After saying I wouldn’t buy it, I ended up picking up Skyrim when clearing out the credit on our Gamestation card (on the assumption that soon, Game/Gamestation might not be around to honour that credit).
I played Oblivion, and it’s big and sprawling and lacking in focus, and I knew Skyrim was going to be the same, but what the hell; it’s huge, and let’s you play ‘whoever you want to be’ right? Well actually, no, not quite.
I totally agree with the content of this review, specifically this bit,
I finally realized the problem I was having with Skyrim: It felt soulless. I may as well have killed Agnis and taken her stuff, because what did it matter whether she was there or not?
But I think there’s more going on that just lacking in soul, I think Skyrim only offers the illusion of choice, through some badly designed quests. One of things you get to choose when roleplaying is if you’re a good guy, or a bad guy, or somewhere in between. At each stage you decide if you’re going to do the right thing, or the wrong thing, or that you’re not going to get involved. But with Skyrim, sometimes there’s only one outcome. Sure, you can ‘walk away’, but that’s not easy to do when you can’t remove quests without completing them, and when it’s not always clear what the outcome will be.
Here’s a specific example, with spoilers for Skyrim so stop now if you don’t want to read it.
There’s a quest called The Whispering Door. It’s started when a concerned local mentions that the Jarl’s children are behaving oddly. You investigate and find that one of the children is being ‘corrupted’ by an evil spirit, essentially, after listening to it whisper through a door. You talk to the door and it tells you that the child knows how to open it. You talk to the child, and he tells you that only the Jarl and his wizard have a key. At this point (and all the way up to here) there are no options with the quest, you either pickpocket the key (or kill the wizard) or you leave the quest unresolved in your log.
So, I took the key from the wizard (without killing him), and opened the door. Inside is the Ebony Blade, it’s evil, etc., etc. There’s a book in which the Jarl indicates he knows the blade is evil and that’s why it’s locked away and exhorting you to turn around.
If you turn around without taking it – you can’t complete the quest. Talking to the Jarl, the boy or the wizard yields nothing, just an unresolved quest. If you take the blade, the quest completes.
However, even then, there’s no dialog option to explain to the Jarl that his son is acting the way he is because of the influence of an evil spirit that he knew about since he locked the blade away in the first place.
Okay, this is a small quest, but you can’t choose to do anything other than take the blade. I got into the quest in the first place to help the son and the Jarl, not to obtain a sword, but I ended up with an evil blade in my inventory and no dialog options of any kind to bring me to a happy resolution.
What they should have done,
- As soon as you realise it’s the door the child is listening to, offer dialog options to explain to the Jarl, who tells you about the blade, and you convince him to let you destroy it, or you lie to him and steal it, or you ignore it leading to the boy eventually going mad.
- If you get into the room without talking to the Jarl, reading the journal offers you the quest options of destroying the blade, taking it, or making the Jarl aware.
- If you take the blade, without doing anything else, you can eventually destroy it through some arcane ritual.
- In all of the above cases, the quest is complete only after you reveal to the Jarl the cause of his son’s ailment.
Instead, the Jarl has no idea why his son has turned into a little shit, the son doesn’t know why, and the only resolution is for you to end up owning the sword. There’s no choice there, and very little roleplaying.
If this was the only quest that displayed this myopic approach, I would be quiet. However, with Skyrim too often I walk into a location ready to ‘talk it out’ with the people inside only to get attacked as soon as they see me, or I want to find a way of redeeming the situation with honour only to find out the only solution is to murder everyone in the room.
Leaving aside the ability to get into and out of long winded quests without any obvious advance warning, the lack of soul and illusion of choice in Skyrim go hand-in-hand and remind me why I only ever played Oblivion once. It’s ‘fun’, it passes the time (lots, and lots, and lots of time), but it’s roleplaying by numbers and has no heart.
Note: For a much, much better example of how to play the ‘my son is evil what do we do’ quest line, look at Dragon Age. The quest to save the Arl’s son sets the tone for your whole character.