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Spoiler alert: This article contains some details about Skyrim’s Imperial-Stormcloak civil war quest line.

The other day I read an article on Motherboard, “Skyrim Should be a Game About Nothing”, where Joshua Kopstein claims that Skyrim should’ve been a game about nothing: “Of course I mean ‘nothing’ in the tabula rasa sense; a kind of videogaming zen that coaxes enlightenment from simplicity.” After admitting to being “spoiled” by games like Minecraft, he also says that Skyrim breaks his flow with “the fact that there is some grand quest I should be embarking on, some dragon I should be slaying or village I should be saving.”

Skyrim Screenshot

I have to refute these claims. Skyrim shouldn’t be game about nothing for multiple reasons. The biggest reason comes from generic constraints and expectations inherent in the epic fantasy genre. Secondly, I have to say that Skyrim offers far fewer choices and consequences than it initially appears. These things make Skyrim (as it is now) a terrible candidate to be game without plot.

Let’s address the genre question first. I think we can all agree without a doubt that Skyrim is an epic fantasy game. It has all the hallmarks of the genre: adventurers, a quasi-feudal society, orcs, witches, magic, and of course dragons. And epic fantasy is nothing without plot. In fact, most epic fantasy stories tend to rely on stock characters and plots—many of them based on the classic Hero’s Journey. That’s the draw of these kinds of stories. You want to be part of that fantasy world. You want to be the person who goes on an epic quest to slay the: demons, dragons, orcs, bad things, whatever and save the: princess, prince, kingdom, realm, universe, what have you.

Skyrim Lake Screenshot

Kopstein says that “If it weren’t for the whole needing to save the world thing, you could simulate a pretty nice life for yourself in a game like Skyrim.” Think about it: would you really want to just live in a fantasy world as a regular schmo? Not as a Dragonborn, royalty, landowner, or even a knight, but as a peasant. It would be like Harvest Moon minus all the adorableness. If the real medieval period wasn’t too nice for the lower classes, what makes you think that a peasant in a fictional setting would have it that much better? Sure you don’t have to be a farmer, but if you try to be an adventurer chances are you’ll take an arrow in the knee.

Epic fantasy lends itself well to larger than life settings, characters, and plots. Imagine if the Hobbits in Lord of the Rings decided to stay home. Sure they wouldn’t have missed Elevensies, but it sure would’ve made for a boring book. Besides, are lost ruins, looming fortresses, magical colleges, dank caves, really things that lend themselves to relaxation and a zen state of mind? Not really.

Skyrim Dragon

Now maybe Kopstein means he wants more of Skyrim’s open-world and less of its narrative trying to tell him where to go and what to explore. The problem with this is that Skyrim’s exploration tends to end up with the player finding quest upon quest. Many of these quests and those for the different factions all contain their own narratives and plotlines: the Companions, the Mage’s College, the Dark Brotherhood, etc. All of them have their stories. If Skyrim was a game about “nothing” then all those quests would have to disappear too because they also tell you where to go and what villages to save.

While Skyrim definitely wouldn’t work as a game like Myst, Journey, Fl0w, or Flowergames withlittle or no emphasis on combat and other high-stress tasks”, it also doesn’t go far enough in creating a living, breathing world with consequences.

For example one of Skyrim’s more interesting quest lines involves a civil war between the Imperial Legion and the Stormcloaks. Depending on which side you choose to support (if any at all) you end up capturing different cities for your faction. These battles lead up to you capturing either Windhelm or Solitude, thus supposedly ending the civil war. However once the quest line is done, nothing changes. Sure the guards in those cities swap color palettes, and the people in the city have a couple of new dialogue options, but that’s about it.

Skyrim Giant

Imagine how amazing it would be if the civil war actually changed who lived or died in those cities. Was the shop owner an Imperial supporter? Well now he’s dead because the Stormcloaks executed him because he was a collaborator. Or let’s say you spy a dragon attacking an outlying village. As it is, Skyrim’s freedom lets you say, “Eh. I don’t really feel like fighting that dragon right now.” But nothing happens from that choice. The town doesn’t get destroyed or anything. Skyrim doesn’t need to have more or less story/plot/impetus for adventuring. It needs consequences to go with all that open-world freedom.

Kopstein finishes with the admission that[he’ll] accept that [the] above may just be another type of game entirely, or perhaps even a non-game. But this wish to revert Skyrim to a form of virtual minimalism is born of […] delight that games like it still exist.” I whole heartedly agree. The fact that Skyrim exists–with or without the extra heft of extended consequences–is amazing in this crowded year of sequels. I’m all for experimenting and playing with the constraints of what constitutes a game, but Skyrim–an epic fantasy, adventure, roleplaying game–is not the right vehicle for that experimentation.

  1. avatar cristi

    is it disturbing… your lack of consequences… hmmm?

  2. I feel this cognitive dissonance with Skyrim where I know there’s so much wrong with it, and I can critique it on so many levels, but I still find it really engrossing — despite the fact only consists of a bunch of repetitive fetch quests. Maybe I just enjoy shit games.

  3. avatar Tanto

    If we even break down the term “epic”, by nature it must have a plot. Etymologically, it refers to a poem about a grand story in the vein of Iliad. A grand battle, a journey, etc. all with a beginning and end point. If this is an epic game, it must have consequences, a plot, a story. I’m a word whore. I cannot accept the way epic is used to describe simply something big, or awesome. There must be a point to it.

    • avatar That being said...

      I mean, at the same time, let’s be real. Words change. You take every word back to its origin, it’s gonna be some kind of visual metaphor. But, in many cases, the words that we all use without thinking have become hopelessly detached from such original metaphors. If epic had come to mean ‘pastrami sandwich’ I’d still feel perfectly fine about using it. Just sayin’. Not trying to start an e-battle or anything. Because if you’re a word whore, then I’m a sucker for intellectual debate. :D

  4. avatar TM

    Skyrim failed to deliver on a lot of what was promised to fans. It is a good game, but your interaction with the true world is minimal at best. I have played 3 characters through the main quest and finished most side quests and guild quests, I have tried to roleplay as much as possible but the world is not terribly immersive. It look’s pretty, and is grand in scope, but it is shallow as anything. Unfortunately Bethesda have failed to make a huge leap that fans were expecting from Oblivion, and their characters are still a load of garbage. They should take some influence from Bioware and understand that many TES fans want a deeper gaming experience, we don’t care if you can use a fancy shout that freezes an ice troll.

    • avatar Rayjaymor

      I personally am a huge fan of Dragon Age: Origins, that also happens to like Skyrim. A mate of mine is a huge fan of Skyrim & Oblivion but happens to like Dragon Age: Origins.

      The differences are subtle but crucial: Dragon Age sarifices open-world freedom to be whoever and whatever you want to be – but instead provides a dynamic story: (like it or not you must become a ‘Grey Warden’ and must follow the quest – but there are numerous side-quests (taken in any order you choose) and your decisions can change the story so much that I’ve done 6 playthroughs so far all with wildly different experiences, consequences, and different begginings and endings.)

      Skyrim sacrfices story-telling and “character” development (note I say character, not avatar – there is a difference) and instead offers you almost complete freedom of choice. My wife is over 80 hours into the game — and has not yet activated the Dragonborn questline. She has only just chosen now to activate the Thieves Guild quests and instead is just roaming ‘Indiana Jones style’ through the dungeons.

      Sure, Skyrim could have given the NPCs a few more lines (‘I’m sworn to carry your burdens’ and ‘Some call this junk, I call them treasures’ are now being heard in my sleep) but it makes up for it with the freedom.

      Comparing Dragon Age (and other Bioware games) to Elder Scrolls is somewhat unfair — sure they are both RPGs, but they are vastly, vastly different games with different goals.

      Myself personally? I love Skyrim… I ADORE Skyrim (this is a big admission because I slammed Oblivion with hatred) but Dragon Age: Origins with it’s ability to tell a brilliant story that would change to suit my characters actions still holds it up for me.

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