In Which A Considered Judgment Is Rendered

It is seemingly obligatory in any discussion of Skyrim, the fifth installment in Bethesda Softworks’ Elder Scrolls series, to mention the game’s scope. There’s a good reason for this: Skyrim is truly colossal in every sense in which a video game can be so. There are numbers out there suggesting that Skyrim is not, in terms of virtual hectares, the largest of the Elder Scrolls games, but it’s hard to deny that it feels larger than any of its predecessors (especially if you have the privilege of playing the game on a large-screen TV). When you step outside, the land stretches in every direction before you. Foreboding mountains loom on the horizon, and the sky changes with the weather, sometimes dark with rain and other times radiant with sunlight. The game’s dungeons are artistic masterworks; one almost gasps the first time one enters a gigantic underground cavern or sees the full majesty of a ruined Dwemer city revealed (in fact, your character’s companions will gasp in just this way). In its atmospheric qualities, Skyrim is unmatched by any other game, or probably, any other virtual production at all. It’s not really any exaggeration to say that no world of this scale that feels this real exists anywhere else.

In addition to its size and detail, the world of Skyrim improves on that of its predecessor, Oblivion, by harking back to its grandparent, Morrowind. Morrowind was not nearly as pretty or detailed as Skyrim is (for lack of technical capability, one assumes, rather than desire on the part of the design team), but its aesthetic was dark, threatening, and engrossing. In Morrowind, storms could kick up clouds of dust that reduced visibility, and the entire countryside appeared perpetually drab, lending background gravity to a plotline concerned with the resurrection of a dead god (or… something; my memory of Morrowind’s plot is somewhat hazy and all I recall is that you would end up being something called the Nerevarrine). By contrast, Oblivion, with its painstakingly detailed blades of grass, looked a little too happy a place, what with the possible end of the world on the horizon. Even the plane of Oblivion itself was a little too bright; only its brightness was of a red sort, which I suppose was intended to connote some sort of evil. In its visuals and aesthetics, Skyrim is closer to Morrowind’s spirit, coupled with superlative realization, and this is for the better.

The size and look of this world, remarkable as it is, nevertheless fades into the background relatively quickly as one progresses through the game. To be sure, staggeringly beautiful scenes are encountered throughout the game, but they cannot sustain a 50-hour (and that, I think, is on the low side of how much time people will, on average, sink into Skyrim) adventure. For that, you must rely on the narratives of the main and secondary quests, and on the gameplay. I suspect that, at least on the first front, few will be disappointed (notable exceptions include Grantland’s Tom Bissell, who found the game’s social world tedious). The social detail within Skyrim is at least a match for the physical detail. If you are so inclined, you can join an incipient native rebellion, or team up with the Imperial occupiers to suppress it; the rebels themselves display casual, open racism towards those who diverge from their cause or happen to have the wrong color skin, a detail I mention to highlight how much work has obviously gone into a realistic rendering of social interaction. You can clear out bandit camps for a bounty, hunt down dragons and harvest their souls (a key game mechanic), join societies dedicated to either magic, combat, or theft, run errands for nobles, purchase houses, assist in piracy, and run any number of other random errands. What is remarkable is how natural all of this feels within the context of the game-world; true, many of the quests are of the “go there, fetch that” variety, but cloaked within a series of interactions with NPCs so they become miniature stories within themselves whose completion you play out. The Daedric quests are the best of all of these, in my view, all the more so because they usually end up yielding quite powerful artifacts.

All in all, there is no shortage of things to do in Skyrim. The main quest, as compared to Morrowind, turns out to be rather disappointingly thin, and the punchline (you are the Dragonborn, surprise!) is given away pretty early (you had to work for the punchline in Morrowind, and Oblivion didn’t really have one), but that’s ok because most of the time you’re going to be doing something other than following the main narrative’s path anyway. As you travel Skyrim, various ruined forts, caves, towers, villages, camps, and other habitations reveal themselves to you, and it’s usually great fun to take a detour into a nearby cave to look for goodies or level up, especially in the early stages of the game. Skyrim’s level system operates on the ingenious “getting better at what you do” principle, whereby advancement is secured by improving one’s skills; no formal class is selected. So, if you want to become a better fighter, you pick up a sword and go at it; if you want to hone your magic skills, grab a few spells and go nuts. In addition to the standard fighter/mage/thief skillsets, there are a few “minor” skills, such as smithing and alchemy (more on those later), and level advancement provides perks that unlock additional abilities with the skill tree. Overall, the system captures most of the complexity of the previous Elder Scrolls games without turning the player into a micromanager, and this strikes me as an excellent balance between complete simplicity and the level of detail involved in games based around the D&D system.

Thus far, it’s all been praise, but Skyrim has warts that don’t become obvious until well into the game. Perhaps the most serious complaint that I have has to do with the realism of the physical landscape, not just in appearance but in interaction. As I mentioned before, Skyrim’s social world is ridiculously well-developed (and despite the meme about taking an arrow to the knee currently going around the Internet, it’s also incredibly well-acted by the voice actors), but its physical world, though stunning in its beauty, often feels quite literally skin-deep. An example: Skyrim features several large rivers and other bodies of water, but upon close examination, virtually all of them are revealed to be merely waist-deep. That’s right: you can more or less walk through most of Skyrim’s waterways, a fact which feels genuinely weird considering that dungeons in Skyrim can often feel a mile deep. Practically the only place where deep water is encountered on a regular basis is in the north (though somehow frolicking in Arctic seas results in no negative effects to the character’s health).

Skyrim may be beautiful, but getting around it can be a real pain in the ass. The aforementioned rivers appear navigable (e.g. docks will have ships moored in them) but there is no mechanic to sail a boat down the river. And that’s a real shame, because oftentimes to get from point A to point B, Skyrim will force you to take a long and seriously inconvenient route; it’s almost as if the developers felt that you wouldn’t appreciate the world unless you were compelled to travel the scenic way. Once a place is discovered, you can always fast-travel there, which is great, but often you will find yourself needing to cover what appears to be a short distance on the map, only to learn that in order to do this you have to follow a serpentine path across some mountains. It’s hard to see why you shouldn’t be able to sail up and down the river if you like (although this would be hard to do if the river is three feet deep), and it would certainly facilitate exploration early on. You can speed up your locomotion somewhat by purchasing a horse, but despite years of advanced engineering (and the existence of such excellent examples as the Assassin’s Creed games) Bethesda has apparently yet to solve the complicated problem of horse-mounted combat. Seriously, how hard can this be? If you encounter enemies while mounted, prepare to dismount and fight; also prepare for your idiot horse to attack them randomly and get itself killed. Once my first horse bought it in an otherwise unremarkable encounter with some bandits, leaving me a thousand gold pieces poorer after scarcely a few hours (real time) of exploitation, I decided I’d had it with pack animals. I can imagine they might be useful if you’re harvesting Dwemer metal (it tends to be pretty heavy) but other than that, horses are a useless extravagance, looking as if they were added in an afterthought rather than as integral parts of the game.

The mountains of Skyrim are equally frustrating. In more than one case, reaching some spot that you’re trying to get to will involve negotiating a complicated mountain path. Fortunately the Clairvoyance spell will point the way for you, but it’s irritating to have to run around zapping the spell every few seconds to see the next leg of your journey (and more on this: why is there no minimap on which Clairvoyance could draw your path, having it last for, say, a minute? I realize that minimaps might break the realism a little, but that seems like a small price to pay for being able to tell where you’re going). When a mountain gets in your way, you can do nothing but walk around it; in most cases, jumping up the rocks just won’t work. I frequently found myself bemoaning the lack of a climbing mechanic within Skyrim. What would it have hurt to allow the player to scale mountains via some kind of mountaineering skill (let’s say, if your skill is too low, you could fall to your death in a storm or something). As far as I can tell, the mountains never actually render any part of the map inaccessible; they only make access to it all that much more irritating.

I also found Skyrim’s smithing system to be flawed, at best. For example, there exist something like 10 different types of ore in Skyrim, which can be combined in various ways to produce various ingots, which only then can be used to upgrade weapons and armor. Furthermore, the ore itself can only be obtained from mines (or finding it in dungeons), and in those mines you actually have to… mine it? I don’t get it; who thought Skyrim was supposed to be an ore mining simulator? Once I realized the level of complexity involved in upgrading even simple objects, I simply gave up trying to do it. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if the system didn’t present one of the best prospects for upgrading your equipment when playing a warrior character; for some reason, you can’t pay other smiths in the game to upgrade your stuff for you. Nor can you break down any of the stuff you find in the world into its base components, i.e. melt down steel plate you don’t need into steel ingots. It’s hard to see what all this complexity adds to the game other than forcing you to roam the world, scavenging ore and ingots if you want to upgrade anything. And the steep learning curve of the smithing skill tree makes the skill itself even harder to use, since you need to be at a very high proficiency level before you can do anything really interesting. You can, of course, get there by simply grinding out levels (one way is to scavenge all scrap metal from Dwemer ruins, melt it down for ingots, and then forge stuff with it) but that’s a pretty boring thing to do; it would be much better if the process of gaining smithing knowledge were part of an organic development in the same way that the fighting and magic skills are.

Elder Scrolls afficionados will be unsurprised to find that Skyrim, like its predecessors, is full of clutter. Every imaginable thing you can think of can be picked up, even if no good use can be made of most of them. It’s a weird sort of realism, in light of the aforementioned inability to cannibalize items for raw materials (a mechanic featured, by the way, in the underrated Two Worlds II), to find an infinity of weapons lying around everywhere you go. In one way, this adds to the atmosphere of the dungeons (of course a bandit hideout would be replete with weapons caches) but at times this abundance feels overwhelming. At the same time, good items seem to come along relatively infrequently (it seems that their appearance correlates with level), and as a result, I finished the main storyline with armor and weapons acquired about halfway through. There’s enough weaponry lying about in Skyrim to arm a world ten times its size, but you can’t do much with any of it because it’s all crap.

And speaking of populations, this is the one way in which Skyrim geuninely felt small to me. The cities of Morrowind may not have been as visually imposing, but even a tiny backwater like Balmora seemed, well, populated, to say nothing of a capital city like Vivec. In Skyrim, even the relatively cosmopolitan centers of Solitude and Whiterun feel like they’ve got about half of the population they ought to have. The landscape is dotted with little farms and inns, but the farms are run by lonely individuals and the inns have only a few regulars in them. In fact, half of the population of Skyrim appears to be made up of guards of one kind or another who patrol the deserted streets of its cities. It is, again, strange for a game that put so much emphasis on social realism to leave out so much of what makes the social real, the people.

That incidentally brings us to money, which is another weird aspect of Skyrim. I realize that replicating economic reality was probably not high on Bethesda’s list of things to do, but the end result is a world in which money just doesn’t seem to have much currency. What can you do with gold in Skyrim? Well, you could purchase equipment in the stores, but that turns out to be pointless because you will do much better just by canvassing dungeons or fulfilling quests, especially Daedric ones. For horses, see above. You can buy property in the game, which is kind of cool, but unless you’d like to feel like you’re playing Landlord Mogul, there’s not much reason to buy anything beyond one, or maybe two houses. The only real uses for money in Skyrim that I found was to purchase training and to bribe people to do things you want them to do (unlike in Morrowind, where you would make a bribe to affect a character’s disposition towards you and then try talking to them, in Skyrim you just select the bribe option and it works every time). You can accrue stupid amounts of money from completing quests and looting bodies, but for whatever reason it seems damn near impossible to get any serious amounts by selling to shopowners, as they will run out of cash well before you run out of stuff to sell. In an ironically realistic twist, their money supplies might not recover for days, by which time you’ll have rustled up even more stuff to get rid of. You can conceivably solve this problem by traveling to various cities and selling to multiple traders, but this is tedious and also unnecessary; I just ended up stashing all my treasures in a chest in my house.

Skyrim’s combat system is, in my view, weak. It’s been lauded as an improvement over Morrowind and Oblivion, but the improvement is largely in the feel of the thing, not anything substantial. True, time-based shield blocking has been introduced, but it’s quirky and often doesn’t work right; other than that, the basic elements were all present in Morrowind (the archery mechanic has been slightly altered but the main pieces are all still there). Combat is usually best conducted in the first person, but even then it can be very cumbersome. There is no way to lock on to a single enemy, and it’s easy to mistarget and end up swinging at the wall while your opponents hack you from behind. Don’t even think about doding; you can strafe to avoid projectiles, magical and otherwise (although opposing mages are unbelievably accurate) but try and get out of the way of a dragon’s breath attack, and you’ll find you just can’t, especially if it’s a frost attack (which slows you down). Fighting has a pretty satisfying crunch in Skyrim (at higher levels, attacks can result in critical hits and pretty slick-looking fatality moves) and that gives it enough oomph to keep things fun, but the system as a whole is clearly inferior, requiring nothing more than button-mashing for success. Again, it’s a strange sort of realism that puts a multitude of weapons at the player’s disposal but makes it mostly boring to use any of them. As before, I want to point to the Assassin’s Creed games (especially ACII) as an example of a system that gets this right: in ACII, I never felt like the fights were boring or perfunctory, and I always had some tricks at my disposal, whereas in Skyrim, after a while every fight feels identical. The little-known-but-beloved-by-me Blade of Darkness (also called Severance: Blade of Darkness) also got this right way back in 2001 or so, with a combo-based combat and dodging system that allowed you to hack off your opponents’ limbs. It’s not clear why Skyrim couldn’t have borrowed, conceptually, from something like AC; true, it would have compromised the first-person experience a bit, but I think that would have been an acceptable tradeoff for a fighting system that actually feels real.

Throughout the hours (don’t ask how many) I spent playing Skyrim, the overwhelming impression that emerged was that of a world exquisitely designed, but poorly planned. Skyrim is gorgeous and breathtaking, but when it comes to interacting with its world, the options are surprisingly limited. What good is it to me that I can pick up any object in the game when I don’t want to do anything with any of them? What use magic items harvested from dungeons that are too weak to use (because I already have something better) but too expensive to sell? Yes, upgrading my one-handed sword attacks certainly improves the chance of decapitating my enemies, but why can I not also dodge out of the way of their attacks? Why does my horse have tapioca for brains? It’s frustrating inconsistencies like that disrupt the truly remarkable immersive experience provided by Skyrim’s landscape and people.

I compared Skyrim several times to the Assassin’s Creed series, and I think that comparison bears elaborating. The AC games are linear rather than sandbox, so their social world is substantially less detailed (the story is told in cutscenes anyway and actual interactive dialogue is nonexistent), but the physical world of AC overflows with just the right kind of detail. The virtual Florence of ACII is not just a remarkable reconstruction of the real thing, but it also feels like it. Its streets throng with townspeople, merchants, and guards. Sure, they’re just milling about, if you look at them closely, but in the end, so are the people of Skyrim. You’ll never look at any particular person in the game twice anyway, because the virtual Florentines are anonymous and are there for atmospheric purposes (that and to get in your way when you’re trying to evade the guards). In any case, they give the impression of an inhabited town in whose affairs Ezio’s quest is a minor blip; by contrast, the cities of Skyrim feel half-abandoned and no one looks like they have anything better to do than unload their problems on you.

Likewise, the physical interactions of AC are far more logical than those of Skyrim. The most obvious one is the ability to climb buildings (which of course pretty much the whole premise of the AC games) but in general the whole physical model of the AC world is far better developed than its Skyrim equivalent. Why doesn’t Skyrim have a climbing mechanic? Developing such a thing was clearly not part of Bethesda’s plan, but it would have made for a much more satisfying experience, and it’s not clear that anything else that Bethesda prides itself on (the social immersivity, the role playing aspects, etc.) would have been negatively impacted. Likewise the AC combat mechanic (especially in ACII and its sequels) is well-thought out, providing you with just enough tricks to make it fun while maintaining a decidedly visceral feel, especially on fatal strikes. From where I sit, such a mechanic would have only improved Skyrim by rendering the combat a physical reality instead of mostly a reflection of the character’s numerical stats.

It seems clear that Bethesda doesn’t terribly care about doing this, and it’s in some way to their credit that they’ve created a game that is so much fun to play despite lacking what I think are really key aspects of character-world physical interaction. Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue that Skyrim wouldn’t be improved if less time was spent on elaborate dungeon layouts and lore composition (in this I am in agreement with Bissell) and more time was spent thinking about what affordances the world should provide to the players. All these things nonwithstanding, Skyrim is still a great game. You’ll still (if you’re any kind of RPG fan at all) sink countless hours into it because it’s just that big and that fun. If I criticize, it is because I love, because I would go absolutely bonkers over a game that combined the size and elaborate construction of Skyrim with the physical model of something like AC. Whether Bethesda or some other game maker will ever realize my dream remains to be seen, but I think the results of such a meld would be phenomenal. If anyone from Bethesda happens to read this (ha!) and wants to get my input for their next project, you know where to find me.

Christopher Hitchens memorial linkfest

I don’t know if you all heard this, but apparently Christopher Hitchens died. I know, totes unexpected. A lot of people have written a lot of things about that, aparently, so I’ve collected some of those things here for perusal and edification.