Skyrim: A Series of Shallow Interactions

Posted by: James on: Saturday, 9th March, 2013

When I was playing with my brother and friends in the garden as kids, pointing sticks at each other and making ‘peeow pyow’ laser noises there was no grand narrative. I don’t even know why we had chosen lasers instead of shotguns or miniguns or magic spells – it was a pretty simple game and it needed no explanation. It was, nevertheless, immersive (kind of) – a successful hit would elicit a death-cry and contortions of epic proportions, lasting approximately three seconds, before a lightning fast re-spawn, whereupon the newly alive player would take a revenge shot at his killer’s back. This broke the immersion somewhat, as the first player would turn around, stalwartly refusing to die on the basis that the second player should lie dead for a little bit longer and at least give him a chance to run away. At that stage in our lives, we hadn’t really learned to make ‘rules’ – all we had was that feeling of indignation when something wasn’t fair.

I’ve been playing a lot of Skyrim lately, and I’ve started comparing it to the garden game with the lasers, albeit with the notable absence of fresh air. Why? Because I think despite its massiveness and its cast of hundreds of NPCs and its rich mythology and so on and so on, it’s actually a very shallow game.

I think the similarity starts with character creation: you can be anyone at all – and that means that the game has to deal with you being everyone – a good guy, a bad girl, or a serial killer that happens to do noble deeds when asked. And I think the latter character is the one that everybody ends up playing, because practically the only choice in Skyrim is: do the missions or don’t do the missions – they won’t go away and you won’t be judged either way. In fairness there is a central quest that requires you to take sides, but the Imperials won’t give a hoot if you’ve spent most of the game supporting the enemy and the Nords, who are supposedly wary of magicians won’t bat an eyelid if you shoot lightning from your nostrils.

And Skyrim, like the laser game, doesn’t really care what weapon you’re using – there’s not much strategy there – if you shoot arrows or sparks or fists at an enemy, it’s going to have pretty much the same effect. Skyrim’s one rule is that if you hit something long enough, it’ll die, and that’s fine, but it’s not what I’m looking for in a role-playing game. We left that garden laser game behind a long time ago and it’s not just because we moved away: it’s because it just wasn’t very sophisticated. Skyrim could be sophisticated – but only if it weren’t trying to keep everybody happy.

A bad guy. How do we know? Why, the little red dot of course! Fair enough, he is shooting icicles at me.

I was disappointed when, after successfully assassinating someone at a high profile wedding and receiving a hefty bounty on my head, I was still able to become a ‘thane’ of the city. The people you’re hunting down are also pretty arbitrary – mostly the way you know who you’re supposed to be hitting is because of a red dot on the map. It’s weird: the map is full of red dots; I would estimate that bandits outnumber citizens by around ten to one, but then when you play a thief and a brigand, those bandits don’t decide that actually you’re not such a bad guy. There’s just no reaction to your actions in the game world, and well – that just makes it a bit boring.

Okay, so this isn’t new – this is the classic open world problem, where in order to keep decision-trees to a minimum, the player is only ever allowed to indulge in a series of shallow interactions. There’s the appearance of choice, but actually, it comes down to a Yoda-esque ‘do or not do’, and let’s be honest, what’s the point in not becoming a thief or an assassin? If there are zero consequences for following two completely contradictory paths at once, what choice is that? I finally went cold turkey (this is the correct expression) on Skyrim about a month ago, and coming back to it to get the screen-grabs my mission list just looks like a virtual ‘to-do’ list – it elicits the same feeling of boredom to look at. Who did I get these missions from? To whom are they critical? I don’t remember caring. Next time I play an RPG I want to feel like there’s actually a ‘Role’ element – because there are definitely more satisfying action games out there – even the ones with sticks.

Ah, the quest log – or ‘to do list’ as it’s more appropriately called. So filled with tawdry boring requests that it makes the wandering adventurer wish for an altogether more exciting life – in accountancy perhaps.

3 Responses to "Skyrim: A Series of Shallow Interactions"

Aye. “Shallow” is how I’d describe Skyrim. Beautiful world. Terrible dialog and “available decisions”.

The last thing I encountered before I quit just a few minutes ago was a wandering cat-man offering Skooma. My choices: “This doesn’t seem legal”, “… (Intimidate), “No, thanks”.

I _wanted_ to buy some. So I chose that option that wasn’t a direct no and wasn’t threatening.

Cat-man’s reaction? Oh you must be a snitch! Let me fight you with my bare hands!

Fucking lame. But… Bethesda’s completely right that “enough people” love lame. It’s in their sales.

I suggest Spiderweb Software’s Avernum series for a much more in-depth RPG.

Thanks for the tip – I was just looking for something to fill the RPG void. Decent writing is high on my list of criteria!

Well I couldnt agree more. I cannot play Skyrim. I’ve tried. It’s just a shallow piece of shit. And I agree, terrible scripting and dialog. Just terrible. And like 3 voice actors, lol. Seriously? Like 50 guys have the exact same voice in game.

I much rather just play Dragon Age or something similar.

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A fairly loose blog about the places I go and the things I think. May also include left-leaning social commentary derived in part from video games.

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