skyrim

You may not have heard, but I love RPGs. Ever since I was a kid, the idea of creating my own character, dropping him into a unique world, and choosing my own path has always appealed to me. I also have an unhealthy obsession with the Elder Scrolls series. So, with the release of  Skyrim’s Special Edition, it was only a matter of time before I wrote an article about the most well-known RPG in recent memory.

The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim is a massively popular open-world role-playing game. It took the world by storm, it has a positive rating on Steam, and countless people play it every day. But, after 5 years on the market, does the game hold up?

No, and looking back, was it really that great, to begin with?

That’s right, today I’m jumping off a cliff discussing a topic that can only make me look bad no matter which side I choose. A topic with extremists on both ends, and a frustrated middle-ground sick of the conversation altogether. Today we’re talking about the quality of Skyrim. Note that this isn’t a review of the special edition or the original, but an attempt to deconstruct the core problems with the game.

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So, is Skyrim really that good of a game? Is it a good RPG? Do people give it too much credit? Or are the naysayers just trying to spoil our fun? Well, let’s take a look.

Why I love RPGs

Before I can explain my thoughts on Skyrim, it’s only fair to explain my biases, priorities, and personal taste in RPGs.

The first RPG I remember playing was Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. I first got my hands on it while I attended elementary school, and it blew me away. I know now that games like this had existed for decades, but at the time I had no idea. As far as I was concerned, no innovation would ever top the ability to make my own character and make my own decisions. I focus heavily on the role-playing element of role-playing games. I don’t just want to collect experience and level up, I want to live a life in a virtual world.

skyrim [Knights of the Old Republic] It may not seem like much today, but this blew my 9 year old mind.
[Knights of the Old Republic] It may not seem like much today, but this blew my 9-year-old mind.
So along comes The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion, and if I thought Knights of the Old Republic the be-all-end-all of video games, I had another thing coming. The size of the world baffled me, the fact that I could go anywhere and do almost anything, the fact that every NPC had a life and a job and a schedule that I could interact with or disrupt, the fact that I got to choose my class and play style with so much freedom, it all blew my mind. The Elder Scrolls quickly became my favorite series of all time, and since my first foray into Oblivion I’ve played every mainline entry in the series to date.

Skyrim’s Mediocrity in a Nutshell

The Elder Scrolls is a role-player’s paradise, a sandbox where you can create any story or scenario you want with some imagination. That being said, it’s far from a perfect series.

Elder Scrolls games are infamous for buggy gameplay, mediocre combat, design overlooks, and a general lack of polish. Moreover, the games have always had an issue of making your actions have a lasting impact on the world. I’m of the mind that a game’s sequel should improve upon existing systems. If a game’s goal is to create an immersive role-playing experience, and it doesn’t achieve that goal in some way, then I think the sequel should fix the areas in which it lacks in order to better reflect that goal. This brings us to Skyrim.

First Playthrough Realizations

In my first playthrough, I was bombarded by NPCs telling me to “join the Bard’s college.” It became clear the game wanted to me do this, but I was playing as a mage and wanted to find the mage’s guild.

After playing through the rushed, repetitive, predictable, plot-hole-ridden questline with barely any magic involved, the wonder and enjoyment of the game began to wear off. Several important characters had died off screen, the obvious villain was revealed, and the conflict was solved with an impromptu, poorly explained deus ex machina. The game’s spell on me was breaking, and I began to realize just how shallow it really was. Confused and dejected, I decided to give the Bard’s College a try. Singing songs and playing instruments would surely lift my spirits, right?

Skyrim: Little did I know, the player is unable to play instruments of any kind.
[Skyrim]: Little did I know, the player is unable to play instruments of any kind.
After playing through the rushed, repetitive, predictable, plot-hole-ridden questline, without once playing an instrument, singing a song, or being anything but an errand boy for faceless NPCs, I put down the game and went to sleep.

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What To Look For in Good Gameplay

It’s been said thousands of times, but the gameplay is an ocean wide and a puddle deep. The quests repeat too often, the narrative unfolds terribly, the mechanics underdeveloped, and the game barely responds to your actions. Skyrim gives you the illusion that there’s more to it than there is, but once you pull back the veil and look inside, you see a game that’s shallow, clunky, cuts corners and doesn’t provide the rich role-playing experience I was expecting from the latest installment in this great series.

We could talk for ages about the poorly designed combat, the lackluster magic system, and the countless design overlooks in the game, but the problems with Skyrim go much deeper, into the basic design of the game itself.

A Feeling of “Sameness” in Skyrim

Skyrim has a giant world, but no matter what the player does, it seems like there’s only one basic experience.

Unlike previous games, every character I made felt pretty much the same: an oafish, clumsy nord. The complete gutting of the game’s mechanics didn’t help either. As you may know, Skyrim removed most of the spells and stats from previous games, homogenizing the experience. It could be argued that some stats were redundant, while others didn’t really matter much in the first place, but their exclusion leaves the player with fewer options for character development.

The argument for removing stats and play styles rests on the faulty assumption that redundancy is bad for an RPG. It may be redundant to be able to open a door with a lockpick or with an unlock spell, but it gives players additional options and ways of completing the same task. Ideally, both methods would be viable, but there would be benefits and drawbacks to each. Maybe using a spell is faster than using a lockpick, but louder, attracting potential enemies to your location. This is how you create an RPG with a diverse set of play styles.

Less Options, Less Fun

Skills like athletics (which increases your speed) and acrobatics (which makes you jump higher) may not have had much practical combat purpose, but removing them destroys an entire play style that allowed your characters to be agile, jumpy, and nimble. Previous games allowed your character to be an acrobat; they could hop on the surface of the water, dodge attacks, jump to high places no one else could reach, and escape guards by outrunning them. It was an ideal play style for bosmer and khajiit characters, and Skyrim ruined those races for me by removing this play style. Diversity and variety are what separate a hollow experience from a brilliant one.

Skyrim has no interest in this sort of nuance.

Skyrim: A World without Consequence?

This issue of sameness plagued the role-playing aspects of the game as well. The world never seems to react to you. There’s no way to distinguish your character or give him a personality through dialogue, your race, or your play style. This was a stark difference from other games published by Bethesda, like Fallout 3 and New Vegas. In those games your perks gave you extra dialogue options that could change entire questlines and gave your character an interesting personality.

Skyrim seems afraid to give you any consequences. Khajiit aren’t trusted in Skyrim? Funny, no one even seems to realize you’re a khajiit in the first place. Argonians aren’t allowed in Windhelm? Except for you! There’s not even a unique quest for argonian players to gain entrance into the city. Sure, playing the game with a different race or play style could present new challenges to the player, but it could also provide new opportunities. RPGs have embraced this notion for decades, yet Skyrim lags woefully behind. There’s not even a single mention of your race throughout the entire game other than the tutorial and the occasional insult from a bandit.

How About an Example…

Here’s an example to drive my point home. One day, my altmer was talking to another altmer. I was glad to speak with one of my kind. I wondered what sort of unique dialogue he’d have for a fellow elf like myself.

He then proceeds to explain to me what an elf is.

[Skyrim] His name is Ondolemar if you want to find him in the game. skyrim
[Skyrim] His name is Ondolemar if you want to find him in the game.
It was at that moment that I realized: from a story and role-playing perspective, your race does not exist in Skyrim. You are a nord. Everyone treats you like a nord. No matter how much you scream and cry, the world will assume you’re a nord until you go insane and start believing it yourself. This issue permeates the entire game, and it became infuriating after a while. If you can’t express yourself in an RPG nor see the world react to your expression, then what’s the point?

Exceptions to the Rule

There are some exceptions to this, but they are few and far between. Not nearly involved enough for me to actually feel like my race matters to the story. It’s a shame too because each race in the elder scrolls has its own unique flavor and history. Entire quests could have been more interesting by acknowledging the unique aspects of my player instead of pretending they don’t exist.

These issues aren’t limited to your race alone, however. Your play style is meaningless as well and has absolutely no bearing on what you can accomplish and how. If you can’t pick the lock to that chest, it doesn’t really matter because it’s just going to be filled with randomly generated loot. Anything in the game that’s unique and interesting can be discovered regardless of play style. If you’re a necromancer, raising people from the dead in a land that’s already wary of magic, the world doesn’t treat you very differently aside from a few negative comments from NPCs. There’s no consequence or downside for picking one play style over another. The game refuses to make anything you do matter, and you’ll have the same experience every time as a result.

The quests in Skyrim give you the illusion that you’ll be able to influence the world and change things, then snatch away the opportunity at the last minute. The all important civil war, for example, no matter who you side with, no high king will ever be crowned, and half the world won’t even acknowledge the war is over. Considering the amount of focus the civil war has on the game, the way it resolves itself is unforgivable.

A World Without Choices

But the most glaring example of the world ignoring your actions is “The Forsworn Conspiracy“. In it, you learn a radical network of oppressed natives fighting against the corrupt government lay siege to the city. In the end, you’re forced to pick a side and determine the fate of the region. Well, at the end of the day, who you side with doesn’t matter. Even if you side with the forsworn, they’ll remain hostile to you for the rest of the game and nothing ever comes of your allegiance. The city is never retaken by the forsworn, the status quo remains, and everything immediately goes back to normal. Many have attempted to explain this bizarre conclusion away. However, the fact remains that Bethesda chose not to let your choices matter.

This, to me, is Skyrim’s cardinal sin. The game treats me the same no matter what. The choices I’ve made, the person I’ve created, do not exist in the game world. Throughout Skyrim, I never felt like I was a person living in the world. I felt like a camera documenting someone else’s story, and a rather bland story at that.

The Bland Quests and Boring Narrative

I’m the first to admit that even though The Elder Scrolls has one of the largest, deepest, and most unique backstories I’ve ever seen, the games have always lacked from a narrative perspective. In my opinion, the only games in the mainline series to have good narratives are Daggerfall and Morrowind. Every other game is pretty throwaway in terms of story. Again, sequels should improve upon existing systems. Just because Oblivion had a mediocre story, it doesn’t give Skyrim an excuse to do the same. If one of the goals of The Elder Scrolls is to create an interesting, convincing world for you to role-play within, then the story of the game, which reflects upon the world, should be interesting and convincing as well.

skyrim [Skyrim] One of the most interesting villains in Elder Scrolls lore became the most boring villain in the actual game.
[Skyrim] One of the most interesting villains in Elder Scrolls lore became the most boring villain in the actual game.
The guild questlines, designed to give your player an identity and storyline based on your play style, are less about simulating a job or role for your character like in Morrowind, and more about following a preset story. That would be fine if the storylines were actually good. More often than not, plot holes riddled with forgettable characters that have little to do with the theme of each guild reign.

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Skyrim: The Guilds

The guilds themselves place little emphasis on the play style to which they’re supposedly catering. I counted, you only need to use magic three times throughout the entire College of Winterhold (Mage’s guild) questline. Everything else is just one dungeon crawl after another. I never felt like I was an actual mage, learning about the universe and the forces that bind it together. I was just everyone’s errand boy, who for some reason becomes the leader at the end. The thing that really irks me about each questline is that they all just devolve into generic dungeon crawls. Advancing through the main story, or one of the various guild questlines has nothing to do with actually utilizing the skills for your supposed role. You’re just watching a poorly developed story unfold, and after a while it gets boring.

In the end, what Skyrim gave me was a shallow dungeon crawler with a lackluster combat system, removal of many role-playing aspects, a weak narrative, and that’s it. The other games had issues too, but I expect a developer’s work to improve over time.

The Point

Many would say that Skyrim’s ambition and desire to create a massive open world are enough to make it a good game. However, if you’re going to be ambitious, your work and polish should reflect that. Ambition is worthless without execution.

Skyrim is a game with ambitious goals, and it’s easy to assume those ambitions become realized when you first boot up the game. But for me, once the hype wore off, I realized that ambition alone can’t make a game great. I wanted to love Skyrim, and at the risk of sounding like a gaming hipster who just wants to hate something popular, Skyrim is an example of ambition without substance, and while that can sell a $60 game, it won’t maintain many people’s interests for very long. People are still playing Morrowind and Oblivion after all these years. Hundreds of mods made and improved every day for these two games exist. Will people keep playing Skyrim years after it releases more sequels? I’m not sure.

Skyrim and the Future

All this makes me wonder about the future of the series. Will the next Elder Scrolls game improve upon the formula, or will it continue to remove features? Will it make our choices matter? Or will it continue to ignore them? Only time and people’s wallets will tell.

Skyrim’s issues point to a larger problem within the industry: complacency.

Video games need to grow and improve over time and The Elder Scrolls is no exception. For a variety of reasons, this series has become complacent. It’s beginning to stagnate as a result. Many say that Skyrim, despite all its problems, provides a unique experience that you can’t find in any other game. This is true, to an extent; few RPGs, if any, have combined all these features into a single package. This is what makes Bethesda games stand out. Because of this, there’s no real reason to grow or evolve. When no one is challenging you, when no one keeps you on your toes, you’ll have no incentive to work harder. That’s how business works.

Games like The Witcher 3 are already encroaching on Bethesda’s territory. It’s only a matter of time until another game comes along that does what Skyrim did, but better. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe some healthy competition is what this series needs to truly realize its ambitious goals.

 

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5 Comments

  1. psychotrip

    February 23, 2017 at 5:30 pm

    @Harold Is there an Elder Scrolls VI out that I’m unaware of?

    Reply

  2. Aearyn E

    November 14, 2016 at 12:57 pm

    Great article, and I totally agree with all these points. Although for me a huge thing (although not necessarily related to the scope of this article) is the voice acting; the bad writing combined with the use of like, two actual people to do every voice really ruined the immersion. I did come from playing Dragon Age games first though, so I guess I was spoiled in that respect. But yes I have friends who LOVE this game, and recommended it to me (along with a lot of the reviews), and when I played it I just thought it was…meh. Due to all the issues you pointed out above. And I had never even played the previous games, so there was no expectation of it ‘measuring up’ to previous installments. I just tried to play it again when SE came out, and I just couldn’t do it; it’s just too boring. Here’s hoping they do a better job on the next one.

    Reply

  3. Corey

    November 14, 2016 at 8:52 am

    The more you want your choices to matter in a game like this, the more you want every decision to change the world, the tighter the scripting has to become. That’s going to do one of two things: either it’s going to shorten and narrow the overall experience (because game designers have to spend time and resources building eventualities for multiple branching outcomes), or it’s going essentially railroad the player down a long but rich story, giving only the illusion of choice (like Mass Effect). Some of us don’t really like either of those alternatives.

    The magic of Skyrim (easily the best RPG and probably the best game ever created) is that YOU bring the character and the development to the experience. Maybe it’s true that you only need to cast magic three times during the Mage’s Guild questline, but if that’s what you’re doing, then you’re just screwing up your own experience. When I played through it, I thought of myself as a fledgling student getting involved in events too big for us. Then later, as the archmage, I walk around my College with haughty imperiousness, surveying my domain behind the impersonal Morokei mask. I command other students and masters to follow me on my expeditions. I am the archmage. I know it to be true. I want it to be true. I find myself talking to the TV quite a bit. That’s all a part of the fun.

    In other games that have the kind of scripting you desire, you tend to play a character that is already made for you, and for me that’s just not nearly as compelling.

    Reply

  4. Harold Trump

    November 14, 2016 at 3:48 am

    “Will people keep playing Skyrim years after its sequels are released?” – how old is this article?

    Reply

  5. Kevin Coad

    November 14, 2016 at 12:44 am

    Great article. I have played all the Elder Scroll games and I spent way to many hours playing Skyrim and your article gets right to the point. There really isn’t an RPG element. No matter who you play it always ends the same way. Your character really does not change the outcome of the game. It is a huge game with very little substance, I too hope that competition will spur Bethesda into making a real RPG that will allow you to become immersed in the game world. I think Witcher 3 did a much better job than Skyrim.

    Reply

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