RPG Club Plays Skyrim: Week 3
Another week, another RPG Club post! This marks the second-to-last week on The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - Ethan is unimpressed, and the other RPG-ers reflect on music, alchemy, and the Dawnguard DLC.
I was standing in the great hall of one of Skyrim’s formidable but still minor looking city-states. I don’t remember what it’s called. The king/lord/dude in charge was offering me thanks and commendations, while another less prestigious but just as brutish looking man told me something about how I was descended from dragons. Then, a predictably weasel looking advisor/civil servant/dishonorable git scoffed at me and my alleged heritage with the kind of contemptuous sarcasm most often associated with cowardly beard stroking Disney villains.
So I yelled in his face.
And not just any yell mind you, but a Dragon Shout, which I presume is something like Harry Potter speaking parseltongue except if it were much louder and reserved for talking to more noble creatures.
The results were mixed.
And by that I mean that my point was probably made, and disbelief hopefully washed from the wretched soothsayer’s mind, except that I will never be very certain about this because I died only moments after yelling at him when every other NPC in the room scampered to be the first to plunge their dramatically overpowered swords into my dragonborn heart.
This anecdote serves to illustrate Skyrim’s biggest problem: the world itself is beautiful and inviting, but everything used to populate it smacks of incongruous artifice. The NPCs and high-fantasy pastiche used to give the world of Skyrim purpose and meaning are less abrasive then that of say, Bioshock Infinite. And yet the troubling comparisons between the latter’s Columbia and a glittering but dramatically inert theme park seem just as relevant and applicable to the former.
I can harness the magical rhetoric of dragon’s after all, and have cut down more than my fair share of wolves, bandits, and necromancers, but still the single guard standing watch outside the gate to Whiterun can cut me to ribbons in seconds flat because in a world predicated on “player freedom,” the game feels the need to let me attack this guard even while it knows that I can not be allowed to actually kill him and render myself a mortal enemy of the city.
Skyrim was presented, at the time it was released, as a new milestone in fantasy RGPs. Critics, creators, and players seemed in basic agreement on this. But having played Demon Souls and The Witcher 2 before ever setting foot in Skyrim, the game feels like a poor blending of both: expansive but narratively unambitous, dungeon-crawly but with dispiritingly imprecise and dull combat.
Players are no stranger to the variety of “meta” games that can be had within the confines of Skyrim’s content. Whether setting out on their own adventures or choosing from the amazing plethora of mods created by community at large, the quests designed by Bethesda only scratch the surface.
As someone who’s poured over 200 hours into the game prior to our March RPG Club experiences, I felt it was time to do something different, so my current quest through Skyrim is a musical journey.
It dawned on me one day listening to the soundtrack that there were pieces of music I’d somehow not heard in my travels across Skyrim. So, with the soundtrack cued and a map of Skyrim at the ready, I travelled the land in search of all of the music.
Some were easy to find, like anything named after a location. Those often had the most impact, like “Death or Sovngarde,” the undertones of which have an enormous impact on the scenes that play out. Other songs are more like buried treasure, or puzzle pieces that make a scene complete. Of all the times I traversed the moonlit mountainsides, it only really felt complete once I heard “Aurora.”
No one questions the prowess of composer Jeremy Soule, but the majesty of his score for this game in particular often feels overshadowed by the sweeping accomplishment that is the game itself. It was fun to discover the world in a unique order guided solely by a masterful aural pastiche.
I really like the potionmaking. Blacksmithing is up there too, but potionmaking is better. Both are solid ways to level while the results can be used or sold, so it’s not just grinding for grinding’s sake. But when looking at both, potionmaking is the clear winner.
Obviously, it has the best mental image: your hardy adventurer frolics through fields picking wildflowers and catching butterflies, periodically eating one. Unfamiliar mushroom? Right in the face. Human flesh? Gotta give it a taste! After an exhausting day of eating unfamiliar things, they retire back to a smoking table where they stand, hunched, mixing things together and inspecting the outputs.
Image aside, though, alchemy appeals to the puzzler in me. All ingredients have four possible properties. Without perks, simply eating an ingredient reveals the first property – to find the rest, you need to make a potion with an ingredient that shares a property with the first. This then reveals the shared property for both, and you have more information. You can be clever about it, mixing unknown ingredients with known ingredients to use a process of elimination, or you can just guess and check every ingredient with every other ingredient. I spent hours and hours playing this silly game, many times simply ignoring the outputs.
I have no deep, meaningful conclusions to draw here, no ways to use this as an example of society somehow. I just wanted to make sure you know how entertaining the alchemy skill/minigame can be, and how much I love it.
The Elder Scrolls takes a particularly dark look at vampires. Players find no tragic souls seeking redemption and someone to just understand them. Instead, Tamriel’s vampirism is a disfiguring, unforgivably evil, and all-consuming disease. The power distorts its victim’s lives for the worse, including severe restrictions on typical adventurer activities like walking in daylight and not being attacked by townsfolk.
So it should come as no surprise that I avoided making Ish, my battlemage, into a creature of the night when offered the chance. Unfortunately, looking back, it seems I made the wrong choice…in picking up the expansion, that is.
I downloaded the new questline hoping for something to reignite my passion for the series. I wanted an adventure unlike what I’d already accomplished in Skyrim – assaulting crumbled forts swarmed with necromancers, following clues to uncover lost artifacts, wanton destruction when I’m bored, etc. But that’s exactly what Dawnguard has to offer. More identical ruins to loot, more “immersive” choices that all lead to the same result, and more weapons to add to my overflowing arsenal.
The quests come sporadically and ask you to venture out to seemingly random points to talk to a person or pick up a single item. Then suddenly, the fate of human and vampire-kind alike teeters on the brink of destruction and you have to save it. So you do, and then you get back to catching butterflies and carefully avoiding giants (lest they club you into oblivion). There’s no impact.
I suppose I should have expected it. This first chunk of DLC, despite being rather large, was made using largely existing materials. It was supposed to hold people’s attention long enough for the developers to get their bigger, more impressive projects out the door. It’s the modern DLC cycle.
But I can’t help feeling disappointed or even discouraged at the thought that perhaps The Elder Scrolls just isn’t for me anymore. One of us has changed and our relationship might be at a breaking point.