Do What You Will

I deliberately avoided playing Skyrim when it came out. I avoided it for nearly two years, because I knew that it would eat up a lot of my time. I sunk five or six hundred hours into Morrowind, one of its predecessors, and I’m working on doing the same in the homeland of the Nords. It’s a journey that’s teaching me a lot of things about what I want in games and how I make choices.

The Game

The thing that sets games like Morrowind, Skyrim, and Oblivion apart is that they’re a sandbox. You  can go anywhere, fight anyone, and do whatever you want. Is that questgiver annoying you? Run him through and loot his corpse so you can spend his money on vintage brandy. Master sword and spell, or sneak up on people with a giant axe and then smack them in half. The game drops you in a fantasy world a newly freed prisoner and the subject of a vague prophecy and says “Do what you will.” Sometimes that’s following the main storyline to its conclusion, and sometimes that’s heading north and enlisting in the army.

Map of SkyrimAnd it is big. With thousands of people and a literally infinite number of quests thanks to procedurally generated content, it’s easy to lose hours in Skyrim. There’s all manner of nooks and crannies to explore, and the world itself is gigantic. It’s fill with diverse landscapes, from snowy peaks to rolling meadows, tiny villages, bandit caves, and ancient ruins. Over every hill there’s something new to see.

With so many choices, a game like that can be overwhelming. It forces me to constantly figure out what I want and how to get it. It doesn’t  give any hints, nor does it pull any punches. The challenge isn’t just fighting monsters and solving puzzles. That part is relatively straightforward with a decent sword. The real challenge of the game lies in staying focused enough to accomplish objectives. I don’t know how many times I’ve wandered away from a quest to check out a hill or just wander the countryside incinerating bandits.

The Impact of Immensity

So it’s huge, and you can do anything. There’s no one to tell you otherwise, though there are consequences for your actions. Steal, and the guards will chase you. Assault someone important? Be prepared to have them not talk to you. It goes as far as the game can, but it’s a lot like real life. There’s this vast expanse of opportunity which leaves me utterly paralyzed half the time. I want to be a wizard, but I also want to learn more about the Companions, anointed wolf-warriors of the north. I want to do it all, but can’t decide what to do first. I develop organized plans of action that last right up to my next quest or the moment I look over a hill and think “I wonder what that is down there…”

This is not unlike reality. My plans are nonspecific, and while I can commit to things, I sometimes have a hard time understanding what I need to do to take them all the way, especially because–oohh, shiny. I maintain a semblance of organization, but mostly fly by the seat of my pants. I think the questions Skyrim pushes me to ask have a lot to teach me about doing things better. Every moment in game I have to know what I want and know what I need. I want to assault that fortress of bandits. I need to make sure my weapons, armor, and spells are up to the task. If I don’t have what I need I’ll never get what I want, whether I’m the Dragonborn or just a peasant.

I don’t tend to have a character in Skyrim, just an avatar, little more than a car that I drive around the world. The hard part about that is that I can’t interrogate the character. I didn’t invent them. They’re me. I have to know what I want, not what they would want if they were real. The latter comes a lot easier to me. I’ll get it eventually, once I learn the game and know how to go from point A to point B. My first character is never my last, and I can see that it’ll keep me going for a long while.

There are lots of games like this. I’ve already talked about Minecraft and the way it pushes players to do this exact thing, but where Minecraft does it with landscapes, Skyrim presents a world full of affairs and people. Things are happening all around you, and where Minecraft presents a world of resources for you to exploit, Skyrim gives you the tapestry of history and asks you to find your place. It has one rule: do what you will.

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