I'd previously played an hour of Skyrim to see whether I'm getting too old and too cynical to enjoy gaming anymore. Join me for part three, in which I give up on hiking aimlessly through nature and blunder haplessly into the game proper (you can find part one and part two here).
One of the things that appealed to me about Skyrim in the first place was the setting. Not the mystical fantasy land full of trolls and dragons and magic and whatnot, no - the fact that it was all set in a mountainous, snowy wasteland. I like snow. I particularly like it in games when the developers remember to put in the sound effect of walking through snow, that wonderful soft crunching/creaking sound. I'd pictured myself exploring midnight, snow-covered forests, my soft footfalls the only sound as I crept through the gloom with my sword drawn, frost glittering on the blade. But so far all I'd done was wander through lush green fields and been attacked by wolves.
So I resolved to climb a mountain.
Mountains are done quite well in Skyrim. Despite the fact that this mechanic isn't particularly novel anymore, I still marvel at the fact that background scenery doesn't exist in this kind of game - if you can see it, it's pretty much guaranteed to be part of the game. So that interestingly shaped rib cage looking structure up on the summit ahead of me? Yep, I can climb the mountain and have a look around it. It'll probably be full of more things that want to kill me, but at least it'll be a change of scenery.
Turned out, it was both. As I climbed and the snow began to set in I encountered a trio of bandits at the base of a tower. Experienced now, I managed to fight them off without having to reload a save game, and claimed their tower as my own. It was a bit draughty and some of the floor textures looked like they hadn't loaded, so I continued my climb and before long I was standing amongst the corpses of a few more unlucky bandits within the ancient stone structure I had spied from the valley floor.
Way back dimly in the history of me playing this game, I vaguely remember some bloke asking me to do something. I expect there's a menu somewhere that'll remind me of what it was, but as I looked up at the imposing door that stood before me I realised, thanks to the immersion-destroying magic that is the game's omnipresent quest marker, that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. Even though I didn't want to be. Typical. I go off-piste and end up in the right place.
Lacking something more interesting to do I decided to go on. Predictably, inside there were more things that wanted to kill me, but there were also some puzzles, too. Hooray for variation! Except the first puzzle wasn't very hard. In order to pass through a door I had to choose three correct symbols. Fair enough. Only the three I needed were written... above the door. That's a bit like writing the combination to your number padlock on the padlock itself. No wait, that's exactly what it's like. I get that the game is trying to ease me in, but realistically, this tomb should have been plundered long ago.
As predicted, it had. As I continued sneaking through the gloomy corridors I came into a room that contained an unfortunate individual bound up in a spider web - along with the spider itself, which was massive. Finally, I thought, a new challenge - but again the game decided to make things easy for me by having the spider be too big to get out of the room it was in. Meaning that all I had to do to kill it was to run in, shoot it with arrows, then run out again when it got too close. Okay, so I'm being way too literal about a video game, but realistically:
- how did the spider get into the room in the first place?
- why did it want to kill me, an intruder, but previously was apparently happy to merely capture the other guy?
- how difficult would it have been to write a bit more giant spider AI to make the fight a bit... I don't know, interesting?
Soooo... anyway. I killed the spider. With arrows. Predictably when I cut the guy down from his spinneret-excreted prison he ran off deeper into the tunnels, despite promising to help me. I wasn't sure quite what I was supposed to do at that point so I ran after him and soon we had both blundered into a room full of zombies and a big brawl ensued. Actually I ended up brawling with the zombies as he stepped on a trap and got himself killed by a massive spiky door, which was actually quite funny, in a he-wasn't-a-real-person-so-it's-okay kind of way. I've been rationalising a lot of my actions in the game like this.
After that there was one more door-based puzzle. This time it was a bit more cryptic - the key to the lock wasn't written on the wall! I pondered for a bit before realising that it was instead written on the key itself. Whoever built this dungeon really wanted to give away all their stuff.
To be honest, despite my complaints, by this point I was genuinely starting to get into the game. I was creeping through tunnels, hugging walls and peering around corners, carefully picking off enemies at a distance with my bow and being all strategic and immersed. And then the game threw a kind of end of level bad guy at me and it all melted away again and I was just playing a game. Why? Because it turned out that he couldn't climb up very small rocks. Actually, I had a bit of trouble, jumping up and down with my face against them before eventually managing it, then turning round and firing arrows at him while he wandered back around the room to get at me another way. There wasn't really any strategy involved beyond staying out of his reach.
The disappointing monster slain, I stepped out through the exit and found myself alone on a darkened snowy mountainside, littered with what looked like the bones of elephants. Would I have no respite from my adventures? Was the next exciting moment in the dragon-related plot about to occur? I crept across the face of the mountain, alert for the sound of leathery wings. Was a giant lizard about to leap out at me, disturbed from a meal of slain pachyderms?
Well, no. It was just some bones that had been left out. Still, the snow blowing around me was very pretty, even if I wasn't leaving footprints in it. And around that time I finally figured out how to use the levelling up system properly - the space key selects a perk, as I obviously should have guessed by now, apparently. Why isn't that written on the screen, like in every other menu in the game?
I also figured out how to use the map, which was also pretty but not much use as I hadn't bothered remembering any place names. I assumed the places shown on the map are places I'd visited, but I didn't really care much beyond that. Still, I'd completed my first quest, my inventory was filled with impressive weapons and exotic treasure, my character had levelled up several times and I'd mostly figured out how to use the interface.
Buoyed with confidence, I set off into the wilds, ready for whatever adventure lay ahead, and was promptly killed by some kind of fire monster.
It's not me, it's you
Following these initial adventures, I've since played a little more of Skyrim. After some more aimless wandering in the wilderness and slowly being eaten by wolves I felt like the game was trying to encourage me back to the main story, so I finally capitulated and found myself caught up in semi-scripted events culminating in a reasonably exciting battle with a dragon atop a tower. It was then that I remembered the original reason why I began this exercise, as I realised something that had been slowly dawning on me for some time.
I'm not getting too old for games. It's simply that Skyrim isn't actually very good.
To be fair, it's a stunning achievement to realise such a rich and detailed interactive world within a game. But Bethesda already did that in 2006 with Oblivion, and alright, I've only played five hours of Skyrim so far, but after five years I expected the next game to be so much more obviously better than its predecessor.
Here are just a few of the problems I've encountered so far. The scripted events are neither well written nor well acted. Twice during scripted events another NPC has wandered into my view and started talking to me about something completely unrelated to what was currently happening. I once set off from a city with the captain of the guard and four other guards to fight the dragon, and the captain turned up several minutes after the rest of the men, despite leaving first. The game has frequent graphical glitches - textures are either slow to load or simply never appear (on nearby surfaces, sometimes surfaces I'm standing on), lighting effects have corrupted around the edges, and distant mountains flicker and glitch (remember I'm running this on a machine that is perfectly up to the task, so I don't think it's hardware to blame). Enemies have little intelligence, either simply running straight at me or standing at a distance to fire arrows. Combat is simple and uninspiring. The menus are poorly laid out (quests are in the game menu, but everything else - items, spells, map - are in another) and frequently have bugs relating to selecting things. And if I try to talk to someone who is either sitting or lying down, they get up, but my view remains firmly fixed on where they were, so I'm basically staring at their groin.
None of these problems are especially bad, and actually the game is alright, but combined with the fact that (so far) it's essentially Oblivion with mods on, I'm not really very impressed. This realisation saddened me somewhat, as I realised I will probably never be motivated to find the time to unlock all the game's secrets, but at the same time I'm relieved to discover that my gaming urge has not abated with the years. I just need to find a game I want to play.
But I did eventually get my adventure through a snowy forest, complete with the appropriate footstep sounds, so it's not all bad.