The Obligatory Skyrim Thinkpiece

So, when I mentioned a couple weeks ago that I was replaying Skyrim as a mental break from other, higher commitment games, I figured that this was just something I was doing with my free time to unwind and enjoy my summer break a little bit.  I didn’t have any intentions of writing a blog post about it, but I really should have known better; you can’t spend over forty hours with a game and not begin having thoughts about it beyond the basic mechanics of gameplay (at least, I can’t).

The thing about Skyrim and the rest of the Elder Scrolls games is that they’re always designed to be incredibly rich with tons of lore that’s just lying around waiting for you to find it.  Bethesda takes the concept of open world sandbox very literally, and once you finish the introductory quest that gives you a basic tutorial on all the controls, you’re turned loose to do what you like.  I’m one of those people who just never gets that invested in the main storyline, so I followed that thread just far enough to kill my first dragon and get a house, then I decided it was time to turn my back on all that epic fate-of-the-world nonsense and focus on what I always end up doing in Elder Scrolls games: thieving.

Because I knew that thieving was what I would end up doing anyway, I began with a pretty simple character concept (unlike contemporary JRPGs where the hero’s personality is typically pretty well defined, Bethesda’s sandbox games give you a nice blank slate and plenty of room to fill in your character’s personality), which was of an angry Wood Elf who came to Skyrim to try to make her fortune in whatever way she could.  She doesn’t like nonsense, and while she prefers not to get violent, she’s all about swift vengeance.

Map of skyrim bintoenglish

My criminal empire expands to all corners of the province. (Image credit: Elder Scrolls Wiki)

That concept works pretty well.

Now, naturally after playing a character for so long there are bound to be changes, and so after completing the Thieves’ Guild quest line I realized that my character had gotten wind of the Mage’s College and, having amassed a huge fortune as a professional thief, she wanted to try it out for a lark.  Along the way she managed to attract the attention of a handful of Daedric Princes (they’re like otherworldly demigods that most mortals don’t trust) who all explained that my character had been chosen for some grand fate.  In most cases she went along with the Daedra’s prattling so she could get their sweet loot, but she didn’t believe all this crap about Chosen Ones and grand destinies.  Anyway, she went on to the Mage’s College where she almost immediately got embroiled in another grand plot that involved her (again) being the one person fated to save the world from a disaster.  Flash forward to where I currently am in the game, and my angry Wood Elf who just wanted to make her fortune by picking some pockets and pulling off a few big heists is the Master of the Thieves’ Guild, Archmage of the Mage’s College, and the chosen herald for several different Daedric Princes (let’s also not forget that she’s the Dragonborn, meaning she has another unfulfilled grand destiny just waiting for her to claim it).

Are you starting to see where this is going?

On the one hand, Skyrim is a power fantasy, and the breadth of character concepts it allows means that the designers had to provide a variety of questlines that would scratch different character itches.  You want to be a master thief?  There’s a storyline about you becoming that.  You want to be a great wizard?  We got one of those too.  Individually, these quests are a lot of fun and they provide a nice framework for building up to whatever concept you want to explore.  The absurdity of such power fantasies becomes apparent when you stick with your one character beyond the completion of a single questline.

Skyrim‘s character engine is designed so that you level up by practicing your skills.  At the same time you’re leveling, the game is also scaling the strength of enemies up to keep pace so that every encounter is at least moderately challenging.  There are ways to game this system so that you can create an overpowered character, but for the average player who’s just enjoying the experience, what this means is that eventually you’ll find that the only skills you have that are adequate for dealing with threats are the ones you started practicing when your character was level one.  If you decide after so many hours that you want to change your character concept and move from a stealth build to a magic build (like I did in my current game), you’ll be in for a very difficult learning curve as you find your basic spells are wholly inadequate for fighting.  On a gameplay level, I really appreciate this system because it feels like a very organic way to enforce character balance while still allowing you to adjust the concept if you want to put the work in later.

The problem comes in when you try to mesh this mechanical system with the story being told.  Going back to my current playthrough, my character’s advancement through the Thieves’ Guild made perfect sense.  She’s a really skilled stealth character who specialized in pickpocketing, lockpicking, and archery from the start, so when I got to the end of the Thieves’ questline and became Guildmaster, it felt congruous with the way I had played the character.  It was when I switched to the Mage’s questline that things started to get a little silly.

For some context, before you can even start the Mage’s College plot, you have to prove that you’re at least mildly proficient with magic by casting a spell that has a moderate MP cost.  Because I’d never trained in magic, my character couldn’t immediately meet that requirement, so I had her fudge the test by sweet talking the examiner into just letting her in without checking (I love that the developers thought to let players fake their way into the College if they want to).  So far so good.  Then in the first quest for the College you go to some ruins and find an ancient necklace that sets in motion a series of events where some ancient mystical order tells your character that they’re destined to resolve a plot that could have disastrous consequences for the world.  It’s a silly plot device that gets used way too often, but it’s not outside the realm of plausibility.  Then things go off the deep end as you finish the story and the senior surviving member of the Mage’s College (the leader of any guild quest line invariably has to die in order to make room for your character’s eventual rise to power) declares that your character should be the new Archmage.

Now remember, my character started with a stealth build, and I decided to go learn magic just for fun.  As a mage, my character is extremely underwhelming (I suspect I was only able to get so far by relying heavily on the game’s follower system which lets me drag along an AI controlled meatshield who does most of the work in combat).  In the original context of someone studying magic because she’s a bored criminal mastermind, the reality of the character works wonderfully.  It’s just when the game starts asserting that she’s somehow become worthy of being the Archmage that things fall apart.

And this isn’t even getting into all the other stuff that’s going on in the gameworld.  But that’s probably best saved for another day.

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