Written 21/02/2012. First posted here.
Hesitantly, I pushed open the door. Before me lay a tunnel heading deep into the earth. To my right, about five feet down the passageway, was a door. I tried the handle.
Barred from the other side.
“Oh,” I said, “This’ll be my shortcut out at the end of the dungeon.”
It’s no way to play a game. Catacomb or cave, ancient temple or mystic pilgrim’s path: Bethesda have a formula and they’re sticking to it. It consists of a long crawl through twisty tunnels, the occasional large room to spice things up, and a whole lot of cannon fodder. There will be trippable traps. Even if it’s a sewer.
Repetition is a theme in Skyrim. While the landscape is gorgeous at first glance, it’s all very much alike. Every stream and shoreline shines invitingly in the chill, slightly bloom-happy sunlight, but lacks character and individuality. Go up a mountain, look at some snowy peaks. Come back down, look at a lake. You have now seen 90% of Skyrim’s above-ground wilderness, and as someone who grew up in a place the English government granted special privileges for Being So Gosh-Darned Pretty, the lustre wore off fast. Dense woodland and sweeping valleys become a lot less enchanting when you’ve lived near them, and I soon tired of how each bend of the road seemed designed to make me gasp in awe. It made for lovely screenshots, but felt like a backdrop to a hiking brochure rather than a real place.
As for its underground terrain…scroll up a little. The dungeons are samey to the point where I found myself closing the game in frustration and boredom, because I’d just followed the quest pointer to this exact corridor:
The constant traps are frustrating from a world-building perspective, because they’re placed regardless of practicality or reason. I don’t know what kind of sadistic motherfucker looks at an aqueduct and thinks ‘You know what this needs? Trip-wire morning-stars.’, but I wouldn’t want to be a maintenance guy in his city. It’s deeply immersion breaking because so many of them make no sense. It’s like if the postie knocked on the door and I said “Hold on, I’m disabling the rock barrage”. No-one builds a house where sneezing accidently triggers the spike pit. If this was a tabletop game, Dwemer players would get up in the morning and roll for perception. I started to theorise that they weren’t wiped out by their own hubris, but a particularly nasty flu season.
In a canny twist, that whinge about inconsistent worldbuilding has brought me neatly around to the story:
The kingdom of Skyrim is troubled. Wracked by civil war and wobbly plotting, its citizens have little more than hope and repetitive dialogue to get them through the turmoil. Desperate, they are reduced to airing their grievances to any passing traveller:
A: How terrible for Noble Skyrim to be torn by this civil war.
B: Nordy McAxe is siding with Z against Y, and they’re a dick for it.
C: Skyrim is for the Nords! / Fuck those Stormcloak traitors!
But this, sadly, is all the impact it will ever have on the main story, because the only presence it has there could be drowned without causing a ripple. What should be at least a B plot barely scrapes in at F, and despite being a major element of the setting it exists as little more than a thin backdrop. You could replace ‘Talos worship’ with ‘marmite consumption’ and the storyline wouldn’t suffer for it, because Skyrim doesn’t resemble a country at war with itself anymore than Astroturf resembles real grass. It ends up feeling like the writers hung up Chekov’s Gun but forgot to load it.
If the civil war is an unfired Chekov’s Gun, then the Guilds are the rest of the bloody armoury. Several questlines would’ve had a shattering affect on the world, some to the point of impacting the main story, but instead they hang weightlessly above it like balloons in the aftermath of a child’s party. It’s depressing, but not as depressing as the flabby plotting. Characters and situations get introduced for the sole purpose of shuttling the player along to the next story stage, then either vanish without so much as a by-your-leave or get politely nudged offscreen.
Plot coherency aside, Skyrim has pacing issues. If the player slackens the tension by stopping to pick daisies it’s their own fault, but breaking up story flow with an unnecessary and overstretched dungeon is balls-out sloppy writing. One particularly grating example is from near the end of the main quest: I was jazzed up, raring to fight that motherfucking dragon, and then a long Draugr-filled tunnel rose before me like an iceberg from the mist. If my GM ever did this to me, his testicles would leave before he did.
Ultimately, Skyrim’s stories suffer from lazy plotting, disrupted flow and characters who are either flimsy, inconsistent, or both. There’s plenty there to work with, but too much of it feels like an unedited first draft instead of a finished product.
In an attempt to make up for a thousand harsh words, this is the part where I heap praise on Skyrim: I love the Alchemy. Having special, non-portable tables for it bugs me a little, but it pales beside the sheer joy of wasting half your ingredients on experimenting. I would pay £4.99 for a game consisting of an alchemy table, a small garden and an exotic zoo. Smithing is equally fun, especially when you rob the blacksmith blind, turn the pilfered metal into armour and flog it back to him. Happy days.
Magic is ridiculously addictive and feels very different from physical combat. Setting enemies on fire brought a sense of visceral satisfaction that warmed my cantankerous bones even faster than it blistered theirs. By comparison, hitting things with other things was always a bit of a letdown.
The final place Skyrim really shines is the character designs, which are utterly gorgeous. The slightly alien look of the elves is particularly lovely – although elven women default to more human-looking, which is irritating – and I wasted a lot of time playing with the warpaint. My only complaint is the inability to make a muscular woman or genuinely weedy guy. No matter how high you set the female slider there is no significant visible musculature, while the lowest male characters can go is wiry. Forcing exaggerated sexual dimorphism on the player is an unnecessary dick move.
Up until now I’ve reviewed Skyrim as a stand-alone fantasy game instead of an Elder Scrolls title, because I felt it held up better that way. As an Elder Scrolls game, I think
[This space contained 872 words of frothing-at-the-mouth rage about the Dwemer. It has been condensed into a haiku:
into slave-owning sadists?
Fuck all you fuckers.]
My overwhelming impression is that Bethesda doesn’t really like the Elder Scrolls universe anymore. A lot of Generifantasy’s been retconned in – droves of Ancient Noble Dragon Fighters, ‘we have always banned the evils of necromancy’, Orc culture is now heavily patriarchal – and Skyrim repeatedly goes out of its way to wipe out pre-existing lore, with no apparent rhyme or reason. To be honest, if you hid the title and told me it was a Might and Magic game I’d probably believe you, because all you have to do is call Argonians ‘Lizard Men’, rename a few places, and Bob’s your uncle. The only thing I’d raise an eyebrow at is the Khajiit.
Whether or not you’ll enjoy Skyrim depends on what you want from it. It clashes very badly with the Morrowind universe but if you’re playing it as a sequel to Oblivion, Skyrim’ll probably suck you in like a warm fleshlight. As a stand-alone title, it’s buckets of fun as a slightly mediocre dungeon-crawler with RPG elements and some neat creation mechanics. Looking for a distinct fantasy world with a focus on storytelling? You’d best save your money for another day.
Me, I found Skyrim to be something of a stained glass window. Dreadfully beautiful, and about two centimetres thick.