The Quest for Purpose #1: Skyrim’s Shallow Sandbox

Aug 08, 2013 3 Comments by

The Quest for Purpose is a small series about my thoughts and recent experiences about Skyrim.

When I first played Skyrim, I was absolutely enthralled. Much like many others, it was my first Elder Scrolls game. I didn’t know exactly what to expect going in, but I was quickly absorbed by the world. It seemed genuinely alive.

Even though I sank about a hundred hours on my first character, I wasn’t interested in pursuing the main quest. I got ankle-deep and didn’t find myself particularly motivated to continue. I couldn’t reasonably ally myself with either side of the civil war; I was playing as a stealthy Khajit archer and I didn’t really feel like siding with “Skyrim is for the Nords!” or “Down with religious freedom!” Instead, I spent all that time sightseeing and spelunking. I’m a sucker for exploration, and Skyrim’s boundless scenery kept me eagerly traveling far and wide.

As time went by, I achieved more and more. I became the Archmage at The College of Winterhold. I cleared out innumerable caverns and took whatever loot I could carry out. I slayed a slew of dragons and snagged their souls. It got to the point where I’d reached the highest level, mastered archery and stealth, and became so proficient in every other area that I was struggling to decide where to put my skill points.

skyrimdungeon

At first, dungeons like these were interesting and inviting. Eventually, they became a repetitive chore.

By this point, my character had trivialized the challenge of the game. At its highest level, stealth is a joke. Crouch in broad daylight and become nigh-invisible. The amusingly unresponsive AI didn’t help; peg an arrow between their eyes and watch them run around for a bit before they decide it “must’ve been nothing.” Moreso, combat felt much less stressful when, in between thunderous shouts and the clash of steel, the Dragonborn stops time to eat half a hundred apples or drink a keg’s worth of health potions. Skyrim’s endgame – if it can be called as such – is markedly less enjoyable than the eager beginnings, but it’s not just because of the combat. It’s because power in Skyrim is hollow – you have the power to kill people, not power to change things.

After how far I’d gone, I looked back on how much I affected the world. I was a Dragonborn warlord with an arsenal of mythical powers – surely, I’d had some impact on the world. However, the more I accomplished, the more I realized that, no matter how far I went, the world’s reactivity was limited to the guards of every hold commenting on what a good archer I was. Most of those bandits I cleared out of caverns and castles just respawned days later. Killing a dragon would elicit “ooh”s and “ahh”s from onlookers, but then they’d all resume their pleasant little routine of walking in circles around the city, then disappear into a tavern. All I’d really accomplished was ticking some boxes on a checklist. Sure, some of those boxes were important to people, but who were those people?

It was becoming thoroughly clear that Skyrim’s inhabitants, much like the rest of the world, were static. The few characters I knew that had personalities weren’t going anywhere. I always liked Adrianne Avenicci, Whiterun’s female blacksmith. She’s talented and tough, but she’s stuck. Physically, she’s stuck right around the smithing equipment at her store, Warmaiden’s. More importantly, she’s narratively stuck. She doesn’t change at all – the only impact you can have on her is doing her a small favor and delivering a sword. She even alludes to her political influence by proxy of her father, but it’s impossible to talk about that at all. She’s an interesting character and a strong female figure that’s been relegated to mechanical function.

skyrimadrianne

Adrianne was a compelling character. Unfortunately, she was stuck being a vendor and nothing more.

Most characters in Skyrim don’t even get that honor, boiling down to one-note caricatures that could be completely described in a single sentence: “Wears heavy armor, sits in the inn, and complains about the town’s security.” “Haughtily insults the Dragonborn, despite being ten years old.” “Is a farmer.”  These NPCs don’t react to anything around them. Wear your most legendary artifacts and nobody will look at you twice. Kill a dragon in front of a crowd and expect it to be forgotten momentarily. Breathe fire into the sky and expect, at best, a startled gasp. Much like Adrianne, they exist to serve a purpose: vendor, quest-giver, or enemy – not person.

Nobody just wants to make conversation, despite the plethora of things to discuss. Nobody seems concerned about any of the warring factions, the pantheon of mysterious and malevolent gods,or the struggle of daily life. It’s shallow fantasy, with warriors, wizardry, and werewolves – but not once do you get a mere glimpse at how such dazzling elements affect people, aside from killing them. Wouldn’t that transmutation spell in the general store affect the economy? Wouldn’t being a werewolf affect your relationship with loved ones? Wouldn’t common magical spells be used more outside combat? People are a vehicle for rote action - action that amounts to nothing.

Skyrim is a vast and expansive sandbox that’s crushingly shallow. Admire its shape and splendor – it’s carefully crafted and a beauty to look at. Try and sculpt something yourself, however, and you run out of sand.

Part 2 is coming soon.

Editorials, Featured, The Quest for Purpose

About the author

Amateur games journalist looking to expand his portfolio. When I'm not writing for Super Combo, I'm editing articles for others or goofing around in Dota 2. If you enjoyed the article, let me know! I always appreciate feedback. You can learn more about me at WillUhl.com.

3 Responses to “The Quest for Purpose #1: Skyrim’s Shallow Sandbox”

  1. Alec says:

    This completely changed the way I see skyrim now. Though I do use mods which change the AI to allow people to see you while sneaking more accurately, example in the daylight its extremely hard to hide. But I have started to notice the lack of AI character depth. Maybe in the next one it will be…more dynamic I guess.

  2. Ross says:

    Saw this linked on Reddit. Very good article. So good, that I’m bookmarking the shit out of you and waiting for part 2.

  3. Alvare says:

    Bookmarked. I just noticed it right away when playing Skyrim. It’s what makes the game feel shallow and lifeless. Nobody, literally nobody has depth or personality. Tried to marry a woman in Skyrim and even that was dull. As for the DLC. Miraak, It suited him perfectly because he was just pure evil and didn’t need any more depth. Serana, has way more depth than anyone in the game because she has more interesting dialogue and background story. But still, every NPC and actor will not remember or react to who you are. Last but not least, no kisses or hugging for surviving, or saving the world. No partying in taverns. No laughs, no swears, no tears and no body language. Sums up where it’s all about; “Skyrim has no emotion.” And that’s a big problem. It’s like watching a dramatic medieval movie with a cool story but with actors in it who’re reacting neutrally at every scene and situation, just standing there to read their script lines. If their next Elder Scrolls game in the series doesn’t fix this, I will not buy it. They just need to let go of the “big world and detailed environment” and focus on more important stuff instead.

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