more rambling about Skyrim

I’ve been wanting to write about Skyrim for a while now, but I’m having a hard time figuring out just what to say.

I suppose I should start by mentioning that I’m playing it twice.  I’ve invested around 30 hours into my level 23 character on the 360 – a male Imperial, two-handed weapon specialist with some destruction magic to back it up – but I’ve also working on a female High Elf on my PC*, who is strictly all magic, all the time, and who is less inclined to be polite if the option is available.  This essentially means that I’m still visiting a lot of the same places, but that I’m having totally different experiences.

*   Playing it twice wasn’t my original intention, but I was feeling guilty about hogging the TV in the living room.  This is an ongoing issue in my house.  My wife has always been totally understanding and supportive of my gaming habits, and I do my best to accommodate her when she wants to watch her shows, but I still feel guilty if I’m monopolizing the main room in the apartment.  In a few weeks we’ll be getting multi-room DVR, and that will hopefully alleviate some of this guilt.

This is key, I think.  Every night when I fire up my 360, more than half of my friends are playing Skyrim, but we’re all having vastly different experiences.  This isn’t a bad thing, by the way; it’s just that the very fact that everyone’s experience is unique means that my story won’t be as interesting as yours.  Talking about one’s Skyrim adventure is basically the same thing as talking about one’s dreams; unless you were there as an active participant, you don’t really care.  Even the crazy shit that’s on youtube (Exhibit A) simply serves to remind you that there’s a lot of stuff in the game that you aren’t doing.

And, of course, the game’s got problems.  Tom Bissell wrote an interesting piece over on Grantland basically calling Bethesda out for making the act of getting through the narrative a chore.  The whole piece is worth reading, but I’m copying the meat and potatoes, since Tom’s a much better writer than I am and his points echo my own:

 The real problem with theElder Scrolls games — the real artistic problem, I mean — is that when you’re not out there chopping and shopping, or dropping a Helmet of Alteration to make room for an Axe of Freezing, you’re stuck in some town, being buttonholed by a loquacious elf inexplicably determined to tell you all about a magic tree. The series’ designers have always mercifully allowed the player the option of spamming through the tedious pre-quest dialogue at the speed of thumb, but the problem with the Elder Scrolls games has now grown more significant than its narrative content’s optionality. The problem, it now seems clear, is that the way in which the Elder Scrolls games present their narrative content — the way, in other words, they try to communicate “drama” — has never worked and will never work.

The dialogue in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is without question the best written and most capably performed of any Elder Scrolls game. Another way of saying this: It remains terrible. Please know that, two hours into Skyrim, my astoundometer remained soaringly high. Whether you’re watching some lonely club-carrying giants herd woolly mammoths across the steppe or journeying up a snowy mountain to a hidden monastery or hiding in a watchtower from a poison-breathing dragon or doing something as desultory as catching butterflies, for god’s sake, the game is as visually compelling as it is experientially gratifying. Every time one of Skyrim‘s characters opened his or her mouth, however, I felt my irritation begin to nibble away at Skyrim‘s edges. Irritation in response to a game’s dialogue is especially problematical when said game contains hours upon hours of dialogue. How can it be that the part of the game that exerts so much effort to accomplish something succeeds in accomplishing nothing?

*   *   *

I can hear you: Who cares? None of this has to do with what makes Skyrim so great. I agree. The question becomes why the thing that doesn’t make Skyrim so great is such a prominent part of Skyrim. Why, in fact, is it in Skyrim at all? I ask these questions as an admirer of Skyrim. Everything else in the game — from the beautiful simplicity of the user-interface system (at least when compared to previous Elder Scrolls games) to the crunchiness of the combat to the graphical fidelity of the environments — has improved upon previous Elder Scrolls games, so why hasn’t this? Are we not at the point where dramaturgical incompetence in a game as lavishly produced and skillfully designed as Skyrim is no longer charming?

*   *   *

It surely says something that even my most fervent Skyrim-loving friends cop to skipping through the expository narrative sequences. They laugh when they admit this, and it’s a nervous, uncomfortable laugh — a laugh that suggests they’re wondering why they do this. I’ll tell them: Because the stuff they’re skipping is so bad that it makes the rest of the game seem like a waste of time, which it’s not. When many of a game’s biggest fans are unable to endure large parts of that game, it may be time to reexamine the vitality of certain aspects of the experience…. Like most who play Skyrim, I’m greatly drawn to these incredible environments because the act of exploring them becomes uniquely my experience. When I’m listening to and watching Skyrim‘s interminable characters, I’m skipping through the same dumb cartoon everyone else is.

I don’t know if the narrative sequences are really that bad, but I do skip through them.  I skip through a lot of narrative sequences, actually, although that’s mostly because I play with subtitles on (the audio on my TV is kinda shitty) and I read a lot faster than people talk.  But I would certainly agree that my interactions with NPCs in Skyrim can be kindly described as “stiff” and “awkward.”  That doesn’t stop me from enjoying the overall experience, but it certainly does cause me to spend as much of my time wandering around on my own as possible.

_______________

Meanwhile, I finished Saints Row the Third in a mad rush last Wednesday, when I was home sick from work.  It wasn’t the kind of sick that causes fever dreams, which meant that the stuff that I did and saw in the game actually happened.  And while Saints Row 3 is just as much of a sandbox as Skyrim, it’s also a much more focused experience, which means that anyone who plays it is liable to see the same crazy shit that I saw, which means we can talk about it.

Holy shit.

I won’t spoil it.  Frankly, not enough people on my friends lists are playing it, which is a bummer – I imagine that most people will be playing Skyrim for the foreseeable future in lieu of other games (myself included, which is why I’m not talking about Assassin’s Creed Revelations).  I implore you, though – do not miss it.  And not just because the game is completely insane – it’s also that it’s a really well-made game, with lots of worthwhile additions (the new map system is a thing of genius) and rock-solid fundamentals (it’s still got better combat than GTA) and a new city that might be a little bland and forgettable but still has a ton of stuff to see and do.  Of course, the stuff that makes it insane is why it’s worth picking up – you get a ridiculous amount of firepower in a very short amount of time, and you have plenty of opportunity to use all of it.  You are constantly being rewarded just for messing around – the game keeps track of everything, and so if, for example, you spend all your time driving on the wrong side of the road, you’ll eventually level up and add a perk to your character – you’ll take less damage from bullets, or you’ll carry more ammo, etc.  It’s a really smart system hidden inside a lunatic asylum, and it’s well worth seeking out.

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