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.”
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.
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.
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 Flower–games with “little 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.
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.