I’m climbing up a steep mountain path, rough steps half-buried in snow, a cliff face to my right and a valley to my left. At the top of the mountain is a jumbled stone ruin: an archway, a broken tower, a low wall with an enormous statue of a dragon perched atop it. Out of breath from the climb, I turn left to survey the view, a gorgeous sunset sinking below the clouds above a landscape of peaks and forested valleys. As I turn, movement catches the corner of my eye – something rising, unfolding. I turn to look.
It’s not a statue.
There are a few moments in my personal video gaming history that are crystallised in my memory as truly awesome, and that was one of them. I’d been playing Skyrim for sixty hours at that point, at had probably killed a dozen randomly generated dragons, yet still hadn’t realised that there are a couple of high eyries scattered across the map where you’re guaranteed to find one. I thought I’d just stumbled across another random ruin, and the dragon was so motionless, so slate-grey, that I genuinely mistook it for a statue.
These are the moments where Skyrim succeeds – moments where it takes your breath away with something wholly unexpected. Every player is impressed the first time they encounter giants in the game, or when they first catch a glimpse of Whiterun down on the plains, or when they first see the northern lights. Skyrim’s greatest achievement, by far, is the beautiful world it has created for the player to explore. I find the debate about whether video games can be art tiresome, since they so clearly can be, and the creation of gorgeous landscapes in games like Skyrim clearly proves that.
What I find frustrating is that, despite having crafted one of the most fantastic wilderness settings ever seen in a video game, Skyrim continually forces you into dungeons. This is a hangover not just from old Elder Scrolls games, but from the origins of the RPG genre itself, the 1970s-era tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons. The reason dungeons appeal to game designers is the same now as it was then – they’re easy. They’re linear, enclosed environments, simple to design and control.
I think that’s lazy. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in a bandit cave or an ice cavern or a sunken Dwemer city; dungeons are intrinsically less interesting than fighting out in the open air, in the weather, with a view. There are a number of aboveground locales in Skyrim, which follow the same formula (kill everyone) as the dungeons do, but which are at least more interesting places to be: hilltop forts, valleys, camps, islands. I don’t think it would be much harder for the programmers to put a heavier emphasis on these locations, and trim dungeons to a minimum. Nor do I believe there are many gamers who care about dungeons in purely traditional terms. Much was made of Skyrim’s “radiant” system, which – when you are randomly assigned a quest – will try to send you to a dungeon you haven’t visited before, so that you travel across fresh landscapes to get there. The irony that upon arrival you’ll be forced into another repetitive dungeon was apparently lost to the developers.
I don’t find the dungeons boring. They’re as addictive and compelling as anything else in Skyrim (to a point, anyway – as with any video game addiction, I’ve had mine abruptly wear off, and now I’m pushing myself to finish the main quest). I just think it could be better. Skyrim, for all its overwhelming beauty and post-game hype, is fundamentally the same game as Morrowind or Oblivion – just with a better combat system and much, much better graphics. You’re still venturing out into the wilderness, clearing out caves and ruins, and staggering back to town laden down with jewels and riches to fob off to merchants who must dread seeing you walk in the door every other day. Aside from the main storyline quests, which dabble in originality, there’s really very little variety in a game like Skyrim. Well over 95% of quests involve fetching an item from a dungeon for someone who’s too much of a pussywillow to do it themselves.
As I said before, this is still somehow compelling (for a while), and I can’t blame the development team for wanting to stick with a winning formula. Maybe that’s why I chose to focus on the intrinsically dull nature of dungeons, and urged them to create more above-ground quest locales. Skyrim has other problems, after all – Tom Bissell has a particularly good review in which he singles out how the game terribly delivers what’s actually a very rich and detailed story. Until I read that, I hadn’t realised I felt vaguely guilty about skipping through endless lines of dialogue because I’d already read the subtitles.
The point he concludes with, about imagination, is also worth considering. Skyrim exists in an unhappy gap of realism – not realistic enough to feel like a truly immersive world, but too realistic to use your imagination. My favourite fantasy games, when I was growing up, were the three Playstation iterations of the Final Fantasy series, because they deliberately funnel you through certain segments of the world and let your imagination do the rest. This is an entirely separate thing from the difference between a sandbox RPG and a traditional RPG. The city of Lindblum, in Final Fantasy IX, is really only a few different neighbourhoods with a pre-rendered backdrop of thousands of buildings – but it works. It feels like a busy, bustling fantasy city. Solitude, on the other hand – the largest city in Skyrim – is quite plainly a “city” with about two dozen citizens and a handful of buildings, all of which you can enter, and all of which are basically the same. Much was made of the fact that in Skyrim, if you see a place, you can go there. That’s not necessarily a good thing. If there’s an Uncanny Valley for fictional worlds, Skyrim firmly sits in it.
Skyrim is still a good game – even a great game. But none of that has to do with the dungeon-spelunking, merchant-hassling, dialogue-skipping leftovers from two games ago. When I remember playing Skyrim, I’m going to remember riding my horse across the snowy plains beneath the northern lights, rotating the camera to take in the view, hearing the distant rumble and seeing a dragon fly across the moon – knowing, above all else, that I was free to go anywhere, see anything, and explore my heart out. I’m going to remember swimming between icebergs in a lonely, frozen sea, hearing a growl and looking up to see a polar bear rearing up at the lip of a berg. I’m going to remember glimpsing a distant campfire in a snowy forest at night, and approaching it to find that it wasn’t a group of welcome travellers who would take me in, freezing and injured as I was, but instead a camp of violent giants herding mammoths. I’m going to remember seeing a redwood trunk fallen across the edge of a colossal waterfall, and deciding to ride my horse across it, only to encounter a hidden bandit archer halfway that I had to gallop down upon, and knock off the edge, into the misty depths.
All of these things involve random exploration of the surface world. It feels wrong to criticise Bethesda when they’ve created such an amazing world, but I can’t help but feel that there’s a better potential game in the Elder Scrolls series, somewhere down the line – one where they stop resting on their laurels and giving each game a facelift, and instead tear up the rulebook and create something fresh, fun and new.