Everything You’ve Done Wrong: On Learning to Love Elder Scrolls V

Of course I went Khajiit. Don't act so surprised.

I spend half my time fudging with inventory. I spend the other half in load screens.  The combat is like fighting Jell-O, nothing seems to connect despite the sound of the clanging swords.  The notorious glitches are frequent: I’ve fallen through walls and witnessed the mythical backwards flying dragon.  It’s a glorified to-do list.

It is The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. And I can’t stop playing it. And I’m  not the only one.

While never averse to RPG’s, I learned after a brief dalliance with Fallout3 that the specific brand of game put forth by Bethesda Softworks are the sort I no longer have the right lifestyle to accommodate.  Some early reviews boasted 300-hour experiences, and I just don’t have that sort of time anymore.  

Sixteen hours in, it would appear I do.

So what the hell is it about this game? There are all the aforementioned strikes against it, and forget about the story, I only know what’s happening 20% of the time [Empire? Stormcloaks? Uhhhhh…] so why can’t I stop?  Why is writing this entry about Skyrim making me angry because it makes me want to stop writing to go play Skyrim.

If I have a gun to my head, I would probably settle on “immersion.”  While Skyrim has the same open-world, sandboxy gameplay I love about Grand Theft Auto (IV in particular), GTA lacks any sort of character skill progression or first person perspective.  In both games, you’re never beholden to perform the tasks the game demands, but you will run out of things to do in Liberty City and go back to the main story line.  I went four days in Skyrim without going anywhere near the primary narrative. Even when I did decide to go to High Hrothgar or whatever the hell it is, I ended up meandering into mill towns and military camps, picking up some quick gold clearing out a dungeon or two. I just adore the world Bethesda’s created.  The first time I saw the aurora borealis over the fields surrounding Winterun my jaw actually dropped. The first time a dragon unexpectedly thundered overhead I panicked and hid behind a rock [actually an effective strategy it turned out].  I also enjoy the absence of Fallout’s karma system.  The few hours I spent with that game, I didn’t enjoy constantly being reminded that the game was watching and ticking off everything I did, always placing weights on the scale of judgment.  If my intent was to be a good person, one point of negative karma could undo hours of play.  With Skyrim, the decision to steal, pickpocket or murder innocents is purely up to your own moral code.  And, interestingly enough, as with Red Dead Redemption, it’s never occurred to me to start tossing fireballs at shopkeepers.

There’s also the matter of character creation.  I know this is standard practice in any RPG worth a damn, but it’s a feature I haven’t had the opportunity to tool around with in a very long time.  I feel an ownership and connection over that ball of fur pictured above that I haven’t experienced in a game in a very long time.  I anguish over every decision I make for him, every skill to build, the type of game I’m going to play [one-handed brawler].   I might have enjoyed tooling around Liberty City with Niko Bellic, but when Iloru Sachiel [a name I agonized over, even consulting a fantasy name generator] runs around Skyrim, it feels like me, because I control how he looks, how he fights, his abilities, what he wears.  When I take Lydia my ‘housecarl’ [pictured above, think medieval personal assistant] out with me, I constantly check on her safety during battles.  I even get bummed when I have to kill other Khajiit, because I don’t like killing my “own kind.” And I am fully aware of what a pitifully geeky thing that is to even say, let alone praise.

It actually wasn’t my idea to get the game.  For the first time in history, The Lady bought a video game she wanted to play. And we are already playing two different games: she’s playing as a Nord woman with a preference for two-handed weapons.  She’s done different quests than I have. If we swapped notes after a week, we’d probably find we had very unique experiences.  When you take into account the numerous class builds you can make [I’m already thinking Highborn Warmage my next go around], you start to realize just how much is hiding under the hood of this game.

I acknowledge this is all very surfacey praise, and anyone who’s played the previous game Oblivion or even World of Warcraft figured these things out years ago, but it speaks to Skyrim’s overall success if it can win over players like The Lady and I back to its snowy bluffs hour after hour. After hour. Why am I still talking to you?

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