The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is unquestionably one of the best loved games of the last several years, but it doesn’t deserve the clout it gets. If you’re a hardcore Skyrim fan, this might cut deep.
Bethesda has stated that as of June 2013 Skyrim had sold over 20 million copies at retail in addition to the multitudes they undoubtedly sold on Steam. Add in the sale of DLC, Game of the Year editions, and Legendary editions and you have a game that is nearly omnipresent in the gaming scene to this day; yet to me Skyrim will always represent a lackluster role-playing experience.
Wide as a lake, shallow as a puddle
Looking at Skyrim on paper it has everything going for it, a huge open world, gorgeous graphics, cool enemies, and loads of quests to complete. My problem with Skyrim is that all of these elements are done poorly and add little to no substance to the game as a whole. Let’s begin with the quests, shall we?
Can you please not, Alduin?
Skyrim is a game about adventuring. You’re constantly told by the world that you’re an adventurer, mostly by guards who say they used to be an adventurer yada yada arrow in the knee. Cool, so I’m an adventurer! Time to grab some quests or venture out and explore, right? Wrong. Turns out you’re not just an adventurer, you’re the dragonborn or whatever which means you have to kill dragons because you’re the only one who can. Why can you kill dragons? Because the game says so, so screw you.
What this does is create a dichotomy between two forms of gameplay: Exploration and heroism. The exploration suffers because you’re constantly being told to go places by the main quest. I just escaped a cave and now I gotta go to a house in Riverwood? Ok. Now I gotta go to Whiterun? Ok. You want me to grab this stone? Ok. You want me to go to the watchtower on the double? Ok.
Where’s the adventure in that? You’re not an adventurer, you’re a hero with a to-do list of objectives. Of course you can abandon all this dragonborn nonsense and just run off doing whatever, but the game instills this sense of urgency in you; the dragon menace Alduin is an immediate threat that is conveyed to the player as something that needs to be dealt with quickly because he’s destroying the world. Does the game end if the player chooses to ignore everything? Of course not. But the game still constantly drills it into the player’s mind that this is some that needs to be dealt with sooner rather than later. What if I don’t want to be the dragonborn or whatever? I don’t care about your stupid town, I’m an adventurer. Let me be an adventurer!
Get your own sword, Amren
My problems with the main quest in Skyrim also ties in to my issues with the questing in general. For those who have played Skyrim and don’t remember, there’s a dude in Whiterun named Amren who wants you to go to a random bandit camp and grab his sword for him. This is dumb.
First of all, the game has a pinpoint marker for exactly where the sword is, so there really isn’t any challenge in finding the sword. Given a task as vague as “These bandits stole my sword go find it” might cause some players to distress over something so ethereal, but Bethesda went too far in the other direction.
There is so much wasted potential with these menial tasks that are almost indistinguishable from one another. Here you are, an adventurer of your design in this giant open world with tons to do, but instead of wandering and discovering the world for yourself you have this very specific set of to-dos. This puts the player in a very specific role to play: The legendary Dragonborn, hero of Skyrim and all of Tamriel. But in role-playing games and specifically Elder Scrolls games you’re not a hero because the game decides you’re the dragonborn, you’re the hero because you’re the only one in the world who has the heroic mettle to face the danger of evil.
Skyrim is the antithesis of that ideology. Not only do the quests take absolutely zero brainpower, they feel like a chore. If you actively want to find this dude’s sword for him, accomplishing that task should make you a little bit more of a hero whereas following a magic floating arrow just makes you a glorified errand boy. There’s no challenge or tangible goal other than the reward for turning in the quest. In a game about role-playing and exploring in an unfamiliar world, the quest itself should be rewarding to accomplish.
Pretty as a picture
This also makes the nation of Skyrim boring to explore. If everything that’s pertinent to the world has an objective marker leading to it, there’s no reason to explore the world for yourself rather than complete quests. The world is absolutely gorgeous, but there’s no point in exploring it because you’re just going to be looking at your compass the whole time anyway.
There are gorgeous waterfalls and caverns, autumnal forests, hot springs and snowy mountaintops, but all of these incredible set pieces are completely removed from the player experience because your drive as a heroic adventurer doesn’t lead you there, the magic arrow does.
Of course you can explore dungeons at your leisure, but the only reward the game offers you is leveling up your health, or doing more damage in combat. These would both be suitable rewards if combat were ever a problem, but the combat in Skyrim is a joke.
Slowly making progress
There were times in vanilla Skyrim when I felt that the enemies were strong, but when I was exploring caves at random I never felt like there was a challenge I couldn’t overcome by standing right in their face, wailing on them with whatever weapon I had out, and chugging health potions as fast as humanly possible. If every combat encounter can be completed by repeating this simple and boring sequence of events, then there’s no point in leveling up your character when increased combat efficiency is the only barrier in the game.
Instead of being able to face-tank any enemy from the outset of the game if you buy health potions, maybe there should be some dungeons that are impossible to complete until you can output enough damage, unlock a certain skill, or acquire a certain items. Give us a potion limit when we’re adventuring that can only be refilled in towns or shops that we can upgrade, give us a sword at the end of a hard dungeon that’s powerful but can only be taken into a limited number of dungeons, or maybe give us an incentive to sneak through an entire dungeon without being seen. I understand that the game is supposed to appeal to a broad audience but come on, there’s no depth to character progression.
And much, much more
There are many other problems with Skyrim that I could ramble on about for days, so I’ll leave you with this: If what I’ve said has made you want to play a game where you’re a heroic agent of your own will, then go play Morrowind, because it’s twice the game Skyrim can ever hope to be. Yes there are problems with Morrowind too, but at least you aren’t treated like a child with a checklist when his parents go out to the movies on a Thursday.
Like the article? Dislike the article? Want to punch me in the face for picking apart your favorite game? Leave a comment below or send me hate mail on twitter @Skateboard_Cat. All screenshots for this article were taken from the wonderful subreddit /r/skyrimporn.