Friends and colleagues have recently been pointing out how old I'm getting. I think. I can't hear them very well most of the time. Regardless, one of the things I've noticed recently is that the amount of time I devote to gaming has dropped considerably in recent years, particularly the kind of good solid adventure game that I could get properly immersed in. Have I grown too old for games? Has my concentration wavered, my mind turned to more important things?
With this in mind I thought I'd give this gaming thing one last shot, in the form of Skyrim.
Full disclosure: around about a decade ago I dedicated about 100 hours to completing the previous game in the Elder Scrolls series, Oblivion, and quite enjoyed it too. I even managed to do the 'curing yourself of being a vampire' sub-quest, that I recall involved a ridiculous amount of time and effort. I'm fairly sure that part of my gaming decline has been due to losing the ability to be so immersed in a game that I care about the story and characters in it, so getting into Skyrim could be a bit of a challenge. Other games have tried and failed. Also, I'm a bit jet lagged today. But that shouldn't matter, should it?
I'd bought Skyrim in an unusual mood of self-acquisition, after finding it in the Steam sale over Christmas at a mightily bargainously discounted price. That something is cheap is never by itself a good reason to buy anything, but somehow I was tempted, so I bought it. And yes, it took three months of it sitting on my hard drive before I even loaded it for the first time.
The game opened with a pleasing lack of fanfare and I found myself riding in the back of a horse drawn cart through some snowy countryside. Some of the other occupants of the cart were talking about something but I fairly soon lost interest, instead focussing on why I couldn't do anything more than turn my head, and why that felt wrong. As the cart pulled into a walled town I realised I'd not inverted the mouse y-axis, but anxious not to interrupt the narrative arc of the game (which, admittedly, I was mostly ignoring at this point) I decided not to bring up the menu to try to change it just yet.
The cart stopped and my character climbed out. I was called forward and the game paused to allow me to customise my character. I was expecting this at some point, but the array of options was dizzying. Firstly, I could choose my race. I picked a cat, because they can see in the dark (cunning, eh?). But then I could also choose the minute details of the shape of my face, from the colour and position of my eyes to the height and width of my forehead, or the amount of dirt, scars and paint on my face. Who cares about that? I'm not going to see my face at any point during the game, am I? Just to see what would happen (if anything), I gave my character a sloping, neanderthal-like forehead and distrustful, close set eyes.
Suddenly a stonking great dragon turned up and chaos ensued - for everyone except me, because the default mouse sensitivity was set too low and the default graphics settings were just a little too high, so it felt like I was travelling through a world in slow motion with a stiff neck. Some guy with a nordic sounding name that I immediately forgot (so let's call him Jeff) led me to safety while the dragon got on with destroying the town.
Along the way other people joined in and some of them attacked us. I really couldn't tell who was who, so took to standing politely to one side until they'd all killed each other. Most of my attempts at combat resulted in thin air getting a good thrashing, but not much else. Looting the corpses of fallen enemies, something in previous games I'd had no problems with, suddenly presented new challenges. They had some nice gear, sure, but how clever was this game anyway? If I wore armour belonging to the enemy, would my new friends suddenly mistake me for one of them, and turn on me?
Eventually the mouse behaviour became intolerable, so I succumbed to the options menu to correct it. I also remembered to customise the keys, which helped a lot as well. Unfortunately once I'd got back into the game it turned out that my brain had become slightly used to the mouse axis not being inverted, leaving me horribly confused and quite often staring at my feet.
After my character had spent a lot of time shuffling into walls and looking in the wrong direction, Jeff eventually led us outside and the intro (I assumed) was over. Suddenly I didn't know what to do. Was I supposed to follow Jeff or do my own thing? What was my own thing, anyway? He kept looking at me expectantly, so eventually I followed him to a nearby village, where I met his sister and some other people who I didn't care about either, but I was given a kind of quest - go warn the next town about the dragon.
Jeff's sister had given me directions to the next town which sounded straightforward enough - cross the river and head north. I decided I would use my compass and ignore the quest marker, in order to make the game feel a bit more real, so off I blundered into the dark countryside. Turns out my character can't see in the dark as expected. After I'd waded into the river and then spotted the large and obvious bridge, there was a roadsign to where I was going, pointed exactly down the middle of a fork in the road. Confused, I chose the one that ran most north, which predictably soon turned west and was clearly wrong. Unwilling to turn back or stop to ask for directions, I gave in and followed the quest marker, stomping through undergrowth and over small cliff edges, disturbing what looked like a group of moose on the way.
By the time I'd spotted what was undoubtedly the town I was heading for I'd already forgotten what it was called and so I named it Hull. The first problem that Hull presented was actually getting inside. I'd lost the road some time ago and Hull was surrounded by high walls, with no obvious gate. I found myself weaving back and forth across the countryside as I approached, hoping to glimpse some obvious entrance.
As I ambled through the fields I spotted a commotion in the distance and headed over to find out what it was. I arrived just in time to see a group of people kill a giant. They identified themselves as a band of mercenaries based in Hull who went around killing things for money. The leader then berated me for not helping, as if I was wearing a "I hate giants" t-shirt or something. I chose the snotty conversation option of asking if they'd needed my help, to which I received a gruff reply about assuming any passing warrior worth their salt would have joined in. Don't try and insult my manhood lady, it won't work. I'm a cat.
Once I'd finally got into the town and met with the guy in charge (Jeff) he passed me off to his wizard-in-residence (Jeff) who decided that this total stranger with the sloping forehead dressed as one of the bad guys was the perfect choice to go on an important quest for him, despite there being a whole building full of giant-slaying mercenaries in town.
Having decided I was worthy of this vital task, he then lunged to the other end of the triviality scale and asked me to drop some groceries off to someone nearby. Really? Can't you people do any of these menial 'give this to someone' jobs yourself? Look, you're just standing there all the time. It might be nice to get out.
And now my hour is up. I'm standing in Hull's main square in the moonlight, wondering what to do next. I've got a few quests to do but I wasn't really paying attention to any of them, and I don't yet have any kind of sense to my overall purpose in this world. Oblivion had a clear invasion going on, with lots of clearly bad guys for the killing, but while Skyrim has a dragon I'm not sure I feel any hostility towards it. Maybe I'm being influenced by other fantasy works, but I thought dragons were something of an endangered species, so if my task is to find it and kill it I'm not sure I want to. Maybe the game will let me form some kind of dragon preservation organisation. Maybe I should go and see if there's a shop somewhere I could get some leaflets printed. Who knows?
The important question is, will I play Skyrim again? To be fair, an hour in a game like this isn't anywhere enough to become properly familiar with how to play or to experience enough of it to be really hooked, so it might be a bit premature for my answer of: probably not. Sure, it was pretty, and there's obviously plenty to explore and do, but the thought of investing hours of my life in it just makes me feel weary. Does that make me too old for games like this, or do I simply have better things to do with my time than pretend to be a dragon-slaying cat? I'm not sure, but I don't feel like I'm missing anything.
If getting old means playing less games, then I'm alright with that. And who knows? Maybe I'll get a free weekend sometime and end up totally hooked again. I'll let you know.
(The adventure continues in part two).