The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Review

Art has had its periods of depicting reality as plainly as possible, an emphasis on painting or writing exactly the actual object or scene. At those times, gone were hyperbole, mythic interventions, and patchy brushstrokes. One such moment was the advent of Naturalism, whose practitioners usually told stories of characters faring harsh environmental situations and struggling with the uncaring figure of nature. Sound a little familiar? Skyrim is a revitalization of Naturalism as its graphic achievements added a new layer to The Elder Scrolls series.

But it isn’t just being pretty that makes Skyrim feel like a Jack London story but instead its philosophy of striving for a photorealistic depiction of a reality. Bethesda didn’t choose to go with a static cut-scene or interface-heavy opening, they had the player observe the world as that world ‘happened’ around them. This is a set-up for the rest of the game, in which you’ll do a lot of pausing, looking around, and feeling, oh, so very small.

The minutiae that Skyrim keeps and throws away in respect to its predecessors aims to pull down as much of the barrier that exists between the player and the world of Skyrim. The player will quickly unlearn their habit of picking up everything that they can touch and that stealing and killing have consequences. There is a logical consistency to the world’s physicality and social norms; there isn’t magic or dragons in reality, but Skyrim presents a good guess at how such things might look. The ability to look out at the picturesque landscape and know that you could also see it up close in fine detail adds to the feeling of being in another world.

Skyrim benefits from its many mountains and plains, which give the scene a depth lacking in past games. The sheer amount of things in Skyrim are equal parts boring and exciting—and random. The player expects to find many dull items in caves and houses because, well, that’s most likely how it is in reality. The distribution of random events that frustrate or help the player feel brutally honest within an uncaring system.

Bethesda’s changes to the interface of The Elder Scrolls and having its character creation communicated during gameplay suggests an ideal situation for the player to participate more in the world and not in the meta-game of menus. It serves a utilitarian role, mostly to update your character’s skills and assign favorites, a contrast to the information-heavy and cluttered feel of past games. This is, in part, due to a character creation system that moves the non-superficial choices out of the beginning of the game and allows for a more long term, active role in how a player molds their character. Instead of ordaining a strict role from the beginning through numbers and attributes, there is a strong focus on the skills that the player uses determining character development.

The skills and roles themselves aren’t innovative at all, in fact, the player will most likely be choosing to do the same exact things done in Morrowind in Skyrim. The active development of character skills allows the player to react to the world instead of being constrained to the choices that they made in the beginning, involving the player more with the world than the ‘game.’

Photorealism sets a high bar for graphical fidelity, as it’s easy to see imperfections and slip into the uncanny valley when the game misses the bullseye. Characters are vapid and openly show their artifice with stock lines and a small cast of voice actors. Your companions, especially Lydia, remind you that they are a traveling AI inventory instead of characters with their own thoughts and interests. In a world meant to be explored, the character population that makes the locale interesting in the first place should also be worth investigation. Skyrim shows that nature and society are inescapable, but actual people are easy to ignore.

The large amount of critical bugs in the game break Skyrim’s illusion of another world, as frustration builds from starting the game over so often. I restarted over five times on the PS3 version, not counting the bugs that I just rolled with. The attempt to provide such a real world is undermined by the technical consequences involved with making it. While Bethesda’s fanbase excuses glitches based on its other merits, its reliance on mods and post-release patches force the player to be aware of the actual game itself when Skyrim’s design philosophy seems to imply otherwise.

Skyrim is a natural progression of the series, fine tuning mechanics that reach for an ideal Naturalism. Players still write about losing hours of their time to navigating its landscapes and describe the surprise, chance events that they encounter. The system, acting as nature, demonstrates the harsh reality of an adventurer’s time spent traveling across tundra and valleys but also causes the player to be made aware of their own body with the reminder that they are playing a flawed game. Nevertheless, its differences from the rest of the series show a welcome effort at further involving the player completely in a world, and Skyrim’s success shows that Bethesda is on the right path to do so.

Mass Appeal vs. Accessibility in Video Games

There is a difference between “mass appeal” and “accessibility,” though some word-slingers and comment fanatics find the terms interchangeable. Who uses them determines a large part of their meaning, as a lot of gaming discussion also determines who belongs to the “in group” and who belongs to the “out group.” Games striving for mass appeal tend to come from a series or lineage of some sort that include conventions that appeal to hardcore gamers but also attempt to broaden their audience by watering down complex features. The phrase is used pejoratively, devaluing other gaming styles while calling out developers with their eye on gaining more customers. Accessibility is a design philosophy that opens up games to more people without changing the experience for the original audience. It also aims to value a plurality of gaming styles instead of “one over all others,” such as higher difficulties being the ultimate vision or true version of a game.

Arguments concerning mass appeal and accessibility frequently occur over RPGs, a genre going through an identity crisis by trying to satisfy the old guard while fighting stagnation by expanding into new territory (the purgatory of the “give us something new but keep everything the same” demand of gamers). A focus on stats or numbers in general is often included in many gamers’ definitions of what an RPG is, but the focus on micromanaging numbers is the only one way to express character progression. It is far more likely that statistical progression is a given and that a game is built around such progression rather than an organic component of what it means to be an RPG.

Assigning numerical values to attributes at character creation, adding points as you level up, the chance that the player can find their character build irreparably flawed well into the game—all of these tie into the feeling that we get playing RPGs, which is centered around character progression. However, these qualities are not necessary for a successful game of this sort. Consider the shift away from traditional character creation in The Elder Scrolls (in which all of the decisions dealing with numbers are translated into different mechanics in the game). Many called foul at this change and journalists still see Bethesda’s games as primed more for mass consumption but very little actually changed.

The focus on player input in the series involves a larger amount of people managing their character’s progression without being inundated with extraneous information. Anyone who has played earlier Elder Scrolls games will find themselves doing the same exact things with a similar amount if not more flexibility in Skyrim. This is because deciding 5-point differences between Charisma and Intelligence is simply one way to influence skills that panders to the tastes to a particular set of people, while it isn’t a loss of experience to simply pick pockets to become better at it and it allows enjoying perks if you want to specialize.

Styles of play remain the same without traditional specializations, with abilities and the game-world funneling players into the usual warrior, rogue, and mage trifecta while allowing for some experimentation if players want the challenge. On the other end of the RPG spectrum, you have games like Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II that maintain a standard set of statistics with little benefit. With numbered requirements for skills and equipment, the player is doing work that the computer could be doing instead and the system offers little in terms of flexibility.

Putting points into attributes doesn’t offer some players much in terms of game interaction, such stats exist only for those who enjoy watching the numerical value of attack values and armor points rise and fall. For RPGs that show some of the strongest concentration on character development through narrative development, the old draping of D&D character sheets are anachronistic. This is only the start of a conversation about some of the Final Fantasy games, which would remain largely unaffected as gaming experiences if you took away the status screens showing the party members described in numbers.

The tension between “hardcore” players and a wider audience echoes the politics of the relationship that developers and gamers have with game design. The diversity of RPG styles doesn’t match the increasing range of identities in the player base, which is important because of how much interaction is necessary for enjoying games. The backlash that social minorities are combating in gaming is similar to the resistance to valuing other experiences besides the simulation or abstraction of technical skills in gaming culture, and the demographics that represent each side aren’t too different. Video games reflect themes and skills found in boys’ styles of play as children, and any introduction of qualities that are different from that (especially if tagged as feminine) are cast out as inferior “casual” games. The movement of making games accessible gives designers the opportunity to boil down what works without the trappings of conventions that exist “just because they’ve always been there” and establish new ways of interacting that would be unavailable in generic RPGs.

Numbers and stats in RPGs don’t have to go away forever but probably deserve to be more niche than they are currently. Taking the lead from Skyrim and Dragon Age II, there are other directions that the core idea of character progression can go that don’t involve a superficial process that blocks enjoyment for the current “out group.” As the genre and all of gaming struggles with its identity and direction, a critical look at how we resort to convention and whose convention is valued will reveal roadblocks once assumed to be essential mainstays of the medium.

Storyline? In Skyrim? No Thanks!

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.

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