I’m still in the throes of my Skyrim playing, so it’s too soon for me to look back on the game with a sense of finality. Instead of a retrospective of the game, I’m going to tear it apart in a bunch of petty ways. You know, like I used to do all the time around here. I want to start by going over a section of the game that I think was masterfully done: The introduction.
There's a lot going on in Skyrim. There's a civil war taking place. Ulfric Stormcloak, enraged that the empire has outlawed Talos worship, has gathered a lot of Nords to his side and begun a rebellion. A guy named General Tullius is opposing him. The Stormcloaks are outmatched by the Empire, but they’re tenacious and this is their homeland. The Empire is larger and stronger, but are often undone by their own bureaucracy. They don't really want to fight at all. They just got done with a war and they're tired of it. They would much prefer that the Stormcloaks settle down and go away. In the midst of this conflict, Dragons reappear after being extinct for thousands of years.
Now, that's a lot of exposition to lay on a player in the first five minutes of a game. On the other hand, the player really needs to know all of this before they exit the tutorial. They will need to understand this before they can begin making informed decisions out in the open world.
As the player is led to the block, we can see the careless abuse of power on the part of the empire when they send you to be executed without giving anyone a trial. In the case of the player, they don't even bother to charge you with a crime. The commander evidently is bored by all the paperwork, and so you go to the block.
Then Alduin shows up just in time to ruin your execution before you lose your head. We see the dragon looming over the field where Tullius and Ulfric were bickering just a few seconds ago, perfectly capturing the entire premise of the game in one easy-to-understand image: A dragon setting crap on fire.
The other good thing about this introduction is that it really shows off the gameworld. In Morrowind we began in the belly of a ship, and in Oblivion we were stuck in a dungeon for almost twenty minutes before we saw daylight. But we begin our adventure in Skyrim outdoors, and get a sense for where we are in the world and what this place is like.
There's another detail I really like in this section. The priestess gives you your last rites by praying to the “eight divines”. One of the Stormcloaks gets pissed and steps forward, demanding to skip the whole blessing and get right to having his head chopped off. This is a really nice touch. See, there aren't eight divines in Tamriel. There are Nine. The ninth is Talos, a human who ascended to godhood. This entire war is taking place because the Nords revere him and the empire has banned his worship. By saying eight divines, this priestess is actually giving the condemned a slap in the face. She's offering the blessings of all the gods except the one they worship. By demanding they take his head, this stormcloak is spitting in the face of this blessing, showing that he'd rather die than accept their false blessing. This moment reveals the careless disrespect the Empire has for the Nords, as well as the depth of the animosity the Stormcloaks have for the Empire.
All of this is depicted within the space of a couple of minutes, without a single line of forced exposition. There’s no narrator feeding you history, no opening text to set the stage. By attending the execution we meet the crucial characters, we see their place in the world, the attitude of their differing forces, we get a hint at the religious conflict that sparked the war, and we see this entire war swept to the wayside as the dragon arrives.
Once you escape your own execution, you get the choice of following either Hadavar or Ralof. I have no idea why you would choose Hadavar. He's with the empire, the guys who wanted to chop your head off. Ralof is with the Stormcloaks, and is the closest thing you have to a friend at this point.
Once you and Ralof escape the city, he leads you to a nearby town where you can meet his sister, his brother in law, and his nephew. The ensuing conversation fills in the world even more, and gives you a sense of how the war is affecting the lives of common folk. (It’s also wonderfully optional. Feel free to walk away and go adventuring if that’s what you want. This conversation is here to fill in the details, but by now you already have everything you need to know.) This exchange takes place in a gorgeous little patch of the gameworld. I was worried that this game was going to be “all snow, all the time”, and this stunning little spot was a wonderful way of showing that this world was going to have a lot of rich visual variety.
Now, you might argue that the tutorial occasionally belabors the point, or that it gets a bit tedious in repeated play-throughs. But this is a great introduction to the game and a well-executed bit of storytelling. Really, really nicely done, Bethesda.
Having said that…
All next week I’m going to run a five-part 6,000 word series that will mercilessly deconstruct a section of truly awful, sloppy storytelling. No I am not kidding.
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