Blast from the Past
FBT returns to Skyrim to prove its still crap. Why does he do this to himself?
The idea behind Blast from the Past is you remember some old game you love, then replay to see if it still measures up. A few years ago I reviewed Skyrim as part of an epic playthrough of modern TES. Morrowind was still fun and Oblivion one of the greats, but Skyrim? Bollocks. I never touched it again.
But then, I read an interview with Skyrim’s devs who explained "the actual underlying theme (of Skyrim) was: do you take a nationalistic view of your own country, or look at the whole world? (Skyrim) lets you handle themes like racial stereotypes in ways that you don't notice at first, and then become very obvious.” It was obvious from the start; the Nords were racist assholes. They’re like a hardcore Brexiter who believes in anything written on the side of a bus or a MAGA extremist who thinks the Wall will solve everything. There was no ‘greater good’ you played a part in and you didn’t ‘handle’ a racial stereotype theme. Luddite gamers missed the social commentary? No we didn’t, because there wasn’t one. Dragons, mate. You made a game about dragons. Don’t kid yerself. That interview annoyed me enough to revisit it.
I’m set to Rage Quit this before I’ve Blasted it but then, maybe I unfairly judged Skyrim against Morrowind and Oblivion. I’m going to play it on its own merits, focusing on the civil war to really get into that supposed social commentary. Maybe to get Skyrim, I need to just spend time with racists. That sounds fun.
Still a Blast?
So, Skyrim. A snow-swept, isolated part of Tamriel that the Nords populated – by driving out everyone else. There’s so much story to be had here. There’s the Falmer Elves they ran off who ended up horribly twisted by the Dwarves; the Forsworn, a militant group who are trying to reclaim their land after also being run off, and the Thalmor, an Elven group who gained strength after the Oblivion event and forced a law which banned Talos worship and was a key trigger is starting the civil war that provides the backbone to Skyrim. And NONE of that is explored. Instead, we get a bunch of grumpy bastards in sheepskin hats making vague comments about local skyrim for local people. All that rich, complex history and we just doggedly stick to a linear plot of the Stormcloaks seceding from the Empire which doesn’t rely on anything that came before.
I’m an Imperial prisoner alongside Nords, headed for the chopping block before Alduin, a huge freaking dragon kicks everyone’s ass. Freed, I’m given a choice to follow a Nord or an Imperial. The Imperials are dressed in Classical Roman attire, making them seem like the invaders and since they wanted to cut my head off, I go Nord. I’m also a Khajiit, which is my preferred TES creature cos they’re cool, but this time I picked the ‘House Cat’ because they’re as far from Nordish as you can get. Surely this is going to put a cat amongst the pigeons?
No. Being the very definition of an immigrant has no bearing to the Nords. No one refuses to serve to me, calls me out or does anything racist. I’m an anthropomorphic cat and yet I can become a key part of the fight for a Nord-only Skyrim. If I’m supposed to discover with horror I picked the wrong side, it’s fumbled; I don’t suffer any prejudice but Khajiit NPC's say they can’t enter some towns? Why is this even a character class if it's a redundant choice? Skyrim should only let us be classes the Nord’s despise so we can experience bigotry and change or react to it? There are plenty of examples of Nord racism but we ignore it because we love Talos. There's no tough choices and no world-view other than side with the Imperials who, while not racist are clearly indifferent to the Nords' wishes and heritage (xenophobia aside). It even misses real insidious stuff like the Nords using me as a figurehead; “look we’re friends with a cat so we can't be racists, it’s about ‘getting our country back’ ...
This is the cleanest, most morally vanilla RPG I’ve ever played, the extremism is just there to make it seem complex but the reality is, it's not a part of our experience; I don’t refuse a mission because I dislike their attitude, influence their beliefs because I helped, or get told I can’t do a quest because I’m a cat. I just get on with the dragon stuff and leave them to their Skyrim-First delusions. I don’t even kill folks for making racist comments because I never really hear any.
It doesn’t help that all the other quests are equally isolated and linear. Nothing ever impacts anything else. The Thieves’ guild, Dark Brotherhood and school of Hogwarts questlines are not only straightforward they’re all the same – literally, each one hinges on a traitor. The Companions, a mercenary group is just dungeon crawling missions with a werewolf ending, while The Dark Brotherhood missions are only notable because we’re murdering people. When that’s all the fun you get out of game, either it or you have problems.
The biggest problem with Skyrim is also it’s selling point; dragons. They just get in the way. The story of why I’m ‘dragonborn’ and Alduin the king of dragons is just as compelling as Skyrim’s history, and likewise it’s boring to play. We follow some old git who hates dragons, and follow another old git who loves dragons. Whoa, I’m gonna have to pick which git to side with aren’t I? Not really. This is the main quest and it’s basically an afternoon’s work of listening to old men talk until we get what we need to reach Alduin’s hiding place. And it turns out the secret of the Dragonborn is just that years ago some old guy said "someone should kill that dragon one day" then listed vague attributes they'll have. It's one step up from astrology; we got picked by Mystic Meg. Oh.
There’s nothing spectacular about it, and fighting Alduin is like every other mini-boss dragon fight; on top of which, he’s supposed to be destroying the world but you never feel that threat like you did with Oblivion’s gates spilling Daedra out. Skyrim makes dragons so much more than fire-breathing flying lizards then does nothing with them. Just like everything else.
I’ve played Skyrim as an honorary Nord before, but once the Imperials were run off, nothing changed. It should have ended as Assassin’s Creed III did, with Connor bitterly realising what was happening to his country while he was out saving it. I should have seen Khajiit and Argonians rounded up, Nords running inns I saw Orcs in charge of not so long ago; I should realise what I supported, what I got caught up in, what side I'm on. Instead, the game just sorta goes 'well, whatever'. This time though, I side with the Imperials and the exact same thing happens. Nothing. We even have the same missions, literally the same ones. Some RPG.
The Stormcloaks are led by Ulfric, who it’s rumoured used a Dragon shout to kill the King - but if that’s just rumour, as are comments that he’s a coward; why don’t we go expose that, show the people who they’re following – or discover it’s true, wonder if we chose unwisely? There’s not one hearts and minds mission either, surely the Imperials have some PR work to do here. The regions are all controlled by ‘Jarls’, why do I not have missions to swing them to Imperial to usurp Ulfric? I just reach one and make him get off his throne. I should get close to the Imperial Commander, have the option to make him understand the importance of the Nord’s heritage, or make Ulfric realise the Nords have become extremists; nope, nothing so deep or complex, I just ‘take out that camp’ over and over. There is no greater good to be had, no nationalism that you reason with, no racism that you break down. We just ignore the dickheads and move on with our nine lives. And that’s what I’m doing with Skyrim.
Except, I don’t seem to be leaving. Despite the fact that you’re endlessly walking through snow and bleak locations (did the lead dev break up with his girlfriend the day he set on the design?) there’s hundreds of distractions which are incredibly detailed, sometimes opening up into such massive and unexpected areas you think Bethesda forgot to make you pay to unlock it.
Skyrim is a bleak and murky place to trudge through but you find locations of just startling beauty, lovely little moments or random quests and like any good open-worlder, you can never walk in a straight line because there’s so much pulling you in every direction. It does often seem as if Skyrim’s reach exceeds its grasp - they built a huge world but only half-filled it while the other half occasionally seems unfinished – particularly around the NPCs who repeat lines, walk over dead bodies and behave like AI from a decade ago - often Skyrim feels like a façade, like you’re at some medieval fete, while some stuff just seems fantasy game rather than fantasy world; the much-hyped Dragon shouts are really just magic spells that often make no sense - shouts are dragon language but why do they have a word for 'faster weapon strikes'? Mostly you just use them for fun like the infamous "Fus Ro Dah!" yell. Yet, I’m still not leaving.
There’s a real sense you can just ‘live’ here. Build a house, adopt kids, get a wife, build weapons and armour, do random quests, farm, fish, walk. And the cities, while often bleak and depressing are always intricate, original and easy to just wander around. Everything you find has just this level of lived-in detail to it, even down to the sounds of the wind when you cross barren wastelands, or the rustling of trees. There's something compelling about it. I don't want to leave.
I still dislike Skyrim; but I love the world. The devs were right; it’s not all about Dragons. I think what keeps drawing me back to Skyrim is the idea of it – an incredibly detailed, living world in a misty and intriguing environment, filled with dragons, giant spiders and folks just living alongside me. To play, it is boring, linear, half-baked and goes nowhere. But that’s okay because I can go my own way; turn off the mission markers and see what you can find.
2011 | Developer, Bethesda Game Studios | Publisher, Bethesda Softworks
platforms; Win | PS3/4 | X360/One