Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Skyrim: Progress, Power and Personal Revelations

So this week I would like to spend some time talking about one of my favourite games of last year and why it is simultaneously one of the best games I have ever played but is also terrifying to me. Skyrim was the 5th game in the Elder Scrolls (TES) series and for many weathered manchildren like me it was a long time coming. I booked a day off work and stayed up to play it and in the weekend it came out I clocked over 24 hours playing it. That's a 3rd of all time in that weekend not including sleep. My current playtime stands at 110 hours. I have done pretty much everything and found almost every place there is to find. There is however just one problem. I am bored of it.
You may think that 110 hours of game life is a good run by anyone's standards but I have to say I am somewhat disappointed. I am disappointed because I played TES4: Oblivion for 253 hours. I only stopped because my hard drive died. I still have that hard drive because when I have enough money I will pay to have Gwyn Lightfoot (my Khajit character from Oblivion) rescued by data recovery specialists so I can play as him again. Using game time alone as a measure Skyrim is less than half as good as it's predecessor and today I hope to unravel why.

In Skyrim you are Unavoidably the Chosen One from Day 1

In Skyrim you play as the Dragonborne, a half dragon hero who is the only one who can stop dragons from wiping out mankind. As the game progresses you gain dragon language phrases or "shouts" which are imbued with magical power. These become so powerful 30 to 40 hours into the game you essentially become a kind of Viking Dr Manhattan, so powerful that all enemies but dragons are basically insects with illusions of grandeur.
 That video shows the player summoning a storm that murders everything around them with lightning. Is that bad ass? Yes. Is is super cool? Yes. But I'm not questioning the bad assery of Skyrim.
The problem here is you will always be the Dragonborne. It is unavoidable. You basically trip over new shouts in the final treasure room of almost every dungeon you go to and you never have to work for it. For me this sucked the fun out of the game. In Oblivion you had to work for everything you did and you could track your ranking up through the various factions in the game from your character menu and you were basically just a poor unfortunate unnamed criminal at it's start. No secret latent power, just right place, right time. This gave the game a very satisfying rags to riches feel that was lacking in Skyrim. Sure you start off in dire straits but you're still the dragonborne from the start so there is very little feeling of progression as a character. All the old skills are still there to level up (including a grip of new ones) but none of them allow you to scream people off cliffs or summon dragons so why bother?
This issue doesn't only exist in the main story quest either. You can't escape it. The Mage's College quest for example paints you as a kind of magical messiah who will bring balance to the world of magic before you have even done anything interesting. In the Dark Brotherhood quest line you become a kind of speaker for an abstract entity who may well be death himself simply because you hid in a coffin. It gets to the point where becoming the messianic figure for yet another cult, church, organisation or cabal is more a nuisance than an honour. 
Oblivion required you to put lots of time in and do lots of busywork for guilds before they would even hire you. Once you were in you had to do all kinds of odd jobs before anyone would even look at you twice and that made your promotions and eventual positions of authority within said organisations feel  sweeter because you felt like you deserved it. In Skyrim everything feels like it's basically handed to you before you've even strapped your boots on.

Skyrim's Lack of Soul is a Worrying Sign of the Times in Two Possible Ways

So Skyrim is slick, beautiful, fast paced and exciting but as Duke Ellington says it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing. Making the Dragonborne the god of everything makes him/her unrelatable as a character so the game never really draws you in like Oblivion. A friend told me she played Skyrim and enjoyed but she got lost in Oblivion and that's a good way of putting it. This suggests one of two things, either:
  1. We have become so instant gratification based as a generation even Bethesda Softworks, once a bastion of story and immersion first gaming has had to dumb down their narratives so they can shift copies.
  2. I have grown up and become so jaded that computer games cannot touch my soul in the way that they used to. I played Oblivion when I was 16 and I have changed alot since then. What if it's me?
Just contemplating either of these as possibly true makes me feel like I need a stiff drink. Maybe afterwards I'll give Call of Duty a go. I've heard it's all the rage with the kids these days.

Stay Crunchy Internet

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