Skyrim‘s ethos is a re-evaluation of Oblivion‘s goals, focuses, and idiosyncratic approach to player freedom. It comes down to what a player is supposed to be able to seamlessly do–and what they aren’t.
Oblivion was ruthless in comparison to its predecessor: it re-organized, simplified, nudged, and foolproofed in order to let any character do anything they wanted. The base game contained no contradictory factions, no NPCs that could be killed inadvertently to terminate a questline, level scaling to make almost all content instantly available, and no stat requirements for advancement. Bethesda allowed one build to seek out a variety of experiences, from the Hitman-lite stylings of the Dark Brotherhood to the heist-styled Thieves’ Guild to the clamor and glamour of the Arena. Although its strict level scaling locked underpowered characters out of just about everything–a critical flaw, to be sure–the developers were largely successful.
Skyrim‘s approach is superficially similar. Like in Oblivion, most of the content can be immediately accessed by a dedicated character. Like in Oblivion, the game offers a variety of factions and quest types to every character without forcing players to choose. But there’s a critical difference, and one that’s arguably generated most of the game’s popularity and controversy: where Oblivion permits one character to access most of the game’s content, Skyrim permits one playstyle to access most of the game’s content.
It’s a slight generalization, but a valid one: a startling amount of quests in the game, regardless of faction or storyline, call upon a player to arrive at a dungeon and fight one’s way to a scripted moment or quest item at the end. Exceptions, like the Thalmor embassy assault and much of the Dark Brotherhood’s missions, are notable; most of the game comes around to errands that don’t resonate with the themes of the originating faction.
The grand finale of the Thieves’ Guild questline in Oblivion is a legendary heist. The grand finale of the Skyrim Thieves’ Guild is a dungeon crawl ending in a boss battle.
The special plot-provided dungeons of Oblivion are expeditions to a hostile dimension with architecture and layouts unlike anything in the mortal plane that require adapting to new sources of magicka, health, resources, and even physical progress through the level–like the world is forced to adapt to the invasion of the alien, ruthless, unbound-by-logic-of-mortal-warfare Daedra. The plot-related dungeons of Skyrim introduce a new puzzle mechanic for getting through gates and are otherwise very similar to the rest of the dungeons in the game.
The Bard’s College is dedicated to culture, storytelling, and the immortalization of history. NPC bards in the gameworld sing songs and tell tales. When you join them, the first thing they ask you to do is crawl through a dungeon and retrieve an artifact.
Skyrim knew what kind of game it was making: it was making a game for player characters to follow questlines that lead them across wilderness and into dungeons full of monsters, loot, and a few plot-critical items. No one can say Oblivion completely avoided this kind of fixation–there’s a few distinct types of dungeon setups in the game and they’re not shy about recycling them–but there is definitely more memorable content that takes place within civilian or exterior areas then there is in Skyrim. It’s thematically appropriate (Oblivion‘s Cyrodiil is cosmopolitan, Skyrim is rugged and frontierlike even though it’s supposedly ancient) but this exists to serve the gameplay choices, not the other way around.
This fixation is complete. When the game isn’t based around dungeons, it struggles with basic problems of quest logic and applied context. For an example, take the city of Windhelm’s serial killer mystery, Blood on the Ice:
The streets are stalked by a mysterious butcher. Bodies of people you know are piling up and the guards are helpless, hopeless, to stop the violence. As the city’s only hope, you must follow a trail of insidious clues, accusations, bodies, and and red herrings to find and confront the culprit.
And I really do mean you must. Even if–like me–you accidentally discovered the killer’s diary and evidence of the murders before the questline actually began.
It was an awkward moment, to be sure: I was robbing a house and found in a barely-locked chest enough evidence to arrest the culprit a hundred times over. Awkward–but not a problem. The problem was that there was no way to use it–to confront the guards with it, to confront the killer with it, even to take justice into my own hands. I had to helplessly watch as NPCs died around me, unable to solve a mystery that wasn’t a mystery at all.
Without exaggeration or hyperbole: this is a problem that should not have existed in any RPG that isn’t a surreal comedy. It’s straightforward to write around no matter what the quest designer’s intention is. The evidence I found could have been meaningless without context discovered in pursuing the quest, an elegant solution. (“So the killer uses Altmer poison? Wait…I know where I found a book on Altmer poison!”) The evidence could have ended the quest before it started, an empowering solution. (“So I can just randomly find the killer by exploring the world? Wow, this game rewards poking around, doesn’t it?”) The evidence could have been absent until the player was ready for it, a crude solution (“I thought I checked this chest? …whatever. Quest’s over.”) Any of these would have demonstrated a confident–frankly, a basic–understanding of how to handle possible player actions.
This is writing gameplay flowcharts first, worrying about players applying context second. Blood on the Ice is one of the most ambitious and visible sidequests in any of the game’s cities and it’s badly mismanaged–and it’s not even the most damning disconnect in the game. That exists in one of the game’s two main questlines and comes up the moment they transition from fighting monsters and plumbing tombs into something subtler.
Players who choose to fight for the Empire are charged with defeating Ulfric Stormcloak, a rebel who leads half the game’s cities.
(It’s worth pointing out that an earlier Bethesda might have taken the obvious step of turning some of these cities hostile to Imperial agents, at least until the populace was in some way conquered or turned by the tides of the war; a small example of how the game doesn’t let the implications of its context interfere with freedom and gameplay.)
Ulfric’s grudge against the Empire is fueling a terrible civil war that’s split the realm and weakens both factions against the real threat, a rising Thalmor tyranny. The stakes of quickly and decisively ending the war could not be higher. What will end the war? Ask your chief ally, a true Nord of Skyrim and influential political figure who understands the conflict better than anyone, and he has only one answer: “Ulfric Stormcloak’s head on a pike.”
Here’s the problem: Ulfric Stormcloak’s head is by no means inaccessible. He’s standing in his throne room a short, safe cart ride away. You can easily walk up to him and clock him with your weapon of choice, and it will do nothing but stun him. Why? Because he’s needed for a questline and therefore invulnerable. Specifically, the questline that culminates in killing him.
You can’t kill Ulfric Stormcloak because he’s essential to the quest where you kill Ulfric Stormcloak.
No other game in the series was this careless. Morrowind put its final opponent in a lair you need plot-relevant items to access. Oblivion simply hid him until the appropriate moment. But Skyrim not only leaves him in the gameworld, the Imperial questline requires you to deliver him a message.
From the NPC who advocated killing Ulfric.
Challenging him to a duel.
The obvious excuse is that Ulfric needs to be there so you can join his faction instead, but that’s only one of the many points of failure in this train of logic. Killing Ulfric is confirmed to be the way to end the war and you can walk up to him and you can’t kill him. Removing even one variable would make this much easier to swallow.
- You can kill Ulfric–but it won’t matter, because it’s capturing the capital that will turn the tide. The logic here is internally consistent, lets the player do the obvious thing, and means you still have to do those quests the devs broke their backs to program.
- Ulfric’s unkillable, but there’s no reason to try, because it’s capturing the capital that matters. At least here the frustration comes from denying the player’s id, not the player’s basic problem solving.
- Ulfric is in hiding so, for example, some random Imperial doesn’t ride up and kill him and end the war. Whether the player is Imperial or rebel, all contact with the Stormcloaks is made through Ulfric’s brother/sister/vizier/lover/court mage/impersonator. This satisfies logic and introduces a potentially interesting new character without frustrating the player–either that they couldn’t kill Ulfric or that killing him didn’t solve much.
- Killing Ulfric is possible and ends the war early. Or makes it worse. Or does anything.
- The contradiction is in some way acknowledged or discussed and additional information reconciles it. This is the most likely solution and easily the most annoying, since it’s a patch job over a structural issue–something like stretching an SUV chassis over a go-kart. It’s barely better than nothing and makes discussing the problem annoying, because those well-disposed and emotionally receptive to the rest of the story may be inclined to dismiss criticisms of this small part of it by citing the relevant dialogue as a “gotcha” without acknowledging how unsatisfying it is.
None of these solutions are perfect for everyone, but even the most cursory hand-waves resolve the basic problem. This is not just a question of personal preference, as most debates about Skyrim‘s place in the franchise become; this is not a matter of what kind of game I think Skyrim should have been. This was not something controversial done well, this was something basic done poorly. It’s a shame.
NEXT WEEK: WHAT SKYRIM DOES WELL
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