Skyrimming Part 2: (Unintentional) Werewolf Bar Mitzvah

This was originally meant to be the second installment in a long series of Skyrim-related posts, but it turns out that everyone and their mother has already written this game to death. This leaves the continuation of Digital Love Child’s inagural gamiary in a bad spot, further complicated by the fact that I no longer even want to play Skyrim much anymore. Why write more about something that’s lost its magic? Why add more text to an experience that everyone is already chronicling like crazy?

That idea, in itself, seemed like a good thought to follow through with. It only seems fitting to wrap up this miniscule, two-part series on Skyrim with a look at how I became a werewolf then because, if nothing else, this (maybe familiar) story and it’s details demonstrate why such an absorbing game can start to feel hollow after the passing of no more than a handful of weeks.

My character — the Nord, Reidström — had no real vision of what he hoped to accomplish in the land of Skyrim. He pretty much just set out to gain a steady income, meet some new people and get strong enough not to die whenever a dragon decided to attack (much like my first year after graduation). He/I started off with a bit of prejudice against the reigning government. This wasn’t due to any philosophical disagreement, but was instead because, well, my first minutes of virtual life featured their agents preparing to chop off my head. After avoiding that little bit of unpleasantness, my character emerged into a lovingly detailed world as a kind of tabula rasa — a slate that was entirely blank except for some understandable, lingering resentment for Skyrim’s imperial forces. Reidström’s adventure began without any real shape and, unfortunately, ended in a pretty similar way.

This lack of definition is both Skyrim‘s greatest strength and biggest weakness. I started a game where the only real goals were defined by my own ability to fabricate a narrative more interesting than the one already scripted in the game’s primary quest. The first goals involved heading to a small town without much of anything worthwhile to do in it. Then the game invited me to find a city with a population full of diverse groups, all with their own wants and needs. This is the point — arriving at Whiterun — when most players will stop pursuing the barest pretense of linear plotting attempted by Skyrim developers.

Exploring the city and talking to its citizens fills up the questlog in no time flat and almost any of the optional activities that appear there are far more fascinating than the ones on offer through the default/main goals of the story. Someone wants you to grab an artifact from a haunted crypt; another person asks you to join a guild of pure-hearted mercenaries (more on this later); the fate of an abducted rebel soldier must be investigated and so on and so on.

The ambiguity, for at least a large handful of hours, works well because there’s no real sense of urgency in Skyrim‘s main questline (which is strange because, after all, it does revolve around saving the world from annihilation) and, so, no nagging feeling of irresponsibility accompanies straying from objectives to, say, scale a towering mountain or explore a mysterious cave. But this type of system also sets itself up for a fall: perform too many sidequests, explore too much of the world or advance far enough into the main storyline and the idea that the land of Skyrim is something more than a (extremely impressive) collection of carefully coded mini-projects — crafted by real humans, sitting in real offices, doing an actual 9 to 5 job — starts to ebb away.

The cast of characters are not random. They are lavishly created. Neither are the seemingly organic environments and — even though they are triggered by chance rather than the triggering of script sequences — the emergent gameplay elements of wildlife and dragon combat. Play long enough and the sheet is dropped, the illusion is broken and the reason to continue onward dissipates. I’m not talking about sinking 100+ hours into the game either — the exact sequence of events that killed Skyrim’s magic for me happened quite early on, at the point when I accidentally became a werewolf.

As mentioned before, arriving in the city of Whiterun (the place where everything starts to really open up), allows the player to join up with a group of mercenaries called The Companions. After proving yourself to the group and taking on a few missions with them, the player is accompanied by a teammate on a raid of an enemy fort. Soon enough, that teammate reveals himself as a werewolf. Neat! He promises to tell your character more about The Companions’ lycanthropic nature later.

The werewolf plotline is a highlight of the game. It gave me a real reason to continue forward, made me wonder what other ridiculous stories were waiting for Reidström to find his way into. It also fell apart in a way that highlighted exactly how shallow such a staggering videogame can make itself appear as soon as it began to unfold. After doing some more work for The Companions, new events begin to unfold fast and furious. In short order I was stumbling into a scripted event (that appeared to be yet another Companion quest) that lead my character into a cave. Without really thinking about the choice, I soon became a werewolf.

This was really great at first. My dude turned into a wolf and rampaged through a forest. Push a button to howl at the moon! But after using it in combat once, I discovered that it was just a crumby skill — an unlocked Steam achievement maybe — and was an incredibly useless path to go down. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, it’s just that the after effects of this plotline were so completely hollow. The narrative thread here was snipped. Some busywork afterward and the whole episode is forgotten — except for a skill screen entry that let me uselessly transform as desired. The illusion broke here. Prolonging this narrative, in some way, could have been interesting and maintained the idea that my participating in this questline had actually changed Skyrim‘s story for my character. But it didn’t. Maybe a full moon would have triggered a change — that would have made for some consistency — but, instead, I just lost the ability to become “fully rested” after sleeping.

None of this should diminish Skyrim in any real sense. It’s only because the game succeeded for so long, in such a major way, that it’s unavoidable failures registered with any real impact. Disguising the actual workmanship behind games is the trick that, I’d say, every developer attempts whether conscious of this attempt or not. When such incredible (if temporary) immersion is achieved, it’s almost always due to an incredible scope. The bigger the highs, the worse the crash.

There is no way (that I found) to stop being a werewolf. But there was a way to leave Skyrim behind, content with the memories of a time when it was still something that seemed to stretch beyond its technological trappings. Now that the game’s systems have been laid (somewhat) bare, my copy of Skyrim has transformed itself into a kind of tool — a device that can be used to experiment with different combinations of skills, character types and imposed narratives (like playing through the game as, say, Freidrich Nietzsche).

In the future we can at least hope that other games, attempting Skyrim‘s massive scale, will take note of what caused this titanic creation to fall under its own weight and implement systems that seek to compensate.

***

Reid McCarter is a writer, editor and musician living and working in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen, The Escapist and C&G Magazine. He maintains literature and music blog, Sasquatch Radio, and, more importantly, founded, writes and is editor-in-extremis for game site Digital Love Child. His Tweet-fu is strong @reidmccarter.

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