Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Skyrim: Meandering in the North.

Open up a beer
You say get over here
and play a video game

Skyrim may perhaps be the most indulgent video game ever released.  As everyone who might ever read this post knows, it's huge, it's part of an old series, and tons and tons of people bought and played the hell out of it.  It's a phenomenon, and I'm sure that I have personally played the game for more than a hundred hours.  

It has been a hundred shameful, couch-sagging, tube-sock-wearing, beer-swilling hours of guydom.  

I've played more than a few video games.  Some I would recommend immediately to anyone.  Others, I would recommend only to the most craven old-school video-game recidivists.  Skyrim falls squarely into the second category.

But why?  Surely it's not the majestic open world, with its vistas, or the detail of its characters; nor is it the gameplay, which many have decried due the overly-simply swordplay.  How can you really complain when the archery and spell-casting mechanics are so good?  The melee weapons aren't graceful, but adding in blocking with a shield is a sufficiently engaging  experience.

I'll even give the dungeons a pass -- even though they're almost all purely linear, they're just so damn beautiful it almost doesn't matter.

Nor is my problem the alarming lapses that break the spell cast by the finely grained detail.  (You might have thought it would hit them the 3rd or 4th time they had a voice actor read the "Arrow in the knee" line...)  How can you really complain about a few lines being copied when there are so many characters, so many stories, and so many events that can happen? Sure, the experience is uneven -- they've lavished more time on some quests than others, and of course it shows.  But to use some office-speak, with so many balls in the air, some are sure to drop.  

The problem certainly isn't with the leveling mechanic -- indeed, this is what Skyrim is all about.  Want to kill monsters?  Keep at it!  Level your weapons skills.  Of course, it's the alchemy, enchanting, and smithing that really get the compulsive impulses flowing.  This is where the gamer's heart of darkness truly lays: ritualized button-clicking, calibrated to find the quickest ways to level up.  Buy materials, make weapons, enchant, sell...buy more, craft more...level up.  Adventure only after you exhaust the possibilities or you run out of money...or the merchants do.  Note the imperative: one started there's not a lot of choice left.  It's compulsive, solitary, and a bit disgusting.  Masturbation is the obvious metaphor here.

And yet this isn't the issue.
This is the problem with Skyrim: it just doesn't matter.  I know -- it's a video game.  Of course it doesn't matter.  Sure.  But then, the same can be said about movies or novels.  And yet we're not surprised when a movie or novel creates drama which draws us in.  The problem with Skyrim is that it fails to create the same kind of drama we experience in other contemporary games -- and a big part of that is because your choices have no weight or consequence.  And in a world of this size, there are many, many choices that feel like they should.  At the end of the day, onanistic 14-year compulsion may be the only reason to play Skyrim.

Sure there are quests with great moments;  sudden dragon attacks.  Powerful enemies.  This is exciting stuff, right?  And yes...at times it is.  If Skyrim had come out a few years ago, it would be enough.  

But then a few things happened.  Specifically, Heavy Rain and the Mass Effect series.  When video games demand as much respect in universities, both of these titles will surely studied as early masterpieces, for a simple reason: your actions have consequences.  Characters -- important ones -- live and die based on your choices, or even how well you play the game.  

Furthermore, the writing, voice acting, and production are strong enough to make you care.  In these games, the package coheres into something that's more gripping than all but the best movies; as the experience spreads out over the hours, you become closer to the characters than is possible in a film.  In a film, you sympathize with the characters.  In these games, you become the characters you play.

Don't get me wrong.  Skyrim is a good video game.  It's just not a great video game.  Let me put it this way: the best games out today (Mass Effect, Heavy Rain, perhaps Red Dead Redemption, Uncharted, or L.A. Noire) are games that you don't play when your significant other is out -- they want to see what happens next.  On the other hand, Skyrim is a game you only play when they're out, and nobody seems to mind.