Sunday, January 20, 2013

Living for Yourself and Nobody Else: Why Skyrim Left me Cold

I was really, really confused when I had finished my playthrough of Skyrim. It was probably the most critically acclaimed game of 2011, everyone I knew who played it enjoyed the game, and there were many among them who absolutely swear by it. If you ask any gamer about Skyrim, they will tell you it is amazing. Starting the game for the first time, my expectations were high, but by the time I ended my quest, I found the entire experience to be unmoving and unrewarding. I felt totally ambivalent toward the game.

At first, I thought that I was just insane. The game's world is massive, detailed, and immersive. The amount of freedom given to the player is vast. The soundtrack is epic.The game is so gorgeous that I would often stop and remove the HUD just to take screenshots. Most of my friends who are enthusiastic about the game are people of good taste. Normally, I'd just leave it at a difference of taste and move on, but the more my Skyrim-enthused fans talk about the game, the more I found myself thinking about it, and I've since realized that I might not be entirely insane.

Now, an incredible effort was put into Skyrim's world-building. Not only is the literal, physical world massive and detailed, but great effort was put into creating the Tamriel, game world's, history and cultures. It may possibly be among the most well-developed fictional worlds of recent time.

This is an incredible waste, though, because I didn't give a shit about Tamriel or the people in it. I was never given a reason to.

It's a shame that such a gorgeous world ultimately left me feeling empty.

Every non-player character in Skyrim does one of four things: they provide a service to the player, they tell the player what his or her next job is, they provide throwaway lines of dialogue, or they get killed by the player. That's it. No important characters exist for their own sake - they only exist to serve the player, guide the player, or be overcome by the player. Even the game's most prominent non-player characters, Delphine, Esbern, and Paarthurnax, are incredibly dull. Delphine's a bad-ass warrior, Esbern's a wise hermit, and Paarthurnax is a wise and majestic dragon, but that's literally all that I can say about any of them. They have no motivations besides helping the player save the world. They don't develop in any way. Essentially, they're perfect examples of a twelve-year-old's idea of what cool and interesting characters are. All that they are are static manikins that tell the player what to do.

As forgettable as the hero's allies are, the game's primary villain, the dragon Alduin, is even more so. All that I can say about him is that he's a evil dragon that wants to end the world. No real adversarial relationship beyond "I have to kill the you to save the world" develops between him and the player. He doesn't even have much of a personality that I can remember. What's the point of getting to kill a villain at the end of the game if  you don't hate his guts because he's barely even a person? What's even the point of having a villain if you don't grow to utterly despise him? The main quest's final battle was a disappointing anti-climax.

Three more forgettable manikins

So, obviously, the game isn't about the supporting characters. It's only about the player. This may not seem like a profound statement to anyone familiar with Skyrim, but it's an essential starting point for discussing why people play Skyrim, and why they enjoy it.

Skyrim is an egocentric power fantasy. Not only is the game almost exclusively concerned with the desires and development of the player character, but the PC is a cool-looking bad-ass who (if they choose) wears cool-looking armor, wields a cool-looking sword, and his called upon by not-as-cool, weakling NPCs to kill all of the bad guys and save the entire damn universe. The PC is met with success at every task that they attempt, can learn any skill, will always choose the winning side in a war, and can even marry anyone that they ask without fear of rejection. With minimal effort, the player experiences greater success in the game world than they do with great effort in real life. They are truly the center of a universe that bends itself to their desires.

That's my character. He climbed a dragon because he's a bad-ass, and that's what bad-asses do.

"Isn't that the appeal of Skyrim, though?" you might ask. "Shouldn't the player be perfect and be able to do whatever they want?" For the most part, this question is simply about a matter of taste. If you want your games to tell you, just by playing them, that you're awesome, that you're a hero, that you're the most important person in the world, then by all means, play games that do that. There are thousands of them for you to choose from.

Personally, I'm becoming more and more uncomfortable with using power fantasy as a mode of escapism. I believe that reading novels, watching movies, and playing games can be enriching experiences because they allow you to experience the life of another (fictional) person and take something away from that experience. However, playing a game just because real life is inadequate, because you aren't the hero, because you fail, because it's hard, not only seems like an inappropriate response to the inadequacies of real life, but can also be dangerous. I've read and heard a dozen horror stories about people whose lives are wrecked because they are addicted to the power fantasies in MMORPGs. The power fantasy is incredibly seductive, but doesn't offer much in return for the hours you pour into it.

This all brings me back to why Skyrim failed to make a big impression on me. I don't want any game to pat me on the back and tell me that I'm awesome simply for playing it. I really want my games to be much more meaningful than that. So, the egocentric aspect of Skyrim, arguably the core of the game, has no appeal for me. Now, I still would have enjoyed the game if the story was strong - but it wasn't. Because the focus of the game was almost exclusively on the player, there were no strong characters to give me a reason to care about the game's world or the story at all. When it comes down to it, why save the world if there's nobody to save it for? Who cares?

(As a side note, I find it absurd that a free, low-fi, semi-erotic RPG Maker 2003 game made by one guy was a more rewarding experience than Skyrim. Heh.)

EDIT: Just one last thing that I wanted to make clear: I thought Skyrim was a good game, and it was quite a bit of fun at the time, but nothing more. I wrote this piece because, for me, the shallowness of the characters, the story,  and the game's focus really stopped it from making it a great game, and the same shallowness is pervasive in the medium as a whole, and needs to be addressed.


  1. But... I thought you GOT to live for yourself, for yourself and nobody else.

  2. James Brown would've loved Skyrim, I can tell.

  3. FIGJAM == Fuck I'm Great, Just Ask Me.