Jan 112012

I have a lot to say about Skyrim, and indeed I’ve already said some of it. Some of it has been said for me, for instance in Shamus Young’s takedown of the Thieves’ Guild quests, which after a promising start became too intolerable for me to bother completing. Uneven writing quality is almost a certainty in a game this large, though, and perhaps it was the Thieves’ Guild’s time, after being one of the best sidequests in Oblivion. Of course, in Oblivion the faction quests benefited by comparison to the famously limp main quest. The broad consensus seems to be that Skyrim‘s main quest is superior, and I largely agree. For most of its duration, Skyrim‘s principal quest does exactly what it needs to do, but it falters at the end.

Open-world RPGs of the kind Bethesda makes are about exploration, acquisition, and growth. Each locale aims to tell some sort of story, while offering the player character the opportunity to improve himself with skill advancement and loot. These activities ought to guide the construction of the game’s main quest, so that it adopts these three priorities:

1) Make the player feel like the game’s most important character.

2) Make the player explore the game’s most interesting places.

3) Develop the game’s stakes and pay them off.

The questline needs to focus on the avatar’s agency because this validates the time the player has invested in leveling, assigning skills, and acquiring powerful equipment. The player doesn’t necessarily have to make choices (although if there’s an interesting choice, he should make it), but he should feel like the prime motivator for the action. That never happened in Oblivion. Its main quest positioned the player as an errand boy, running all over the planes of creation fetching this and that while the truly important characters figured out what to do and how to do it. The real hero of Oblivion was Martin Septim, not the player, and Skyrim‘s in-game books fail to even record a generic title for Oblivion‘s supposed protagonist.

In contrast, Skyrim rapidly reveals that the player character is the Dovakhiin, a prophesied hero who can turn the power of the dragons back against them. While other characters still tell the player what to do, this is usually phrased as advice or suggestions, not commands. The game thus creates a relatively convincing illusion that the world is under the player’s control, and that his actions and choices will decide its fate. This succeeds even though (unlike in Fallout: New Vegas) the player makes no choices of major consequence in the main quest, nor indeed in most of the sidequests.

The main quest must also trade on the game’s core activity of exploration. This serves a tutorial purpose, especially early on, teaching the player that the places he sees represent fruitful possibilities for the various modes of character development. In addition, using the main quest to tour the player through the world’s geographical highlights can help keep the player on task through a sense of “what will I see next?”

In truth, Oblivion didn’t do a bad job of taking the player through the most interesting parts of its world. The problem with Oblivion was that its world just wasn’t that interesting. The changes between the Cyrodiil’s various regions were subtle, making it all feel too much like a single stretch of forest. The plains of Oblivion were a generic, lava-filled hellscape, and while the first Oblivion gate you entered was kind of neat, the whole thing was already old by the second.

The most interesting location in Oblivion‘s Cyrodiil was the Imperial City, which spends most of the game serving as a backdrop to the action. The city has multiple districts linked by dangerous sewers, and serves as an important hub for quests and commerce in the game world. As fascinating and strange as the city initially seems, it rapidly becomes familiar, even comforting, which becomes important in the end.

Skyrim presents the player with wonders right from the start, and doesn’t stop. Leaving the first dungeon in the game, the player will be instructed to go down a mountain path to a nearby town. From the path he will see this enormous barrow on a nearby mountain:

Not much later, as part of the main quest, he will go there, via a path that highlights the game’s geographic diversity. The route to this barrow takes the player from a woodland into a vast tundra and back up to a snowy mountaintop, an improvement over Oblivion‘s choice of kicking things off in a big lake surrounded by a bigger forest. As the quest continues, the player will have to make a ritual journey to the top of the game’s tallest mountain, walk through the world’s swamps, glacial valleys, and ice floes, and visit the game’s most interesting location: the vast cavern-city of Blackreach.

Blackreach is a gloriously strange and alien place, which is exactly what Skyrim needs. In a fantasy game built around exploration, you need to have some magic in the landscape. The mission to Blackreach also ensures the player is exposed to the Falmer, who have symbolic relationships to many of the world’s plotlines.

There is one location I haven’t mentioned, because it ties into the essential weakness of Skyrim’s main quest, related to point #3. On the surface, it would seem that the games develop their stakes similarly. In both games, a town is destroyed fairly early in the quest, the end of the world seems to be at hand, and the country seems bereft of effective leadership.

In neither case does the player have a real chance to develop a relationship with a town before it’s destroyed. However, Skyrim‘s hero runs away from Helgen, while Oblivion‘s hero runs into Kvatch. As a result, the player gets a much stronger exposure to the pain and desolation of the survivors in the older game. The player can find refugees from Helgen in Skyrim, but they are far away and have little to say about how their lives have changed.

Both games have difficulty sustaining the sense of danger throughout. Oblivion famously had gates to hell opening outside of every major city, with none of the inhabitants seeming the slightest bit alarmed by these developments. In Skyrim, dragon attacks become a fairly regular occurrence, but rarely produce any serious danger. The dragons will get larger and start to have more hit points, but they don’t develop any kind of tactical nuance. Indeed, they seem to know less of their own language than you do. This problem reaches its most serious point when the player confronts the evil dragon ruler Alduin about 80% of the way through the main quest. In this mission, Alduin is defeated, and then after the fashion of an average JRPG villain, he flies off with one hit point left, railing that you can never defeat him.

This creates two problems that Skyrim fails to solve. First, it destroys the tension of the real battle against Alduin at the end of the game, because you have already beaten him. Of course there is some narrative blather about how he is more powerful than you can possibly imagine, but because mechanics are always more convincing than text, the player knows for sure that he can beat Alduin. The second problem is that the explanation for Alduin’s invulnerability sets up a final battle set in the game’s equivalent of Valhalla, called Sovngarde.

One might think that a fight near the mead hall of eternal champions would be pretty amazing, but Sovngarde is a disappointment. Its landscape, aside from a few minor details, seems like it could have come from anywhere in the game. The mead hall itself seems sterile and empty, not at all appropriate for the spot where Skyrim’s greatest heroes spend eternity getting blitzed while they wait for their god to call them to fight for him:

Having visited this dull, overly quiet place, you walk out the door with three temporary buddies, whack Alduin in the face again a few times, and call it a day. It’s a depressingly anticlimactic fight, set in a place you don’t care about and probably don’t find all that interesting.

In contrast, at the climax of Oblivion, all the player’s efforts turn out to be for naught, and demons pour into the Imperial City. This not only includes the demons you’ve been killing in droves throughout the quest, but also a giant, four-armed devil that’s taller than a building. This is Mehrunes Dagon himself, the rogue god behind the conspiracy you’ve been fighting the whole game. Despite the awkwardness of the preceding missions, this moment really works, because it threatens a place that the player has developed a relationship with, and because Dagon appears to be an insuperable threat. The only failure of Oblivion‘s climactic battle is that Dagon actually is impossible for the player to defeat, so he must rely on the game’s actual hero (Martin) for an assist.

This is the core of my ambivalence towards Skyrim‘s main quest. While it does a much better job of motivating a player to continue, it fails to build on the relationship it fosters between the player and the world. Because it doesn’t develop or pay off the stakes of the final battle, the last fight is an emotionally empty experience. For all its faults, Oblivion went out with a bang, but the choice to have the player defeat Alduin twice, and to set the battle in the irrelevant location of Sovngarde, causes Skyrim to go out with a whimper.

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