I was a console gamer growing up. The only PC games I played extensively growing up were Commander Keen shareware. I didn’t even have a PC capable of playing modern games until recently. So when I finally got one, I decided to take advantage of it and catch up on games people raved about but I was never able to play (well timed Steam summer sales helped as well). I’ve now put several months worth of time into Skyrim, the fifth game in Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series. For those unfamiliar, The Elder Scrolls is an epic fantasy that takes place across the world of Tamriel. Each game in the series explores a tiny part of a huge world, and it is a series famous for having more content than players will know what to do with. There are tons of books to read, history to learn, dungeons to explore, people to meet and items to make. Skyrim technically has the smallest map in the series (the second game, Daggerfall, had a procedurally generated map roughly the size of Great Britain), but even so it is over 14 square miles of digital mountains, forests, seas and marshes to explore. Its also the worst “game” I’ve put months of time and effort into.
Let me explain what I mean by those scare quotes. I don’t mean that Skyrim isn’t a game, or that its some kind of “non-game’ as the kids like to say about things that are games but they don’t like. Rather, I think its incredibly interesting how poorly Skyrim does when measured by many traditional game metrics, and yet still how fun and compelling it is. Skyrim’s challenges are terrible and unbalanced. Combat is nothing but two opponents bonking each other repeatedly until one of them dies. Occasionally, one will block or make a power attack, but none of that elevates the combat beyond “bonk until someone dies.” Archery and magic are more interesting, but still simplistic. The dungeon layouts are endless, identical corridors and traps. Puzzles in these dungeons are nothing more than “match the pictures.” Despite how huge and varied the terrain is, you will constantly see the same sights and fight the same animals and monsters. There is very little variety in the opponents you encounter, and very little else to encounter aside from opponents. It is also an incredibly easy game to break. Before level 50 I was able to create a bow that could kill the final boss in two hits. Even going about the game WITHOUT focusing on archery, smithing, alchemy and enchanting is a simple task. As long as you focus on SOMETHING you will be nigh-untouchable. That final boss, by the way, was functionally identical to every other dragon encounter in the game, despite the creature supposedly being a legendary “eater of worlds” who consumes the souls of dead viking warriors to power the end of the universe. That is a cool idea, so why is dealing with him identical in strategy to the first dragon I fought?
So why is the game still so fun? Is it the feeling of immersion so many Elder Scrolls fans praise? I don’t think so. Frankly, the “immersion” of the Elder Scrolls world is a joke. Nothing you do really matters, nor do you ever really feel part of the world unless you make an effort outside the game to feel that way. After you kill the underwhelming final boss… everything is the same. You can pick a side in the ongoing civil war… but the game simply continues after without any real consequence. The environments don’t feel alive. There is no “immersive” ecosystem or food chain beyond “this animal runs from you, THIS animal runs at you.” It is far easier to diagonally roll up mountains than it is to walk around them like a “real” warrior of Skyrim would. The people of Skyrim have very simple AI and will react in fascinating, but utterly inhuman ways to various things you do. For example, people will try to murder you for accidentally picking up the wrong cup. You can buy a home, farm and get married, but all this amounts to is getting an extra place for stuff rather than feeling any kind of connection to the world. The marriage system in particular deserves mention. What happens is you wear a necklace which lets marriable NPCs know that you are willing to get married, and then you can decide to marry them. No relationship, no romance, no development. The dialogue and actions of every possible spouse are functionally identical, and none come with a story.
The WORST anti-immersion thing Skyrim does is train you to expect a specific world and then punish for it. When I played, I would often approach people I met on the road or wilderness who seemed harmless or interesting, only to suddenly have them try and kill me. There are very few neutral encounters. Nearly everyone wants to kill you, no matter who you are or how you play. It doesn’t matter if you act like a bandit, other bandits will still want to kill you on sight. Doesn’t matter how dark your magic is, stumbling upon a wandering necromancer means they will try to kill you. Its easier to just assume everyone dressed in robes or armor and hanging around a camp or ruin wants to murder you, so you might as well shoot first. Problem is, there is at least one place where a completely nondescript bandit-looking asshole in front of a cave is actually a friendly, named person who wants to give you a quest. So after hours of Skyrim punishing you for trying to talk to people or do something other than murder, it punishes you for giving in and murdering. Nothing breaks immersion faster than something like that.
So again, why is this game so fun? The story is pointless, boringly Tolkeinesque, and unsatisfying. The rules of the game are banal and broken. The game itself has an overwhelming amount of bugs (when I first turned the game on, the horse cart you ride during the prologue took off into the sky like a rocket, with everyone spinning around in midair while politely continuing their conversations before crashing into a town and being unable to continue). Why would I put so much time into the game? Why would I create no less than four individual characters with hours of playtime each and take them through their own individual adventures across Skyrim? While Skyrim fails when judged by the standards we’re “supposed” to judge video games with, it succeeds in other, far more interesting ways. While I already said that the stage design is terrible, the STAGE design is fantastic! I’m purposely playing the the fact that “stage” has a dual meaning for both video games and theatre here. The dungeons are all pretty boring to walk through because the video game stage design is just “corridor, corridor, room where you fight things, corridor, corridor, fork that leads to dead end or other corridor…” but the theatrical stage design makes them fun to explore. Objects and characters are deliberately arranged to tell stories. What differentiates two locations is not the layout (and CERTAINLY not the visual aesthetic) but rather the story you are allowed to uncover on your own. A random body may hint at a random murder, but exploring further and analyzing the objects may reveal a more specific and tragic story. A stray letter on a table may start you down a path that reveals amazing secrets about a seemingly boring townsperson. Sometimes these are obvious stories, some of them are even darkly funny, like the burning house in the wilderness which when explored reveals an untold story of a novice wizard summoning a fire elemental beyond their abilities. Others are subtler, like the grand ongoing mystery of what happened to the “dwarves” or the small mystery of just who Cristophe was and what Maven Blackbriar did to him. Some even straight up contradict themselves depending on what choices you make, such as the story of Saadia and the Alik’ir mercenaries after her, and the small details that emerge AFTER the quest is long over to intentionally confound whatever story you chose to believe. Skyrim is full of quest and side-quests, but oftentimes its the stories hidden within all those larger quests that are the most intriguing.
The theatrical stage-craft gives the other-wise banal Tolkein-ripoff world one interesting piece of unique lore, and that is the undercurrent of horror. Strange, supernatural beings known as the “daedric princes” lurk behind the corners of reality and they can be genuinely creepy and off-putting. Skyrim is basically a horrible place to live where everyone is a sociopath and beings beyond comprehension can end your life or your sanity without you even knowing it. The trappings of standard epic fantasy seem more like a way for the inhabitants of Skyrim to ignore just how shit a hand they were dealt, which actually makes it interesting.
While the downside to the lack of balance and the open-ended story is that there’s no challenge or consequences, the upside is that you can create anyone you want. The huge prevalence of mods available adds to this, especially those which change the start of the game like Live Another Life or that allow you to apply normally rigid rules to everyone like Advanced Follower Tweaks or Marry Anyone. My characters included Olm, an amphibious reptile man who escaped wrongful execution and was force to live as a bandit and thief to survive, only to find love with a fellow thief and eventually become head of a vast criminal enterprise and semi-divine assassin guild. There was Nimue, the wood elf who left her home to hunt and eat strange new creatures and ended up accidentally stumbling into Skyrim and founding a successful meadery. Neither of those characters ever started the main quest or saw a single dragon. Kimnara, a member of Skyrim’s disenfranchised and indigenous Breton minority, was a novice necromancer who did become the Dragonborn savior of legend, but only after graduating two colleges, founding a crew of polygamist lesbian pirates and converting several bandit gangs into productive miners and farmers. I still want to go back and play a Khajit (cat person) trader and explore the vampire side-story some day.
The fact that every choice is inconsequential means that you have the freedom to tell any kind of story you want. The only reason to pick a choice is based on how it makes YOU think about the character and the world. You can marry a ton of possible people (or with a mod you can marry anyone) and they’re all the same. So why do you pick the spouse you do for your character? The long-term outcome of every conflict, from the large-scale battle involving the Stormcloaks vs the Imperials to the smaller local scuffles, is the same, so why does your character pick the side they do? You can ignore the entire story if you want, so why does your character do ANYTHING? If you have fun telling stories, Skyrim gives you a chance to tell all kinds of stories, each unique despite the fact that they’re all stuck in the same setting.
I find it somewhat ironic that some “gamers” who would praise Skyrim would in the same breath condemn a game like Gone Home. Ironic because the tools used to make Skyrim fun an interesting are the same tools used to make Gone Home interesting. Both games have more in common than people realize, as both are made rewarding through their use of space, set design and allowing the player to become an actor and story-teller. I think its really hard to argue that Skyrim is a “good” action or adventure game, but its still incredibly easy to argue that Skyrim is a good game. If what makes Skyrim (or any game) rewarding or interesting is not the puzzles, controls or explicit story, then what can we as developers learn from that? Does Bethesda really need to spend a lot of time trying to make a grand, epic story fit an open world, only to have it fall flat, if the stories people care about are the ones they make themselves? Can you still create a specific, meaningful explicit story and still leave room for the player to create their own implicit stories? If the idea that immersion is based on lore and plot is an illusion, how can we better create space for players to successfully create their own sense of immersion? If puzzles, or even combat, get in the way or slow down the real meat of the game, do we even need them at all? I’d argue that Skyrim’s terrible combat offered room for stories and fun, but that none of the dungeon puzzles offered anything of value and seemed to exist only because puzzles were “expected.” So if the reason we have fun is NOT because of what we are supposed to, why pretend otherwise? What gets in the way of being honest and saying “Skyrim succeeds only through the same ways Gone Home succeeds.”