Beer & Video Games: Skyrim

Beware! Here there be spoilers.

I had this whole big thing written about Skyrim. Some of it made it into this article, and some of it I saved for future use. But most of it went in the garbage, because after Erin proofread it, she asked me, “Who’s the audience for this?” And I immediately realized I had no freakin’ clue.

I was experiencing something called gamer’s guilt, wherein I assumed most of my readers were not gamers and took it upon myself to explain why video games are totally worthwhile, guys, really. Well you know what? Forget that! If you didn’t want to read about games, you wouldn’t have clicked on this post. So join me, my geek brethren, as I discuss my adventures with a game you’ve no doubt heard about and probably already added to your “beaten games” shelf: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I, however, still have some things to say about it.

Skyrim is a jungle gym built from rugged tundra and fantasy tropes. Its vistas are blanketed in snow and pine needles, filled with rabbits, elk, and vicious, thick-furred bears. In film school I learned this five dollar word, verisimilitude. It’s the secret ingredient that makes good illusions seem real and helps us suspend our disbelief. Skyrim, like previous Elder Scrolls games, has it. Just walk around in the game for a while and you’ll stumble upon mythical artifacts, bards singing about legendary deeds, and dozens of books to read. If you’re like me, reading books inside a video game makes you feel like a bloodhound trapped in the house during a steak-and-other-dogs’-butts parade, but don’t worry. Bethesda, the developer of the series, enjoys drowning their players in options. My Elder Scrolls tradition is to pore over the first three books I find, vowing silently to read them all and really absorb the world — but then I decide to actually play the game and start ignoring everything but books that boost skill points.

Which, I think, is actually one of Skyrim’s flaws. If you wanted, you could spend the entire game ignoring the narrative and even the world itself, simply following arrows on the map pointing to your next objective. I’m baffled by this. Why would the developers create such a vivid, detailed sandbox only to implement a GO HERE, KILL THIS quest system? I’d rather be given clues about my goals so I can figure out where I need to go and what I need to do by exploring the environment and, you know, thinking.

So, even in such a massive, malleable game, the quests in Skyrim are a bit rigid at times. Here’s one example: Upon arriving in Windhelm, a city named for its pleasant breezes and militancy, I began hearing tales of a serial murderer known as The Butcher. Being the sneak thief that I am, I decided to “explore” a few local establishments, and during one such expedition cracked a safe and found the killer’s journal. My first instinct, of course, was to alert a guard. He didn’t respond to the journal. Even after I made him wear it as a hat. He stood there, staring at me, as if refusing to admit I’d unraveled this great mystery during my first 20 minutes in town.

So I sought help online. Turns out the game wouldn’t allow me to catch the killer until I officially started the quest, waited for someone else to get horribly murdered, went through a lengthy investigation, and finally caught the fiend as he was committing another horrible murder. Talk about awkward.

To be fair, moments like that are few and far between — in most cases, the game detects that you’ve already acquired a crucial item and adjusts accordingly — but they do spring up, and are sometimes exacerbated by glitches. And those can get weird. Bugs are inevitable in a game this size, and considering how complex Skyrim’s code must be, it’s a little remarkable the game works at all, but it’s still upsetting when a quest flat out breaks. Remember The Butcher? I never actually got to catch him. I discovered who he was (like a week earlier, yawn) and stopped the final murder, but he ran to his hideout and somehow never switched from unkillable-quest-character mode back to normal dude mode. So, for the rest of the game, whenever I went back to that house, I would hear “Is someone there?!” before being attacked by an unstoppable knife-wielding madman. It gets worse: Later I discovered this was the only house in Windhelm I could buy. Worst. Roommate. Ever.

These glitches sort of pile up as the game goes on, and as a result my first few dozen hours in Skyrim were the most enjoyable. That’s still more than most games offer, and I really did love the rest of my time with it. But the mystery was gone, and even the fun itself had diminished somewhat. My favorite skills were no longer leveling up. I was running out of entertaining, story-driven quests. Thanks to the fast travel system, I could bamf to almost any location on the map, meaning I was spending most of my time staring at loading screens rather than exploring the exquisitely detailed countryside. My time in Skyrim began with a desperate flight from a dragon-savaged village where I’d almost just been executed. It ended with smithing a metric ton of iron daggers to get an achievement for hitting level 50. Sort of underwhelming.

My advice to those of you who haven’t played it yet (I know there’s at least one of you) is to jump in, ignore the quest arrows as much as possible (sometimes it isn’t), and explore at your own pace. When you’re not fixated on an objective, the game opens up to you. It’s all about options, and this wealth of paths, coupled with the game’s unpredictable underlying systems, makes Skyrim feel more chaotic and lively than any other game I’ve played.

The game’s dragons embody this chaos. They patrol the sky dynamically, sometimes attacking without warning and others flying off as if bored by your feeble efforts to flag them down with fireballs. And just when you think you have fighting them figured out — when you know the next one will be a pushover — the game throws an upgraded version at you. Or two at once. And during your battle with those ancient airborne beasts, those legendary bringers of  soiled-pants, a common cave bear might attack you, apparently not noticing the enormous nightmare-machines circling overhead. This, of course, pisses the dragons off. Columns of fire and ice hit the bear, which roars the bearish equivalent of “WTF?!” and flees as the dragons drift along behind it, spitting more hot- and cold-running death. You use the distraction to retreat into a nearby town, but you hear something big on your heels — a second bear has followed you. When it attacks, however, a freakin’ goat runs up and rams it in the snout. Then a dragons touches down nearby and roasts them both. You scream “That goat saved my life!” at the screen, loose an enchanted arrow at the dragon’s dome, and suddenly realize you’ve gotten way too into this game.*

But that’s OK. Like a fantastic movie or book, Skyrim draws you into its world. Unlike those, however, it lets you loose to explore, form alliances, and enjoy the narrative on your own. Imagine how nerve-racking that must be for the people at Bethesda! Most artists want some level of control over how their work is enjoyed, but with something this huge and varied, the designers could spend 100 years bug testing and fine-tuning and still miss a thousand nooks and crannies.

I promise I’m not stretching (much) for a comparison when I say it reminds me a bit of brewing. I love homebrewing, but the process is painstaking. During every stage, you have to sanitize your gear like a scullery maid with OCD. Otherwise bacteria sneaks in and spoils everything. In my latest 5-gallon batch, I’ve already encountered a bad bottle in the first 20 or so I’ve opened.

Now think about it on a larger scale. At a largish craft brewery, you’re dealing with millions of gallons of beer, and there’s a good chance you aren’t using any sciency stuff that makes your technically perishable product last till doomsday. The artisans behind that beer can’t sample every bottle. They may not know what it will taste like in five years, though some customers will try to age it. The makers have to hope they did their job properly and ship the damn thing out.

I respect the people who made Skyrim not only because they respect beer enough to put it in their game (and mead … oh, the mead!), but also because I think they get what the spirit of brewing, of creation, is all about. When brewers pitch yeast into a giant vats of wort, they invoke an ancient ritual that creates living works of art. Game designers do the same thing in a new way. They breathe life into a billion pixels, cramming entire worlds onto a single disc. And both are either brave or stupid enough to offer their creations up to us, the consumer, and hope we enjoy them wisely.

*Really happened.

Featured Image: Some rights reserved by Eric Kilby.


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