On video games and Skyrim in particular
(This is Revision 1 of this text).
My background with games can be described by the games I played. In order of importance, I've gone through Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and next installment of the series: Oblivion, but didn't touch earlier games in the series. Then there comes first Baldur's Gate, This War Of Mine, Spec Ops: The Line, Starcraft (both parts) Diablo (I and II), Final Fantasy VII, Fallout: New Vegas, and more.
I play games not for challenge, but for escapism, the feeling of power and most of all to experience situations, feelings and stories of people who are not me. I welcome everything that makes me feel that my world view has somewhat expanded. This is why I hold in high praise games such as Yume Nikki, Papers, Please or The Path in high regard – these helped me to experience something for the first time. This is why I'm no stranger to CLANNAD, Steins;Gate or When Seagulls Cry, visual novels with great stories. Albeit only watching someone else playing the game, I like how Final Fantasy XIII-2 was a game that expands over different timelines of a whole millenium.
This is why my list of important games of 2017 (as of August) is a short one:
- NieR: Automata
- Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice
With that in mind, we can enter Skyrim.
Missing tutorial on game lore?
I'm going to skip the intro sequence, because even if it has it's own quirks (see Extra Credits video on the subject), for me it was passable and gave a few hints into the geo-political situation of the region. The first crack was that the game's narrative was trying to rush me into solving the problem with the dragons and was so persuasive that I needed at some point to tell to myself "stop, this is not the way of the Elder Scrolls game". I wanted to become part of the world, start working for someone, get to know other people better and so on. And the game failed to reveal itself before me.
You see, the development team was fed up with comments that multiple characters in the earlier games were sharing the same lines of dialogue and disabled them. Also, voice acting has become a mandatory feat of any video game in 2010s, which makes preparing dialogue much more expensive task, especially in a game with such a scale.
The earlier system, a wiki-style hyperlink-based dialogue window with multiple dialogue options had its own problems, but there was a thing it dealed with pretty well. It placed exploration of the world in control of the player, on their own terms and with their own pacing.
- If I was not in the mood I could not click on a link;
- I might return back to the person and ask them about current affairs again;
- Most of the people from a single town had the same shared knowledge, in case I wanted to get some directions, find a person or a service.
In Skyrim I had many questions, such as "where was the nearest Guild I could join", "where is the blacksmith", "what do you think about the war", "what is in here, just by the way" and noone I met could answer these questions. It took a lot of time just to gather a list of organisations I could apply to and for the first 20 hours or so I didn't know whether this list is a comprehensive one.
This is only the tip of an iceberg, because many of these dialogues were implying that my character knew the answers I couldn't even guess. This further deepened the disparity between the player and the avatar. Better yet, if in the dialogue there was something I didn't know (and Skyrim is famous for pushing many proper names down the throat) I had no way of getting the person I talked to explain the term to me and there was probably no one around to help me with that.
In summary – developers trying to do good took away from the game the ability to understand the world we were placed in. Or maybe there was some hidden tutorial on the lore and I just missed on that.
Everything interesting is in the background
Lack of dialogue choices reduced my role to being a milkman that gets a list of places to deliver the milk to and means to travel to these places. What was interesing though – tensions in the society, informations about the conflicts between the Stormcloaks and Imperials, all happened in a background. It had great potential to make the world more alive, but most of these were overheard dialogues between different characters and there were no way to follow these rumors up, because in dialogue there was no option to expand the remark they gave to someone else.
After some time I've stopped to even try and started treating NPCs as walking quest-givers. Because most of the times these quests are following the same structure -- get to place marked by a marker, kill baddies, get the McGuffin, return to quest-giver, I've felt I'm missing out on what makes the world alive. Many of these tasks had no impact on the world, my understanding of the world, or me.
Contributing to the fact of making NPC interactions even worse was a consequence of using voice acting with removing hyperlinks (which enabled optional dialogues). I read at a much faster pace than voice actors speak. This wouldn't be a problem, if the dialogues were short and concise, but with new approach to conversations, dialogues are longer in a linear fashion. In order to progress the game you need often to go through 30 seconds of a person talking to you or skip the parts at the middle of a sentence. The first option is boring, the second is also not great.
OK, we've crossed NPCs out of our way. They seem to do interesting things but only if we aren't around. So what about the places?
Dungeon areas and fights
I remember gaining a whole level in a single dungeon. I was a low-level character and needed to raid some bandits cave. That's when I discovered the mechanics of hit and run, with a bow, while being in stealth mode. In about half an hour, I sneaked up many times to a hard boss-like bandit, shoot and run for cover. Rinse and repeat. It left me with this modern feeling of a free-to-play game that gaining skills at the beginning of a game is not hard-earned, you just gain them for free. For my liking, this progression curve was too unbalanced. Right now, at level 30, when I need to earn the points for next level this feels sluggish compared to early levels.
At the same time, I don't feel being more powerful in the game. Of course, some foes I hardly took on at lower levels are rather simple to defeat, but leveled lists present in the game make it irrelevant, because the game seems to have the same composition of foes: a lot easy to kill, a few that could be dangerous if they detected me together, and one or two foes I am not going to handle in a melee, but from a distance, especially from a hard to reach ledge. What changes for me is just labels attached to them.
And about labels: bandits named Bandit are no different from the cattle. With humanoid bodies.
Dungeons are designed all in one way – to avoid backtracking no matter what. They are also completely linear. And often long. So these areas are not looking promising either. Every time you enter a larger dungeon, you are just following a large, sneaky corridor, so do not fear if the quest marker points in other direction – you'll eventually get there.
So if enemies and combat aren't that good and there are no exploration rewards, so maybe there is a big loot at the end of each dungeon? Or do they have some puzzle component inherent to them? Interesting narrative?
Well, no, no. And no. Apart from dragon shouts I've yet to discover a dungeon with some loot I'd be really happy to find. In Morrowind most high-level items were in dungeons or Daedric shrines. There is rather no environmental storytelling (a cave will most likely not tell you anything about these people who you just slayed, were they slavers, robbers, smugglers or if there was anything about them making them unique). The so called "puzzles" and traps are just distractors from breezing through the dungeon. These are not going to make the game more tactical or introduce interesting choices. There are because it's common knowledge that there should be traps in dungeons.
Fresh apples from the second era of Tamriel
In addition to dungeons being long but uneventful, there is something I'd never put in a game myself – food. All the carrots, apples and other things are just wasted potential without a mod that makes eating them a requirement to survive. In vanilla Skyrim, these have no place in the game's world. Apart from two consumables in the game players have no incentive to ever touch these.
But why am I bashing apples if there's a lot of other things not needed in a game, like spoons and jars? Because the game gives a premise that you could do something with all these consumables and makes distinction between cooking and alchemy confusing. Forks and plates have their own goal, to make rooms filled with something. But adding a second, lesser system of "alchemy" is a bad idea. And do not forget that there is no water.
By having such uninteresting items, we finally can get to the containers. In Morrowind every container was like a booster pack:
- Barrels and sacks had alchemy ingredients;
- Crates might contain local beverages (with boost to strength and carrying capacity for a limited time) and/or soul gems and/or gems;
- Chests contained either gold or valuable items;
- Picks, gold and enchanted items were also commonly found.
So unless you chose not to follow a certain path, most containers might have something valuable for you.
In Skyrim I don't bother to open barrels because more cabbages is not what I'm looking for. Apart from an occasional potion, there is not much I could find on shelves in a dungeon (meads are not worth the weight and do not help). And I can find apples within a tomb that was sealed for centuries.
There are many things I've omitted. I don't feel confident enough to say anything about the new lore in Skyrim, because I didn't take enough time and effort to make the game speak to me about it. It might be that the game needs another 100 hours to be able to open up more.
I feel the focus was put in the wrong places. The game was made to be addictive with all the recent developments in psychology of a player and other aspects were left behind. Skyrim is not enjoyable per se, but it bears resemblance to Internet, drug or alcohol addiction. It strikes when you are low on energy with a promise of a matured world, but in the end due to the aforementioned problems you end up realising the game didn't help and being left with thirst for something more. After some time, you get back to the game.
(This text is a work-in-progres. I still need to flesh out many sections in order to make it more exhaustive and less biased. I will update this text in near future.)