Travelling South for Winter: the End of my Skyrim Affair

Skyrim - beauty

It's a strength of the game that it routinely presents vistas as beautiful and striking as this.

It’s almost half a year since Skyrim lumbered into the hearts and minds of gamers, trampling all before it like the openworld fantasy behemoth it is. This article is somewhat overdue, as it was originally planned for January.

This timing may be significant. There was, predictably, some backlash against Skyrim, as there is with any hugely successful triple-A game. At this point the baleful eye of the gamer hivemind has swung its focus elsewhere (Mass Effect 3 springs to mind) and Skyrim is no longer the centre of attention.

I mention all of this because I want to preface this article by emphasising that it is not intended as a review or analysis of Skyrim that is in any way objective. Instead it is as an attempt to explore and articulate just where Skyrim and I diverged, and to explain how I went away for a week an eager fan of The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim yet returned home with no desire to play it at all.

Skyrim - the fungus kingdom

I really enjoyed exploring the huge subterranean world with its fungal landscape.

Everything began so well, and so Bethesda. Sat on the back of a cart, trundling through a beautiful landscape, listening to expensive scene-setting voice acting, and trying not to think too much about the limited animation as soon as people started walking around. Oh, but I’m already being snarky. This is unfair. The game really was beautiful, and the animation was much improved over past efforts.

I genuinely adored those early moments in Skyrim. I pursued the initial quests with vigour and ignored fast travel as much as possible, preferring to traverse the landscape and soak in the frigid landscape aongside the inevitable arrows of roaming bandits. Digging through dungeons felt fresh and exciting; the environments were so much more varied than those of Oblivion, and I was enjoying the new options around smithing and enchanting. Even the dual-casting of magic felt pretty cool.

I forced myself to ration the main quest, keen to avoid blowing through it too quickly, and instead explored various sidequests and odd caves I encountered on my travels. At one early point I set my heart on becoming a mage and dutifully trudged off towards the Mage’s College at Winterhold. It was a long journey and I’m not ashamed to say that thanks to easily-angered mammoths, tough and poisonous spiders and some fucking wolf packs I had to reload saves and restart the whole damn journey. Oh, remembering to quicksave, where are you when I need you?

Over time I completed the Mage’s College quests, began fighting more dragons (and winning), and began to develop a strong, focused character. Eventually I was perhaps sixty hours into the game and almost two acts through the main quest. I found myself spending more and more time fast-travelling back to town, flogging as much acquired loot as possible and working on my smithing and enchanting skills. Rearranging stuff in my house took up more and more time. But it was all worth it; better gear means surviving tougher fights means exploring bigger and nastier dungeons, which means better gear which means…

Something was niggling at the back of my mind. Then Christmas came around and I left my PC at home as I went to stay with my parents for a week. I took with me a netbook and a few novels.

Skyrim - dragon fight

It was always fun to come across a dragon fighting other random enemies, even if it tended to savage the game's presentation of dragons as powerful, fearsome creatures.

Last one night, a good few beers sunk and eight hundred pages into a novel, I felt suddenly compelled to write the following. I’ve tidied it up a bit as it was drunkenly and rapidly written, but it’s otherwise pretty much verbatim.

I was partway through my Skyrim playthrough – about seventy hours out of a projected one hundred plus playthrough in which I deliberately avoided a swathe of major quest/storylines for possible future characters – before I visited my folks for Christmas. I spent parts of this time away playing Planescape Torment and reading Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon.

I mention these things because I have resolved to finish Skyrim as quickly as possible because it is, essentially, knowingly, gloriously, self-absorbedly, a time-sink. It demands your time, and in return it gives you crumbs.

But those crumbs! I have enjoyed every moment I’ve spent with Skyrim. And yet so few of those moments have proved memorable. So few have made me think. So few have made me care. I have become immersed in a world and in the self-generated concept of my character, but out of this experience so little emerges. This is not good enough. Given all the things I can do with seventy hours of my time, it is insufficient. It does not measure up. The game is capable of being pleasurable, but as a delivery mechanism for pleasure it is so woefully insufficient that I am no longer inclined to contnue. My focus has switched to other modes and mediums and, under the harsh light of contrast, Skyrim has been found wanting.

I will likely return to it. Certainly I shall finish it because I like to put a line through things, to put a full stop at the end of an experience and call it comprehensive. But no more than that, at least for the foreseeable future. My love affair with Skyrim is over. It has been a joy, but it has been a joy that has produced so few stories. It has been a one-night-stand inexplicably dragged out over the course of weeks or months; an increasingly passionless affair perpetuated through the simple aggregation of inertia.

It is unfair to compare Skyrim with a game like Planescape Torment or a novel like Cryptonomicon, because all three offer such different and divergent experiences. Certainly Planescape and Cryptonomicon offer a greater number and occurrence rate of fine, memorable moments, and their setting is drawn with far sharper observational writing and populated with deeper characters, but they don’t attempt to offer the freedom, flexibility or expanded world that Skyrim does, not to mention its almost unparalleled breadth. Nonetheless, the contrast I drew between my experiences with them threw my concerns with Bethesda’s latest release into sharp relief.

Skyrim - underground copse

I found a couple of locations with underground copses and pockets of woodland. The juxtaposition was striking and these were some of my favourite environments.

It ended up taking me almost three and a half months before I started playing Skyrim again. When I did, it was clear the moment had passed. I had a reasonable amount of fun going through the motions of playing out the third act of the main quest, but it felt hollow. I no longer cared about the world. Why should I?

No longer invested in the fiction, I was unable to pretend that my actions had any significance beyond the continued aggregation of stuff around my character. Loot. Incrementally drip-fed skills. Soundbites from nameless NPCs with overly-familiar voices. More and more tasks to undertake that seemed so familiar even before I began.

There is a hole at the heart of Skyrim. It is a hole that every player can fill with whatever they wish and the game will deliver some return depending on what is invested in it. But the emptiness is inherent, and when I recognised it and realised that I no longer wanted to give Skyrim my time and attention, I was shocked to discover how purposeless I had come to find the game.

This is not intended to pass judgement on anyone who likes the game, who liked the game, or who hated the game. I hope my ambivalence is clear. That said, I think I have identified three reasons why my attitude towards Skyrim flipped so powerfully and so quickly.

Firstly, because I am overly familiar with the core experience. I’ve invested four hundred hours across Oblivion, Fallout 3 and New Vegas (and to a lesser extent Morrowind). That is an awful lot of time to spend doing very similar things in very similar engines, even if the macguffins and aesthetics are always different. It is no surprise that I find myself getting fed up with the mechanics of explore > loot > sell > level up > repeat.

Secondly, and this may be more contentious, it is because I am so bored with the trappings of high fantasy in videogames. The bulk of your time in Skyrim is spent staring into the face of dull Tolkeinesque fantasy tropes that were played out long ago. Sure, in Skyrim the dwarves are all dead and gone, and the elves and men are all a bit different, but it’s still a cod-feudal world populated with the same things you always see in fantasy games. Dungeons, caves, ruins. Giant spiders, wolves, bandits. Swords, bows, fireballs. The trappings are familiar now to the point of contempt. Skyrim rarely seems self-aware regarding these tropes and rarely tries to step beyond them.

Looking back I can remember a number of moments where a sense of mystery overpowered my cynicism and weariness with Skyrim’s take on high fantasy. Exploring my first true dwemer ruin and tracking down the expedition which became lost within. Discovering and defeating the machinations of the followers of the Wolf Queen. The ruins of Saarthal and the Eye of Magnus. The madman buried deep in the ice with his dwemer artefact. The great observatories. The first time I realised what a Briar Heart was. I remember these moments fondly, but they were so few and far between.Each and every one of these memorable moments was so because it stood out, usually because it was not something I expected to find embedded in the game’s predictable and rote take on a fantasy setting.

Thirdly, my packrat sensibilities detracted from my experience. I wanted to spend my time exploring ruins, not backtracking and fast travelling to town to sell loot. Equally, I knew that this chore was necessary if I wanted to afford the better stuff in the game, and I also knew that regular trips to town were essential because shopkeepers have so little money on them at any one time (the latter I can blame on game design rather than my own playstyle, of course).

So that was it for me. I found myself at the conjunction of boredom with core mechanics and boredom with the overly generic setting, accentuated by my self-contradictory approach to playing the game. And that is why I am done with Skyrim, and probably the Elder Scrolls series, and probably open-world high fantasy games that offer similar gameplay.

This has been my personal experience with Skyrim. It is not a review. It is an attempt to present said experience and articulate just where things went wrong for me. And, perhaps, it is a statement of intent: to not endlessly revisit overly familiar game mechanics and experiences, and to pursue the fantastic in my fantasy settings, not the familiar.

Skyrim - mist

Like I said, the game routinely presents beautiful landscapes to you. It's like seeing the world through the eyes of a poet and the heart of an engineer.

Skyrim - diorama

Little dioramas are scattered throughout the game, and these little flourishes of novelty inject much-needed personality into the setting.

Skyrim - Gormlaith

Well sure, but you don't have to be a *dick* about it, Gormlaith.