Why Skyrim is a Stormcloak in a Teacup

Written 22/02/2012. First posted here.


Skyrim is not a particularly good game.

Not a terrible game, just a lazy one. It comfortably settles for mediocre with the occasional jaunt into pretty good or descent into god-awful. It’s not bad. It’s okay. It’s a horrendous brush to tar any creative property with: not so bad as to be entertaining, nor quite good enough for ‘decent’. The pity-prize of the praise world.

So why has Skyrim earned it? There is a lot about it to praise. Magic is fluid and extremely satisfying, Alchemy and Smithing both made for highly addictive little mini games, the Thieves Guild questline was coherent, and-

And I’ve run out of things I can compliment without adding qualifiers. ‘Some parts of the storylines were really interesting, but, ‘the landscape is stunning, except…’, ‘melee makes for pleasantly mindless fun, only…’, and on and on and on. Which is the big problem. Years of work were poured into Skyrim, along with millions of dollars, the blood and tears of a hundred-strong team , and a startling large advertising budget. At the end of all that, to produce a game which staggers in at mediocre is an obscenity.

To my eye, Skyrim’s flaws can be separated into two broad categories: Writing and Design.

Story pacing is repeatedly pushed to the point of collapse. Long winding dungeons are treated like the little black dress of level design and used to pad out questlines. While they are enjoyable to go through every so often, many of them are carelessly placed and destroy story flow. What was an exciting, tense moment slackens in the time it takes to complete one, so once you reach the goal you have to try and psyche yourself back up for it. They may inflate the playing time, but it’s at the expense of substance.

While pacing has committed its fair share of sins, the writing issues stem primarily from lazy quests and half-finished ideas.

First in line for the tinfoil trophy is the civil war plotline, which is written more like two opposing countries than an internal conflict. At one point, the two ‘Generals’ sit down at a table and bicker about how to divvy up the Skyrim pie. This is an ideology-based war, guys, not the fucking telly remote. The residents of that city have been at one another’s throats for months, and if they didn’t care who’s arse was on the local throne before you played swapsies, they’re still not going to afterwards.

You cannot, at a basic level, treat it like kings ceding territory to one another. Ulfric and Tullius can mosey on back to their respective headquarters afterwards and stick a note on the fridge saying ‘plz no fighting for 2 months kthxbai’, and it isn’t going to make the blindest bit of difference because this is civil war, from bellum cevile. Rough translation: citizens war. History has taught us in glaring neon letters that the rabble rarely follows orders from the rouser.

If I sound frustrated by this, it’s because I am. Civil war is a story setting with a breathtaking amount of potential in it, but the writers are more interested in making you a gecko-butcherer with magic blood than exploring their own world.

The College of Winterhold storyline was a fierce contender, though, as it reads like an unedited, un-outlined NaNoWriMo entry. During the quest Revealing the Unseen, a Synod mage – along with making a truly amazing leap of logic – postures at me about how he will be reporting all this to the council and that this isn’t over. At which point he was presumably mugged and stabbed on his way home, because it’s the last you hear about it.

Magnus had only got one…circular body-part…the other, is in the Mage’s…residence.

This would be forgivable if inconsistency wasn’t the storyline’s single over-arching theme. A famous, long-lost mage’s order show up out of the blue, and their sole purpose is to introduce and remove a MacGuffin. The Macguffin itself has no story attached to it, it’s only there so the Evil Villain can fall in love with it and use it to murder the Arch Mage. At the end the Psijic Order show back up, tell you you’ve Fulfilled Your Destiny and give you the College as a present.

Oh, and steal the MacGuffin because, apparently, ‘the world is not ready for such a thing’.

In The Staff of Magnus you find out that in his youth the Arch Mage and five friends made a foolish trip into the Labyrinthian, which left him the only survivor. It would be an extremely interesting twist, if it had any impact on the College storyline, you’d had any opportunity to connect with the Arch Mage as a character, or there was any reason whatsoever for it to exist. As is, it’s just an intriguing little story seed which never grows into the delicious watermelon it could be.

Dropping narrative nukes without tackling the fallout is something Skyrim fucking revels in. The Dark Brotherhood sees you offing the Emperor of Tamriel – during the middle of a civil war involving the sodding Empire – with no apparent affect on the world. After mulling it over I decided there were two decoy Emperors, and the genuine article was sitting back in Tamriel and pissing himself laughing.

Skyrim has a lot of potential and not enough follow-through. There are so many storylines I’d love to scoop up, clean up and release back into the game as finished pieces. Dozens of the buggers, in fact, from major questlines to little background details, and all they needed was someone to love them to really make them shine. Bethesda just didn’t care to put in the effort and it shows in more places than the writing.

A lot of Skyrim’s praise is based on the size of the world. The first thing most reviews say is how huge it all is and…well, there’s a cheap cock size joke in there somewhere, because while it’s pretty big it isn’t the vast wilderness hype would have you believe. I set my marker on Lower Steepfall Barrow and moseyed there from Mistvale Keep in just under twenty-five minutes – and that includes three bandit gangs, two bears, one troll and getting stuck on a mountain. Deepfall Crossing to Yngol Barrow? Twenty-one.

Blue is Mistvale Keep to Lower Steepfall Barrow. White is Deepfall Crossing to Yngol Barrow.

Measuring point A to point B doesn’t measure a game’s quality, but there’s barely enough content to cover something half the size. Despite this, Skyrim still succeeds in feeling like it would benefit from a trim. That sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it’s because there’s an awful lot of not very much. The landscape is beautiful, certainly, but it’s Model  472: Snowy Fantasy Land With Faux-Saxon Buildings. Very pretty, very majestic, and very, very done. There’s nothing unique to the architecture or the land, nothing strange or alien. Nowt inherently wrong with it, it’s just uninspired. The fantasy world equivalent of a sitcom about a snarky (but loving!) family.

What is wrong is how many corners have been cut when it comes to designing individual locations. The final Thieves Guild mission, Darkness Returns, has you go through the Pilgrim’s Path, an ancient place ‘created to test those who wish to serve Nocturnal in other ways’. Now, that description brings to mind somewhere dim and dangerous, tailored to the nature of the Daedric Prince of night and darkness.

It refers to this:

Yup, that thar’s a mystical pathway.

Words cannot describe the expression on my face when I opened the door to find that.

Hope sprung eternal when, a few corridors in, I came across this:

A thieves test where going into the light burns you. Fantastic. It’s a delightful bit of design which suits the setting beautifully, and I fully expected it to set the tone for the rest of the Path. Unfortunately, it was the only point with any thought put into it, as the rest of the journey is yet more Nordic Tomb.

SCREW THOSE ELVE – Oh, you’re an Altmer? You be havin’ a good day, now.

Windhelm’s Grey Quarter suffers under a similar lack of care, because although the idea is sound the execution is half-hearted. Despite being described as a filthy, dangerous slum, there are guards cheerfully patrolling its sparkling streets and individual families living in huge mansions. Mansions with deterioration on the roofs, yes, but grotty planking isn’t enough to create an air of cramped poverty, and because there are so few NPCs living in the area it actually feels very open. Like the poor part of the city, but nowhere near the hellhole it’s supposed to be.

The social side of this fantastical racism is applied with an equally thin brush[¹]: Dunmer are treated like dirt and forced into poorly-paid drudgery, yet one of them has a farm and hires a Nord without reprisal or even the risk of it. There’s forced segregation and public harassment, but nobody minds if minorities own valuable farmland or stalls in the main market. It would take very little effort to create the atmosphere – throwing market stalls into the Grey Quarter streets, packing in disgruntled NPCs and setting the guard AI to keep away would fix most of it – but the worldbuilding doesn’t go further than the superficial.

Those are two fairly minor things to point to, but they exemplify Skyrim’s disregard for solid worldbuilding, and that disregard reaches into every corner of the game. While there are certainly things to compliment, they’re outweighed by bad writing and passionless production. Even the interesting ideas and concepts are tinged with a vague air of It’ll Do, like the maker is in a hurry to tick them off the list and move on.

If I was going to use one word to describe Skyrim it would be ‘apathetic’. You can see the places where people have poured their love into Skyrim, but it’s been rendered unreachable by a soulless shell.

¹ The random Altmer just chilling out around Stormcloak Central really didn’t help.

For reasons of space and repetition, some issues with Skyrim’s design have not been mentioned here but can be found in the review.

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