I twisted my knee pretty badly at work some time ago and have been off on Worker’s Compensation due to my inability to walk properly.
In that time I have amassed over 50 hours of Skyrim time. Not a lot, I know, but I have done next to nothing. I’ve done tons of side quests, I’ve wandered around the world, I’ve beat people up because they figured they could win 100 septims the easy way, but aside from that, I’ve done nothing.
Sure, I’ve smashed dragons in half with a warhammer and killed giants like they were ants (or, dragons, I guess), but aside from that? Nothing. The main questline remains next to untouched. I didn’t even talk to the Greybeards until hour 45 or so (big mistake, I see now).
This, I think, is what makes Skyrim an amazing video game and this is what makes Bethesda an amazing company. The same thing happened to me in Oblivion. My first playthrough, I put in roughly 60 hours before even going through the gate at Kvatch (and was soundly destroyed because of how I levelled my guy). My second playthrough I put in over 100 hours and I didn’t even beat the game.
I don’t know what the “future of gaming” looks like. Oblivion, and to a lesser extent, Skyrim, are very old-school style games in that you’re just some guy and there’s this massive world out there waiting to kick your ass. Daedric princes don’t care that you’re rocking the best armour and weaponry money can buy — you’re still just some punk. They’re also old-school in their approach. The game is just plain mean, and unlike, say, Dragon Age II, which coddled players to the point of absurdity, it doesn’t hand out much to the player. You escape a dragon and bam!, the whole world is out there for you to explore.
I will admit: I’m a bit of a jerk when it comes to video games. The more draconic and harder to understand, the more I like it. There was a time when video games came with what was essentially a tome, a compendium of rules and gameplay mechanics that you needed to read to play the game. Games like Baldur’s Gate or Neverwinter Nights come to mind — even if you played D&D, you still needed to know how the spells in BG or NWN differed from their pencil-and-paper counterparts. Those days were awesome.
But I think what Skyrim has accomplished is kind of what Dragon Age II was trying to accomplish. Critics of Dragon Age the first complained about its controls and its combat system in general (among other things, of course). Many complained that the lack of a thorough understanding made combat difficult, that in fact, the game was too difficult because of it. The rules were all there, of course, but they required reading.
This is best summarized with an example, I think. I was reading comments on some review site and one person was slamming DA 1 and praising DA II, because they missed two characters in DA during their first playthrough because they had no idea that Lothering would be reduced to a pile of ash after they blew dodge. That’s right: since there were no direct quests (“Save playable character Sten from jail”, or “Assist NPC Leliana in the bar so she’ll join y’all in your quest”), he just took off even though he had just witnessed an army of darkspawn slaughter an army of soldiers.
My main issue with this is that this is a case of pure laziness on the poster’s part: had he bothered to wander around Lothering, he would have found Sten and Leliana. Instead he followed his quest icon without thinking and just took off. While DA 1 or especially 2 are nowhere as free-roaming as Skyrim or Oblivion, Bioware obviously created a world for you to explore. And I think this kind of stupidity, which may or may not have its roots in World of Warcraft or Diablo 2, is hurting the RPG as a category of video game. RPGs should leave a lot of the decisions up to the player should decide where to go and when to go there. I could, to use the previous example, knowingly see Sten locked up in his cage and decide, “tough buddy, I don’t feel like helping you”, and leave, allowing him to get killed by the Darkspawn. It’s my decision to make, which is awesome.
Granted, Skyrim, Oblivion, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas are all made by Bethesda and each has a very similar quest journal which actually points out where to go, sure. But the game does leave the decisions up to you, even if the decision is typically “kill/don’t kill”. But that’s the point. The decisions, the quests, are up to you. You don’t have to do anything. The n00b who complained about the Lothering thing in DA1 clearly didn’t get it. He wanted a game that would direct him through each and every quest so he could complete the game without missing out on any of the collectables (be they NPCs or whatever else). He didn’t want to explore, he didn’t want to check things out for himself. He just wanted someone, or something, to tell him how to play. And I guess that’s an acceptable thing to expect from a game, but it’s not something I like.
What Skyrim ultimately offers, I think, is a choice about the type of game you want to play. You can get right in there, pick the right perks, level up carefully, serve jail time to downgrade some skill levels, whatever. You can smith and enchant and make potions to your heart’s content and fill up your house with trophies of your adventures (or sell everything that’s not bolted down). Or you can play the game at a bit of a distance and not bother with any of that stuff that horrifingly OCD people like myself get caught up in. But what matters is that there is no right way to play Skyrim, just like there is no right way to play Oblivion. Let me stress: I love Oblivion and have put tons of hours into it, but I’ve never beaten it. And I’m fine with that. Which is awesome, too.