me to care about how over the top they were. There was no attempt to let me soak in the setting before I was thrown into the deep end of the fiction. Often, I felt like I was playing through the last two acts of a play without the first three to make me care. The quests associated with the magic school, and how it compared to the equivalent from an earlier Bethesda game, Morrowind, is a good example. The Mage’s Guild in Morrowind had explicit ranks that I was required to progress through and it expected me to learn about my surroundings and about the nature of magic before I could be involved in anything important. The first guild building I was likely to see was just an unassuming converted store front. The Mage School in Skyrim (a region ostensibly suspicious of magic) is a giant stone castle only accessible by a magically guarded crumbling bridge over a giant chasm. Before I even walk in, it’s trying to be Epic. I went through half of the first quest and the game already expected me to buy that a notoriously reclusive order of secret super mages from a thousand miles away would have taken interest in my character, a fledgling that could barely cast a basic spell. What’s worse, all their talk is encoded in references to things I wouldn’t understand without reading the in-game literature. I didn’t even have time to pick any up between the start of the first quest and having this Epic plot happen around me. I ended up feeling like a fly on the wall in a bad fantasy novel. In Morrowind, I had the opportunity to learn about the setting while I was doing more mundane tasks. I had a chance to read some of the thirty-six sermons of Vivec before I killed Vivec. It meant something that the Psijic Order coming out of hiding to contact me and a political conflict with the Thalmor doesn’t. The former was informed by my earlier experiences in the game.
This is what gets to me. The diegetic literature in Skyrim is well written. They’re much more interesting and subdued than all the things I’m actually playing. I want to play the game described by the setting material, not the game they made. The setting lore is filled with interesting dilemmas, but the region of Skyrim itself is dull. I’ve had more fun “playing” Skyrim by just reading the lore on a website than actually running the game.