Wednesday, 20 November 2013

A Surfeit of Skyrim

Recently in our household, we had been revisiting Skyrim, which we do periodically. Because we're not in a position to afford the most recent consoles right  now (which is a post in itself), my brother and I have been going back to games we haven't touched in a while. As I write this, actually, the age of Skyrim has passed and Matt's been replaying Dead Space while I've been playing the 360 version of Tales of Vesperia. These returns to and unceremonious abandonments of Skyrim happen with some frequency and if you ask us why, we'd frankly have some trouble explaining.

Personally, I don't even enjoy Skyrim that much. I don't get a lot out of its writing and I tend to ignore the main quest, let alone the myriad side stuff. If I'm in Tamriel, chances are that I'm picking alchemical ingredients and killing dragons. That's really my jam in Skyrim. I have a frankly excessive amount of blue mountain flowers and a bug that means every time I return to my Hearthfire expansion home, I'm greeted by the corpse of a dragon I killed ages ago and accidentally fast-traveled with in tow. I like to imagine my in-game child uses it as a playground climber.

So why do I play, when even by my own admission, I'm not particularly doing much?

For me, playing Skyrim is a kind of a reflex action, when I don't feel like researching and I feel like playing something I don't particularly have to pay attention to. Play itself has a value, but it feels wasteful to have all that programmed possibility in a game and all I really want to do with it is wander and kill anything that looks at me funny. For me, playing Skyrim is a lot about virtual body memory and relying on that to keep my character moving. It's almost meditative - I have danced this dance before, I know the steps.

So, when I return to Skyrim, I find I have the same problem I did the very first time I picked up the game. Quests pile up, both the major and the grocery list of to-dos in my miscellaneous file. There's absolutely tons to do, but none of it feels particularly pressing or even important. Contrast this to Dark Souls, another game that evokes the use of virtual body memory, particularly on re-runs through areas where knowing the steps keeps your character alive. In the early levels of the game, it doesn't list your tasks in stark relief, but the game feels desperate and even your wandering feels like part of a struggle. There's an obvious difference between the two games in terms of difficulty and yet that isn't the only reason why I find that playing Dark Souls feels essential (if frequently unpleasant and frustrating) and Skyrim feels bloated.

Perhaps there's such a thing as too much content and I say this as an RPG fanatic. I love sinking hours into games. But I find myself irked by having too much content with too little sense of any of it mattering. If I'm not just playing for the sake of playing, I want a sense that my efforts have import. I don't find that in Skyrim. I just feel glutted with options I'm not invested in, like someone getting to the end of their Halloween hoard and eyeing the crappy caramels because the mini Kit Kats are long gone, if indeed they were ever there.

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