More Redundant Content Than Ever Before!: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)
By Kimber Benton & Aja Leith · Jul 17, 2013
Kimber: We played Skyrim. Well…actually we didn’t, ‘cause we already played it two years ago and we both kind of hate it, but we did turn it on and run around for a bit. It’s super-pretty.
Aja: “Hate” is too strong a word, I think. It’s more like all Bethesda sandbox games have a shelf life and I just reached this one’s moment of “meh” much more quickly than I did with Morrowind or Oblivion or either of the Fallouts. Like six dungeons in, you’re already thinking, “oh. Not another fucking dungeon.”
Kimber: “Oh. Another angry snow troll. Great.”
Aja: “Oh. Another giant that I can take giant’s toes from.”
Kimber: “Oh. Sweet. The 867th insane wizard I’ve had to kill!”
Aja: And that’s ignoring the insanely annoying dragon battles that can happen at any time. Like, I’m in the middle of my 6,789th fetch quest, here, dragon. I’m trying to become the Grand Vizier of the Skyrim Music Academy or whatever. Chill out. “Oh. Another dragon.”
Kimber: More redundant content than ever before!
Aja: “I’ve become werewolved? Oh.”
Kimber: I guess “meh” is probably a good way to put it. I mean, I even kind of think criticizing Skyrim—or trying to explain that criticism—is a bit of a fool’s errand, largely because I think it’s just one of those games where, like, you either like the experience or you don’t.
Aja: That’s true. Of course, even as you were saying that, my brain translated it to “I think it’s just one of those games where, like, you’re either willing to put up with its faults or you aren’t,” which is probably unfair. I kind of feel about Skyrim like I feel about Lost, which is to say that I find both endlessly frustrating but I don’t really feel like it’s worth invalidating the opinions of those that enjoy them. I don’t get those opinions, really, because they rely on people saying that things were good that I don’t understand how those things were good, but sure.
Kimber: Still: Skyrim blows.
Aja: Oh, absolutely. Hee. But part of what I mean is that Skyrim clearly isn’t built for a gamer like me. I’m the type that likes to do everything. I’m not a player who’s like, “I’m a thief, so I shall only excel at skills that are part of the thief class.” I’m a player who’s like, “I’d like to enjoy playing this game with a variety of shit at my disposal and if I have to learn smithing to get the coolest looking armor I’m gonna do that shit.”
Kimber: I’m that kind of player too. I refused to wear Daedric or glass armor in Oblivion ‘cause it looked fucking stupid. As a side note, I super-miss the Morrowind days of all separate pieces so you could create asymmetrical shoulder pads and shit. Actually: maybe I’m just a player who likes collecting shit, which is why once I’ve collected shit I find games like this boring. Because as impressive as the graphics are, and impressive as the design of Skyrim itself is, there’s only so long you can wander around before your initial “oooh” turns to “ooh” turns to “oh.”
Aja: Just imagine trying to play this game as someone who was enchanting, doing alchemy, smithing, sneaking, and everything else, though! You’d go nuts. And because I am that person all I end up doing with a game like this is trying to level the skills in case I need them later, without really actually learning how anything might benefit me. Which defenders of the game will probably say is my fault, and they’re probably right to a point, but I’m not sure the game really makes specific skills like alchemy fun. It’s more like, “oh. I have all this shit. Guess I better put that shit in my mortar and pestle and get grinding to get rid of it.”
Kimber: I usually try to arrange everything nicely on my shelves. It takes up hours!
Aja: The best part is that half the time shit just ends up glitchily floating in the air.
Kimber: Plus, I mean, all of the skills have finite results. You can “learn” alchemy or smithing, but it’s not like you can make your own potions. It’s not like you can say, “I want to make a potion that heals me and cures me of any poison, and I know these miscellaneous plant roots and ectoplasms have those properties so I will combine them to see if that works.” Instead, you’re just stuck figuring out arbitrary formulas for a finite number of things you can actually make. And, like, most of those things are more useful to sell for money than they are as items you can use.
Aja: Plus, how do you carry multiple giant’s toes?
Kimber: Gathering the stuff for alchemy or smithing or enchanting is more fun than actually doing any of those things because at least you’re wandering around looking at stuff that isn’t a UI menu.
Aja: Did you ever cook stuff?
Kimber: On a more serious note, there’s also a problem, I think, with how easy some skills are to level while others are quite hard.
Aja: One of my problems, I think, is that every skill is open to you regardless of what class you pick at the outset of the game. Consequently, there’s literally no choice at all that you’re really making. Like, I’m sure there are experience bonuses or caps dependent on your class, but…who cares?
Kimber: Yeah. You can choose “mage” and still be a warrior. Which was presented as a selling point—endless customization—but what that means in practice, is that you never have to make choices about how your character would have to deal in any given situation. Which is a big problem throughout, I think, because the game’s like Choose Your Very Own Unique Character at the outset but then continually asks you to Solve Problems The Same Way Everybody Else Will. A lot of the solutions to particular quests are singular. There isn’t a separate option that only a thief could take, for example, or a thing that only a mage could do. Instead, your present level or the level of a particular skill might prevent you from doing something, but because any build has access to any skill you just go level that skill up for a while and you’ll be fine. There’s no downside to any class because no choice prevents you from doing anything else. Like, I often think if a game like this actually held you to your choice—fighter, magician, or rogue—and limited what you could actually do? It would instantly be better.
Aja: Well…only if the game was rewritten to do that. And the gameplay, because presumably for reals rogues couldn’t hack ‘n’ slash their way through 742 interchangeable dungeons, which is what the majority of the gameplay in Skyrim is. But I agree. With Skyrim it seems like Bethesda was so enamored with opening up options—the dual-wielding, the ability to enchant weapons with spells, the simplified skill trees—that they further cemented a problem that plagues all of their games: the active role-playing parts—i.e. the parts where the game is actively asking you to make choices, and not just the byproducts of your own imagination—exist almost entirely during character creation.
Kimber: The choice thing is even more problematic.You get the illusion of choice sometimes—which faction to join in the Civil War; what order to do quests in—but because everybody can do everything, and because anybody can do any quest—or, to be more precise, any miscellaneous quest or the next quest in any set of quests—in any order, any choice you make is arbitrary. In practice, this means the effects of doing these quests is essentially non-existent. Like, even if you’ve already become the Dean of the College of Winterhold, nobody in the Companions blinks when you sign up to be a novice.
Aja: Right. There are points where your choices will change something, like if you side with the rebels and storm Whiterun, but other than a few dialogue changes everything remains the same, essentially. No NPC really cares, outside of the quest they may have to offer you. And, like, I get that they really can’t in any realistic way without accounting for a billion possible dialogue options, but there’s got to be some kind of middle ground. Especially because the other effect all this “choice” has is removing any urgency from any of the quests. You never get locked into anything. Every quest can be started on Tuesday and finished 6 years from now, and nobody cares. That farmer who really super-needed six butterfly wings to make a potion to save his dying wife or whatever will happily wait while you save the rest of the kingdom.
Kimber: Even within quests it can get annoying. You get presented with choices sometimes, but a lot of the time the choice you make doesn’t matter. At several points nefarious deities and idols ask you to serve them. You can either agree to serve or express your own individuality. But whichever dialogue option you choose the result is the same: the deity either accepts your servitude or tells you that you are infinitesimal so whatevs, you’re still serving their incomprehensible wishes anyways, so take this awesome sword btw. Which…why bother giving me the option, then?
Aja: There’s the one with the dog where killing the dog or sparing the dog gives you different items, but neither item seemed to matter much in the grand scheme of things, and clearly the “correct” choice was to spare the dog. Which, I won’t get into a huge thing about moral choices, but simple “good” and “evil” choices never work because, duh, these games only exist in the context of our reality’s moral system where you really aren’t supposed to be evil, making the “good” choice the correct choice by default.
Kimber: Or, alternatively, you get railroaded into making choices in a lot of the guild quests so you can finish out your quest log. The werewolf thing is kind of interesting, but the thieves and assassins stuff this time around are just annoying. Especially since every guild quest ultimately turns out to be about rooting out institutional corruption, which is the same story we’ve been experiencing since the dawn of Elder Scrolls time, and Skyrim merely adds the twist that all of the guilds are also overseen by nefarious deities who may or may not want your servitude..
Aja: “What! The head of the Mages Guild is secretly a blood mage? Again?”
Kimber: Yeah. I wonder if my issues with Skyrim might be attrition-based. I’ve actually played Oblivion more than once. Granted, the second time was on a PC and I just tilded my way through most of the shit, but still. I have zero desire to play Skyrim again. There’s something about it that just seems aimless to me. And while it is frequently engaging in that aimlessness early on, it just kind of dies for me. Like, I don’t think I finished every quest in the previous games, but I at least managed to make it through all the guild quests. I didn’t this time. But I wonder if that’s because they all just seem too familiar, and therefore too rote.
Aja: I don’t think they’re as good. Oblivion was filled with fetch quests, but I still remember doing things like assassinating Adamus Phillida or catching Quill-Weave. I mean, I had to look up those names, but I remember those quests, and others. Like finding the traitor in the Dark Brotherhood after you’ve wrongfully killed all of those fake contracts.
Kimber: I think the Dark Brotherhood quests in Oblivion are still a high-water mark for Bethesda. The writing was still hokey—the writing is always only okay—but those quests were engaging and felt urgent. The only assassin quest I really remember in Skyrim is the one where you can drop the statue on the bride and groom, but I don’t think it really worked out the way it was supposed to.
Aja: What of any of the quests do I actually remember? I remember the one with the haunted house, and the one where you black out, and the one where you go into the alternate dimension and have to face a series of trials. Wait. Are those last two the same one?
Kimber: I can’t remember.
Aja: What I know I don’t remember is having much fun with any of the quests. Certainly not as much fun as just wandering around the countryside was. I guess it could be an uncanny valley type of thing, maybe? The better the graphics get the more problematic it becomes that all the quests are samey and all the NPCs are rather stilted and boring. For example, it’s nice that you can get married in the game, I guess, but what’s the point? Half the time you end up sequestering somebody who seemed maybe kind of awesome inside your house and all they do is cook you dinner.
Kimber: It’s an empty mechanic.
Aja: There’s no point to it, and no real tactics involved. You don’t really flirt with people; you just do regular quests, and maybe eventually that becomes a dialogue option.
Kimber: “Oh. The love option. True love has surely arrived.”
Aja: I guess it’s kind of a tactics-less game. Maybe I’m remembering Oblivion and Morrowind through rose-colored glasses—well, I’m not, ‘cause those games blew in so many ways—but it seemed far more likely in those games that the quests would have multiple solutions. There were multiple quests where the easiest way to complete it was just to kill people, but after talking to people you could figure out alternative solutions. Here, many of the non-fighting quests are literally just traveling from one quest marker to another and selecting the appropriate dialogue options.
Kimber: And that will clear a quest out of your menu. Which…ugh. The ones that come in sets, like the guild stuff, are okay, but the “Miscellaneous” quests list gets way too long, especially since people are constantly handing “find me six bunnies” and “please make so-and-so like me” and “I need a potion” quests to you. I spent days just selecting them, one after the other, and trying to do them just to clear the list out. Of course, since a lot of them are item-dependent, I ended up Googling where to get the stuff because…wandering around in Skyrim is fun, but wandering around trying to find six mastodon tusks just to clear out a specific quest is not fun.
Aja: At least fetch quests don’t necessarily involve dungeons. Especially since a lot of those quests are randomly generated, which was a thing Bethesda acted like was a big selling point. “Oh. There are endless quests. Oh.”
Kimber: What I hate about them is that the place you’re going hardly matters. In fact, a lot of the time you only know where you’re going because you’ve selected that quest as your active quest and so the quest marker is highlighted and off you go. The person who gave you the quest never mentioned the place’s name. You don’t have to do any leg work to figure it out.
Aja: Heh. Yeah. It’s just, “I need you to clear out some bandits.” And you’re like, “could you tell me where, ma’am?” And they’re like, “did you clean out those bandits yet? Don’t talk to me until you’ve cleared out those bandits.”
Kimber: Which would be fine, but: the dungeons are no fun. And that’s the real issue, probably. Pretty much all of the above complaints would be mitigated if fighting was fun in this game. But…it isn’t. It’s awkward and arbitrary and rarely involves any clear strategy or tactics. Most of the time your success or failure depends entirely on how leveled you are, and generally “success” or “failure” merely means “how long it takes you to clear out this goddamned dungeon.”
Aja: The dual-wielding stuff is about as good as a hot key shortcut, and merely means that you have immediate access to two attacks or spells. But, like, even if you’re wielding two swords swinging them is just as clunky as always, the same down and up motions, and so who cares? Bethesda presented it like we could all be ninjas; instead we’re just slowly batting at enemies with two weapons instead of one. It never feels like you’re doing anything.
Kimber: Which makes the vast majority of the game an utter slog, since even if you find a quest that seems interesting nine times out of ten you end up stuck in a dungeon that looks very much like one you’ve already visited where your task is to clear out enemies you’ve already fought. How easy you can kill something is mostly just math, but not the good kind like in, say, Valkyria Chronicles. It’s the bad kind, where if something is too hard you just keep running away from it and taking pot shots until it dies. There’s no resource management or anything like that. Hell, the only thing that comes close to that is trying to manage your loot once you’ve picked up too many things and you’re over-encumbered. Into the menus we go! “Oh. These menus are annoying.”
Aja: And otherwise in dungeons you’re normally just like, “dude. I sure wish I could be back at that shitty town having shitty conversations with my significant other about them cooking me dinner! Afterwards I could hit my alchemy bench to make some sweet potions! But alas, these skeletons sure are arduous.”
Kimber: I know we said we wouldn’t say things unequivocally in deference to people who liked Skyrim? But I can’t get around the combat. Or the writing, I guess. Both suck, so both suck the fun out of the game.
Aja: All the tweaks they’ve made, but the combat mechanics are still essentially what they were in Morrowind.
Kimber: I just can’t. When we turned it on I tried to fight a giant with my double axes and a dragon roared up.
Aja: Stupid dragon. Can’t you see I’m just trying to get me some giant’s toes?
Kimber: So, in short, the only real attraction either of us had to this game was just exploring the countryside.
Aja: Yeah. It’s a huge, cool world. There’s just nothing particularly fun to do there, and nobody particularly fun to hang out with. And every time you step around the corner another nefarious deity is trying to bind you to their service. It’s a super-drag.
Kimber: Go away, nefarious deities!
Aja: They’re all like, “oh.”