A gambling man once bet me a hundred dollars he could think of something I couldn't convincingly pretend to dislike immensely. Fifteen minutes later, he was crying, and I was on my way to buy a new pair of shoes.
Go ahead, traveler: dare me to pretend to dislike a particular thing you find objectively likable! Perhaps a video game that has a 96 average review score on Metacritic? I'd suggest one that has 68 positive critical reactions, zero mixed critical reactions, and zero negative ones.
Ah, I see you've chosen The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I just so happen to have just played that game for 14 consecutive hours.
Do I hate Skyrim? Do I despise it? Do I think it's stupid and boring? Maybe I do! And maybe I don't. I will go ahead and suppose that I do.
Here, traveler—for you, I have assembled the finest and sharpest collection of bullet points.
The ancients call this Ten Things I Hate About Skyrim.
1. I hate making my own character
Why does every game assume that the player wants to make a character that looks like himself—or someone else, or anyone else? Do I really care if my guy is a lizard-person or a cat-person or an orc or one of 12 types of human? Do I really need sliders for nose depth and chin height / width / thickness / sharpness? While it's true that the non-player characters (NPCs) sure do look a lot better than the monstrosities in Oblivion (who looked about as good as the radiation-mutant Ghouls in Fallout 3), you can still stumble pretty direly on the road to trying to make one for yourself.
The character creation tools in Skyrim go like this: you choose a preset, and then you accidentally touch one fine-detail slider, and now your heroic-looking guy or girl looks like a crayon-drawn wanted poster.
You don't even see your hero in this game — it's primarily first-person, and if you're playing it in third person, in addition to apparently Doing It Wrong, you're still not even going to see your hero's face.
That sure doesn't stop a jerk like me from obsessing over my character's face. I lost an hour of my life to the character creation process. Apparently you're supposed to spend 80 hours playing this game. Well, there went one of them. Seriously, you don't want to ask a person like me to design his own character. You might as well instead prompt me to enter my mailing address so you can ship me an install disc of Autodesk 3ds Max so I can make the character from scratch: it'd take me about as long to learn 3D modeling as it'd take me to make a hot female character that looks exactly like The Girl I Would Marry using Skyrim's character creation menus.
If only Bethesda had pro 3D modelers working for them, and if only they were talented enough to do things like make the most pristinely beautiful and immersive videogame representation of nature in history! Maybe a well-designed main character—at least some iconic template or idea — would get me more excited about the adventure. That's just me, of course!
For the record, I am also thirty-two years old and single because I have hidden every girl in my city on OKCupid.com for reasons like "Favorite TV Shows: ‘Dexter', and no ‘Breaking Bad'? Dealbreaker! Favorite books: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies—try it without the zombies, next time, you rube!"
2. The haircuts are horrible.
To continue beating a deceased battlesteed: holy lord are the haircuts available in Skyrim's character editor atrocious. I am sure that they didn't have Aveda haircare outlet shops way back whenever in whatever surely far-off fantasy land where Skyrim takes place, though they must have at least had Bumble and Bumble.
I just can't take a game seriously without some of the characters having good hair. I at least want my hero to look good. This is why we have so many bald space marines.
Some of these haircuts look like somebody rolled wet yarn in acrylic paint. This one looks like barn hay had sex with spaghetti.
3. Busywork Evolved
To call Skyrim the "game of the holiday season" is a bit of an understatement, and not because Skyrim is more than just the game of the holiday season — that it's possibly the game of a year, or a decade (no, it's not): Skyrim is longer than a holiday season. It is an attention vortex. It is a brain-trap for anyone whose obsession gland freezes up and pledges loyalty at the sight of delicious textured virtual cobblestones: the would-be phone-book-thick hypothetical catalog of missions and quests and sub-quests and sub-quest branches and mission forks and journey outcomes presents the free-time-rich responsible adult with a smorgasbord of lusciously wallpapered busyworks deep and wide as a gross of reams of Denny's kid's menu mazes. It also presents a dozen dialogue-writers with two years of 60 work weeks.
Skyrim is a game in which you control an invisible person whose feet feel like they don't exist; in addition to powers of conjuring fireballs and lightning bolts, your character can also make enormous piles of baskets of beer tankards vanish into thin air if you point the crosshair and press the A button a whole bunch of times quickly. Once the beer tankards are in your possession, what do you do with them? The same thing you do with . . . most of the other stuff you've shoplifted from the floor of this sprawling wilderness.
In short: there's a Whole Bunch Of Stuff To Do in the game. And here's what everyone I know and trust said to me when I said I was rolling around in the proverbial mud of Skyrim with my theoretical tongue figuratively hanging out, metaphorically hooting it up in a grand attempt to enjoy the darn thing, and somehow falling short:
"Are you doing the main quest? If you're doing the main quest, maybe chill out a bit and just have some fun."
So, wait, the main quest isn't supposed to be fun?
I remembered that a guy had confronted me way back at the beginning of the game in the hamlet of Riverwood. He began his first sentence of monologue with an unfamiliar and bizarre name of a person, and then an unfamiliar and bizarre name of another person. It seemed that one of those people was someone he liked and the other person was someone he didn't. One of them was probably a girl. He said he had written a letter to the girl and it was nasty and spiteful and that I should give it to her and say it was from the other guy. I got the letter. The mission dialogue said that I could possibly tell the other guy about the fake letter. I figured, hey, I can stop getting lost on the way to this Throat Of The World place and instead go deliver that letter. I told the guy about the fake letter. I am not sure what happened. I got a couple of gold pieces. Now I remembered that some kid in Whiterun or Dragonreach or Dragonsreach wanted me to tell some little girl to stop bullying him. So I went and did that, and I got a little gold for it. I drank a liter of water standing up in my kitchen, thinking of the massive size of the spreadsheets they must have had to make for this game. It hurt my head a bit. I told another friend I didn't get a grandiose enough feeling from the subquests. He told me:
"Dude, just do the main quest. The dragon battles are awesome."
4. Dragons are huge jerks.
So I was fighting a dragon you fight along the main story path, and I was baking that huge jerk in my fireblast satantongue flamebane destructionspell magick, and I accidentally hit one of the many stalwart warriors fighting alongside me. They all turned around and started shooting arrows at me until I was dead and impersonating a porcupine.
And then, sometimes, the dragons just come out of nowhere and kill you. Man, I don't like that.
5. No first-person camera while riding the horse.
Also, the horse can't walk backward.
Seriously, Bethesda. This is 2011, not 2009.
6. The Eternal Rookie Effect
Famed crime-fiction novelist Elmore Leonard once famously said to "never open a book with weather". He was speaking, of course, of the reliance of lesser authors on stock phrases such as "It was a dark and stormy night". A journalism professor of mine once recounted Leonard's words, referenced "It was a dark and stormy night", and then said that no magazine feature should ever so much as begin with the words "It was".
I'm sure that another author with clout, somewhere in the world, often bellows to his protegees the rule that you should never start a story with a proper name, especially if that proper name is in a bizarre and made-up language, unless the first sentence also describes some aspect of that person's character. See the first sentence of the paragraph up above this one? Out of habit, I leaned on the possibility that someone in the readership here might not know who Elmore Leonard is, so I called him "famed crime-fiction novelist Elmore Leonard". Two sentences later, I called him "Leonard", because I'd already introduced—with a noun-phrase and an adjective before his name—him two sentences prior. They call this a "first reference". They could possibly also call this "not losing the audience".
Skyrim begins most of its proverbial sentences with the names of characters in its made-up dialects. The loading-screen flavor text often catches my eye. The above example is particularly fantastic. It reads:
"Kodlak Whitemane is the Harbinger of the Companions. He does not give orders, [yet] his word is highly respected both inside Jorrvaskr and through all the nine Holds."
First of all—what? Second of all: okay.
"Kodlak": a made-up first name in some made-up dialect that is trying to sound Nordic.
"Whitemane": two familiar words to English speakers, combined into one word. We immediately have the impression of this man having a full head of white hair. Maybe he does. Or . . . maybe he's a she? (With a name like "Kodlak"?)
"Harbinger of the Companions": the two capitalized words in this phrase are words we may have encountered before if we've ever read a book or leafed through one. A "Harbinger" is something that signals something is coming. A "Companion" is a person or thing that one enjoys being with and escorts or chaperones from place to place. However, as these words are capitalized, a little switch flips in the first-timer's brain, prompting him to expect these words, in this imaginary world, to represent foreign concepts. Maybe a "Harbinger" is what they call a "Master Elite Warrior", and the "Companions" are a group of Really Tough Dudes who kill anyone that looks at their shoes. It could be possible that a Harbinger is what citizens of the land of Skyrim call a messenger or an oracle, and the Companions are people who like hanging out with people, though the unfamiliarity of a name like "Kodlak" coupled with a pseudo-familiar name like "Whitemane" persuades us to expect the extraordinary. So it is that writing begins to trick us.
"He does not give orders": to whom? The Companions? We are expecting the extraordinary, so we're expecting that he does not give orders to a specific sub-group of The World At Large that is also not the Companions.
"His word is highly respected both inside Jorrvaskr and through all the nine Holds": First of all, "Jorrvaskr"? Where'd they get that one? An opening Scrabble hand, perhaps? Secondly, all we can really tell from this part of the sentence—as science-minded first-time encounterers to any of these things referenced—is that Jorrvaskr is not one of the nine Holds.
There is a chance the writing is razor-sharpened by some insidious devil, crafted for the sole purpose of excluding the complete understanding of the player at all turns. There's a bigger chance that the writing is subconsciously crafted to maintain an everpresent aura of unfamiliarity—of fantasy. Can you imagine? Fantasy, in a fantasy game! What nerve.
So am I simply saying I don't like fantasy? Don't put words in my mouth, traveler! I'll put them in my own mouth:
My problem isn't with fantasy per se; fantasy is neat. A well-crafted fantasy tale (J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, R.A. Salvatore, someone else with initials) casts a spell over the reader by making him feel like an Eternal Rookie, always lost in a different world which reveals new lore with each plot twist. A well-crafted fantasy tale is at its most supremely cathartic when it leans on the familiar, however, not the unfamiliar.
My problem is with disingenuity, and this disingenuity is all over Skyrim's moment-to-moment writing like bacteria.
Witness the conversation in the video here between two NPCs, encountered not seconds after you enter the citadel of Dragonreach, which is . . . above the town of Whiterun, or . . . maybe a part of Whiterun? Or maybe it is Whiterun. Or maybe Dragonreach is just what this particular part of Whiterun is called? Or maybe Dragonreach is the name of the castle where the Jarl lives- that "J" is pronounced like a "Y" and "Jarl" means "guy in charge"—uhh.
Man: "We'll pay whatever it takes. We must have more swords for the Imperial soldiers."
Woman: "I just can't fill an order that size on my own. Why don't you swallow that stubborn pride of yours and ask Jorland Greymane for help?"
Man: "Humph. I'd sooner bend my knee to Ulfrich Stormcloak. Besides, Greymane would never make steel for the Legion."
Woman: "Have it your way. I'll take the job. Don't expect a miracle."
So, in short, we see a man and a woman whom we know nothing about.
Now the man says he will pay any sum of money for swords for the Imperial soliders.
(The player now knows that the man represents the Imperial soldiers in some capacity.)
The woman believes the man is stubborn and prideful. (The player now knows that the woman believes the man is stubborn and prideful (and that the woman knows the man well enough to be honest with him.))
The woman believes that the man should ask Jorland Greymane for help. (Jorland Greymane can probably help this man easily.)
The man has an old football injury and does not want to bend his knee, especially to Jorland Greymane, though he would be more willing to bend his knee to Ulfrich Stormcloak. However, his sarcastic tone indicates that he would readily bend his knee to neither personage. (This man's surname is perhaps "Straitknee".)
Now the man indicates that Jorland Greymane would never make steel for the Legion.
The woman decides she will do the job. She expresses doubt in her success.
(She did not try once more to convince this man to swallow his stubborn pride and ask Jorland Greymane for help.)
((A representative of the Imperial Legion enjoys the concept of neither Jorland Greymane nor Ulfrich Stormcloak.))
The final takeaway from this dialogue is this: the lady blacksmith suggested that the man ask the help of someone it is readily understood would not help him. She probably suggested this for the sole purpose of planting the seed of the name of "Jorland Greymane" into the player's head, and also to let the player know that Jorland Greymane is someone the Empire does not like, and someone who does not like the empire. Also, because those NPCs had to say something.
The above fist of ham looms over Skyrim like a rolling stormcloud. The people (by which I mean, "me") grow restless!
NPCs are quick to jump in and exclaim their life's stories at you: witness the lady who runs the inn. You are two feet in the door when she shouts, "Welcome! We have cold mead, hot food, and warm beds. This job is exhausting sometimes and I would love to retire." I had a friend who talked like this once—she got fired from the law office where she worked because instead of giving her boss the report she was supposed to give him, she plunked a box of condoms down on his desk and informed him she'd called an ambulance and it would be here in ten minutes.
Then there's the nice guy you meet at the beginning of the game. Hadvar! Sweet, loyal Hadvar. He's about to execute you—begrudgingly, because your name isn't on the prisoner's list. Though his boss says he has to. Anyway, a dragon attacks and you get free. You and him buddy up and bro through a dungeon. Once you break on through to the other side and there you are beneath a beautiful sky, surrounded by the beautifulest nature game developers can make, your companion—brother Hadvar!—intones in his peculiar accent (think "New Jersey by way of Finland"):
"It's probably best if we split up."
Bye, then, Hadvar!
You walk a few steps forward. He huffs behind you, and catches up. Now he says:
"The closest town to here is Riverwood. My uncle is the blacksmith there. He'd probably help you."
Okay! Thanks, Hadvar. (Thadvar.)
You chug along. He trundles up, and continues to speak:
"You should go to Solitude and join the Imperial Legion. They could use someone like you."
Oh! Someone like me—what do you know about me, Hadvar? I don't even know much about myself aside from that I look like a bald female Kenyan marathon runner (so, so hot (my name is T'hondra)).
Now he follows you for a couple of miles, explaining a couple of things. The path takes you through Riverwood. His uncle, the blacksmith—first house on the left as you enter—greets him like this:
"You look like you lost an argument with a cavebear."
Whatever a cavebear is (probably a sort of lizard), Hadvar must look like he lost an argument with one!
Now you go inside, and listen to them talk for a minute, after which Hadvar turns to you and says:
"Good luck. If you get a chance, look me up in Solitude."
"Solitude" is where the Imperial Legion has its headquarters. You hear this name and think it must be some kind of distant, mile-high, snow-blasted monastery.
It's actually the bustling capital of Skyrim. (Apparently, "Look me up in Solitude, the bustling capital of Skyrim" would have sounded like noob-coddling.)
Then his uncle goes on talking for five minutes, during which he hands you The First Quest You Must Accomplish To Continue The Main Story. Alright, then. I could make fun of this pacing, though I'm too busy planning to steal a lollipop from a particular toddler.
I could keep going. I am not going to keep going, in the interest of space. Man, now what do I do with these 50 pages of meticulous notes about Skyrim's dialogue? I guess I'll print them out and then eat them.
In summary: the writing is hammy and cloying and weird; at every momentary turn it seizes a chance to dump an ice-cold bucket of unfamiliarity over the player's head; some players love this — they love feeling lost — and some players don't. Maybe I don't — and maybe when your girlfriend or boyfriend or mother or uncle rolls her or his eyes at Skyrim while you're playing it, this is why.
Also, re: the whole richness of putting together an imaginary language—I've been able to do that off the top of my head since I was about four. It's some sort of . . . brain-function-surplus-related linguistic hyperacuity situation where I am able to speak in literally endless streams of word-like sounds, with improvised grammar attached and everything.
Here, I just did it for you in an Old Mystical Creature voice:
7. No Patrick Stewart = Big Cryface
If you make a video game in the year 2011 and you're not getting Patrick Stewart to do a voice, ninety-nine percent of your audience equalssign massive cryface right now. We all remember—and love!—those four stilted sentences he spoke over the course of 11 feverish rat-stabbing minutes in the sewers beneath the castle where The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion began. He took one look at our anonymous invisible prisoner and declared us the hero destined to unite the land and smite evil, and we started the game right over, closed our eyes, and let him say it again while we used our imaginations. We may have designed our character to look like a porno lawyer whose chin touched the roof of his mouth, though Captain Jean-Luc Picard said he saw something in us, and that would keep us turgid for at least the first dozen hours.
Stewart's character Uriel Septim is mentioned in passing in Skyrim, and the character is no doubt an integral part of the series mythology at this point, though hey! The Elder Scrolls series has no shame about giving a wandering shoe-merchant the same voice as the king of a lesser territory (and the voice of a potion shop owner (and the voice of the blacksmith next door to the potion shop)), so the least they could do is get Patrick Stewart to perform the voices of a couple miniboss spiders. No such luck. Gentlemen, start your cryface.
Oh, well, if you want to hear Patrick Stewart speak contextually relevant things while you play a video game this year, avoid Skyrim and go straight for War of the Worlds (warning: I was one of the developers of this game).
There's no Sean "The Best Actor Alive" Bean this time around, either. Hopefully in the near future I'll get around to designing a cinematic action platformer he can narrate. Of course he'll agree to do it because I am pretty sure me and him would be really good friends—my evidence of this is that he's really cool and I am pretty sure he would think I am really cool, too.
8. "Play it on PC!" "Wait for the mods!"
When I told one friend I wasn't exactly vomiting with joy about Skyrim, he asked what version I was playing. I said I was playing it on the Xbox 360. He scoffed. "Play it on the PC," he said. Oh. I guess it's my fault, once again!
"Aren't you playing it on the 360, though?" I asked him.
"Yeah," he said, not flinching. "I need a new graphics card. I'll get the PC version in a couple months, when there are a lot of good mods to choose from."
"And aren't you . . . enjoying it, on the 360?"
"I am," he said. And then he told me the secret: he's enjoying the game because he has enjoyed Elder Scrolls games in the past and is thus prepared and inclined to enjoy Skyrim. Aha.
So then I think again about Kirk Hamilton's piece here on Kotaku, about how to play Skyrim "the best way". I realize that this is a regular feature on this website and not unique in any way to Skyrim—still, even people outside the internet, hearing me groan softly about Skyrim, are telling me that I'm not playing it "the best way", which implies to me that there is a right and wrong way to play the game. You know what? I kind of don't want to play a game which places so much importance on choice if there's a "best way" to play it. Allow me to be naive for a moment, and suggest that it would be pretty cool if we had a game where every way to play it was "the best way".
And mods—what's up with that? People "modify" the game to "fix" it? Every person who hears me utter a single word of complaint about an Elder Scrolls game immediately asks me if I was playing on Xbox or PC, hears my answer of "Xbox", and immediately tells me that's the reason—that if I'd been playing it on the PC I'd have access to mods and thus access to a superior experience. This is a cousin of the common Grand Theft Auto / Elder Scrolls fan instruction to noobs to "ignore the main quest and ‘just have fun'": ignore the game as it was made by guys who the fans are each giving $60 and "just have fun" with nude mods hacked together by some punk kids.
9. Because I am a jerk and I am getting old.
I don't have time to do any one particular thing for 80 god darn hours, anymore, if it's not paying me at least a small boatload of money for each of those hours. I am running a business and paying rent and trying to eat healthy. How am I supposed to balance my 90-hour work week with something that literally every god darn person I am following on Twitter is unabashedly obsessed with? Plunk me down in front of some deliciously addictive compulsion-fuel like Skyrim, and my brain is going to figure out how to hate it as a defense mechanism. This isn't a cop-out answer: god darn it, this is a real condition and I deserve some sympathy for it.
10. I hate the combat.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is like trying to rip someone's fake mustache off with a gym rope from fifty feet, when it should be like trying to use a bullwhip to cut a Snickers bar in half from five feet. If it's long been your dream to whip a balloon-animal rhinoceros to deflation with an empty garbage bag, look no further than combat in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
The combat in Skyrim is ropy and unsatisfying. A sharp sudden camera tilt accompanies each swing of a melee weapon. In first-person view, single-handed swords—the iconic sort of weapon you'd think a large percentage of people would want to wield—come across the screen with three quick floppy frames of animation, in a peculiar position where it looks like your hero is trying to smash the enemy in the side of the head with the butt of the hilt. I don't get the impression I'm slashing at anything at all, and I just plain don't like the way it feels.
Years of playing and designing video games have tempered my tastes: I like something sticky and frictive and lumpy and turgid and hard. I realized my critical acuity for videofriction when I was 13, and I played Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins for the first time. First of all, the title of the game had two darn numerals in it, which was ridiculous. Second of all, Mario just didn't feel right, and that was horrible. And it wasn't just horrible because it was different. And that's when I knew it: someday I would write 10,000 words about Super Mario Bros. 3.
Well, here I am, today, and I know what I like: I like games that feel like God Hand, Bayonetta, Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, and the frictiongodly Gears of War.
Look: I really like ... no, I love the idea of an Elder Scrolls game. I loved the idea of Fallout 3. I want to explore and get lost in a solitary time-sucking man-cave of a minutely crafted videogame world. I just want it to feel like I'm doing stuff when I'm in there.
I've tried every Elder Scrolls game, thinking that the next one will be The One.
Morrowind did this thing where you could literally pop a dagger right into a rat and hear its flesh squinching and everything, and the game would tell you you "Missed", and that was actually kind of cute.
Oblivion took the dice rolls out of the combat and turned the experience into a sort of action thing. That's cute, really, though it was so floaty and balloon-animally that I couldn't love it. When you rode the horse in Oblivion, the darn thing's feet didn't even look like they were touching the ground.
Well, now, in Skyrim, the graphics are better and the world is gorgeous; we are deeper in the Uncanny Valley when it comes to the viscerality of the action. And here it is, as spacey and garbage-baggy as before. I just want some snap and crunch: I don't want the camera to jerk away like a shy cinematographer just as my blade is about to splice banditflesh. I at least want it to look like my character's feet are touching the ground in third-person mode, and to feel like her feet are touching the ground in first-person mode. I mean, Mass Effect 2 one-upped Mass Effect with some razor-sharp, shooter-worthy shooting mechanics. And that was really rad (I'll pretend it was I who suggested it). I wanted Skyrim to do the same thing for swords—to at least be way better than Dark Souls (in which combat is about as satisfying as feeding a sleeping dolphin).
I just . . . I just at least want a Zelda game that is this big and pretty. Does that, automatically, make me a scoundrel and a rube? Remember, as the Dalai Lama once said, if you don't eat it, it's not actually a cake (actually that's a great phrase, so I will admit that I am the one who said that).
If a mod that makes Skyrim feel exactly like God Hand is released at any point in the future, please email me directly instead of tweeting about it. Because from now on, y'all's tweets about Skyrim are the same thing as Farmville wall posts to my eyes.