More gimmick than game to me. But it's an awfully good gimmick
If you ask most gamers, Bethesda's brand of seam-busting, side-quest stacked, open world gameplay is the pinnacle of interactive entertainment right now. If not all interactive entertainment, certainly the RPG genre, where the Fallout and Elder Scrolls series have been inked into holy canon, every release assured of across the board, near-perfect review scores and multiple Game of the Year honors. So canonical have these time-wasters become, a recent PC Gamer article listing the top 100 PC games of all time put Fallout 3, Skyrim, and Oblivion all in the top ten. Again. Of all time.
I don't get it. None of those games would have even made my top ten for their respective years of release. And believe me, my inability to click with them is not for lack of trying. Between Morrowind, Oblivion, Skyrim, Fallout 3, and New Vegas, I have probably logged around 500 hours of time into Bethesda's games, and my reaction is always the same: it's kind of like eating an entire box of donuts in one sitting, awesome at first, until nausea, shakiness, and that barfy sugar-buzz taste set in. Of course, you don't want to stop eating right there because you already cracked the box open and they taste so fucking good, you figure you can rip through one or two more, till the next thing you know, there's only two left in the box, they don't even taste good anymore, and you just feel compelled to finish them because you already ate so many.
I know what you're thinking. I'm sort of panning these games, but comparing them to something as awesome as a box of donuts. Kind of defeating my own point, right? Wrong. Just like shoveling tablespoon after tablespoon of raw sugar in your mouth for hours on end, these games leave you feeling washed out, empty and gross when you're done.
The massive, open worlds, endless, meandering side quests, and limitless options feel incredibly liberating at first, sure. A world where you can go wherever you please, talk to whomever, build whatever character you want, is undeniably tantalizing to any fantasy, RPG nut. And for about 30 to 40 hours of gameplay, Bethesda's usually able to keep me in it. And then, like the inevitable crash from a sugar high, the experience starts to turn sour. The quests begin to feel recycled, the dialogue repeats itself, missions that felt alive and exciting at the outset begin to look like chores. As your character becomes ultra powerful, which usually doesn't take too long, the challenge is completely removed, and so the incentive to level up, make new armor, clean out caves and dungeons, and deliver letters and trinkets in fetch quest after fetch quest goes too.
Which leaves you with the main quest, which you've been basically avoiding the whole time or maybe just bumping into on accident here and there. The big pay off, the save the princess moment, the overthrow, the victory, the denoument. Here it comes. All that leveling, all those guilds mastered, all those houses purchased, all that shit picked and made into potions, all those gates closed, dragons slain, factions joined, it's all going to come to a head right here and right now.
Well no experience would sum it up better for me than the end of Morrowind, whereupon easily decimating Dagon What's His Nuts--who looked like a floaty 5'8" Sims character with a tribal mask on--I realized that I had just unwittingly "defeated" the main quest, without even knowing or trying to do it; I just stumbled upon him in a cave somewhere. I had a similar experience in Fallout 3. Although I knew I was on the main quest, I didn't think that the final battle was about to ensue after activating that Liberty Prime thing. It came too quickly, was too easy, and felt totally anti-climatic.
The problem with both of these endings is one of timing and pacing. Believe or not, Bethesda's games are essentially story driven. But when the story is allowed to go completely off track like this, for as long as it does, it forces them into marginalizing it, lest the player lose track of details or pacing. This inherently compromises its quality, and ultimately sucks life and energy from the the fantasy world they're trying to convey. If an invention of story driven fantasy can't even draw an arc competently, then it's flawed. Period.
So what does all of this have to do with Skyrim specifically? Everything, which is kind of the problem. I can't really tell the difference between any of these games. They all feel exactly the same, deliver the exact same experience. Some slight variations, sure, but essentially the same shit over and over again. Is Skyrim a good game overall? Yes. I liked it. It looks great, sounds great, and has better control than its predecessors. I thought it was the best Bethesda game so far, and got the closest to swinging me in favor of this type of gameplay. So there's the compliment.
When it was over, though, I still had that sinking comedown feeling that no other type of game has ever given me, that feeling that I just squandered 150 irretrievable hours of my life on nothing. The game is fun, and it sucks you in. But it has no heart.
I hope that next time they can put a cake under all that icing.