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Top o’ the World in Skyrim

Posted by Bart

I can’t quite believe the log says 95 hours. I haven’t spent that long with a video game in years.  Yet here I am, perched atop the Throat of the World for a photo op with a dragon and contemplating the experience.  Yes, I need to work on my screenshot technique but I figure if I can lay out a few incomplete thoughts now then I might be able to lay down my bow for a little while and get some other work done.


If you could be everything and anything… (possible spoiler alert)

I think around the 20 or 30 hour mark I was becoming concerned that for the sake of expediency I was abandoning any sense of a character I was building to use whatever means was most ready to hand — destruction magic, big axes, swords, bows, sneaking… whatever.  Most RPGs tend to favour role specialization, and “character” such as it is, derives from the the role-specific forms of doing things in the game (you know – warriors are brawny in your face extroverts).  These forms are high fantasy fiction archetypes – warrior, mage and thief and while several plot-lines and the perk system suggest you might want to “fit in” it simply doesn’t work out that way unless you can hold fast to using your firebolt when a bow or a sword is simply easier (especially when the spell interface is so difficult to use).

But then I started to wonder… does the possibility of being good enough at everything actually make it possible for my own play style to shine through?  Even though it was the first plot-line I followed I turned down the offer to become a werewolf.  I was afraid it would be too much hand to hand combat and I was starting to get into the archery.  I wondered if this was because I am not great at real-time hand to hand combat (I get flustered when I can’t see what’s hitting me) and if the magic system was too daunting and seemingly too slow.  I am also playing on PC so the interface and relation to the screen are entirely different.

But then I realized that I tend towards the ranged stealth form of combat in general…  my favorite moments are actually sniping bandits from high rocks where they can’t possibly get me and I have no idea why that single shot kill, the solid ka-thunk sound, is so satisfying.  And then I remember that’s exactly how I ended up playing Far Cry 2, Dragon’s Age, and even World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online (and why I hated playing Oblivion).  Is this another role archetype, the style most afforded by the system (interface plus software plus my own failing eyesight), or something about my personality and the way I like to deal with the world in general?

Its not just the ranged attack that I am drawn to but the stealth aspect — being able to see without being seen.  You can’t do this with magic – which is ranged but always breaks stealth.  I think there is also something about the self-imposed patience (which is also why I like the early Splinter Cell games and Thief) — stealth archery is a game of occupying good position (you need to care about the landscape even in a dungeon) and waiting for the right opportunity (especially if there are a bunch of targets).  I like having time to think and plan things out…  hmm, I absolutely hate survival horror games.

But that is also fooling myself because stealth archery with both skills at 100 (that is where I am at now) is basically like shooting fish in a barrel or squishing ants – and yet – it remains so thoroughly satisfying and a perfect mechanism for moving through the world and the additional plot-lines (is this more self-justification for essentially being a cruel coward?).

No matter, I can finally walk anywhere and go anywhere without worry or nervousness.  And even though the sound of the dragons overhead still gives me the jitters (they are like mosquitos in Skyrim) I don’t have to duck and cover anymore. On a big screen the land is fantastic… the sense of walking through the environment is so compelling… its simply an amazing game for just going on a hike.

Ah but this plateau, this sense of having already beaten the game….That’s the going over the top of the world effect that is sometimes lost in video games… you move through the climax and save the world and then it ends and you find another game and do it again. In a facebook exchange I saw – Jenova Chen wonders why to bother playing after the main plot is done and Ernest Adams tells him to simply start again and play it differently. I look at it differently now.

Weirdly, in Skyrim, with the main plot dealt with… its kind of like coming down from the mountaintop and moving on in the world with enormous power and feelings of heroism and epicness still lingering (actually my most epic moment was a battle with Tsun on the bone bridge – I iced him and he fell off). There is no game, as such, left it would seem, and yet the game I played has a lingering impact on how I think about what I do in the gameworld that remains.  My desire to play on in Dragon Age was non-existent and I thought it would be for Skyrim as well but not so much it seems.

Players rightly complain — why don’t the NPCs acknowledge our deeds more.  Surely the minstrels should sing new songs when we come down from the mountain. Our Skyrim characters are Homerian heros times 100 — we are beyond demi-gods and yet we are treated the same as when we started.  I thought it was so cool when I got offered the job of leading the Thieves Guild until I realized not one NPC cared or gave me any respect (that’s thieves for ya)…. and I am a Thane is almost every city, and Dragonborn, and I got rid of Alduin and I am the champion for every flippin’ Deadric god (you’d think one of them would notice that I am two and three timing all of them).

No matter — the strength of RPGs (until the hero recognition AI gets sorted out… I still remember Robin Hunike’s great DiGRA talk about this from way back) is that your sense of your impact on the gameworld is in your head. So I think its an interesting idea to have to come down from the mountain and get a taste of the post-heroic life for a bit even if it means remembering the good old hours when Alduin’s hordes were still raging.

Maybe its a bit like the message of an ABC after-school special – being a hero is not about what others think but about how you feel inside when you are not being especially heroic.

Why else would anyone stick with playing through such incredible sillyness?