I recently finished one of the main quest lines in Skyrim. I say ‘one of’ as there is some confusion as to whether the dragon plot or the civil war plot is supposed to be the main quest. I had finished all the side quests, thoroughly explored the DLC, built houses, adopted kids, defeated the dragons, spared Paarthurnax… but totally forgot about the civil war. I only realised I hadn’t finished the game when I was bored one night and decided to revisit Skyrim with new character. It was only because the game opens with your character about to be executed for being associated with the rebel Stormcloaks that I remember I had never finished that plot. So I loaded up my old character and decided to join the rebellion.
Dear gods, it was boring. My character was basically a god, and I crushed all opposition before me. Which is to be expected in a game like this, it is the nature of an open world game. Sure the main quest is in that direction, but over there is a ruin and necromancers and somehow they have picked a fight with a dragon and oh my god is that a fricking giant and a mammoth…?? You spend so much time doing the side-quests that, by the time you return to the main one(s), you are basically a god. And, of course, victory was meaningless. Just like when you defeat the dragons.
Don’t get me wrong, there is much I like about Skyrim. It is gorgeous. I study medieval history, and I want to use the game as an educational tool to show my students Norse architecture. The detail and design are brilliant. I quite liked the Thieves’ Guild and Dark Brotherhood (Hail Sithis!) quest lines. The world felt more full and detailed than previous games. Yet, as a game, it felt hollow. Maybe that is why I never completed it: I just didn’t care.
I began my adventures into Tamriel in 2002 with Morrowind and its expansions. It was startling. You are left abandoned in the world with little direction. I, honest to god, wandered around Seyda Neen baffled by this weird game where men fell out of the sky and people got annoyed when I stole things. As I moved out into the wide world beyond, I enjoyed the efforts to create distinctive architectures and cultures for the various peoples in the game, the alien landscapes and mushroom houses. I haven’t played that game in years, but I remember struggling against cliff racers, the super creepy last of the Dwemer, traipsing around the Ashlands, and, way too far into the game, discovering you could ride the stilt-striders. The quests were hard to find and hard to finish (did you find the Two Lamps?). The final climax of the game had a weight to it, or at least it did for me: my character was too weak to fight all who stood before her, so I ended up leaping to the final section, dashing around and avoiding fighting as much as possible, in a desperate attempt to defeat the evil within the Red Mountain. I was small, out numbered, and had no health potions left. It was epic. I still remember this.
Oblivion was amazing. The graphics were such a leap forward. The story was epic in scale. Cities were being destroyed terrifying monsters were invading the land. The Dark Brotherhood quests were brilliant. Fighting in the arena was brutal. Sure, by the end, your character is god-like, but Bethesda still managed make you feel small, to make the climax epic, by making it a showdown between two gods while you run around under their feet. I loved that twist: you aren’t really the hero, Martin is. You just get him to where he needs to be. And then the Shivering Isles comes along and makes you an actual god. Where Oblivion itself had strayed into a more ‘realistic’ or ‘normal’ depiction of the world, the Shivering Isles was beautifully bizarre. There was just something about Oblivion that made it feel like a lot of thought went into the game and what one could do in a game (I mean, who doesn’t remember that painting?).
Skyrim felt normal. And that is the major flaw, I think. It is humdrum, realistic. Somehow a world filled with dragons and magic and dark gods is dull. Sure, some quest lines are fun, there are some nice touches of world-building here and there, but where is the story, what is the point of saving this world? Maybe I am just suffering from nostalgia, but Skyrim just didn’t grab me the way its predecessors did. I forgave the old games a fair amount because of the limitations of the technology; or maybe I just expected less of them. But now games are so complex and detailed, the lack of detail in Skyrim is jarring. I could have kitted the whole Stormcloak force out in dragon armour, but that is not an option. The amount of gold I stole from that annoying Belethor chap should have bankrupted him. I dumped so much magical materials and weapons into the shops of Whiterun that every guard should have been decked out in far better armour. Why was my character never made Jarl or King? I really expected the story to go that way, that my character would become a ruler of some kind, she was clearly better. ‘Better than who?’ you might ask. Literally everyone. She was a god. She sucks the souls out of dragons. She has a pet dragon and is followed by the ghost of a dead assassin. Her voice is a weapon. She has been to heaven and back. To hell with Talos, why aren’t the Nords worshipping her? Why was she not made de facto ruler of Skyrim? That would have been a fun twist, stabbing yer man in the back and taking the high-kingship for yourself. Or imagine the moral force of the Dragonborn herself swearing alligence to the Empire? Or making a third faction based around the cult of the Dragonborn, binding the dragons to your will, sweeping out of Skyrim and uniting Tamriel like a new Reman Cyrodiil or Tiber Septim.
Morrowind was hard. You got lost all the time. Surviving was a struggle. There were quests you might never discover if you didn’t speak to the right person. You cure a plague, change the face of the land. In Oblivion, sure you were an awesome warrior, but you weren’t the hero of the story. And sure, you became a god, but only in the Shivering Isles. You close the gates to Oblivion, you help invoke a god-avatar. There is a sense of investment in the worlds. I have finished both games twice. Beginning a new character in Skyrim, my first thought was ‘why?’. There is no challenge, the story has no bite, no consequence. There are still dragons at the end, the civil war has basically zero consequences. My character, basically a god, is still treated casually by commoner and jarl alike.
Bethesda made a beautiful world, but gave me no reason to care about it.