This will probably be the last time I write about Skyrim here. Probably because I should really move on to something else, considering my play time, even though I'm not even actually "done" with either the main quest or the war quests of the game. My To Do List is finally shrinking to something manageable (in the game, that is; in real life I still have grades to post and holiday gifts to buy). It's at least shrunk to the point that I'm not sure which of the remaining quests I really care about, and sometimes I avoid doing one at all and just wander off in to the wilderness looking for a thing to kill whose stuff I want to take.
I hit level fifty last night. My build isn't the most optimized: I used some perks in Smithing to reach Dragon Armor only to realize I don't wear it very much, and some early Destruction magic perks are wasted in late game, when I find myself using only the runes and the bow. Forum-dwellers insist that spending any Lockpick perks at all is a waste, but I wanted to pick locks. Overall I am having fun with the game, and it really isn't necessary to spend all your perks "correctly" or pre-plan an entire build, which is how I feel it should be. There is room to make an error or two. At level fifty, very little in the game gives me trouble at this point, especially since I have been constantly improving my gear and have a 100 in Sneak.
That isn't really what I want to talk about.
What I want to talk about is how I love this game, even though it's terrible.
I think my love is evident enough in the sense that I wrote a paragraph obsessing about my character's build and skill perk choices. But the game is terrible in so many ways and even when I do love it it's a love-hate relationship.
First of all, Skyrim is a really buggy game. It has crashed on me often (though slightly less since the recent patch). I saw a horse once walk off of a mountain and in to the sky. Once I fell through the level geometry in to nothingness. I had to complete one quest with the use of the console, because the game didn't recognize that I had a quest item that I already had. I have other quest items trapped in my inventory because the game doesn't recognize that I completed the quest I needed them for.
The interface in Skyrim is bad. The game just isn't designed for a mouse and keyboard at all. With the 360 controller, the experience is smooth enough, but navigating a huge menu every time I want to change a spell or drink a potion is a bit of a flow-breaker. The PIP-Boy in the new Fallout games isn't perfect either, but at least you can create some controller shortcuts for your favorite weapons. Skyrim replaces this with a "favorites menu," which I keep forgetting to use mostly because it's not that great a solution. Allowing me to, say, hotkey half my keyboard, since I'm using the controller anyway, might be a good start here.
The animations in Skyrim are wonky. It's an improvement over previous Bethesda titles... except when I go in to third person, where my avatar still looks terrible moving around. She looks fine in screenshots, but third person combat has no solidity to it. Everything looks like it's floating above the ground. Footsteps have no purchase on the environment. Horses' feet literally sink in to the ground, as if they are running on mud. Every time my character dies - which, really, is quite often - her little badly-animated kitty-tail hovers over her body flopping around wildly.
The challenge in the game is unbalanced. During the middle of the game, I was basically quick-save master, because you might round a corner and get your butt kicked by any given bandit with a two-hander. A dragon might spawn at random while you travel; it might be low-level, or it might be a higher level one that wrecks you. Far more often than this, its mere presence aggros the entire countryside, forcing a reset when an entire town or caravan would turn on me for the sheer audacity of trying to rescue them from a dragon. My character depended often on stealth to survive, but it wasn't until just recently that I found a reliable way to determine how many enemies might be in the next room. Prior to the Detect Life Whisper, my method was to run in, aggro everyone, then reload the quick-save. This works just fine, by the way. It's merely somewhat less than elegant.
The story in the game forces my character to be wildly inconsistent. The alternative is to miss half the content. Playing someone who always makes the "good" choices in Skyrim would be a roleplaying exercise, and is something perhaps worth trying, but isn't going to really reward you the way just going along with everything does. In the mean time, I very rarely get dialog options that indicate what my character likely would actually say in certain situations, and a lot of times, there's just one dialog option, necessary to move the conversation on to the next bit, where I get paid.
NPC dialog is repetitive as hell. Their lines are also stiffly written. I've been home basing out of Solitude for the last twenty levels or so, and every time I walk through the main drag of town, a woman makes a point of telling me that she's much too busy to talk. She has all sorts of errands to run. That's nice, but the fact that you're walking up to me to make a point of telling me how you're just much too busy for me is pretty passive-aggressive of you, too-busy-lady. Let alone the fact that you tell me this every single morning.
The AI is so dumb! Especially companion AI, since my followers consistently hit every single pressure trap in a dungeon. They get lost a lot, jump in front of my weapon, and aggro things for no reason.
Have I complained enough? Did I hit all the fail highlights?
Game of the fuckin' year, man.
I mean I really liked Portal 2. Very solid. Definitely "my other game of the year," so far as these things are ranked. And I'll be moving on to a few other titles too, as soon as Skyrim stops sucking me in. Skyward Sword seems to hold excellent promise.
And yet: and yet!
Skyrim got a 40 in Famitsu, the first western RPG (western game period) to receive a perfect score from the Japanese publication. Skyrim won Game of the Year at the Spike TV awards too, for what that's worth to you. Skyrim has a consistent 90+ Metacritic on all platforms.
But Skyrim is terrible oh my god it is so terrible.
But it's so good.
I'm not so awesome at articulating this inconsistency, but SWERY probably would be. SWERY is the creator of Deadly Premonition which is just the best game and is also pretty terrible by many supposedly-objective measures. This, I assume, is why publications gave it bad scores (except when it got good scores). Problems like "being buggy" or "having bad textures" seem to be a big issue in the gaming press when they would like to give a bad score to a game. On the other hand, if everyone wants to give a good score to a game, these things are easily overlooked. It's worth repeating that Famitsu gave Skyrim a perfect score, but the game is not even close to perfect.
And I think what I learned from SWERY's talk at GDC, is, the reason Skyrim works has nothing to do with textures or buggy horses or combat consistency. What works about Skyrim is that, like Deadly Premonition, it gets stuck in your head. It's a game you want to think about, and talk about, even when you aren't actually playing it. It's a game that, through sheerly random AI behavior, crazy emergent stories continue to happen to share with other players. It's a game where you can write an entire article about the weather because the weather makes you feel something. Skyrim might make you think of Skyrim when you see a sunset or snow. It's a game where the silly repetitive dialog crawls in to your brain and nests. It's a game that allows you to do mundane things, because the repetition of mundane tasks in a game is a trick to make you think about the game next time you do that mundane task in the real world. Skyrim could make you want to stand in front of a forge creating jewelry and then selling it because the idea of a jeweler-adventurer is cool even if you don't need the money. Skyrim is a game that might inspire you to loot cheese and make a room full of cheese. Then you might be reminded of Skyrim next time you eat cheese.
Every game I've loved has had this in common: the idea that it's something that you think about when you aren't playing it, too. If a game had that effect on so many other people, then it's something wonderful, something worth talking about.
But maybe we should stop pretending that it's even possible to give an experience like this something like a numerical "score." Maybe it's silly that we ever tried.
Or at the very least, I think it would be more honest if major game publications stopped giving games bad scores using buggy code as an excuse. I think this should be a turning point for us to realize that this obviously doesn't matter if the rest of the experience is effective. One could instead write "This game just doesn't work for me; it doesn't have that special magic. If you're like me, it won't be for you."
Or maybe one might write "This game is pretty messy in every conceivable way. I played over 100 hours. I can't wait to play it again."