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The problem with Skyrim is progress

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And just like that, I decided to quit playing The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim cold turkey.

At the end of a throwaway side quest where I was supposed to have a drinking contest with so-and-so, I’m thrust, in an apparently drunken stupor, into the middle of Markarth. This is a place I have recently been driven out of, due to yet another mundane side quest. Enemies are pursuing me, naturally, and evidently, the magic that allows for in-game fast travel does not work when one is in a hurry. Without that ability, I am stuck in the labyrinthine staircases of Markarth until I stumble upon a door to Skyrim by accident.

Once outside, I decide to kill everyone I see. I’m angry at this turn of events, maddened by the dead end of side quests I’ve found myself in, yet again.

Loose-end quests that won’t close themselves out. Missions that occur in places I can’t go without fear of reprisal (like Markarth). Markers that lead me to the ends of dungeons, rather than the beginnings. A companion who will not leave me alone when I’m around, constantly causing an unwanted, impromptu dead-end conversation tree to occur that can only be cured by fast traveling. 

My quest log is a bastion for unpredictability.

I kill every living thing I see as I run into the wilderness, directionless. I kill and kill and kill until nothing is left but snow and my bloodied blades. Shiftless, I find my home in Whiterun on the map. I lope towards it, go to my digital bed, and I sleep forever.

I am done here.

Why?

 

Progression is meant to spur forward momentum and create the illusion of narrative propulsion — a virtual train of rising action that suggests an eventuality. We experience the hero’s journey through button presses and inventory screens. And we are faced with a checklist of things to do that arrange themselves into patterns and circuitous behaviors, ultimately comprising a construct of systems centered on balancing the mundane with the imperative.

Skyrim’s failure on this level is absolute. There is no real sense of progression through its world. Everything is lateral. Whether you're on the main-storyline quest or some inane fetch errand, it makes no difference. Each mission is merely a line in a log — a series of boxes to be ticked, a laundry list of "shit I did."

This is not progression; it is compulsion. And this is the key to what makes Skyrim so addictive and so abhorrent all at once. I have played around 150 hours of what I consider to be the buggiest AAA title I have encountered in recent memory. It is also the game I have played more than any other, ever. Its strengths sucked me in, even as its faults made me want to abandon my journey midstream.

Something I ultimately, and unfortunately, did. Twice.

The titular “problem with Skyrim” is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be organically. It’s a massive tract of land strung together by roads, mountains, and small towns. Advancement from one place to the next is merely “point yourself in that direction and go."

A game like Dark Souls treats progression with the respect it deserves. Making it from place to place in the successor to Demon's Souls is truly rewarding. The experience is a battle of attrition that results in actual forward momentum.

In Skyrim, quests are things to be collected and added to, not actual barriers to development. And this is a problem for someone like me who doesn’t like merely ticking boxes. I like to feel that innate reward of success that comes from earning my right to go somewhere new. Locations in Skyrim hold no import. They are landmarks to be found, passed through, and then forgotten as you are constantly move and search.

Both of my Skyrim playthroughs have resulted in disappointment. As much fun as the early parts are, I don’t feel like the game is anywhere near as satisfying in the long run — at least not soul satisfying. Progression becomes stilted and obtuse. Eventually, the rewards become too small. Looted boxes become chock-full hindrances to inventory management. Momentum stalls. Interest wanes.

More than 150 hours have become a blur, a whirlwind of activity lost in the wilderness, lost to my memory, lost in hundreds of save files that add up to a great deal of data and a very small amount of personal success.

It’s interesting how much we’re willing to tolerate something we genuinely value. Skryim’s aesthetic and subtextual appeal is enormous. It taps into something primal inside me. But when the instinctual crosses over into the intellectual, the walls come tumbling down.

The funny thing is, I love this game. I imagine I’ll do at least one more playthrough at some time in the future. And, of course, there will be the eventual downloadable content, which will likely be fairly substantial.

Goodbye for now, Skyrim.

You’ve exhausted me.


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