It should have been a slam dunk game for me to love. Quests that set you out to save the world, check. Fights with dragons, check. Dialogue options with NPCs, check. The ability to become a two-legged cat-person that sneaks and snipes people with remarkable archery skill, check. And yet, until a few weeks ago, I had logged maybe 20 hours at best in THE ELDER SCROLLS: SKYRIM – and that’s 20 hours spread over several months. A quick glance at my save files shows that I started the game in May of 2013 and played sporadically until January 2014, when I apparently gave up pretending I was playing the game at all. It wasn’t that the game was bad, it just simply wasn’t a game for me at the current time of my life.
I blame bouncing off of SKYRIM on a couple factors. The first was that I had been mainlining RPGs for a while at that point. This was the time when I discovered Bioware, when I put 100+ hours into DRAGON AGE: ORIGINS, when it became clear that my favorite franchise of all time was going to be MASS EFFECT. I had just finished DRAGON AGE 2, and having enjoyed THE ELDER SCROLLS: OBLIVION, SKYRIM seemed like a natural fit for my next game.
Unfortunately, the time I picked up SKYRIM was also the time when major RPG burnout hit. After several games in a row of skill trees and leveling up and branching quest lines, I found it hard to get excited about saving the world (again). This was exacerbated by the fact that, unlike the Bioware games I’d been devouring, SKYRIM was overwhelming open-ended. Sure, there’s a main quest path you can follow, but there are also a seemingly unending number of side quests ready to tempt you. As a completionist, the options in SKYRIM were an over-whelming game of whack-a-mole: check off one side quest, and you’ll find that two more were added to your journal in the process. And with a day job that consumed much of my waking hours, I wanted a game that gave me a sense of progress when I logged off, not that I stuck in an endless quagmire of tasks. And so, SKYRIM fell by the wayside.
Fast-forward six years to present day, where I have almost doubled the number of hours I’ve played in SKYRIM in a single week. Some of this can be attributed to the sheer amount of time on my hands with coronavirus lockdown. But much more importantly, I’m finally ready to accept this game on its terms. This isn’t a linear campaign to master and beat. This is an open-ended story, a world to be experienced. This is not a new or ground-breaking realization, but until I was ready to view the game through that lens, I was never going to enjoy it.
Part of where my new headspace is coming from is related to the fact that I’m finally playing in a regular D&D game. For the last year, I’ve been in a homebrew adventure that has never felt like a gauntlet of checkboxes. Our campaign largely takes place in one town, and we’re free to pursue whatever avenue we want. We take contracts, we attend fancy dinner parties, we mess about with local politics, we repeatedly ignore our DM’s not-so-subtle hints that we should really investigate that farm outside of town before a situation escalates out of control (I refuse to accept the blame for the resulting monster attack on the town festival). Sure, we have a few big bads in our sights, and there have definitely been story threads laid in our path that we can pursue (or not). But I’ve come to love that I NEVER know where our session is going to go.
And that’s the approach I now bring to SKYRIM. Yes, I’m a Chosen One archetypal hero. But I’m also just a person wandering through a world, stumbling into all kinds of smaller moments. I helped a cleric restore life to a magic tree. I watched the obvious political tension at a Jarl’s court between the advisors who were his fellow countrymen, and the advisor who’d been sent from the conquering Empire. I found a quaint farm cottage hiding a sinister secret in its basement. And I made friends with a talking dog who’d had a disagreement with its god-like master. None of these were on the path to “beating” the game, and yet I’m having an amazing time.
As disappointed as I was when I couldn’t get into SKYRIM years ago, my experience these past few weeks has more than made up for it. I love the fact that a game that had been collecting digital dust is now helping pass the hours in this new crazy upside down world we live in. And, of course, I love that this is a game where I can absolutely collect every book I see so that I can stuff them into my home and never read them. Except maybe I will read them – this IS a fantasy world, right?