Morrowind, Oblivion & Skyrim - Pt2
Part Two of FBT's rambling ramble through the world of The Elder Scrolls. After winning the minds of Morrowind and the heart of Oblivion, he winds up in Skyrim without a visa. *spoilers*
I find myself on a horse-drawn cart meme. A hayride, how exciting after the prison ship of Morrowind and prison cell of Oblivion. Opposite me is a local. With a gag over his mouth. My hands are bound. A prison cart?! As we idle our way through a striking forest, another prisoner fills me in on what’s happening. Gag-guy is a ‘Jarl’, a local ruler called Ulfric who murdered the High-king of Skyrim for supporting Imperial rule rather than leading Skyrim’s succeeding from their control. Now we’re facing civil war between the Skyrim folk and the Imperial forces from Cyrodiil. Well me-laddo given me and my bro Martin just saved the empire I think I’ll have something to say about that, even if you can’t. As we reach a small, quaint town it turns out I won’t have time to say anything as I’m off to the headsman. Then we hear a strange roar. It’s all strange to me, but everyone else looks up and wonders what the hell was that. As the axe swings we hear another. By the nine it’s a dragon! Except, someone proclaims ‘By the eight it's a dragon!’ Ohhh what happened to 'By the Nine', a phrase we heard throughou - Oh yeah, dragon. Dragon!
A huge, exciting dragon makes short work of the village and most of the folks in it. It’s a visceral moment, an absolute killer opening; the dragon is HUGE and I’m running about like a maniac until I realise I’m in an interactive cut-scene. There’s a hundred foot long dragon smacking holy hell out of everything and I’m safe from it even when I’m a foot away. I reach a guard and the prisoner who filled us in earlier; both ask me to follow them. I chose the hayride guy since the imperials were happy to kill me. Safe from the safe dragon, we tutorial our way through a ruined building looking for an escape. Fighting, spells, lock-picking (this doesn’t need a tutorial if you’ve played Fallout 3 or 4), and so on. Free, Hayrider thanks me for my help –he couldn’t have escaped without me following him– and suggests I go visit his sister (now that is a thank you), then takes off. I take my first step into Skyrim.
Skyrim is a huge step from Oblivion. There was five years between Oblivion and Skyrim but even so, the woodland, beautiful little streams, swaying grass, it’s so incredibly real - as in, not fantasy; it’s so close to a modern woodland I expect to see one of those dog poop bins. I debate which way to walk and take a look at the menu instead. Oblivion’s menu felt warm, like we were flicking through an old leather-bound book as did Morrowind’s insane diary, but Skyrim’s menu feels like an iOS; minimalist, clean, cold. The level up system looks beautiful though, with each ability represented as a star sign. We’ve got the usual inventory, which will get full of junk, weapons, magic and the much-shouted-about Dragon shouts. I’m looking forward to being a loudmouth so, against habit, I resolve to head towards Miss Hayride to get the main mission under way.
Where the hell is she?
The map is incredible and aggravating. It can be tilted and panned like Google Maps, but clouds pass over it obscuring everything. A map gives an RPG’er a sense not of direction, but how epic their adventure has been and how much more there is to do; it encourages exploring. From up here the adventure just looks cloudy and it keeps you at a distance.
Let’s make with the walking. There is a lot to walk in Skyrim and things to walk in to. The woodlands are lush with trees giving way to gorgeous rivers cutting through cliffs leading to castles, keeps, dungeons, forts, huge Dwemer ruins, camps, villages, graves, more ruins, but it all feels a bit realistic, familiar. More real than unreal, more recognisable than the high-fantasy of Morrowind. This just seems like 1970s Scotland. Most of the time fog descends, grey clouds roll over and it feels a bit depressed. Okay so it’s supposed to be an isolated and insulated part of Tamriel but Skyrim feels like I’m taking a shortcut through some inner-city park, where a bunch of scruffy kids will give me a quest to buy them a pack of Lambert & Butlers. The towns are cold and miserable and so are the NPCs. Sure, there’s a war on, that’ll make anyone grumpy but they’re as grey and humourless as their surroundings. It’s like the game was built to grey-scale rather than the lush colours of Oblivion or Morrowind’s stark contrasts. And if you’re not trudging through grey it’s white - snow is never interesting to look at in a game.
Fighting in Skyrim is hella fun, just repetitive. In Oblivion you can dual-wield sort of, if you had a sword in one hand and a spell or shield in the other. Skyrim goes for the ambidextrous look with two of almost anything, weapons and/or spells, except two-handed weapons of course. It doesn't make a huge difference, you'll still hack the hell out of everything, but in reskinning the death-animations from Fallout 3, you get some killer slo-mo kills; even on Dragons on occasion.
Problem is, the creatures are boring; dogs, wolves, bears, walruses, saber-cats and mammoths make up most of Skyrim’s creature features; it feels more like an alternative pre-history than fantasy game. None of the pure originality of a Netch or Guar, nothing truly fantasy. Worse, you quickly start to anticipate what you'll encounter; every tomb has the zombie dead-walker types, every cave has a giant spider – cool, but when you're unsurprised by a giant spider, something's off and part of the problem is Skyrim's sheer size. Dozens of samey crypts and caves means dozens of the samey creatures. Skyrim? Samerim.
There are some semi-human baddies we face up to, but they’re frustratingly under-used considering their backstory. We kill lots of the decrepit Falmer; Once ‘snow elves’, they were hunted to near extinction by Skyrim locals, the Nords, and hid in Dwemer ruins where subsiding on fungus turned them into blind monstrous slaves. It would have been involving to explore their tragic turn but they’re just fodder. Same goes for Hagraven; the only really f’ed up villains in the game who are criminally underused; a half bird woman!? That’s the stuff of nightmares. We do encounter a non-hostile Hagraven, which disappointingly behaves like a hiss and cackle witch from a kids tv show - how did the Hagraven end up so wasted? They're amazing. Every time I encounter one I’m scared and disappointed in equal measure. Then there's The Forsworn, reskinned Fallout 3 Raiders with a better backstory; forced into the wilderness by the Nords, they worship the Hagravens and demand the return of their land - there’s rumours they have spies in the cities sabotaging and weakening defences. Why aren’t they more heavily involved in the power struggle between the Nords and the Imperials? To get a well-organised and feared terrorist group on side in return for giving back their land seems like a no-brainer (Shepard would find a way) and the repercussions could be great; do you mobilise a dangerous group, can you control them, can they be trusted? None of that happens. Why does none of that happen?
There’s boo-hiss villains in the shape of the Thalmor who politically control the empire by using/abusing a peace-treaty struck after the power vacuum caused by the events of Oblivion (sorry). It’s their refusal to allow Talos worship (Martin’s ancestor! And the missing 'Nine') that triggers much of the events in Skyrim, but do we tangle with the Thalmor? Engage them, weaken their stranglehold, expose their machinations? Nope. They’re the power behind the throne, arguably the reason for all this unrest and coupled with the Forsworn and others we meet, this has the makings of a grand conspiracy, power-shifts, manipulations, sides to chose and repercussions to face; we are in the midst of a civil war after all, desperate times, desperate measures? Naa.
Anyway, Hayride explained when Talos worship was outlawed, Ulfric used it as a catalyst to rally the rest of the Nords to demand secession from the Empire and when - Sorry, can I just interject for a second? Ahem … DRAGONS! Anyone? I came for the giant flying lizards not to be tricked into Brexit the Video Game. Although you can choose allegiances you’re going to side with the Nords because they’re portrayed as the little guys trying to eke out a living vs the controlling Empire – plus you’ll go Nord if you’ve played Oblivion; Talos means something. Neither side is particularly compelling or pleasant though; the Imperials are not those of Oblivion and if you’d played as a Nord previously you’ll be disappointed at how racist your family is; although even that's not consistent; they’re forcing everyone out of Skyrim who’s not pale-white with a mangled Norwegian accent yet they welcome me, an anthropomorphised Cat. Typical racist double-standards. I hate both sides, I’m gonna go make my own friends.
First stop, the Fighter’s guild - There is no fighter’s guild. Gone! Run off by the Nords I suppose. In its place, the Nord Companions. Companions? How is that cooler that FIGHTER’S GUILD!? The Companions?! It sounds like a local charity. What are we going to be doing, delivering meals on wheels, knitting scarfs? Who’s our sworn enemy, the Women’s Institute? They themselves aren’t too bad, sending you on odd-jobs, usually a tomb or crypt that needs clearing. That is until an internal issue pops up for you to sort out and be named as the new leader. It does offer a wicked cool option to be a werewolf, and they are brutal. Once that questline kicks in, I take back what I said about the Companions and I’m totally behind their church fete quest.
At first I thought why not have the FG replaced with someone we know, like the Blades. If Skyrim is isolationist it makes sense guilds wouldn’t have a presence, but the Blades would; He’s no Martin but there is an Emperor; he’d have sent the Blades in to see what’s what. That could be interesting - Nope. No new ‘spy guild’ for us. The Thalmor had the Blades disbanded and run off (By the Nords most likely) and all that’s left is a grumpy woman and an old fart. And, begrudgingly this time, me. They’re crow-barred in as a TES requirement and all they do is explain things and hate dragons as it turns out. Instead of endless rambling and driving the Dragon quest in a ‘you take care of this’ way that would have made Morrowind proud, we could have rebuilt the Blades and fumbled with the Thalmor! Re-forge them - No. We’ll stick with generic linear scripts we’ve used in TES since Arena thank you. When folks talk about the sheer size of Skyrim they’re talking about all the empty space where opportunity could have been.
The Thieves’ guild is also a shadow of its former self, living in the sewers and doing jobs for a local Crime Boss who runs the run-down town of Riften. The Thief we spend most of the time getting missions from just bangs on about restoring us to our former glory (We’re thieves, where’s the glory? It wasn’t glorious in Morrowind or Oblivion either); As we rob, ruin and intimidate folks for the Crime Boss, I realise I am actually a criminal and start to think this is refreshing. But that all gets dropped in favour of a completely obvious betrayal (They’re Thieves! Corrupt!) and guess who has to restore honour. I do this by joining an ancient group – Wait a minute, is it, could it be … Morrowind’s Bal Molagmer? Because that would be awes- no it’s the Nightingales. The what? Nightingales? I’m a hoodlum, not a 60s-back-up singer. The Thieves’ guild has fallen out of favour with its Daedric patron and her acolytes, Gladys Knight and the Nightingales must win her favour to bring down the betrayer. Something to do with the Daedra allots Thieves their luck. It was a lack of luck that got us betrayed, not the illegal aspect of our work attracting the wrong sort? Right. We best the betrayer and … Nothing. Why end just when it could have got interesting - the moral thievery they’ve been banging on about, become robin hoods, restart the Bal Molagmer, turn muddy Riften into a prosperous town, turn the tables on the Crime Boss; They’ve got a grand house, I figured we’d reclaim that as our new base but no it just ends and the Crime Boss literally craps on us from above. At Bethesda, someone looked at that quest line and said ‘End it with them still in the sewers? Job done.’ Just tell me the Dark Brotherhood are alive and well, killing.
After a deliciously nasty initiation ritual (Which you can ignore in favour of hunting down the Brotherhood instead) I find them living in a cave. Step up from a sewer I suppose but nothing on Oblivion’s creepy abandoned house in the middle of a town. My new friends are appropriately evil although not anywhere near as jovial or eccentric as those in Oblivion ("Good luck! I hope you don't get killed!"). It’s another example Skyrim’s humourless characters; you rarely enjoy meeting them. Amongst my new clan are Astrid who leads our not-merry band and Babette who’s ripped shamelessly from Interview with the Vampire’s Claudia. The early missions are on a par with Oblivion’s, that is until a jester-like assassin, Cicero turns up. The Brotherhood needs a new Listener (top dog who gets kill orders from our Daedra, The Night Mother) and we all know who the Night Mother is going to choose ... and then we’re betrayed. Technically twice. To be fair, the Dark Brotherhood quest has a lot of drama, another Shadowmere and it does end with the biggest assassination quest of the entire series, plus they do reclaim an old Brotherhood fort once I’m the Listener. And I get a spell to recall the spirit of my old Mentor from Oblivion. Nice to see him, under the circumstances.
The mages guild isn’t in Skyrim either (Nords deported them I’m guessing), but there is the College of Winterhold which feels like a DLC they forgot to put a lock on. I join the beginner’s class (Despite wielding spells pretty well by now) and on our first field trip we find something suspicious; a huge glowing ball. We’re then sent off to gather research while an even more suspicious mage takes an interest in it. Then … betrayal yadya yadya yadya. I kept playing truant because magic levels up with use anyway so why go to school and a big glowing ball just isn’t that interesting. There’s a subplot about super-mages who don’t want us unlocking the power of the big ball but all they do is tell me to stop touching it. Plus, this betrayal thing is getting old; Didn’t that guy in the office at Bethesda notice all the quests hinge on a traitor? “Another betrayal? They’ll never expect it a third time!”
Other than that, there’s only really the Bard’s College which does offer some light-heartedness, if you’re mischievous enough. The Head Bard asks you to search out an old parchment detailing a historical moment so he can create a story for the amusement of our Jarl but elements are missing; he asks you to help fill the blanks from knowledge gained during the adventure, and you can have some fun messing with the lines then watch him recite it for the Jarl. Well, not really, it’s another missed opportunity to inject some fun into the misery. Plus, the whole reason we doing this is to convince the Jarl to have a fete (put on by the Companions?) - her husband died so she’s not in the mood to judge the best marrow or whatever. Could Skyrim be any bleaker? Skyrim is just not fun. I’m going home.
Much like Oblivion, where I had to gain the pleasure of a city’s ruler to buy property, in Skyrim I need to curry favour with the Jarls. Helping locals will gain you their trust and a house you’ll forget you had; Rescuing a woman’s daughter from cannibals, investigating a ghost, they are more entertaining and original and like Morrowind, I start to avoid the main quest in favour of tracking down the random quests – At one point I joined in a drinking game and woke up with no memory and a Giant’s toe in my pocket, in what became a fantasy version of The Hangover. Swearing to never drink mead again, I go find me some dragons.
There’s no way to criticise dragon battles, but I’ll give it a go; Once you reach a certain point, like Oblivion’s Kvatch, dragons randomly appear and it’s great to trudge along and see one in the distance circling. It’s also a terrifying moment when you walk past a ruin and admire the giant dragon statue curled up on it – that’s not a statue is it. They also appear around the smaller villages when you fast travel in. You will die a lot but it is one of the most exhilarating experiences. Trying to avoid the shouts, the mouth, the claws, the wings, the tail, not to mention the sheer size of the things. It’s an epic encounter, terrifying when you hear one let alone see one. Think of the opportunities dragons present; finding a town now abandoned and you have to drive the dragon away to let it be repopulated, coming across a line of refugees and deciding if you’ll walk in the opposite direction to chase away the dragon that decimated their village, or one attacks and you're forced to abandon the village or camp because you can’t beat it, swearing to return one day and avenge your people; see Dragons decimate areas, come across a burning field and get nervous knowing that means a dragon is about. But nothing remotely close to that happens. GTA SA managed to have 'hoods under attack, why can't dragons attack the villages and inns we find, give us a connection, a reason to charge into a clearly one-sided battle? Dragon appearances and behaviors are so heavily scripted that after a while you’re fighting on auto-pilot in pre-set circumstances. You never find one on the ground for example; imagine blundering into one feeding on a mammoth like you're out for a swim and see a Shark Fin; you take off running, the adrenaline, the scare as you run screaming into a wood and watch it smash through trees, circling around, you trapped, looking for a way out or to face it - of course, a dragon could burn down a wood. Can’t it? No. They can’t even dragon properly; breathing fire on a wooden hut should do more damage than none. They just appear, act like a mini-boss and that's that. This is the world-ending threat? Once I walked under one and into a shop, where the shopkeeper acts like nothing’s going on either then I left, because it doesn't really matter what it does. Good games made you launch into battle even when you knew you’ll likely fail because you want to, or need to, but in Skyrim even a Dragon is nothing to Shout about.
Turns out when you do a Dragon Shout, the most anticipated part of Skyrim, it’s literally a magic yell, a kind of taunt between dragons. Being incinerated is both literally and figuratively a burn. I unlock shouts by finding dragon language on walls. I do this on my own; how the hell did I just pronounce that squiggle?! What am I, Prince? I may be the ‘Dragonborn’, but surely I at least need some language lessons. Most shouts are just XXL spells like fire, ice and so on; Shout should be a game-changer but it’s a huge let down. I can only power them up by discovering new wall-words which turns Shouts into a driver for exploring the same dingy dungeons (Zombies and Spiders, yay) for more words. Most of the shouts are too random or unhelpful anyway; Causing a thunderstorm was cool, until lightning killed the horse I was sitting on and what does a 100-foot long Dragon want with a shout that makes lower-level animals cower? Once fully charged they do some damage and the one that sends things flying is fun (everyone uses it on Ulfric's dinner table) but they should be more than super-powered spells, and that they barely stagger Dragons is the biggest tell-tale that Shout wasn’t really thought through. They should be like the force in Jedi Outcast; so effective, so powerful that's all you use - yet it's a one shout then a recharge? Waste of time. Maybe it’s my accent.
Suppose we’d best go find out why Dragons returned and what this Dragonborn nickname’s about. Via the bunch of old guys in robes who can Dragonspeak, and the grumpy Blades, it turns out that dragon at the beginning had a name, Alduin; ‘The World Eater’ - Long ago, Alduin united the dragons and concluded he must destroy everything that’s not Dragon. Bit like the Nords really. He was eventually bested by the Blades who basically sent him into the future to give folks time to figure out how to stop him but their plan was to just wait until he returned it seems. While Alduin continues his prophecy, the old guys have their own; Someone who can pass an assault course of Shouts will be named Dragonborn, now prophesied to kill Alduin; What is it with Tamriel and their ‘someone else’ll do it’ prophecies? I like the idea that this generation of Blades has to face up to what the previous generation did but that’s not what it’s about unfortunately. Neither is the tension between the Old Guys being pro-Dragon and the Blades being anti-Dragon; they both want Alduin gone but that goes absolutely nowhere considering I'm heavily involved in both their plans. I just side with one at the end; I am the worst hero ever. Skyrim is really showing it's age, even back then; it's the most linear open world game I've ever played - Mass Effect 1 was 4 years before and had me agonising over what to do about Conrad; Skyrim constantly gives you black or white choices, ironic given how grey the rest of it is.
The other main quest, the ownership of Skyrim seems more interesting (that anything is more interesting than Dragons is a worry). The Imperials are portrayed as invaders and in theory, you’ve come to love Skyrim and want to protect it. You won't. All that been happening is me wandering about taking over Imperial camps while Ulfric and his grumpy pal bitch about the invaders. I wonder if Ulfric is actually a coward, like this is part of the plot. It isn't, he's just woefully underdeveloped. How does Oblivion, some five years younger, run emotional rings around something as huge as Skyrim? This is the guy I'm supposed to follow, like Martin? No one does anything except me; in Oblivion everyone got involved. It would be nice to come across more action that’s not dependent on me triggering it, as if there really is progress, like there is a war on like they keep saying. War isn’t hell in Skyrim, I’m not sure it’s even in Skyrim. I’m gonna go see what the DLC has to offer, maybe there’s something there worth saving.
Dawnguard pits you against the single most hated characters in all of Tamriel; Vampires. A Vampire Lord is planning on using an Elder Scroll to blot out the sun. In Skyrim? I’ve not seen the sun yet. To be fair, Bethesda do seem to know how debilitating being a vampire is and Dawnguard turns into something quite tempting. The dragons are a bit beefier and you gain more areas and stuff to do in Skyrim, but do you really want more Skyrim? What about more Morrowind? Whoa.