In hindsight, my falling out with Skyrim started with the horses.
My first horse was a lovely bay mare that I had saved up for many in-game days to purchase. I was fresh from the excitement of killing my first dragon, and now I had many more quests to start. This horse would take me to them.
I rode my horse all over the place, reveling in the vast and beautiful land that Skyrim had to offer. Oh, we had a lot of adventures together. I grew to depend on my wonderful horse. So when she fell off a cliff and died due to a mistake on my part, I was devastated.
Like most games, as I got farther into the story, I was able to save up more and more money. So of course I eventually bought another horse. And then another. And another.
I soon realized that Skyrim horses were not like the video game horses I loved. Noble Agro from Shadow of the Colossus, faithful Epona from the Legend of Zelda series—those were horses that had personality, horses the player could become attached to. Here I had Horse That Fell Off A Cliff, Horse That Was Killed By Bandits, Another Horse That Was Killed By Bandits, Horse That Tried To Fight A Bear And Promptly Died, Suicidal Glitch Horse, and my personal favorite, Horse That Was Attacked By A Snow Leopard And A Polar Bear At The Exact Same Time Just As I Was Trying To Dismount (And Also Promptly Died).
That was the point where I gave up, by the way. Standing in the freezing northern wastelands with a bear on one side, a leopard on the other, and a dead horse lying in between them, I threw up my hands and decided to stop buying horses.
The next day I quit playing Skyrim entirely.
It wasn’t the horses’ fault. That was just the last straw.
Skyrim’s appeal is the size and scope of its world, and the unlimited choices the player can make in it. This is very popular with video games nowadays; linearity in a role-playing game is seen as a bad thing. Both the story and the player character are fully customizable, all dependent on the player’s choices.
For a long time, I enjoyed and appreciated the freedom that Skyrim gave me. However, I found that this freedom came with a price. In removing linearity, Skyrim also removed my emotional attachment to the story, characters and world.
It started with the horses, dying before I could develop a relationship with them. Then it was the companions who follow you on your journey. I grew up with role-playing games that let you develop a bond with your teammates. In Skyrim, that bond is limited to screaming at them when they ruin your sneak attack, dumping your excess stockpile of items onto them, and angrily restarting after they run headlong into a pack of draugr and get themselves killed.
Also, the caves. So many caves. I spent more time searching for treasure and killing bandits than anything having to do with the main story, which had something to do with dragons and evil and darkness … but I never paid much attention to it because some shopkeeper wanted me to go find some rare mushrooms that grew in the back of some cave.
I sank 100 hours into this game. That’s one hundred hours. I estimate that most of them were spent running around in caves.
Skyrim gives the player character a deliberately ambiguous background, allowing you to give them whatever personality you want. I created an Imperial soldier, a tough but fair warrior, forced into an unavoidable destiny and fighting for a land far from her home. She might make some questionable moral choices for the sake of the world, but overall I wanted her to be a good person. But Skyrim wouldn’t let me do that.
First my Imperial became the Archmage of Winterhold, an impressive feat considering she had no skills in magic and had in fact finished all the quests she needed to get that title without using magic at all. Then she joined the Thieves’ Guild because I wanted the special armor you could get by doing that storyline. That involved doing thief missions, so she would end up doing things like stopping bandits from harassing a little old lady and then sneaking into the back of her house and robbing her blind.
You begin to see the problem — the game doesn’t care who your character is, it just wants you to do everything. Want to join the Fighter’s Guild and get all sorts of unique benefits? You have to become a werewolf. What, you’re a priest whose mission is to stomp out corruption of nature, including werewolves? Too bad! If you want that awesome sword, you’re gonna have to get bitten.
Since my Imperial lost all character consistency, of course I felt nothing for her. The game became a series of caves and quests and more caves to get more titles and cool items I ended up not using anyway. There was no incentive to continue the story, no personal connection, nothing.
This story ends, as it began, with horses. The day after the leopard/bear incident, I complained to a friend that I was sick of constantly losing horses. Wasn’t there a horse that couldn’t die? My friend suggested that I get my hands on the Shadowmere, which was stronger than normal horses and had the ability to regenerate itself after death. So how could I get it?
I just had to join the Dark Brotherhood, of course.
As in, the Assassins Guild.
As in, the evil organization that my character would never dream of even getting near.
Did I mention they were actively seeking her out to kill her at this point?
Maybe some of you want to suggest that Skyrim is not the type of game for that sort of characterization, and I should just drop all pretenses and become a chaotic neutral figure, doing whatever I want without worrying about morality or consequences. To which I say, good for you if you can do that. I can’t. Maybe in a joke replay, but I take my first run-throughs pretty seriously.
So this is the future of role-playing games. Choice ruining story. Freedom ruining character. I know I’m being pessimistic about this, but what else can I say?
And hey, at least I got to kill some dragons. Isn’t that what video games are all about?