Skyrim, Land of my Ancestors,
I write this to you now, at the turn of the era, as my bones have grown weary and old. My arms and armor, imbued with powerful magic still as potent as in my glory days, have been laid to rest throughout your lands, to be discovered by the intrepid adventurers of the next age. Only the Thu’um remains to me now.
In this forsaken place at the far end of the world, I have little save my quill and parchment. It is to these tools I now turn in my final hours on the plane of Mundus. There are things I need to tell you.
I’ve found that Skyrim – or rather, the Elder Scrolls games in general – always evoke a feeling of ambivalence.
Storytelling has never been the series’ strong suit. Robotic facial expressions and characters you don’t care about conspire to make the games completely fail in conveying any sense of emotion. The extensive re-use of voices across hundreds of NPCs breaks immersion in all the wrong places. Not to mention that most of the faction storylines are more or less identical.1
While the story isn’t much to brag about, Skyrim has two very firm legs to stand on. One is the freedom to play however you want. Pure warrior? Check. Battlemage? Check. Sneaky invisible assassin who quietly casts a paralysis spell and summons an ethereal dagger to finish the job? Skyrim’s got you covered.
The other, and perhaps the most important one for me, is the exceptional atmosphere. Skyrim is at its best when you just wander around and explore the world and its numerous dungeons, ruins, and stunning viewpoints. From the deepest cavern to the tallest mountain, new and exiting experiences await just around the next turn. Case in point: While the quest where you discover Blackreach is itself entirely forgettable, the actual process of discovering Blackreach is breathtaking: After traveling through layers and layers of ancient ruins, ever downward into the deep, black abyss, you open a final door and a vast expanse opens up before you. The ceiling is visible a hundred meters up only due to the bioluminescent giant mushrooms growing in the cavern, and just look at the size of the place – you can travel for miles in any direction, far removed from the conflicts raging above!
It’s the memory of experiences like these that make me want to re-play Skyrim every now and then. “Unfortunately”, I have played enough Skyrim to have searched every nook and cranny of every cave and ruin, and I have completed more or less every available quest. This means that the only true adventure left for me is in the dark recesses of my memory, doing quests or exploring ruins I had entirely forgotten.
Still, even if nothing surprises me about Skyrim anymore, I find there’s lots of fun being had. It’s partly in the atmosphere, and partly in the freedom of character development. Every now and then, Skyrim beckons me, and I get the urge to start playing again.
The problem is, the bar for actually starting playing after a long period off is awfully high. The reason? “Vanilla” Skyrim just doesn’t cut it anymore. For me, the game must be modded – not substantially altered from the developers’ original intentions, just vastly improved, from the smallest gameplay details to the largest graphics overhauls. Unfortunately, mods don’t always play nice together. I therefore follow a guide called STEP (Skyrim Total Enhancement Project), which lists around 300 recommended mods to enhance the vanilla Skyrim experience and contains a plethora of instructions on installation order and how to fix compatibility issues. It’s still far from trivial – just following the guide takes me almost a week before I have everything up and running.
Unfortunately, when I’m struck by the urge to play Skyrim, I often forget the boring stuff. I had a rather disappointing experience with Oblivion once where I spent several days modding it and got bored after half an hour of playing. I run a similar risk with Skyrim. I spend quite a bit of time thinking about my characters and installing mods, all the while looking forward to starting a new adventure. Then I start playing and immediately encounter the boring stuff, such as getting far enough in the main quest to encounter dragons throughout Skyrim, or leveling up enough to play the way I want to – whether that entails acquiring the necessary skills and spells, or simply reaching a level where I’m able to explore the more dangerous dungeons far out in the wilderness.
The joy of a backstory
This time however, I felt something was different. What had inspired me to start playing Skyrim again was a few pieces I had read on writing a backstory for my characters. I have never done that before in any role playing game, and surmised that this could improve the experience enough to get some joy out of a new “playthrough”.
Naturally, I couldn’t decide exactly what kind of character I wanted, so I created three: A Nord warrior, master of the sword and shield; a High Elf mage, wreaking havoc with ice, fire, and lightning alike; and a “shadow weaver” Khajiit assassin, conjuring ethereal daggers instead of relying on physical weapons (because backstory).
I started playing, and set the three characters on their way to three different parts of Skyrim. Generally I had a good time in the beginning, but I got bored after a while. The backstories required a minimum of skills to enable the playing styles needed to stay in character. For instance, the spell my Khajiit needed for summoning daggers isn’t available until very late in the game and requires a high character and skill level (as does the invisibility spell).
I knew I didn’t want to spend close 50 hours on each character leveling up all the necessary skills to enable the playing styles I had envisioned, and before I got the requisite skills, the playing styles were almost identical to the usual suspects I always end up playing as. Not only would I get bored of playing long before being able to play the way I wanted – I also simply can’t justify, to myself, spending that much time doing something that is neither fun nor constructive. There are many other games I want to play, there are close to a hundred books I know I want to read, and there is much else I want to spend time doing, too.
Console to the rescue
I ended up cheating and decided to “min/max” my experience, so to speak: Minimize the time spent doing menial tasks like inventory management and fetch quests, and maximize the amount of time spent exploring the really worthwhile ruins and ridding Skyrim of my enemies the way I had envisioned. I skimmed through a list of all the questlines and sidequests in Skyrim, picked those I remembered to be worthwhile, and spread them across my three characters. Once I had finished those quests, I figured I could retire Skyrim for now – including deleting the week’s worth of carefully installed and configured mods.
I think that, what with the game being the open-ended time-sink it is and me wanting to do a lot of other stuff too, I mostly just needed to draw a line where I said “here, this is where I can uninstall it”. That way, I didn’t have to spend energy resisting the distracting beckoning of the never-ending world of Skyrim.
After delegating the quests to my three characters, I used the console to enable quick-travel to all the map markers in Skyrim (to cut down on travel time), boost all the relevant skills to the needed levels, and, with the foresight that this would probably be fairly fun for a short while and quickly turn boring, give myself all the equipment and spells I wanted so as to not have to spend much time hunting them down and get bored on the way.
If this sounds like a bad idea, it kind of was – I had, subconsciously, realized that Skyrim was better in my memory than on the screen, and what I really wanted was to quickly get to the point where I was willing to delete everything. The kind of playing I ended up with was a far cry from just wandering around and exploring, which as I mentioned is the main strength of Skyrim. Sure, I had some fun kicking everyone’s butt using a completely overpowered playing style, but the adventuring aspect of it was lost, as was the character development and looting. I was basically just teleporting around Skyrim, speeding to the next dialog or draugr or dragon, aiming for a shallow taste of different experiences before I got bored. Finally, upon hitting a bug in the Dawnguard questline in a moment I was particularly bored, I gave up. I quit Skyrim, uninstalled it, deleted all the mods, and honestly felt relieved.
It was, in a way, a weight lifted off my shoulders, as it often is when I finally decide that something isn’t fun enough to be worth my time. I knew that this was it – there’s no going back. Not now, not later. I fully realized that this pattern will repeat itself whenever I sit down and try to play Skyrim, and since I have so much else I want to spend my time doing, I simply can’t see myself repeating the modding process and playing more Skyrim in the future.
The cycle will undoubtedly begin anew with the next Elder Scrolls game, and I will happily play into its arms when the time comes, but with Skyrim I am finished. I may have completed the game several years ago, but now I can finally say that I am done.
No hard feelings, Skyrim. While you’ve become prettier over the years, you lack the substance I need. We have both grown, but not together.
We had a good run, you and I.
Skyrim, I am loath to part with you on these terms. But try as I might, my time here comes to and end, and a new dawn draws nigh. Sovngarde awaits! And as I feel the force of life slipping from my old bones, I have but one regret:
I should have chosen the vampires.
The Dragonborn, Dovahkiin, Bane of Alduin the World Eater, Harbinger of the Companions, Arch-Mage of the College of Winterhold, Guildmaster of the Thieves Guild, Listener of the Dark Brotherhood, Vanquisher of the Volkihar, Savior of Solstheim, Conquerer of Solitude, Champion of the Sixteen Daedric Princes, Thane of the Nine Holds, Assassin of the Emperor, Escaper of Cidhna Mine, Destroyer of the Forsworn, Vanquisher of the Wolf Queen, Slayer of Morvath, Restorer of the Eldergleam, Healer of Lycantrophy, Friend to Orcs, Honorary Member of the Moth Priests, Dwemer Expert, Bounty Hunter, Treasure Finder, and Master of the Thu’um.
You get accepted into their ranks despite everything, do some menial tasks, suddenly do some very important tasks because deus ex machina, and get to take leadership of the faction when the current leader resigns or dies. Because of course you do.↩