Strong characters and moments make Skyrim worthwhile
I waited until Bethesda fixed the PS3 version before buying Skyrim. And I bought it used just to spite their crappy handling of that situation. But I bought it out of devotion to the ideas of this sort of game. And that devotion was not, ultimately, ill-spent.
Skyrim lives through its characters. While consistent voice actors and some blandness is held over from Oblivion, for the most part Bethesda appears to have honed their ability to make most individuals in the world worth caring about. Although the overarching war and dragon narrative is essentially Game of Thrones without the sex, I still found the writing and character interactions supporting that narrative worthwhile. Every quest line I have played so far creates interesting and surprising scenarios. Thieves do not just steal; Assassin's do not just kill; Mages do not just fireball. There is always a wrinkle, a unique twist to the quest line that keeps it interesting. Even when I saw it coming, the execution on a betrayal was praise worthy. And the revenge was sweet.
Quests effectively propelled me to their endings, feeling quick enough to be energetic and slow enough to be comprehensive.
Yet Skyrim falls where it spends most of its time. In between quests, in loading screens and random huts, in item management and skill trees, there is far too much filler, too much time spent without purpose or enjoyment, just drudgery. The PS3 version is especially unfortunate here, with loading that takes about 30 seconds or more and poor streaming outside ruining the atmosphere.
Skyrim exists as an open-world, systemic adventure because we want immersion. We want to travel across the land to reach a hut rather than cutscening over there. We want to own a house and adorn its walls. We want to come upon random little stories and feel special for doing so. We want to choose.
But I wonder if choice is worth the discomfort. Because of choice, every item can be moved and must be saved in its current state upon every entrance and exit of a location. Because of choice, NPCs must have complex and often comical stage directions, which they hop to if one waits from night into morning. Because of choice, there is waiting, wandering, confusion.
I enjoyed coming upon a former imperial prison now haunted by ghosts after a great flood had forced the imperials to leave, choosing to leave the stormcloak prisoners to die as well. I like starting a random drinking game only to have to follow my steps in a Hangover homage. I like having a dragon randomly appear and help me kill an assassination target. Randomness and chance and choice can sometimes lead to serendipity.
But I have spent hours spinning dragon statues so that I can enter an Inn. Hours selling and buying materials. Hours without need.
The Bethesda model has drawn me along for many hours. I have fallen into it. But I am not convinced I like it. There is little precision here, only elimination of failure. Skills improve in power, making me invisible when I crouch, my arrows hit harder, my armor take less damage, my spells require less magicka, but do I improve in skill? Improvement is essentially a stat adjustment to make things easier. It comes with time, not improvement in skill.
Consider Demon's and Dark Souls. While vitality can increase, while weapons can become stronger, the game becomes easier due to skill and knowledge acquisition. I can avoid death in the first stage with a horrible sword now, because I have learned to effectively roll and block and swipe. That I use a great curved sword and a strong shield simply allows me to kill things faster, not better.
To level up in Skyrim, one must strike an enemy, block his attacks, sneak around near him, use a spell on him. The reward is instant, a minor boost for every action, a major boost for the combination. In From Software's series, leveling up requires that one defeats multiple enemies and lives to tell about it, actively bringing their souls back to the hub area. Skyrim rewards for doing, assuming improvement comes with time; Demon's Souls rewards for achievement, knowing that improvement comes with success.
I am a teacher. I know how hard it is for students to learn. But I also know that if I accept a poor paper and have them move on to the next idea, I have not helped them learn. Real success comes with hard work and step-by-step instruction, making the task achievable and relevant to the student. In some ways, both of these games are terrible teachers, with Skyrim assuming students grow with repetition and Demon's Souls forcing them to grow through neglect and pain. Yet the logos of students needing to succeed at a task to progress fits my understanding of teaching best.
I have found Skyrim enjoyable and ultimately worth while. It tells the story of people I like getting to know and interacting with. Its approach to world building and player progression ultimately feel a waste to me, though, a time sink for rewards either not worth the time or better achieved through other means. To build such a comprehensive, adorned world is a horrible task. To make that world something I want to live in rather than rush through is still a challenge Bethesda has not achieved.