I bought Skyrim for PC in the summer of 2013. The first thing I remember doing in the game, after the opening-scene dragon attack, is trying to kill a blacksmith who was hosting me in his home, and then frantically running away from the town, across a huge plain and into snowy mountains as the sun set.
Many fans of “open-world” games probably have similar experiences the first time they play. Open-world games purport to give the player total freedom; the premise is that any decision that the player makes can be supported by the game, and make sense within its world. You can play as a hero, an anti-hero, a villain or simply commit random acts of violence and kindness as you see fit, and in a perfectly-executed game any of these decisions would have ramifications on the progress of the narrative. Because of this, it’s incredibly tempting at the beginning to test the boundaries of your freedom.
I did this by, about 10 minutes into the game, choosing to murder a character who had generously offered my character a place to sleep and food (not as big a deal as it sounds — your character doesn’t have to eat to survive in Skyrim, mirroring how, when playing the game, you’ll forget that you need to eat to survive too). I have my victim’s character sheet open at the moment on elderscrolls.wikia.com, which is actually one of several different wiki pages devoted entirely to the world of Skyrim. His name is Alvor, and he works as a blacksmith in Riverwood. He has a wife, Sigrid, a daughter, Dorthe. He and his wife probably love their daughter very much; at least, “If Dorthe is attacked, both parents become hostile to defend her.” Just like real life!
Of course, none of this factored into my decision to kill Alvor; I just wanted to see what would happen afterwards. I wanted to see how much of a real world Skyrim was. Unfortunately, it turned out Alvor is one of the characters marked “essential” by the game, which basically means you can’t kill him. Instead, after I had hacked at him, he took a knee on the floor with his hand clutching his side, crawled around for half a minute, and then stood back up and said something completely illogical like, “Ain’t every day we get visitors in Riverwood.”
That was how I learned that the game didn’t offer total player freedom; it was more complicated than that. I could see there were basically two strategies of playing. I could play the “free” way (like a maniac), attacking people at random and ignoring the storyline, but this would make the game reveal the boundaries of the freedom it offered, and would ironically make the experience more about constraints than about freedom. Or I could try to understand how the game worked, and then try to align my character’s choices and actions with the logic of the game. This way, whether a hero or a villain, my character would at least make sense in the game’s universe.
This led to a style of playing that was, in retrospect, exceedingly bizarre and almost fun-defeating in its absolute pursuit of in-universe logic. As I played off and on (more on than off; unfortunately Steam, the PC program through which I played Skyrim, logs and displays your hours, which means that right now I can check how many hours I have and… yes, it is a mind-bogglingly, regret-and-shame-inducingly high sum) over the next few years, I would constantly restart the game with a new character. The reason I did this was simply that I was actually more interested in what wasn’t in the game than what was there. I liked to construct a unique backstory and sense of identity for each new character, which would become increasingly compromised as the game progressed and I began completing the same quests and doing the same things I had done many times before in previous, past lives. Also, as my character grew absurdly powerful, it was hard to retain the sense of adventure, exploration and danger that had first drawn me to the game.
One fix for this is “mods,” which are unofficial fixes and additions that can be found online and downloaded. Many of these purposefully make the game harder, or simply make it less play and more work. For instance, one of the most popular mods, Frostfall, allows you to freeze to death in the snowy northern parts of the country or in frigid water. While in the original game you can gallop across the tundra willy-nilly or even fast-travel on the map, with Frostfall installed you ride everywhere on a horse that slows down when it gets too cold, and you are forced when travelling in the cold to stop at intervals, build a fire and take a few minutes sitting by it to warm up before continuing on. The fact that this mind-and-character-numbing addition to the game actually excited me because of the increased “immersion” it offered says something about how deep down in the rabbit hole I was.
As you continue to play an open-world game, the things that are at first exciting because of their seeming randomness — in Skyrim, for instance, assassins can be sent after you, highwaymen will try to rob you and dragons will come flying out of nowhere, screeching — reveal themselves to be simply part of the game’s enormous algorithms. All of these events may remain unpredictable, but they stop being surprising after you’ve seen them enough times. Basically, the initial attraction of a full world of characters and creatures reveals itself to be only focussed on serving you, the player, which is a huge step down from providing a world of characters that actually interact with and react to each other. This may make you feel like a god, but after you’ve become the Dragonborn and the leader of the Thieves Guild and the head mage of the College of Winterhold and the leader of the Companions and the head assassin of the Dark Brotherhood, it’s hard not to feel that it’s all a bit hollow and contrived. This is the kind of realization that caused a friend of mine to resort to in-game book collecting as the way to pass his Skyrim hours, before he decided that if he was going to spend his time reading, he might as well read real books rather than the possibly infinite five-to-ten-page novels, plays, and histories that are scattered across the game’s landscape.
Like Ulysses or The Wire, Skyrim is a work of art that attempts to create and contain an entire world. Works like these can only ever fail in the attempt, and then be measured by the degree of their failure; for how could any artist or even team of artists ever create a combination of story and setting as complex, unpredictable, inspiring and horrifying as the story of humans on Earth? Regardless, I had to stop playing finally. I had too many real things to do.
Jack Jones is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Despite All the Amputations appears alternate Thursdays this semester.