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.
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.
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.