Blog 862: The Decline

I had played Skyrim several times before, but never as hard and deeply as I did this time. Part of that was simply the novelty of trying to hoover up all the stuff I’d never seen before — the 74 Creation Club packs, Dawnguard — but I think most is owed to the transformative pacing of Survival Mode.

So please indulge me one last blog about Skyrim before I return to playing… literally anything else. Oh god please, let me play anything else. It’s time to let it go.

The Decline

It has been said that Skyrim gets very samey after a while, and before I’d experienced the game without Fast Travel, I’d have been inclined to agree. But the mere act of having to walk somewhere — and back — adds an extra dimension to every plot thread. I accepted quests left, right and centre, but only pursued them when I had enough concentrated in a certain area to make it worthwhile travelling there. I mean, it’s not like anything has a time limit!

But here’s the thing: all that walking reduces the saminess. Dungeons are no longer isolated things to take in pulse-pounding sequence, but places with wilderness in between. Even if you end up going down 3 ancient Nord tombs in a day, you likely went into one from a road, another from a river and a third half-way up a mountain — you’ve automatically had time to decompress between each one.

I like to compare Skyrim to junk food; if you get to guzzle too much of it too fast, you make yourself sick. Bouncing instantly between locations to tick off quests strips away any sense of inhabiting and exploring a world and exposes all the seams and contrivances — but disabling Fast Travel slams on the brakes and stops you from over-indulging, which in turn makes the entire experience a hundred times more compelling.

I discovered why Dawnguard adds more Falmer stuff: it hinges on some weird and shit Falmer lore for no particular reason. (Actually Dragonborn’s Miraak lore is also weird and shit so I shouldn’t have been surprised.) Pretty snow castle though!

Well, I say it stops you from indulging; Skyrim is large enough that even with more measured pacing pushing that moment further out, it cannot help but overstay its welcome by sheer weight of numbers. It’s just too big.

The thing is, there’s no strict point that marks a satisfying conclusion at which to quit, so you don’t really notice the slow decline from fun into unfun. You don’t wake up one day and think “I’m done with this”, you just kind of keep going for a couple of weeks and realise you really are just ticking off quest boxes now. Then you speedrun Skuldafn and kill Alduin in three hits for closure’s sake.

Actually travelling between places naturally creates more obvious highs and lows, as tiredness and coldness start to bite. Even if you ignore the extra mechanics, though, Fast Travel alone removes a huge chunk of the game — all those serendipitous encounters and systemic elements that don’t have time to occur when you travel each road only once. That keeps things more interesting for much longer.

But, yes, any joy inherent in the formula still runs out eventually. With the game a constant soup of objectives and level-scaled encounters, you drift into just going through the motions. That period when you should have stopped but… didn’t.

Yes, Lydia, this single netch is absolutely the reason we’re on Solstheim. No quests or anything, no sirree.

If Skyrim was literally half the size, you could still spend a lot of time there still and leave completely satisfied, feeling like you’d seen pretty much all the game has to offer and ready to move on. Instead, there are always more objectives and, yes, all those Kreation Klub Kontent packs that only add a new suit of armour but pointlessly tie a full quest to it. Do I want to chase the leads in case they turn out to be really cool? Yes! Do they ever turn out to actually be really cool? … Ahem.

(There’s a reason why I continue to find Solstheim so beguiling, both in Bloodmoon and in Dragonborn: it’s small enough to be comprehensively experienced without overstaying its welcome. There’s a clear point when you’ve done all of it and can move on, and it’s a point that you can reach in a period of time comprehensible to a human player.)

Maybe instead of extending the game with new regions, all those Kreation Klub and expansion packs should have replaced the more repetitive parts of the base game. Swap out a few Nord tombs for vampire haunts. Replace some Dwemer ruins with Black Book demiplanes. Add more creatures to the wilderness. Use the Azura’s Star crystal dungeon props more than once.

The Remnant Agent clothes are really pretty, but when Fijeh says “It’s all in this note” for the fourth time I really want to punch his lights out.

There were some hints of variation in the more advanced Kreation Klub packs. Saints and Seducers introduces a chunk of the Shivering Isles to the sewers underneath Solitude, while The Cause brings back an Ayleid ruin in a cave on the southern border with Cyrodiil (along with a wee jaunt into the plane of Oblivion itself). But these are isolated one-shots — they never extend their influence, never get woven into the systemic fabric of the overworld the way Survival Mode does. Maybe if the dungeons themselves were procedurally generated, like the random encounters, these genuine extensions could have spread out more? Erk.

Open world games are all about exploration, but a desire to explore can only be sustained by narrative, visual and mechanical reward for doing so — there has to be something to drag you into that wilderness. Since most of Skyrim‘s narrative is… perfunctory, to say the least, and its mechanical rewards are all blunted by level scaling (and, okay, yes Nimrod, it’s mechanically very shallow already), all we’re really left with visual novelty… of which the game as it shipped simply did not have enough. What’s that phrase — “like too little butter spread over too much bread”?

The Aylied tileset is Rielle-y pretty though. (The ruins are called Rielle. That’s the pun.)

Maybe your reply would be, “you’re not supposed to do everything, you’re meant to just explore what you like and only ever see a small part of it”. Maybe that’s true on one level, but the way Skyrim throws quests at you belies that in practice. It really does want to sucker you in and get you seeing all of it — why else does it let you become archmage of Winterhold after a handful of quests that require the sum total of 2 spells to be cast? Why else does merely walking past some guards give you a Miscellaneous objective to explore some landmark? Why else does half the populace offer auto-generated, repeatable Radiant quests?

It’s too permissive. It doesn’t force you to pick and choose which parts to experience, so you end up trying to eat everything and making yourself sick. This is why I put a portion of Pringles into a little bowl and stick the rest of the tube back in the cupboard. Yes, I am a flawed person with wavering self-control, but Skyrim doesn’t do itself any favours either.

… or maybe I just don’t actually like open world games? Hrmm.

More sequels should just transplant and up-sample huge chunks of art from previous games. Or don’t even bother up-sampling, graphics have been Good Enough since about 2005.

So yes, maybe after all that meandering, my final take-away is this: don’t bother upgrading to the Anniversary Edition. For every nice piece of clothing the Kreation Klub brings, there’s another shitty-ass note-driven quest to spoil it. The artwork is always perfect, exactly the right fidelity to match the existing artwork, but the surrounding quests are just nasty.

The only bonus pack that’s truly worth it is Survival Mode, but I hestitate to say you should pay the entry fee because, let’s face it, there was probably a mod that did it better before the Kreation Klub was a twinkle in Bethesda’s eye.

I do wonder if, somewhere out there, there’s a game that’s a bit like Skyrim, but is half the size and ten times more varied.

… It’s called Morrowind, isn’t it?

I was wearing NETCH LEATHER ARMOUR when I faced Alduin. It looks lovely but it is also laughable that potato-tier armour is somehow impervious to a creature that eats souls for breakfast. At least Almalexia’s electric scimitar Hopesfire is a suitably epic weapon with which to save the world.

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