Blog #051 - Two Weeks, 140 Hours in Skyrim

I'm just going to say it. One hundred and forty hours is a long time. A really, really large amount of time. I am not proud of how much I have played this game. As a friend of mine pointed out, that is 10 hours a day for fourteen days (2 weeks). I lost my job over a month ago and apart from looking for work, I haven't had anything to do.

Kids, listen up. Not having a job sounds great, because you can sit around and play games. It's not. You need money, but more importantly you need a sense of place in the world. Something that gives you meaning, and justifies why the world bothers to support your life. Sitting around and playing games isn't a fulfilling life.

Anyway, let's get to Skyrim. This is how I felt when it was announced. I made fancy headers based on the main line quest log glyphs, because I think they look great. This was formatted for blog view, not thread viewing but ehhhh.... what are you going to do?

Dovahkiin, Dragonborn. Such an iconic image.
Dovahkiin, Dragonborn. Such an iconic image.
I miss Cyrodil already...
I miss Cyrodil already...

I played The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion a hell of a lot. Over 500 hours of gameplay across 6 years and two platforms. It was the first time I felt fully immersed in a game world, where it was believable to a point where you could just live in the world. You could get a house, walk around town. Shop. Make friends. Eat. Train skills in a realistic way (level by doing). In the last year or so that I've been playing it I have had to mod it extensively, as a lot of the graphical quirks of the engine do not hold up, like most products early in a console generation.

Morrowind didn't do anything for me, purely because up to that point I was a console gamer and even though it was available on xbox it contained a lot of bad elements from porting and not what I would call user friendly. Maybe if Morrowind had made more of an impression on me I would have given it more of a chance and wouldn't have been so blown away by Oblivion, but I consider it a formative experience from my teenage years and don't think I have lost anything in the process of skipping the first fully polygonal Elder Scrolls title.

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The game opens with you deep in Skyrim. Literally. You're being carted to your own execution already in Skyrim with your past being explained only briefly in passing (you were trying to cross the border for some unknown reason... allegedly). Events that you didn't know about are already well under way and the game doesn't go out of its way to patronise you because the characters in the world talk as if events such as the civil war are common knowledge.

As the player, there is something satisfying and immersive about slowly piecing together a timeline and a history of the world around you through books and dialogue and not having the game open with "Hey, let me break down exactly what is going on". It is part of what I feel is a way of introducing the player to the idea of talking to every character you meet and exhausting all of the conversation options. Information becomes a commodity to be gained through interaction. It is essential to understand the world, but also progress through items and quests. As a long time Oblivion player there is no way I'm not going to talk to every single character anyway, but it is an interesting example of immersive game design.

I name my RPG characters after Phoenix Wright characters
I name my RPG characters after Phoenix Wright characters

In Oblivion I felt the only real race and class people should play as was high elf. As the most gifted magical race, they have an advantage in magic and if you are a mage you can do anything. Any deficient aspect of your character can be supplemented by creating a spell or brewing a potion whereas a warrior is a warrior. This leads to some very interesting experiments involving stacking of spells and potions that allow you to run faster than the game can load, and jump above the game world in a single leap.

This doesn't hold true in Skyrim. Character race and class don't really matter as the bonuses are negligible, there is no spell crafting and potion effects are very limited (plus they don't stack). That said, I still picked high elf because that is what I enjoy. So, of course the first thing I try to do is break and exploit the game as much as possible. Leaving the starter dungeon at level 20 because of sneaking around and attacking my companion at the start, putting arrows in his head, slashing away at my friendly tutorial guide who has given me no reason to assault him over and over again.

Despite the levelling and class systems being radically different from previous Elder Scrolls titles I haven't felt constrained in any particular way. I play how I want and at my own pace. At level 58 I have spent most of the game as a mage, and progressed through 140 hours levelling just a few skill trees. The lack of spell crafting really limits my options as far as my options go but again, in Oblivion all I would use that for was to exploit and break the game. Just because I could. I wanted to see it break down.

All it took in Oblivion was getting Azura's star, summoning the top level daedra, capturing its soul, summon bound daedric armour, damage, drop and repair it to get completely weightless armour, enchanting each armour piece with 20% chameleon and that's it. You have broken the game. You are now permanently invisible, nothing will attack you. I don't think this is the reason spell crafting was taken out, but it helps streamline the game and forces you to play a more rigid path where the pace of progress is consistent at the higher levels as well as at the start.

As suggested by trying to break the game, I play fairly stupidly. That's not to say I'm bad at it, or make poor gameplay decisions. I mentioned this earlier, but I love the feeling that my character is living in the world. That makes my style of play in to a routine, much like real life. Clearing out dungeons and exploring is my job, and at the end of the day when I have finished I come home, say hello to my wife, unload all my shit and go to bed.

I have a horrible compulsion where I have to keep one of everything, and so I store everything in my house after each dungeon cleared then sell the duplicates. This adds so much unnecessary inventory management that I can't really fault the game for. It isn't supposed to accommodate my play style. This results in a very methodical and predictable pacing to the game where I have a regular cash flow and regular inventory of new items coming and going, and also the rate at which I can complete quests.

I can't think of any other way to play the game, because if I've learnt anything about Bethesda RPGs it's that at some point I will need an item. This way, I will probably already have it back home and just need to fast travel instead of hunting it down. You know what though? It's boring. Anyone else (yes, even you, reader) would go insane playing this way but I just can't help myself. I feel like it's a testiment to how good this game is that I am willing to put up with my own stupidity.

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Despite all this self sabotage, the game offers an incredibly rewarding and immersive experience. The vistas in the game are beautiful, characters and objects are well modelled. There is some beautiful lighting and weather effects, which is appropriate considering the amount of snow and sunrises over mountains you'll be seeing. Textures definitely fall short when examined up close, but as always thee games are about scope, the bigger picture. You should be looking out over miles of tundra and thinking "that mountain in the mist over there... I could go there if I wanted to" not "compression artefacts are preventing me from enjoying this game".

There have been countless jaw dropping moments either because of funny encounters/bugs or impressive quests and enjoyable writing. About 40 hours in I had my first giant on dragon fight, and to see these two juggernaughts go head to head is something I just cant get in other games. Everything is so scripted in most franchises, but Bethesda made their name on open world with very loose scripting. I would happily watch a giant club a dragon to death again anytime.

Amazing landscapes
Amazing landscapes

It sounds like I am giving Skyrim a free pass, but I'm not. The game also falls short in some minor ways that I didn't expect. I don't care what they say, this is still the gamebryo engine. Either that or the programmers recreated all it's quirks and bugs perfectly. It has to be modified, there is no way it was created from scratch. I have experience much less bugs however, compared to Oblivion. That game (without the unofficial and official patches) is so broken and unenjoyable whereas the worst I have experienced is not being able to progress through a quest stage or an item stuck in my inventory.

After 140 hours I am still discovering new places (I haven't even been to 2 of the major towns yet), facing new enemies and even hearing new voice actors. It's strange that this amount of content can be packed in to a game in 2011, where everyone complains about DLC and games being too short. The internet would have you believe that publishers are constraining game development so that experiences are shorter so that you will buy DLC and maybe that is true. I can't say that is never the case, but Zenimax just let Bethesda make the game they wanted to make and it is enjoyable, massive and in many ways the best game they have ever made.

I didn't think it would be possible to surpass my experience with Oblivion. Like I said in the opening, I spent so much time with that game and as a result I started to think that it was one of those experiences that will always be the best because it was the perfect game for that time in my life. Skyrim has made me feel fully confident that I was worrying over nothing, and that I can still form a connection and have intense experiences with games even in a difficult time of my life.

I am Jeff Gerstmann, and this is my Burnout Paradise. Oh yeah, one last thing...

Dragons are pretty badass, I don't know if you've heard...
Dragons are pretty badass, I don't know if you've heard...

I have to mention dragons. I'm sure everybody is sick of hearing it, but they are an important part of the story and world. Who cares though? All I care about is how good they look and animate. Their scripting is dodgy at times because they have certain attack patterns and now that I have broken the game by having unlimited magicka, the scripting bugs out when you have a dead flying dragon that spontaneously explodes when it feels like landing.

The best moment in the entire game for me was the first time I shot a dragon out of the air with a dual liughtning spell. It spun around, crashed to the earth with such momentum that it slid for 50ft and left a huge groove in the ground. Was this a completely scripted event and I was supposed to shoot it down? I didn't care. IT. WAS. FUCKING. AWESOME.

FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT!
FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT!

A friend who has been keeping away from this game for the same reason why I had to have it came over, and after pointing out the ridiculous and humiliating 140 hours listed on steam was blown away by how the dragons moved and looked. It is easy to become jaded about this kind of thing, but it is a spectacle when a dragon circles overhead, lands on a roof and tries to burn you. How can they top Dragons in The Elder Scrolls VI? Especially when they also have giants here offering two exciting enemies that provide so much entertainment when you catch them fighting.

Thanks for reading. I know this is long, but I needed to write something about my experience.

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