Skyrim is ugly, boring, and thinks having tons of content is a substitute for good gameplay.
This is not a series about games you haven’t heard of. This is a series about games EVERYONE has heard of. Games that everyone has an opinion on, regardless of whether they’ve played them or not. Games whose actual qualities have been buried in a narrative, whether good or bad. Games that everyone always makes the exact same comments about. Games that are in desperate need of…a Second Opinion.
This week’s episode was guest-written by Nathaniel Terencio.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was originally released in 2011, and a little more than half a decade later Bethesda is still not done shoving the game down our throats. With the announcements of Skyrim VR and Skyrim for the Nintendo Switch, I highly doubt that this iteration of Tamriel and its inhabitants will be our last. This is funny to me because Skyrim hardly feels like the gold standard of western open-world RPGs it did years ago – hell I’d argue it stopped being that 2 years after its release. This Second Opinion was particularly interesting for me to write, because I do like the Elder Scrolls franchise – and Skyrim specifically – even more than most people. However, despite that I can’t deny that special brand of Bethesda jank that is present every time I play the game. And despite my best efforts, this is the Elder Scrolls game that always seems to bore me faster than any of the other games within its franchise. While Skyrim is a huge leap forward for the series in terms of mainstream palatability, it also probably took the most steps backward in things that I always thought made the series special.
But enough beating around the bush, since Skyrim is a huge f*cking game, that means there’s a lot of things to talk about. For the sake of time and so that I Coleman doesn’t have to talk about a Bethesda published game that isn’t DOOM 2016 for too long, I’ll keep my points as short and concise as I can. All games have a beginning, and Skyrim’s …. is pretty awful.
Now I did write an article about this quite a while ago, and this point has been done to death on the Internet, but let’s hit the high points: Skyrim’s opening sequence is not indicative of any of the core pillars of the game’s design, those being: exploration, world immersion, and roleplaying. When you load a new game you are greeted by an extremely slow-paced cutscene, free only to look around at the poorly-aged world. Worse, Skyrim’s opening scene is one the most inconsistent intros in any video game in terms of writing. It somehow manages to be a dull, poorly-written exposition dump and throws around so many terms and character names you’ve never heard before that it barely explains anything. In most RPGs I prefer it when characters don’t explain everything, because to me why would a person in this world explaining basic knowledge of current events to someone randomly – it’s more immersion-breaking than anything. Skyrim’s intro doesn’t handle exposition or immersion well, doing both sort of half-baked. If you’re gonna be vague than just be vague, or if you’re going to bother to explain things, then please for the love of Talos explain everything. As the scene continues you are about be executed when – BOOM, dragon appears. Wow, how exciting! Of course, the next 30 minutes of the game are taken by a very long tutorial rundown – longer than any opening sequence in any other Elder Scrolls game.
So: so far in this opening sequence we’ve had a poorly – explained background of the world and its current events and a lengthy linear tutorial sequence – and wait, you’re telling me this game is supposed to be about exploration and roleplaying? Now I know this isn’t exclusive to Skyrim alone, but the last two Elder Scrolls had game only had – at worst – a fifteen-minute tutorial, and once that was done you were turned loose in the world to do whatever you want. Even after Skyrim’s long, drawn-out, and over-bloated intro, it didn’t feel like the world was this huge sandbox until after you completed a couple more story quests. Which might not be an issue except for the fact that those story missions are terrible.
This is Skyrim’s biggest problem – a glaring flaw that can never be fixed by patches, mods, and special editions: the really bad main story. If you thought the game’s intro broke your immersion into the game’s world, the main story is just as bad, if not worse. Skyrim as a game and the Elder Scrolls franchise as a whole are about the freedom to be whoever you want to be in a fantastical world. How you fight, why you fight, your goals, and how you achieve those goals are completely up to you and the character you choose to be. A good portion of Oblivion and most of Morrowind handled balancing the main story with the daisy chains of side activities really well, making most of them work together in tandem with maintaining its core pillars.
Skyrim, however, has a huge problem with main quest urgency. You feel like you’re being rushed through the game instead of enjoying this grand adventure. It starts when your character is given the bog-standard fantasy RPG “save the world” quest. The tone of the story is that of grave importance, but that importance and urgency is a goddamn lie, because this is an Elder Scrolls game – one which sold itself more than anything else on the promise of infinite content – and you’re going to dick around in a million side quests and let the main story sit and rot until you feel like getting around to it. To give the story this feeling of such grave importance, while designing the game to be a slow-paced open world exploration is a poor match to say the least. It feels like the story was made as an afterthought rather than being an integral part of the game, and its inclusion means that half the time you feel like you can’t enjoy the world because you’re being forced to slog through the story and half the time the story isn’t even a part of the experience.
And yet, even this inconsistent storytelling may have been saved with good writing and presentation. Hell, even if it was decent you could just ignore it as much as possible and continue fighting mudcrabs or whatever. But the one thing Skyrim absolutely couldn’t afford to have was bad writing. You can probably guess where we’re going with this.
For a world with as many cultures and complicated politics as Tamriel, it’s a real shame that Skyrim has all the subtle complexity of a Kool-Aid commercial. Nowhere is this more important than in the main story – a black-and-white bog-standard good VS evil save-the-world plot. Previous Elder Scrolls titles let you choose sides, dove deep into the various political factions and their competing ideals. Skyrim forces you into the role of the god-like Dragonborn, without letting your powers and role in the story develop naturally like they did in Morrowind. Not only is this an incredibly jarring experience, and not only does it eliminate almost all possibility of roleplaying, but it’s just so boring. Chosen One stories are the white bread of fantasy. Chosen One stories are like the rest of this analogy – the least amount of effort you could put into writing something.
Is there truly freedom when I have to save the world and everyone is reminding me about it? What if I just want to rob people and eat sweet rolls? This on top of dialogue scenes that are way too serious and deadpan to be taken seriously, and poorly-choreographed thanks to the game’s ancient engine. Even when the game came out six years ago and looked – well, not great, but certainly less dated than it does now, it was very poor at handling spectacle. This wasn’t a problem in previous games because – and this is practically becoming a Second Opinion catchphrase – they worked within their limitations. They didn’t try to do big spectacle scenes – they were, as previously mentioned, about the world and the politics and your character’s place in both. Skyrim can’t do that, so it tries to win you over with big fire-breathing dragons. And it fails.
So, yeah, the main story is forgettable and iterative even by Tolkeinesque fantasy standards – but hey, who cares about the main quest? The real joy of these games is the myriad of side quests, and for the most part the writing is pretty good because it’s a more personal perspective that focuses in on the lives of one or two characters at a time. And it’s a good thing, too, because their structure is god-awful.
The questing as a whole in Skyrim feels very by-the-numbers, and after a while very predictable. Like No Man’s Sky, it confuses nigh-infinite content for actual gameplay variety, and yes I did just make that comparison. In fact, I think it’s that effort to include as much content as they could that so badly hurt the quest structure. See, quests are picked up in the world through a myriad of ways. Listening in on a conversation, talking to NPCs even just randomly walking around. And – actually, before I continue, does the fact that you can’t opt out of these quests or hide them bother anyone else as much as it does me? They’re forever stuck on your quest tab and you can’t do anything about it, so you end up as a level 2000 slayer of all dragons who’s constantly getting reminders about that one time you didn’t pick 6 apples for somebody. Anyway, a lot of these quests start off strong, with very good intro dialogue and premises that do a pretty good job of getting you interested in the quest.
But every single Skyrim quest inevitably ends the same way: kill stuff in a dungeon. Usually draugr. Oh, but wait – sometimes you get to kill stuff in the open world! This is the single reason that, no matter how many times I play Skyrim, I always get bored with it after a few hours – the quests always end in a dungeon run, and it always feels like the lazy, originality-starved design choice it is. But like everything else in Skyrim, it couldn’t stop there, oh no – not only does every dungeon play out the exact same way, but many of the locations are reused several times – or, at the very least, all look the same because there’s only so many ways Bethesda’s garbage engine can render a cave full of draugr. They lack any kind of creativity – how long can you really explore the same Daedric, Dwemer, and Nordic ruins until you want to jump off a cliff? It’s painful to have to go through what looks to be a really interesting quest with a cool plot, only to realize that the last part of it is to get an object at the end of a dungeon. This is such a departure from Oblivion and especially Morrowind where dungeons at the end of quests where the exception and not the norm. Now, to be fair, there are a few notable exceptions to these type of quests in Skyrim, like the Thieves Guild questline and several Daedric prince quests. But even those fall victim to the same type of rinse and repeat type structure that plagues the rest of the game.
But, you say, what’s wrong with a focus on combat? There’s plenty of games where all you do is fight people. But the difference between Skyrim and a combat-driven RPG like Devil May Cry is that the combat in Skyrim is boring and terrible. Sure – combat has always been the Elder Scrolls franchise’s weakpoint, which is why previous games were smart enough to shy away from it. Despite marginal improvements, Skyrim’s fights are still weightless and clunky, with animations for melee weapons that look wonky at best. Most if not all early game combat encounters just feel like a war of attrition, and while many will argue that the stamina system, light and heavy attacks, and stealth add depth, it’s still like going from a plastic pool in the backyard to a public kiddy pool. Sure, these are all now Things You Can Do, but there’s no actual finesse, no reason to strategize or think of cool ways to engage enemies like other combat-oriented games have. Instead it’s just a matter of spamming your best stuff until the monsters fall down, with the only cool emergent storytelling moments that happen in combat having more to do with the janky engine than actual game design. The AI and physics are so easily exploitable that combat encounter success is more often than not you as a player using the bad dungeon layout and bad engine. This isn’t strategic, it isn’t smart, it’s just janky, and once you know the exploits it makes going to the same locations over and over again even more boring and repetitive.
And yes, while I do admit Bethesda did take great strides in making magic and archery actual viable ways to play the game, even that’s not without its faults. Magic, while yes, much easier to execute, lacks a lot of the customization and charm of previous games. A lot of the freedom and creativity in creating quirky spells and theorycrafting what may work was fun – unlike magic in this game. And archery is just kind of broken as a whole – hell, stealth as whole makes the game super easy. Combat is repetitive, uninspired, and lacks any kind of nuance and creativity. And as time goes on with more open world games managing to achieve a satisfying combat system without sacrificing scope, it becomes more clear that Bethesda had no idea how to design a game like Skyrim.
So I’ve ragged on Skyrim for a good while, and honestly like a montage of gameplay glitches, I don’t have material to run out of. But I think the main thing I want to get across is that Skyrim doesn’t work because it suffers from a major identity crisis. Each of the points I have mentioned have in one way or another have always had the same problem of conflicting game design choices. After the release of Oblivion, Bethesda became a definitive AAA developer. They inevitably they had to make a game that could reach mainstream success, and this isn’t bad. Streamlining or making a game palatable to a wider audience isn’t necessarily bad as long as you make the necessary design decisions to make it work – Skyrim didn’t. Does it want to be a power fantasy action-adventure? The quest design and story pacing would seem to suggest so, but that’s completely at odds with the slow-burn progression and wonky war-of-attrition combat. The game encourages you to roleplay but also forces you to be the Dragonborn.
Games are more than the sum total of their parts, and game design is all about making sure all the different wheels in a game – story, combat, exploration, graphics – are working together like clockwork. Skyrim is like if you took all those wheels, cogs, and gears, threw them haphazardly into a big pile and then peed on it. It may have left its mark on gaming, but only because of the massive hype that surrounds any Elder Scrolls game or general Bethesda product. In a time where we’re absolutely drowning in thousands of open world titles, many of which take the ideas presented in Skyrim and makes them better than Bethesda ever could, why would you ever bother playing such a janky pile of rust and pee?
Sure, Todd, you can play as Link now, but newsflash: you could do that forever using the mods that we’re not going to f*cking pay for.