When a game has many players who ignore the main quests and journey off to create their own stories, one should question the value of its embedded narrative. Does a game like Skyrim need a main storyline? The writing and character voice acting were okay and forgettable, just there for when I was in the area rather than being something of interest. I venture to say that the presence of a main story that you would find in other RPGs that don’t have such an open world is dissonant with how The Elder Scrolls series tells stories best.
There are actually multiple narrative structures in conflict with one another in Skyrim—and arguably in Morrowind and Oblivion as well. The presence of fate as a central concern grows stronger in each installment, with Skyrim sometimes going as far as to control your character’s movement for you. The concept of fate is antithetical to the type of play that The Elder Scrolls promotes, which is player-focused and controlled. However, we’re so used to convention that we expect cutscenes and epic storylines to unfold before us. We’re not used to the idea of “This is my story” unless it’s a Minecraft or Dwarf Fortress that we are experiencing. Skyrim doesn’t need a storyline for the player to experience their own.
It wasn’t until the Jarl of Windhelm told me that I couldn’t ignore the summons of the Greybeards (and I promptly did) that I realized that the only support for a “fate” determining the protagonist’s actions in the game was the existence of a main story. A player will question being determined by the storyline a lot less in a Final Fantasy because there aren’t tools to exercise freedom from the main action. But when serendipitous events such as a dragon attack or a king’s assassination frame the reasoning for your freedom, something just doesn’t feel right. The series already exists in tension with the realistic aesthetic that it attempts to adhere to, and its dependence on the player believing that they are fated to enact certain deeds undermines the spirit of the games.
Skyrim’s stronger narrative structure is found in the small details of a grand landscape. The locations and items themselves are the plot points and characters for the player to read. The focus on player initiative is also paramount to the narrative; the only way to speak of these stories from the game is to recount an anecdotal experience. The stories that my character encountered were finding out what the people of Skyrim hid in their homes, dungeons, and pockets. What’s this guy doing with a Ring of Pickpocketing? Who is experimenting on these vampires? Do I even want to know what “The Lusty Argonian Maid” is doing here? There are little stories waiting for discovery, not forced on the player through exposition or instruction. I found a witch’s letter detailing an interest in starting a coven with her daughter, a maid in a fortress constantly under attack. Those people weren’t telling the story; I created one in my mind. The narrative rests in the relationship between the environment and the items found in it, specifically placed for the player to find and create an explanation of them.
My response? Abandon quests altogether for future Elder Scrolls games. Skyrim is at a place in its evolution where the series can’t rationalize holding onto several RPG conventions for convention’s sake. There is no reason that we need to go into Skyrim expecting quests to guide us along everywhere because the point of the game is to explore with player-driven volition. I can see a Skyrim that has no quests that are explicitly given to the player but only offers rumors and clues along with different ways of obtaining them. My first time in Riverwood, I was looting the general store on the top floor and happened to overhear some siblings arguing over finding something called the golden claw. Just that knowledge should have empowered me to go find it, but Skyrim relies on the quest-giving model and its explicitly defined objectives, which are all created by developers instead of the player. This is especially problematic when you get the claw back from the bandit who holds it. Your game journal tells you to explore the barrow further. My decision to keep going into the ruins or to get the claw back to the store would be more meaningful if I came to that decision on my own, as hints were already there to do so.
I left Skyrim feeling that this was it. There’s nowhere else to progress given the trajectory the series has found for itself. It’s the same ol’ fantasy with the same ol’ combat, the same “epic” story that I have seen before. A stronger focus on helping the player tell their stories through the method that The Elder Scrolls has established would shed the necessity that binds the series in its RPG conventions. As recent RPG developers have found, the usual ways that the genre tells stories isn’t working anymore, and there’s little progress in designing something players haven’t seen before. The narrative is in the play. Let me play.