2022-08-16: Skyrim -- I Finally Finished It
This might be a polarizing one. I finished Skyrim about a month ago; I didn't enjoy it. At least I didn't enjoy it as a TES game, it was a fine action RPG. I've been thinking on this for awhile before I put my thoughts to paper since apparently Skyrim is widely considered to be the best video game ever. I think largely my distaste for it comes down to how it sacrificed exactly what I liked about Morrowind and Oblivion to provide a more approachable experience for the mainstream. Gods though, that makes me sound like a hipster, doesn't it?
I stubbed my toe first and foremost on the squashed character creation process. Attributes are gone, as are tagged skills. Your only real game-impacting choices are race and gender. Race provides you with some racial abilities as with other TES games, gender slightly tweaks some quest chains especially centered around romance. That's it. By and large I consider fewer choices in character generation to be a good thing: these are choices you're making with little to no knowledge of the game, and can be constraining to freedom. Here though, I found it nixed any reason I had to write a backstory to fit into the tagged skills I took (or vise-versa).
In addition to the dismissal of attributes and a simpler character generation process, Skyrim seems more suited for the idea that your protagonist becomes a jack of all trades. There's no playing with the level scaling by tagging weird skills, any skill raise contributes to leveling (but you can just opt to not accept the level-up if you don't want to scale the world). Skills have been squashed into wider families. What was short blade, long blade, axe, blunt, etc in Morrowind became "1H Combat" in Skyrim. This means you don't have to discard weapons merely because they're the wrong type, but another small bit of flavor is lost here. It all amalgamates into this idea that you can do anything, so you should. This is, again, arguably good.
I wanted to lean magey this time. I was aware the only real way to make a Destruction Mage work in Skyrim is to reach -100% Destruction cost via enchanting (or more accurately abusing potions until you have 100 enchanting). All in all, I found slinging the Expert tier spells with -100% cost equipment on to be extremely viable as a combat option, if a bit samey. Part of the samey feel came from the fact that I was effectively breaking the game and should have been forced to take up a second combat method to augment my magicka.
One of the most striking things I found was just how homogeneous Skyrim is on a demographic level. Someone did the math and found that among named NPCs in Skyrim, about 50% are Nords. I found this surprising because in Morrowind 55% of the same are Dunmer, but Skyrim feels so much more Nord-heavy. My conclusions are largely that these numbers don't include unnamed NPCs like Great House Guards and City Guards and their presence heavily biases the pool. Also though, Skyrim's individual cities are far more homogeneous than Morrowind's: you won't see any Bretons at all unless you go to Markarth where they're about 40% of the population; same with Imperials in Solitude, and a couple of races in Winterhold. Oblivion is basically a melting pot, by comparison, due to being in the heart of Cyrodil.
The plot starts with you needing to report to the Jarl of the nearby city that a dragon was sighted. This isn't so different from reporting to Caius in Morrowind, or to the Blades in Oblivion. Where things twist up a bit, though, is as soon as you do this, plot happens and reveals you're basically a god-thing. From here, you're thrust into a plot where you alone have the power to decide the fate of Skyrim. This is where things start to feel real weird if you're a veteran of TES games: you're not supposed to just be given this kind of power and prestige.
I haven't played Arena, but in every other TES game you're a nobody who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. In Daggerfall you're an Imperial spy who had all of their resources and contacts destroyed. In Morrowind you're a prisoner who just happens to have a personal history close enough to the prophecy of the Nerevarine that the Imperials can use you as a patsy. In Oblivion you happen to witness the assassination of the emperor because you were mistakenly placed in the wrong prison cell. In all three situations you're a nobody and have to do a ton of legwork to prove you're worth the attention of anyone important in these respective worlds. This is a comparison I'll come back to later.
Parallel to the dragonborn plot, a civil war is also going on. At the surface the Imperial vs Stormcloak debate is rendered as something out of Star Wars: the empire and the plucky rebels. Digging in a bit though will reveal both sides suck. The Stormcloaks are racist and xenophobic and the Imperials are a puppet state in this era under the thrall of the Thalmor who are basically manifest destiny bullshit elementals. So yeah, I flatly refused to pick a side, and the game happily let me ignore this entire thing as I dealt with the more pressing issue of Alduin the genocidal dragon.
You can, at any time, join one side or the other of this conflict and start doing what are basically faction quests. I didn't. I focused more on the College of Winterhold, which is Skyrim's version of the Mage Guild. This turned out to be about five quests in an incredibly short plot arc that ends in an ancient thought-dead order showing up, saving the world from disaster for you, and declaring you the new Archmage of the guild. Another title just handed to you. Ugh.
You also just get handed a really nice house after the first quest of the plot. You have to buy it but it's pretty affordable and I imagine most players don't ever go looking for any other kind of home base. In Oblivion, if you look around, you find you can buy a shack in Imperial City, not basically a Nordic mansion. This one I don't mind too much; I really, really like having a personal base in these open world games. I eventually ended up at Myrwatch anyway once I discovered it. It does reinforce this thread of giving you things more freely though.
So the entire main plot is figuring out how to fight Alduin. Ultimately the plan to reach him and begin the endgame centers around Whiterun: the first city you visit. You need the Jarl's help, but he's hesitant because the civil war is on his doorstep and he hasn't chosen which side to back. This is where the two plot threads intertwine: he won't help you until you reach a peace accord between the Imperials and the Stormcloaks. I was so tired of both of them at this point that I went into this leg utterly determined to not pick a side. I'd find literally any other option available to me first.
If you've backed a side, I believe you have to carry that side to more or less victory at this point. I hadn't. The game provided me with an option to hold a peace talk. This is where both sides show their whole ass (as if they hadn't already). Ulfric Stormcloak shows up demanding concessions from the Imperials, the Imperial leader is a smarmy ass in return. Nothing gets accomplished. I decided to take the murder option; both leaders are flagged essential and this does nothing but get you killed. Augh! So these two bicker and start demanding territory trades in order to secure the cease-fire. Every now and then they turn to the PC and demand they arbitrate. I kept looking for the "Both of you shut up and sign this or that dragon is going to murder us" option but it never came. There is no way to take the obvious path and point out that this is a life-or-death situation. You have to play their game.
In the end, you're given a choice that has no unbiased answer. One of the sides declares you a traitor and your choice in the civil war is made for you. This is so, so incredibly disappointing. I equate it to having to choose a house in Morrowind to proceed, but even that, the choice is fungible and mostly to establish your cred; so you feel you still have agency. This is so heavily railroaded. I also realize now I missed a large portion of the game by not picking a side, hmm.
And this brings me back to my prior point about starting as a god-thing. The other TES games, you start with nothing and eventually build up to having the power to make major world-changing decisions. Skyrim is the opposite: you start as a god-thing with everyone falling over themselves to assist you and earn your favor, and eventually through more and more constrained freedom through the main plot, are rendered unable to actually bring about any real change in the world around you except one of the two approved choices you're given. It's little wonder in this case though, the plot has to leave off in a position to allow the White-Gold Concordant to fall apart and Imperials and the Aldmeri to start their own war. Bopping both sides in Skyrim and halting the aggression that way wouldn't allow that.
I guess maybe I'm just bitter there's no back door option like Morrowind, where you can just roll Vivec and all three great houses and complete the game by looting the magic MacGuffin and using it yourself anyway. Even in Oblivion, though, I felt like my choices had more weight. Entire cities could or could not survive the Oblivion Incident depending on how much work you put in during the pre-endgame. By comparison, taking a side or not taking a side in this war has the feeling of the Mass Effect 3 laser color ending.
All of this builds up into this really subjective objection I have that's sourced in "I did not feel as immersed because they took away all the character-building options and forced you into a choice that I didn't want to make," A lot of that adds up to a more modern experience in escapism where the player is given all the power and the game puts rails up to let them use it how they want while still guiding them to the plot-approved end. Skyrim is much less efficient at setting up those rails than prior games. That's the crux of it. I could even see the argument of "Well of course you didn't enjoy it, you skipped the main choice of the game!"
That's a lot of negative, I know. All in all it's still a strong game in its own right. It's a solid open world action game with RPG elements. I'd place it closer to Assassin's Creed than Morrowind, though. It wasn't what I was looking for, that's all. I did love Solstheim though; amazing expansion/side content. 10/10.
I kind of want to play Morrowind again, or try to finish Daggerfall, now.