Backlog Adventures: Skyrim

It’s 2015 and I’m only just playing Skyrim, that smash hit from 2011, for the first time.  How did this happen?  When I try to answer that question, the first thing I think of is Led Zeppelin.

My first exposure to rock music was through my dad’s record collection, so I ended up listening to a lot of the Beatles, the Who, Jimi Hendrix, and, of course, Led Zeppelin.  But then something happened.  I was in high school during the 90s, a time when the sixties were back in a big way and kids were listening to Zeppelin as if they were another Seattle grunge band; between that and Zeppelin’s ubiquity on rock radio, I got burned out.  I needed a break.  But somewhere along the way, my brain got confused and convinced me that I actually disliked Led Zeppelin.  So, for ten years or so, I just kept on not listening to them.  The hiatus became indefinite.  I would change the station when they came on the radio.  I didn’t buy any of their music on CD, that newly emerging music format.  I simply lived as a person who wasn’t at all into Zeppelin.

Fast forward to 2005.  My brother turned thirty that year, and for his birthday I made him a mix CD with a song from each year of his life – beginning with 1975, the year he was born, and the year Led Zeppelin released Physical Graffiti.  Listening to that album to decide what song to open the CD with, I realized something that I knew when I was 12 but had since forgotten: Zeppelin rocks!  Within days I had purchased the most recently remastered versions of their first six albums, and was making up for a lot of lost time on air drums and air guitar.  Order was restored to the universe.

Why did my brain come to the conclusion that I disliked Led Zeppelin when in reality I probably only needed a brief respite from them?  Could it do the same thing with pizza?  What else do I only think I don’t like?  I don’t know.  But this is what happened with Skyrim.  When people kept telling me, over and over, insistently and enthusiastically, that I should play Skyrim – that I needed to play Skyrim – I dismissed them.  Skyrim just wasn’t my type of game.  I wasn’t into that sort of thing.

Only, I was.  I mean, obviously I was.  I love Lord of the Rings and Zelda and all manner of fantasy things.  I had just played (and loved) Fallout 3, and Skyrim is basically Fallout with dragons.  So why did I think I wouldn’t like it?  Somehow, somewhere, my brain decided that deep fantasy RPGs aren’t my thing, and I just believed it, against all circumstantial evidence to the contrary.  Maybe I was embarrassed by all the pewter dragon paraphernalia I used to own.  Maybe I was still bitter from my younger brother erasing my Final Fantasy save file in 1990.  Whatever the reason, I dismissed out of hand the idea of ever playing Skyrim, or anything like it.

And then I changed my mind.  I’m not sure why that happened, either, but I’m glad it did.  Because I love Skyrim.  It’s phenomenal.  Of course, I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, because the game is four years old and its name is now shorthand for “amazing, deep, open-world RPG.”

What’s really interesting about playing Skyrim in 2015, though, is seeing how many things it gets right that other, newer games are still getting wrong.  (I’m looking at you, Destiny.)  One of my favorite things about Skyrim is the richness of its world.  I’ve spent hundreds of hours in the game so far, and a not insignificant portion of that time has been spent standing in my house in Whiterun, reading the books I’ve collected.  Though the in-game books aren’t exactly five-star literature, are riddled with typos, and are sometimes impenetrable to all but the most learned of Elder Scrolls lore historians, they still paint an incredibly vivid picture of Tamriel and its history.  You really feel like you are in a living, breathing world, and that, if you sat down and put your mind to it, you could synthesize all this information into a deep understanding of Tamriel’s history, politics, culture, geography, religion, and so on.

Compare this to a game like Destiny where, if you don’t sit at your computer on the Bungie website reading through Grimoire cards, most of what anyone says in the game sounds like a bunch of generic gobbledygook that may well have been created using a chat bot with its settings tuned to “vaguely sci-fi.”  It’s not necessarily fair to compare a single-player open-world RPG to an MMOFPS, but when you’re playing both of these games at the same time, as I am, you can’t help but notice that Skyrim nails the kind of world-building that Destiny so desperately, desperately wants to do well.

Of course, Skyrim is not without its flaws.  It has the same somewhat janky controls that Fallout 3 does, a problem that is even more pronounced in a game with so much hand-to-hand combat.  I often find myself wildly flailing in the vicinity of enemies, in a weird dance that has me slicing my sword through the air next to an enemy just as often as I land a strike.  The game being four years old, and so good in so many other ways, it’s hard to hold these flaws against it too much, but while playing Skyrim, I can’t help but daydream about what Bethesda will do with the next Elder Scrolls game.  Improved controls are at the top of the list.  I’d like to see Bethesda do what everyone else does and just steal Batman’s third-person mechanics, and pair those with the kind of smooth, snappy first-person mechanics we’re used to in games like Call of Duty and Destiny.  Maybe this is a big ask, but it’s 2015; Back to the Future II promised us by now that we’d have flying cars, a Cubs World Series title, and videogames that you play with your mind!  Snappy third- and first-person controls in the same game should be doable; it’s not rocket surgery.

SKyrim-art-web-003

But as frustrating as it can be to try to defend a town from vampires without accidentally attacking the townspeople and turning them against you, the world of Skyrim is a place I love spending time in.  There is staggering attention to detail throughout the game.  The music, sound effects, and art design create such a rich, immersive atmosphere, and make Skyrim’s world feel unique in the often cookie-cutter fantasy genre.  Though the game features many of the standard-issue fantasy tropes – such as dragons, elves, wizards, and swordplay – its Nordic aesthetic gives it a specificity of place that makes it feel distinct from your average trying-to-be-the-next-Tolkien fantasy fare.  And the tried-and-true fantasy ingredients are mixed with just enough originality to keep the world feeling fresh.  I especially appreciate the game’s unique take on dwarves, who craft sophisticated automatons to patrol their underground cities.

Another thing Skyrim does that I really appreciate is keep track of your quests.  In a typical open-world game, your map gets so overloaded with objective markers that it’s easy to lose track of what’s going on.  You’ll have main story quests, side quests, miscellaneous objectives, collectibles, and maybe some DLC missions thrown in for good measure; good luck trying to remember the story behind each of those objectives.  Granted, Skyrim doesn’t give you a ton of information – usually just a sentence or two – but at least it gives you something to jog your memory and remind you why you’re supposed to go to this cave or go talk to that person.  I hope the next Elder Scrolls game takes things even further in this department, helping you follow the complex narrative you’re weaving, but Skyrim already does more than a lot of open-world games.

And on the subject of Elder Scrolls VI, I hope that inevitable game offers some more meaningful choices for your character to make.  Skyrim thrusts you into a complex, tangled web of factions and loyalties, a moral universe painted in every available shade of gray.  Yet your options for engaging with this world are often limited to one choice: complete the quest, or don’t.  As an obsessive gamer who can’t leave an unfulfilled objective on the map, simply ignoring a quest isn’t really an option, especially in a game where any given quest might end up being the first chapter in a longer story.  If the game wants me to join – and lead – the Thieves Guild, what am I going to do, not steal a bunch of stuff from innocent people?  Occasionally, a quest will give you a choice between two courses of action, but generally your only recourse against a quest that asks you to do morally questionable things is to ignore it.  Building your character through his or her actions is an essential part of any RPG, and I’d like to see more of this incorporated into future Elder Scrolls games.

That is, if I ever even get to play another Elder Scrolls game.  Because, as much as I love Skyrim, it’s also sent me into a bit of an existential crisis.  I love big open world games, and because I love them so much there are many that I’ll probably never play.  I put a thousand hours into Fallout 3, wandering across the Capitol Wasteland until I’d worn the soles off my virtual boots and completed every task I could find, talked to every character, killed every enemy.  I’m already several hundred hours into Skyrim, and I’m still picking up new objectives far faster than I’m completing the old ones.  And while I’ve poured so many hours – enjoyable hours, to be sure – into these games, I’ve built up a considerable backlog of other games I’d like to play, many of which boast their own open worlds.  I can’t fathom a scenario where I can actually find a time to play all these games the way I’m accustomed to playing them; it’s simple math.

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This is the irony of open world games: the more you enjoy them, the fewer you will play.  If I was content to just blitz through Skyrim’s main quest, favor-asking villagers be damned, I could probably put it down in a few weeks.  But that’s simply not in my disposition.  I want to savor these worlds, meet every character, and experience every story the game has to offer.  That’s the whole point of an open world game.  But as I play Skyrim, I’m realizing just how untenable such devotion really is.  Not since I first saw my favorite band, Pearl Jam, in concert in 1994 – back before New York passed its indoor smoking ban and the arena was so thick with cigarette smoke that it burned my eyes – have I simultaneously wanted something to last forever and end immediately as much as I do while playing Skyrim.  The siren song of my massive backlog – to say nothing of this holiday season’s release schedule – beckons, but I hear that Tamriel snow crunch under my feet, and I can’t help but notch my bow and scan the map for unexplored locations.  (There are still a lot.)

Prior to Skyrim, I was able to entertain the fantasy that I might one day get through the backlog and become one of those people who plays most games when they’re new.  But now it is clear (as I’m sure it should have been years ago) that I’ll never get through it.  By the time I finish Skyrim, dozens of new games will have been added to my “to play” list.  And that’s a list that now includes such epics as Dragon Age: Inquisition, The Witcher 3, and the upcoming Fallout 4.  Not exactly the kind of fare I can bang out in a determined weekend.

So I have three choices: abandon my backlog and start from scratch; ignore new releases and become content always playing games years after they come out, with an ever-widening gulf between myself and the latest titles; or change the way I play these expansive games.  None of these are particularly attractive choices, but such is the dilemma posed by the ultimate first world problem: having easy access to more enjoyable experiences than can possibly fit in a single human lifetime.  Oh, the struggle!

In the end, Skyrim has convinced me that I need to spend less time playing games like Skyrim, that I need to learn to run through them more quickly and ignore big chunks of what they have to offer – not because I dislike Skyrim, but because I love it so much.  Skyrim is amazing, but in a way it’s too amazing.  The game makes me want to immerse myself in its world to an unreasonable degree.  At this point, pulling myself away from Skyrim after only 500 hours – after only five hundred hours! – would take tremendous willpower.  That’s certainly a testament to the game’s quality.  And it’s a testament to the healthy state of the industry that there are so many great games vying for our limited attention.  But for someone who grew up playing the same four NES games over and over and over, each one requiring at most an hour or two to complete, it sometimes feels like a bit too much.

Read all about What I Play When I Play.

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One thought on “Backlog Adventures: Skyrim

  1. I just started playing Skyrim in 2015, too. It’s the first video game I’ve played more than casually since about 2000. I’m hooked. My kid is hooked. I’m on my second character and have no intention to leave Tamriel anytime soon…or at least until the head-shaking I get from my wife everytime she hears “Bum! Bum bum bum!” as the game loads turns into more serious disgust.

    Nice article, Dan.

    Like

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