I'm far, far, from done with the game. Thirty hours is the point where a lot of people had deadlines and reviews to write, and like many players I've barely scratched the surface of the game's main quest in search of other profitable pursuits.
Words to follow may contain what some might call mechanical spoilers. I won't be talking about the story much, except for the tutorial. However, some people define spoilers differently, and I believe this is a significant enough buffer for warning that I can now cut with abandon. Consider the next paragraph to be the actual start of my essay, so to speak.
Skyrim (AKA The Elder Scrolls V) is an RPG of the western style, with interactive real-time combat and a character and personal story that you create. The story that happens around you is partially pre-determined, if one takes up certain quest chains, but often procedurally generated, thanks to a new type of Bethesda's "Radiant AI" that randomizes certain situations and quest lines and has parts of the world react to your actions.
Skyrim is a game about doing stuff, lots of stuff, on a long list. It's also a game about slaying dragons, but sometimes those dragons happen randomly without being on your list. Other times they are on your list. Like many RPGS, it is set in a fantasy-like world with medieval trappings, a low level of technology, and lots of ancient ruins and tombs to explore. It is a very large game with a lot of things to do.
My Identity in Skyrim
When you first begin the game, you are a prisoner who is being taken to his or her own execution. Well, no, I have that wrong, let me start again. When you first begin the game, you are a prisoner who is being taken to his own execution. You don't get the opportunity to define your character as female until after you are pulled off of the back of the cart you're riding in, at which point the game lets you choose your race, and then your gender, with Male Nord being default. The word Nord is a made-up one, but that is, Nord, as in "Nordic;" that is, a blond Viking type, and a man. That's the face you're wearing when you're first pulled off the cart, which only then you can change. Race is a more important choice than gender, because it has a mechanical effect, but both of these affect the game in some way.
I almost always play a game as a woman if that option is available to me. This time, I also decided to choose a non-human race: a Khajiit, or cat-person, because I was interested in playing as a stealthy character. Sometimes the game knows who I am. Sometimes it doesn't appear to. What's notable to me is, if at any time the game can use the fact that I'm a cat-woman to be hostile to me, it does so. How many bandits in Skyrim have killed their cousin's cats? Lots, apparently, because I remind them of their cousin's cats, which they killed, and they would like to alert me to this fact, and also, the fact that I would "make a fine rug." (Not a fur coat, even though it's cold outside. A rug.) On the other hand, a woman in Whiterun likes the Khajiit a lot; she is interested in trading with their caravans. Would I like to learn more about the Khajiit? No thanks, ma'am, I am one. No, but she would like to tell me. She does not seem to recognize that I am one herself, nor do most other Khajiit that I encounter, even if this should make them more well-deposed toward me.
I meet a Khajiit in the mage's college. He is studying Destruction magic, because he would like to use it to steal things more effectively. I am like you! I want to say. We should be close friends, or maybe even "frienemies." This is not possible, at least not when I first meet him. It would require more writing than telling me I would make a fine rug.
There are different strategies that one can take in playing a game such as this. I like to do the strategy of doing a little roleplaying, of deciding who my character is, and therefore, what she wants. I pursue the quests that I think would interest such a catgirl: stealth and magic, and I let others slide. Sometimes, even, when at an inn, I buy food even if I'm not actually low on health, because it's dinner time and I should be hungry then. (That doesn't stop me from chowing down from an entire menu in the middle of combat if I need the health, though. Roleplaying only goes so far.)
Thiefcat cares very little for the conflict between two different types of Nords, the Rebels and the Imperials. I get the feeling the game wants me to care, but I will have to save caring for some other alt, a Nord alt. The way it introduces this conflict initially, I think, is somewhat poor. During the beginning of the game, you are being chased by a dragon, and trying to run for your life while your hands are bound. The rebel enters a building by one door, and the Imperial by another, and you need to pick one to follow at that moment. I chose the rebel, though this was not really a conscious decision. At this point in the game, you are running from a dragon, you are still trying to get the hang of the HUD, and you may have made the mistake of trying to play the game with a keyboard and mouse, hampering your progress. Did I mention you are running from a dragon, and that odds are at least 50/50 your character isn't a Nord in the first place? I picked a door and entered it. All you white humans look alike to me.
Fortunately my choice wasn't binding, but since your contact suggests his favorite side to you upon parting ways, there it shall always be in my to-do list. "Join the Stormcloak Rebellion." One item on that list that I do not believe that I will ever do.
Big and Little Things To Do
As I said at the start, that to-do list is the essence of Skyrim. In fact, it's the essence of all games of this type. If I were to try to look at this game on its own: not using Oblivion as a benchmark, not comparing it to the (very comparable) Fallout: New Vegas or other games of this ilk, I might end up comparing it instead to Cityville.
Here I'm going to bring out Chris Trottier's GDC talk again, because parts of it are absolutely meaningful for things that are in a completely different type of game for a completely different audience. Here are some things she likes in social games: Wanting, Getting, Having. Slide number 86: "A 'To Do' List where I make actual progress."
We have really evolved to love the to-do list. I know many days, having such a list, then doing the things on it, is the only way I can get through the day feeling good about myself. It makes me feel productive. Now here are video games that make you feel the same way: productive. The quest list has been around for a long time, of course, in various MMORPGs, in older CRPGs, a To Do List Where I Make Actual Progress. In real life, I have lots of things to do: get some vegetables for dinner, book hotels for the holidays, start Christmas shopping, wrap up one personal project and start another, grade papers, write articles. In Skyrim, I have lots of things to do: pick up one dagger and take it to another person, to get a reward, then cash in another quest while I'm in town, and while I'm here I'll pick up some potions, and buy some furniture, and I have this tusk I've been carrying around to give to the lady who asked about caravans and ... *b'doink!* I got an Achievement! Well, actually I'm playing on PC, so I don't get the cool sound effect, but I still got an Achievement. Running these little errands has made me "Hero of the People." That's kind of neat, because running errands for my own household does not make me hero of the people. It just makes me a person who is doing the basic necessary things to continue on living in society. In Skyrim I might have my to-do list interrupted by bandits or an assassin. In the real world, I might have my to-do list interrupted by the cat throwing up on the rug. But the point I'm trying to make here in a roundabout way is that this is not so different from Cityville. Sure, the things you have to do to check off your to-do list are different, but this is ultimately the same exact kind of brain manipulation that a social game does, just carried out alone in a 3D space instead of requiring the hassling of your friends.
I mentioned that there is more than one play style here; there is the roleplaying play style that I prefer, but there is also the list-heavy play style, where everything on that list is gospel and you must do it no matter what, or feel unfulfilled on some basic level. This is not to mention the Achievements, which are a different to-do list outside of the game which you also might be interested in following, checking off, and feeling unfulfilled if you cannot accomplish each individual item. With this play style, even if it makes no sense for your character to choose a side in the Nord civil war, or to become an Assassin, or to become a werewolf, you do this, because otherwise you would miss an Achievement that you could get, otherwise. Wanting... getting... having.
Here is a Tweet from Quintin Smith today.
Here, linked, is that screenshot.
And here are a few of mine (though taken on the medium graphical setting).
Now here are the words on Trottier's Slide Number 90: "Yummy on the Eyes."
So another thing that keeps people playing, and gushing about, Skyrim is the beauty this landscape has to offer. Even if you don't fall in to the obsessiveness trap that's set by that long "to do" list, you may have the curiosity to see what's just around the next bend, and what lovely photographs you will take.
Where It All Falls Down
So now I'm going to actually spoil a small part of a quest, which is a Thieves' Guild quest, and is basically the second big job that they give you. Here I am tasked to shadow a guy, follow him to a location. He walks around town, then walks in to a warehouse and around a long maze of boxes. The boxes are surrounded with guards. The guards aggro on me if they spot me, and go straight in to bloody murder mode. The guy I'm shadowing, on the other hand, does not seem to react to this at all.
I die to the guards. I die a lot.
Finally I get the bright idea to just wait until the guy goes to his final destination instead of following him through a maze of crates. I can get there by swimming under a dock, and waiting for a really long time.
This was worth doing, because the rewards for the quest were good, but it was a giant pain in my butt. It was also an immersion-breaking pain in my butt, because it's crazy that this character didn't see me when a half-dozen guards are on my case and spotted me right away. It's also crazy how I die a lot. I die so very much. Now, I just save after every major combat victory, because I have no idea if a guy with a broadsword might be around the next corner and blitz me in one hit. I end up living the game in a sort of "Groundhog Day" way, using quicksave to scout ahead in places, being prepared to die, then sneaking in to the situation on the second try prepared with the magical foreknowledge that I will need to succeed. I have an 'enemy radar,' but it's useless for stealth, because it only shows me the locations of enemies that have already aggroed and are going to kill me. When they don't see me, they disappear. My super cat-senses cannot compensate and I must rely on simple human hearing, with headphones, to judge their positions.
If you can get past the sense that you're being manipulated, in a social-game way, by the game's To Do List (like you are in so many games), then you're left with this: Almost all the problems with Skyrim are interface problems.
If the combat doesn't feel tactical or satisfying, well, really, it's an interface problem: you can't see very clearly what you are doing a lot of the time, and the melee in third person doesn't give you enough feedback. If you can't figure out what the active spell effects are on you, or if you have a disease, that's because that's a little buried in the interface. If you forgot to level up, that's because the game reminded you at a time when you were distracted by something else, then you found the level up screen to be confusing. If you forgot to put on armor, that's because you were playing in first-person mode, there's no character sheet, and you took it off for a social mission and just plum forgot. This did happen to me.
Another Thing That Happened
After a friend and fellow adventurer told me a tip about the carts, which would take you safely from town to town, I jumped on to one and rode it up to Winterhold. I don't know how I forgot about this feature from Morrowind, but, it has been a while. While in Winterhold I visit the Mage's College, join up and do a quest, and then realize there is no cart in Winterhold to return to another city. The nearest major city is Windhelm, where I haven't visited yet, but it doesn't seem to be so far, so, I figure I can walk.
I begin walking down the mountain, and I see something shiny, blue and pretty. In my player mind, and in the mind of roleplaying a catgirl who also dabbles in alchemy, I think: Oh, something shiny! It looks like a pretty bug, and I like to eat pretty bugs. I am going to check it out.
I get close to the pretty bug. The HUD says it is an Ice Wraith. It is shiny-shiny and OH NO, oh god, it's shooting ice at me and epic combat music has started and the ice hurts like cold burning. I try shooting fire at it, but that doesn't seem to do much. So I break and start running down the mountain. Maybe it won't catch up.
Suddenly, on the HUD, I see its health go down. Oh, good, something is attacking the thing. I will slowly turn around to see who my new friend is--
I continue to run down the mountain, to just outside of Windhelm, where with the help of a couple of town guards, and using my own fire magic, I defeat the beast. The guards are all suitably impressed with my epic, heroic deed.
One dungeon later, I will be chewed to death by a poisonous rat.