I’ve been playing The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim (Bethesda Softworks, 2011) for nearly four years. Four ****ing years. You might wonder why I don’t just finish it. I’m by no means a serious “gamer.” In fact, Skyrim is just about the only game I play. I often go months at a time without playing Skyrim at all, and then I play furiously for a few weeks or a month–only to abandon it again. I come back to it, though, because playing it is meditative.
Skyrim has pretty graphics, and, significantly, it doesn’t require me to think. “But Matt,” you ask, “don’t you want to think? Don’t you want to challenge yourself?” That’s a cheeky thing to ask. Jerk. But to answer your question, no, I often don’t want to think. Here’s what happens when I think:
Yep, when I think, I create a breach in the cosmos and summon forth the elder god Cthulhu. So it’s better for humanity when I don’t think.
Besides, everyone needs to rest his or her noggin. You can’t operate at full capacity all the time. Sometimes a man’s gotta put aside all those deep, deep thoughts he thinks and mash some buttons. Mmm, mashy.
One of the fun things about immersing oneself so deeply in a particular game is the intimacy one develops with it. Because Skyrim is not cognitively demanding, I can play the game and examine the world in which it’s set, “Tamriel.” The folks at Bethesda are clearly fans of “worldbuilding.” (I am not, at least when it comes to SFF books. I guess it serves videogames.) But still, having wasted many hours of my life on Skyrim (and SFF reading), I begin to wonder certain things. To wit:
- Although Skyrim’s world is vast, it is dense with ancient ruins haunted by the undead, bandit hideouts, fortresses of evil wizards, among various other adventurous phenomena. Indeed, upon close consideration Skyrim’s scope is strangely disproportionate: The “normal human” to abnormal phenomenon ratio is skewed heavily toward the latter. Outside of the central town there is a bandit den, a team of poachers, and some baddies using a magical forge to create powerful weapons. Inside the town, though, people seem oblivious to these developments. Is this some sort of cognitive dissonance? “I know there’s a vampire living in the cave outside town, but I can’t see it, la la la la.” It’s like a parody of traditional fantasy.
- If there are so many magical artifacts lying around, why do they command such high prices at market? This seems counterintuitive, at least in regards to classic supply-and-demand theories. What’s the political economy of Tamriel?
- Before I realized that creatures respawn–this was very early in my Skyrim career–I thought I might be singlehandedly responsible for causing the extinction of Skyrim’s giants. I was a little sad, honestly. (But I kept killing them.) I wondered what effect this might have on the mammoth population. Would it explode, since giants seemed to be their only predator? Or, like the domestic cow, would they disappear in the absence of their keepers? What’s the natural predator of a giant frostbite spider? A Falmer (blind, cave-dwelling elf), I guess. There are dogs, but no cats. Chickens, but no roosters. No other birds. Skyrim’s ecology is weird.
- Why don’t wizards rule Skyrim? They’re powerful enough. Are they too busy pursuing esoteric knowledge? Seems unlikely; I can cast spells, and I’m running around killing anything that moves.
In terms of format/gameplay:
- Skyrim, like World of Warcraft (as I understand it; I haven’t played), assigns the player a variety of tasks to perform, e.g., a villagers asks the player to help her find her brother, player agrees, player goes to a cavern to find him, player fights beasties, player finds brother, returns to villager, mission accomplished. All “missions” are structured this way, step-by-step, one-two-three. Leveling up is accomplished by performing routine tasks over and over again. For instance, to improve at smithing, one has to smith; to achieve the highest accomplishment of smithing, one has to smith a lot. It’s fun to personalize one’s armor and weapons. And I understand the psychology of the format: In the game, unlike in real life, progress is very clearly delineated (experience points, leveling up). But does it have to be so mechanical? Just because this is the way people think when they play a game doesn’t mean that the game has to cater to it. It could challenge them to think otherwise. (But that would ruin my goal of not-thinking.)
- Almost every encounter is resolved through violence or the exercise of power. What about collaboration? Invention? Negotiation? No? Skyrim lives by the sword and dies by the sword!
- There is such a thing as an interface that is too minimalist. Just sayin’, UI/UX guys.