RPG Club Plays Skyrim: Week 2
RPG Club continues through Tamriel, kicking ass and taking names. However, for Caitlin and Reid it’s the second playthrough, and they have different opinions on how that affects the game. Mike and Ethan both seem a little wary of what the game offers.
Skyrim seems like an incredibly vast world at first. Traveling from one town to another, the horizon is dotted with tiny villages, stone garrisons, lumbering mammoths, and the open mouths of intricate cave systems. It seems like there is an unlimited number of activities to do and experiences to have. Ultimately, though, it all begins to ring hollow. There are only so many spelunking expeditions that a warrior can embark upon before the once mysterious process boils down to a list of chores like looting chests, murdering bandits, and battling giant spiders. After cleaning opponents out of one remote fortress you’ve pretty much seen exactly how that kind of mission will play out in every other future instance. Even fighting a dragon begins to feel mundane after the second or third time.
During my first playthrough of Skyrim the illusion of inhabiting an enormous, living world held up almost the entire time. And by the time it had begun to wear off I was near enough to completing the last few story quests that it hardly seemed to matter. Unfortunately, playing the game a second time allows the mechanical tedium lying just beneath Skyrim’s compelling exterior to surface much faster. This is tough to overlook. After spending a handful of hours completing quests and wandering through a series of (legitimately beautiful) valleys, mountains, and forests everything begins to seem hollow. My effect on the world–and its effect on me–never feels anything more than artificial now. Instead of becoming lost in a strange new land I’m manipulating systems that, once examined closely, don’t have enough appeal to warrant serious investment.
I think this may be it for me and Skyrim, at least for the foreseeable future. The magic that made the game great to me in the first place is gone. There doesn’t seem much left to do that doesn’t end up feeling like a lot of pointless busywork. I still think that Skyrim is a fantastic game (and definitely a remarkable contribution to the role-playing genre), but the memories seem a lot more impressive than the actual experience at this point.
I totally see where Reid is coming from, and understand his desire to stop. I, however, am in a different situation. Something about RPGs brings out the imagination in me. I’m the kind of person who uses my character’s identity crisis to explain a string of bad rolls in D&D, who gets uncomfortable when the plot forces my character to act out of alignment, and whose heart breaks upon seeing a lone skeleton at the base of a flagpole on an icy cliff.
Skyrim is the best kind of fuel for an active imagination. I totally agree with Reid – once you’ve played through, a lot of the fun new surprise is gone and you’re left with a character awkwardly trying to level or trundle across a frozen landscape. But I’ve found with my second playthrough, it’s not about the Dragonborn or the politics – it’s about the day-to-day. Adratog walks everywhere (taking a carriage occasionally), and sings for his meals. I’m perfectly content wandering around, looking for things that Adratog can sing about.
Littered across the countryside you’ll find these story seeds. Sometimes they’re explicit – a full dungeon littered with diaries, explicitly detailing someone’s descent into madness. Sometimes, though, it leaves more to the imagination.
Take the guy in the screenshot above, for example. In a cottage mostly burned to the ground, you find a burnt corpse clutching a “Scroll of Conjure Flame Atronach.” What drove this hapless fool to try the scroll? What made them think they could control it? What went wrong? Or did anything go wrong – maybe this was the plan?
Stupid questions like these can keep me entertained for hours – or at least until I stumble upon the next intriguing discontinuity. Sure, the only reason I’m still playing is for the RPG club, but I’m still enjoying every minute of it. The second playthrough of Skyrim isn’t about game mechanics or a new play style, it’s wandering through a blank canvas and filling in the colours.
I’m of two minds when it comes to replaying Skyrim, occupying a space somewhere between Reid and Caitlin. On the one hand, I too invent complex stories and detailed backgrounds for my characters. Ish, the Breton Battlemage, has a strict no-nonsense policy when it comes to adventuring and seeks out treasures of greater power for largely selfish reasons. But on the other hand, the systems are painfully obvious, molding themselves around Ish because he’s the only one in the world that matters. Skills and treasures scale in a comfortable matter, and there’s few if any opportunities to affect anything or even fail.
In a way, these feelings stand at odds. How can I craft an interesting story without new stones to overturn or consequences to my actions? It has me longing for earlier Elder Scrolls titles when Bethesda wasn’t afraid to be tough. You could kill important story characters or lock yourself out of entire questlines through mere conversations. Sure, these made the games tougher and demanded multiple plays to experience all the content, but it was a small price to pay. But people wouldn’t stand for those outdated concepts today.
Now that the Elder Scrolls series has become A Big Deal to everyone with even a passing interest in video games, with all the modern concessions that entails, I have to ask – what’s left? What’s the point in forcing Ish to carry on? Where can he go when there are no stories left in Skyrim?
Fortunately for Ish, modern concessions means DLC, and Skyrim has no shortage of official and unofficial additions to the core game. Perhaps a dip into fresh content can inspire new hope in an otherwise overtaxed world.
I have a spirit guide in Skyrim. Early in my playthrough, before I’d encountered any towns or bandits, when I was growing bored and listless, I realized that I could probably hunt the wild life. Pulling out the bow I’d taken off of random corpse #14, I used all of my arrows trying to shoot a rabbit. Eventually I kept following it despite having nothing left to shoot at it. Hopping from one gorgeous texture to the next, the rabbit led me through the mountain and into a wood where I eventually lost sight of it because a roving party of bandits happened upon me.
“Bandit.” The generic and ambiguous title is less an introduction to the people who own it than an invitation to moral certitude. There are people in Skyrim who have no story to tell. They were programed to play robber to the player’s cop, though with the ironic twist that it is always I who am the one left looting corpses.
Perhaps nothing in Skyrim so far has disappointed me so much as the game’s penchant for puncturing a journey’s more self-reflective beats by inserting nameless purse snatchers and cutthroats. They can’t be talked to and are difficult to run away from. So I bash them or chop them or burn them for a some extra gold coins and the chance to level up. These bandits are ethical black holes from which nothing worthwhile can escape.
I am playing the game on its second most difficult setting, but so far that hasn’t presented much of a challenge. The game feels most real when its first person view catches the northern lights out of the corner of the frame, or when a rabbit chaotically hopping along a mountain path nevertheless leads me to some narrow semblance of humanoid civilization. It’s at its most artificial when I’m hacking down anonymous avatars, their still bodies like narrative paper cuts: minor irritations which ultimately result from lazy inattention.