There’s been a lot going on this last week in the wonderful world of politics. Donald Trump’s been signing executive orders like there’s no tomorrow (which… uh, guys, this guy has nukes – there might actually be no tomorrow) as well as embarrassing our Prime Minister (which is our job) and effectively tearing up decades of diplomatic work with every country in his rolodex because he thinks it makes him look like a big boy.
So I’m going to talk about Skyrim today, because I need to remind myself that there are things going on in the world other than politics. Also because this game is five years old and seriously you guys it’s still so good but also OH MY GODS it has problems.
Let’s be clear: When Skyrim first came out it was a massive, ambitious project, not just a continuation of Bethesda’s flagship Elder Scrolls series but an opportunity for the developers to streamline that series and entice new players into the fold. At the time, they felt that the more traditional design of Morrowind and Oblivion was a bit too complex for players to just jump into, and Skyrim allowed them to refine a lot of the mechanics to make it a more welcoming experience. This was a massive task, and I think that in terms of game design, they knocked it out of the park. Skyrim’s “perk” system of leveling is granular enough to allow a pretty generous amount of role-playing in terms of builds, and a great relief to anyone who gets headaches from looking at “Warrior, rogue, mage” tables. There are a few balance issues – level up smithing, archery, enchanting and sneak high enough and you can pretty much waltz through any encounter – but they’re not broken enough to stop being fun. The level design is… not amazing, since it tends to revolve around going to a dungeon, killing some enemies, killing the boss, getting treasure, wash-rinse-repeat, but the areas themselves are varied enough and there was enough thought put into some of the smaller, dungeon-specific quests that I can honestly say I’ve had days where I’ve preferred running around hunting draugr to actually following the game’s story.
But that leads me to Skyrim’s biggest problem: the writing. It’s… Guys, it’s not good. And worse, for what is ostensibly a role-playing game, it’s kinda lazy. The main story is mostly treated as an excuse to get the player to explore the world of the game, and that’s okay, but the main subplot (Skyrim’s civil war between the long-established, but increasingly weak, Empire and a nationalist, xenophobic political underdog seen by many as a traitor – sound familiar?) often feels so irrelevant and tangential that it has almost zero impact on the game. In fact, the first time I played Skyrim, the Civil War quest was so removed from the rest of the experience that I only remembered about it once I’d finished everything else. It shares a similar problem with most of the faction quests, in that on the one hand by the end of the quest-line you get the feeling that without you nothing would ever get done in this world, and yet you can pretty much single-handedly end the war, become head of every guild, faction and college, and literally save the world – and none of it has any impact.
Part of the problem is that Skyrim’s writers seem to have deliberately avoided including consequences after the completion of each quest because they wanted to avoid gating content – as I mentioned above, it’s basically possible to join every faction in the game, with the exception of two major quests, Civil War (in which you have to choose either the Empire or the Stormcloaks) and the Dawnguard DLC. In fact, you’re encouraged to join factions – the game often goes out of its way to introduce you to faction quests, and if you’re like me, once they’re in your quest log you have to complete them to make the voices go away. So you can pretty much end up running the entire country by default, and yet this is never acknowledged in any meaningful way – even among the factions you control, you’re still treated as a kind of odd-job person, with members you ostensibly have authority over telling you to go collect bear-chunks or giant’s fingernails or whatever. And outside the factions it’s even worse.
Does this sound like a familiar encounter? You’re walking through Whiterun, daedric armour glinting in the high-resolution sunlight, and you pass a guard. “I’ve heard about you,” he says. “You’re the one from the college.” And indeed, you’ve just finished the College of Winterhold questline. “Wow,” you think, “what a subtle and clever way to indicate that my actions have consequences! I wonder how this will affect the rest of the game?” Two steps later you pass another guard who takes one look at your over-leveled avatar and says, in tones of utmost condescension, “Let me guess. Someone stole your sweet-roll.”
As amusing as these encounters can be, they can’t help but highlight a pretty major problem with video games, even ones that are (or should be) as story-driven as Skyrim and similar RPGs. Writing is a lot lower on the totem-pole of video game design than – well – almost anything else, because it doesn’t serve an immediate, practical function in terms of getting a game up and running. When you’re a month over schedule and your producers have just sent another memo reminding you that you need to put together a demo for E3, trying to polish the story is not going to be high on any developer’s list of priorities. But this is a real shame, because it’s often stories – good writing – that turn a video game from an amusement into a piece of art. Skyrim’s lack of narrative impact doesn’t make it a bad game – I’ve probably poured more hours into it than any other since it came out, and it’s an awful lot of fun – but it really highlights how much potential there is in the medium for improvement.