I’ve come to the conclusion that much of the misunderstanding players have with Skyrim stems from a misunderstanding with what their role is as the player. I largely blame Bethesda for this, actually. They tend to market the game as being about epic quests. They don’t work hard enough to distinguish themselves from other games like Dragon Age which focus on characters and narrative.
As a result, a lot of players get into the game with preconceived notions of what a video game product must be. Notions which are severely at odds with what Bethesda is doing with Skyrim.
Skyrim is a game that includes quests and a main storyline, but they’re only a part of the larger experience. The larger experience is about living a virtual life in a fantasy world. Maybe that’s corny, but I think it’s the truth.
Players tend to treat Skyrim as being “about” its main story with the overworld as icing on the cake. This approach doesn’t make much sense to me. I can’t understand why someone would assume an enormous, gorgeous world like that would merely be window-dressing for a canned story about destiny and dragons.
I’ll be clear in that I do think that Bethesda mangles their game a bit in order to sell copies, and make it more palatable for traditional audiences. I think Skyrim is a below-average RPG layered on top of a truly amazing fantasy sim. I just think it’s sad that some people are writing off the entire experience based on the below-average top layer. The game is best when the main quests are viewed as little more than a tour guide. A motivator that keeps you moving when you don’t know what to do next.
The problem with this style of game (and part of the reason for this misconception) is that the player needs to bring something with them into the play experience. You can’t just go from moment to moment and expect the game to constantly entertain you with new and amazing activities. Maybe that’s what you want a game to do. That’s totally fine. There are times when that’s what I want too. However, you’re barking up the wrong tree if that’s what you’re trying to extract from Skyrim.
One of the reasons I can see Skyrim losing its allure for players is because we experienced game-folk can see behind the curtain. We know that the game has algorithms in place to deliver special quests to us based on our previous decisions. We know that we triggered certain events because of our playstyle or by going into a certain area.
What I’m asking players to do is to forget all that for a moment and pretend. Make believe that you don’t actually know those things, and delve into the world with fresh eyes. Don’t roll your eyes when you’ve obviously hit a trigger point for a quest. Take that quest and incorporate its events into your character’s story. Maybe even keep a journal of the things your character has done in the world, and think about how that might impact them. Make decisions through the lens of your character. Consider how they might react, and live this life through another person’s eyes.
Modern action games are like explosive action films. These experiences are so tailored that the developers can hide all of the seams, triggers, and code such that you can effortlessly transport yourself into that experience. The trade-off to that is freedom. You can’t have both.
Theater is to Skyrim as action films are to action games. With theater you gain a vitality and an energy that is practically impossible with film. However, the trade-off is that the audience can obviously see that the story is fake as it’s being performed on-stage. The same is true of Skyrim. It’s freedom achieves something a linear game could never hope for, but it’s so large and cumbersome that the strings and seams can’t be entirely hidden from the player.
In order for the production to work, the audience has to come into the experience willing to be deceived. It’d be a disaster if everyone showed up and scoffed because a theater production didn’t have Michael Bay production values.
It’s not too different with Skyrim. For the experience to work, the player needs to bring with them a suspension of disbelief. It’s a game about the meandering path your character takes through the world, and that story is incomplete without you putting something back into it.
It’s impossible to enjoy Skyrim by sitting down and saying, “let’s see what’s so good about this game.” That’s swimming against the current. But if you lie flat, lay your head back and float, the game will take you wonderful places.
At risk of overloading on analogies, Skyrim is a bit like a coloring book to me. You can’t just look at the content (the blank pictures) and say “man, this sucks…it’s just…missing something.” The experience is incomplete without your input.