Monday, 6 August 2012

What Is Up With Skyrim?

Game:  Noun:  A form of play or sport, esp. a competitive one played according to 
                            rules and decided by skill, strength or luck.

Let's talk about Skyrim. 

I think that enough time has passed, the hype has died down and people are finally in a place where they can maybe, just maybe, start dealing with some truth.

Skyrim is rubbish.

It is.  Really, it is.  It isn't even a game, it's a gratification engine.  A really poorly designed, horrible, repetitive, dull gratification engine (with too many loading screens) at that.  This isn't an attack, this is just a statement of fact.  I mean, I'm not a monster, I accept that there are some good points about it - it's just that they are overwhelmed, suffocated and submerged beneath a tidal wave of tedium.
Not singing about Skyrim

Let's take the good points first.  It is a very, very good walking simulator... well, unless you want to actually get anywhere.  If you want to wander around in the snow then you're set.  The scenery is lovely, the music is nice and it can be very calming and meditative to watch the northern lights playing out over a distant mountain top while you decide what to kill next.  However, if you want to get to a specific point on the map then prepare yourself for frustration.  When Marvin Gaye sang "there ain't no mountain high enough" then he obviously was not playing Skyrim.  In Skyrim plenty of mountains are high enough, plenty of ravines are low enough and plenty of waterfalls are smashy, smashy, drowny enough to keep you from getting anywhere - let alone to any kind of baby.

Skyrim is also a very, very good work simulator.  At least that's what I assume the crafting is for.  The mind numbing tedium required to get your smithing skill to 100 really is something to behold.  Hours and hours of running backwards and forwards to different shops (with a loading screen at each door) to collect the materials necessary to make a generic suit of armour, before running to the anvil to make it, then to the workbench to upgrade it and then to the merchant to sell it (usually at a loss, and with the attendant loading screens).  Do this 20 times and... "your smithing skill has raised to 16".  16!  This is supposed to be a break from work!  This is supposed to be what I do to bloody unwind!  Skyrim is the first game when I actually looked forward to stopping playing it so that I could go and relax in the office.  No matter how tedious, boring or soul-destroyingly awful your job is, it apparently has nothing on the life of a pseudo-viking blacksmith.  
Looks exciting, doesn't it?

Skyrim also does away with things like attribute scores and classes - things that are traditionally an integral part of character definition within any role playing game.  Bethesda have their reasons for doing this, and they lead us towards answering why Skyrim is such a bad game.  Bethesda say that they don't want to limit the player in their choices, they want people to be able to change their minds mid-play and alter their character without having to start again.  They want the player to be in control throughout rather than be restricted by a choice they made before they had even played the game, and they want to streamline the experience so that players are able to just play without worrying too much about numbers.  Casting aside my nerdy prejudices, I can accept that these might be things that appeal to some people - silly people, people who don't enjoy actually playing games but still, you know, people.  Freedom and flexibility are usually good things in life and it follows that they would be good things in a game, but the problem is - they aren't.

Let's start with classes and attributes.  Traditionally they are there to define your character, and to encourage you to play in a certain way.  As it is there is nothing when you begin Skyrim to set aside a hulking orc from a frail old dark elf, except for some small differences in skills.  They can carry the same amount, they have the same health, their spells do the same damage, and so on.  The player can take any approach with them and can focus on exactly the same things - with no care about their physical or mental capabilities.  On the one hand this is freedom, but on the other it's a tyranny of conformity.  I want my character to be special, I want to determine who they are and how they differ to others.  I want to have to think about how to solve problems.  I want to be forced to approach things in different ways.  Essentially I want to be made to play a role (this is, after all, supposed to be a role-playing game).  By removing the very things which define them Bethesda have turned your character into a featureless, generic actor.  It takes away the whole point, and this obsession with removing restrictions in order to allow the player to do anything they want causes lots of other problems.
Don't worry, he's not as quick as he looks

Skyrim breaks basic balancing restrictions that have been in place in RPGs since they began.  There's a reason why mages aren't able to use heavy armour.  Usually this is given as some gubbins involving "energies" but it comes down to game balancing.  Somebody who is able to destroy vast areas of the world needs taking down a peg or two.  You've got to give them some kind of vulnerability.  Fighters can't cast spells and archers are bad in melee for exactly the same reason.  Guess what?  Skyrim gets rid of this.  If you want to be a walking tank in heavy armour, shooting flames out of both hands then you go for it!  There is absolutely nothing in the game to stop you, or even encourage you not to do this.  Limiting you in any way is a complete anathema.  The problem with this, though, is that it makes the game dull.  Dull, dull, dull.  What's the point of playing if you just crisp anything in seconds?  Nothing can hurt you.  What's the bloody point?

And this even affects things like the interface.  Lots of people have criticised the interface in Skyrim, but the main problem for me is the sheer volume of items it has to deal with.  As you experience the brilliance of the walking simulator you seemingly cannot help but pick up items, shouts, spells, potions and quests and, in keeping with what we have talked about before, none of them are unusable by your character.  After a few hours the number of options available to you has increased alarmingly.  No matter how much you try to keep your favourites list down, by the end you are scrolling through endless permutations to try and find the one you want.  It's clunky and annoying but only because of the cloying, overpowering choice.
We're up to B!

Having restrictions is good.  If you have limitations placed on your character's abilities then it forces you to approach the game in different ways.  It makes you think about how to overcome things.  It makes you put in a bit of bloody effort.  Skyrim is so dull because there is nothing to stop you doing exactly whatever you want.  It is so eager to give you everything that it forgets that the most important thing is to provide some resistance, something for the player to overcome.  It doesn't really do that.  I mean, yeah, there are enemies, and sometimes those enemies can kill you, but there isn't really any structural reason why you can't have everything.  The game is so determined to allow you to do anything, and shower you with gifts, powers and exalted ranks while you do it, that it just ends up as a bit of a mess.

Want to be the head of the Thieves' Guild?  Sure!  Off you go.  Complete a few quests and there you are.  Now.. want to also be the head of the Companions?  No problem!  You can do that.  Decided to do the Mage's Guild questline?  Fine!  This is all perfectly OK.  Fancy being Thane of a few towns?  There are no restrictions.  Nobody bats an eyelid.  Nobody's worried that you might be stretching your time quite thinly and nobody forces you to make any choices.  Anything is OK and everything is OK.  For a game that prides itself on its "immersion" it seems strange that you can be running everything in Skyrim without anybody seeming to notice.  

No choices you make actually affect anything else.  Nothing is ever closed off.  Nothing is ever restricted.  Nothing you do ever actually means anything.  There are no consequences to any of your actions and you are certainly never, ever going to fail at anything.  Heaven forbid.  If you want to achieve anything then you can do it, because the game won't let you mess it up. Quest arcs become processions.  The things you are asked to do might change, but the process is the same.  Follow the arrow.  Do what you are asked to do (usually killing something, or collecting something, or talking to somebody) and then return to get your reward.  Then do it all again.  Once you decide that you want to achieve something then all you need to do is put in a bit of time and bang, there it is.  There's no uncertainty, no challenge and no failure.  Follow the arrow; talk, kill or collect and go back.  Over and over again.  It's mind numbing.

And this is the answer.  This is what is up with Skyrim.  There is nothing to stop you doing whatever you want.  And, if there is nothing to stop you, then where does the achievement come from?  Where does the excitement come from?  This is why I said at the start that Skyrim is not a game.  According to the definition at the top of this article a game is decided by skill, strength or luck.  You don't need any of these to succeed at Skyrim.  You just need to put in some time.