27 Jul 2017, 14:19

Riften On My Mind

My time with Skyrim appears to be drawing to a close.

Even the writing of that sentence highlights the complexity of my feelings about this fantastic game. I put quite a bit of time into it, easily the most time I’ve put into a game in the last five years or more, and I enjoyed almost every bit of it. The nonlinearity and openness were huge wins for me while playing.

In retrospect, though, that great strength of the game (thousands of things to do, many having no bearing on the actual storyline) created a bit of a bitter aftertaste in the sunset period. The main quest was awful in many areas, with bugs and design issues impacting somewhere around a quarter to a half of the stage gates in the quest. I actually had to drop into the console and input codes I found on discussion boards in order to get through a pointless cinema sequence at one point. The plot was somewhere between pointless and incomprehensible, with way too much “dragon language” and gopher quests and time travel and other silly fantasy game tropes.

Even as I complain and retrospect here, I am generating counterarguments that minimize my complaint. Yes, this was the “main quest,” and yes, it was bad for me in many areas. But what is a “main quest” in a sandbox game? Was it a mistake for me to even go through that quest?

Interestingly, my approach to Skyrim was heavily influenced by my two runs through Hitman: Absolution (one on easy, one on hard), which revealed my interest in stealth approaches to games. In Skyrim, I played a thief who didn’t steal (much), essentially an ethical assassin.

A dragon-slaying main plot was never going to work well for a thief. There was no going after Alduin the World Eater with a dagger, and my sneaking (even maxed to 100!) was not effective against his preternatural abilities. Since I had no interest in magic and had invested all my time in sneaking and stabbing and shooting everything, I essentially had to play tank for the main quest and count most of my skill development work as wasted.

Speaking of skill-building, what an experience to work through a big game doing something besides the straightforward hack-and-slash! The most interesting (and challenging) thing about Skyrim for me was the experience of starting out in this different context. You know you want to be an assassin type player, and you do what you can in the character rolling to position yourself to get there, but when you start out you’re basically just terrible. This makes complete sense, but it requires real patience in the early days to stick with it and prepare to reap the rewards later.

You are approaching a challenging game wanting to sneak around, but you can’t sneak. You need to attack from afar, but your equipment is terrible and you aren’t that effective with a bow. You would love to get the sneak-and-stab 15x bonus, but you can’t get within 10 feet of someone without them alerting on you. So you sneak, save frequently and reload when you get slaughtered, and grind it out until you get up to journeyman status. Then the game really opens up.

Because everything is so open, you can really experience fun rewards if you concentrate on certain areas. The “perks” skill system has its weaknesses, but tracks such as Sneak are filled with deeply powerful and fun rewards for concentrating effort.

By the end of my time in the game, I was taking out rooms full of people by dropping down on them and doing stab-and-retreat attacks without being noticed. I could pick any lock, my equipment was fantastic, and I really felt like I had built something to be proud of and to enjoy.

I can still imagine dropping into the game occasionally and playing my character. I occasionally think about rolling a new one and starting over, but I don’t think I would. I got it right the first time, and the quest variety is really not that good (perhaps the obvious trade-off that counterbalances the available volume of quests). Too many “bandit has thing, go into cave, kill five bandits plus one magic-casting bandit, three frost spiders, and a pair of draugrs, open chest, get thing, take shortcut out” quests. A little bit of that goes a long way.

There was clearly a lot of love put into the Thieves Guild quests and a few of the other major non-main arcs. They were quite a bit better than the main arc.

All in all, I think Skyrim is a game that should be played precisely how you want to play it. You can’t let the actual presence of a storyline push you too hard to play it that way, unless you really want to do that. The tricky thing is feeling a sense of completion in that environment. Have I “beaten” the game? Am I “finished”? There’s certainly more to do, but why would I do it? It forces you to think deeper into your true motivations for playing, which might or might not have a good answer.

It’s a much more complex way to play and enjoy a game, but I definitely prefer it to the old one-way variety of these role-playing games.