Last time I proposed to talk about what Skyrim does well. It’s a long list and one I’ll relish exploring–but I’m going to have to put it off a little longer. I can’t talk about what’s done right until I get at the core of what’s done wrong, and I think the things detractors usually blame–various mechanical evolutions, paradigm shifts, or just plain they-don’t-make-’em-like-they-used-to RPG sacred cow absences–aren’t really at fault. Nothing Skyrim does wrong had to be done wrong, even every major element of the design was kept intact.
It’s clear Bethesda built Skyrim around a clearly visualized model player: somebody who wants to enter a fantasy world, casually browse content without running up against impediments, frustrations, or a need to master additional playstyles, and then get back to real life without worrying about forgetting some important detail or systems mastery that would impede a return days or weeks later. Pleasing this model player meant several obvious sacrifices: the loss of stats, the drive toward making questlines similar and similarly approachable, the trimming away of little mechanics that added texture (and friction) to previous titles. But each of these sacrifices, while necessarily resented by grognards, has a purpose. They all contribute meaningfully to creating an experience that is well designed and exuberantly approachable and that is straightforward to slip in and out of at will, however long the player is away.
The real misfortune of Skyrim isn’t what mechanics the team sacrificed to a purpose; it’s what finesse was lost without purpose. Their weakness is not in creating gameplay but in creating meaningful and appropriate context.
I am peace with the idea, for example, that a modern Bethesda-style open world game means some NPCs will be unkillable. Some companies make open-world games where every character can be killed by the player–Bethesda flirted with this approach for one game, Morrowind, and then consciously abandoned it forever. Reasonable enough. The developers concluded that the bulk of their players a.) want to be able to interact with as many NPCs as possible and b.) don’t want NPCs to die by accident or malice if they’re going to be important later on. That’s not a problem. It’s a valid game design choice–it’s a valid sacrifice to make. But if you’re going to design your game that way, you need to be mindful of how it interacts with player emotions, goals, and expectations.
Last time I talked about how Ulfric’s unkillable nature frustrates the player’s problem solving ability, but there’s a more illustrative, straightforward, and universal example. Let’s talk about Skyrim’s bullies.
They’re in several places in the game, but the town of Riften is the worst example: from the moment the player enters the city there’s a revolving door of clowns who accost the player, threaten them, tell them that if they step out of line the NPC will directly or indirectly deal with them. And that’s meant to be that. They clearly expect the player character to cower in fear, move on, and stay out of trouble. And because all of these NPCs are invulnerable–because all that happens when you defeat an invulnerable NPC is they squat a bit, then they stand up, then the player gets fined by the guards, then nobody acknowledges what’s happened–because there is no real questline addressing any of these moronic overconfident belligerent assholes–“moving on and staying out of trouble” is more or less what the player character is forced to do. And that’s not just stupid, that flies directly in the face of what kind of game Skyrim is trying to be, exactly the sort of game it so frequently and skillfully embodies at most other times:
A power fantasy.
Skyrim is about being literally the only person in the continent who can stop immortal, powerful, terrifying creatures from harassing and intimidating the countryside. Skyrim is about gaining the strength to solve any problem, climb any ladder–to rewrite the history books and bring order to the frontier and treat with gods and kings alike. And you have to take shit from every penny-ante urban thug the game deigns to give a name and backstory–despite the fact that by virtue of speaking to me and calling me out, Maul inspired much more actual desire to fight and win in me than any of the game’s nameless snarling undead.
This is something so many other games understand. When Psychonauts needs a villain to motivate the player for its early levels, it introduces a loudmouthed punk named Bobby Zilch who mocks you before every competition. He exists to exploit a pretty basic feature of human nature: when someone tries to demean us and we beat them, especially at whatever they’ve assumed we’re bad at and they’re good at, it feels amazing. This isn’t some arcane or controversial take; it’s a very basic format of power fantasy that’s been around as long as videogames, as long as film, as long as storytelling. It’s why the first thing every teenage superhero does after getting powers is show up the student who’s made their life a living hell. So having NPCs who approach a character’s power fantasy, threaten them, and cannot be beaten in any meaningful way–ie, one the bully recognizes–is inexplicably perverse. It makes you question what the developers thought they were for and why they put them in.
I talked about how the features Skyrim sacrificed aren’t the real waste, and I’m going to double down on that now. If I can only make one point at all about Skyrim in this post, it’s this:
My complaint here isn’t that every NPC should be killable because NPC unkillability is not to blame.
It’s a deceptively backwards way of thinking about it. If we could kill Maul or Maven Black-briar, that would shut them up and would end my frustration. Thanks to NPC invulnerability I can’t do that. Therefore, NPC invulnerability is bad.
But that’s just not the whole story. NPC invulnerability is obnoxious in this example, but so, so many mechanics are frustrating when they are implemented poorly. Morrowind’s lack of quest arrows helped it feel like an objective and open-ended challenge, but when the quest directions were terrible, it was an unbelievable pain in the ass and you bet it hurt the game. We don’t need to get rid of NPC invulnerability to address the times when it’s frustrating and retrograde. We just need the developers to realize how making NPCs invulnerable causes the player to react in certain situations.
For example, what if beating Maul made him scared of the player? What if a script flipped when the player reduced him to 0 health and he made awkward and unconvincingly-macho excuses to leave conversations afterward?
What if Maul recognized the player’s toughness and offered, instead of the same threats he gives everyone, a sort of game-recognizes-game respect? And what if some other punk laughed at Maul, attacked the player, and got his ass kicked?
What if Maul only took really petty, deniable pot-shots at the player and always in the middle of conversations, so the player had an excuse not to go buck wild on him? And what if the Thieves Guild questline built up to getting even with him in some meaningful and satisfying way?
Or failing that, if there’s really no time, no budget, no will or means to make this character fun or satisfying or interesting, how about just not making him an arrogant jackass at all?
When we talk about games being emotionally resonant, that’s usually code for saying a game’s trying to be Art with a capital A. It’s a way of getting across that the game’s trying to inspire feelings not usually associated with escapist media–it’s going to make you sad, it’s going to make you heartbroken, it’s going to make you think. It’s going to make you feel things a fun game wouldn’t. Talking about emotions at all seems to be the exclusive provenance of reviews for swishy indie games and the occasional critical darling Triple-A entry like The Last of Us, a way of distinguishing titles like those from the stuff we use to relax and have a good time. And that is a huge, huge, huge mistake. Emotional resonance is as key to escapism as it is to any other form of creative expression. We don’t enjoy Raiders of the Lost Ark because there’s planes and machine guns, we enjoy it because we want the scrappy well-meaning underdog adventurer to win against the brutal fascist bullies. Every scene in the movie emphasizes how the villains use their power and wealthy to control others, and every scene with the hero shows him overcoming their terrifying marshaled resources with his own inner strength.
With these confrontational belittling unswattable characters, the developers of Skyrim forgot that how the player feels about the game and NPCs within it is important. And I can’t understand how that happened. This is just the most obvious and illustrative example I can imagine–though there are some nice narrative turns, littered throughout the game are other little moments that show the developers didn’t give enough thought to a player’s emotional drives, reactions, or needs in a given scene. It’s never quite enough to damn the experience–the mechanics and presentation are far too polished–but I do think it’s enough to keep most of it from being really memorable…and given the resources and talent that went into making it, that’s a real shame.
WAY back in 2005, I wrote about a D&D campaign I was running. The campaign is still there, in the bottom-most strata of the archives.
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