Since my parents overcame their reservations of buying their 26-year-old son video games for Christmas, I’ve had the opportunity to neglect all of my worldly responsibilities and dig into the world of Skyrim. Having been initially skeptical about the game–I played Fallout 3, encountered freedom paralysis, and truly disliked the battle system–I held off buying it in the hopes that someone would gift it to me or otherwise tell me that it wasn’t worth my time. But when I saw this video, I was sold:
What drew my attention wasn’t the hilarious glitch in the game or the beauty of the surrounding environment. Rather, it was the existence of what appeared to be purely docile and innocuous mammoths wandering the plains. The idea that creatures–seemingly autonomous ones–of that size existed in a virtual world was captivating. Rarely do you come across digital lifeforms that aren’t hostile, especially ones that dwarf you in size.
But this is beside the point. My first encounter with a Bethesda-made game was Fallout 3, which a friend lent me when I first bought my XBox 360. I played the game for a little over two hours (I think), and was instantly frustrated with the game’s pacing. After escaping to the irradiated wasteland shortly after beginning the game, the only goal that your character is given is “find your father,” which, in a preexisting world, means absolutely nothing. So you travel to a nearby town or you run off into the desert or whatever else you choose to do, but ultimately, you’re just standing in the middle of an irradiated wasteland with nothing to do, no friends, and looking for a father who you’ve never really interacted with nor know how he looks.
This was problematic for me. I wanted to explore and see things and kill enemies, and so part of my displeasure with the game was of my own doing; this is only sort of how you’re supposed to experience the game. But more than anything, I didn’t have any real direction, so I ended up being massacred by a school filled with mutant thugs, and later in a subway station filled with zombies, all of which could have been avoided had the game offered the slightest bit of instruction as to where I should go next; the last thing I want to do when I enter an open-world environment is go off on a side quest for some straggler in a bar. So I was skeptical of Skyrim but willing to give it a shot. I wanted to walk by those majestic mammoths and find a skeletal dragon, which, alas, I have yet to encounter.
Skyrim begins with your character riding a paddy wagon to have his head chopped off when the ceremony is serendipitously interrupted by a dragon. After hacking your way through a dungeon of enemies, you’re unleashed on the world with one caveat: there are dragons flying around and by God, if they’re not killed, the whole world will end. That’s your goal, and it’s a very real one. You know what dragons look like and they really will kill you if you’re not careful in this game. However, there have been complaints about the game’s forced structure and adherence to fate–your character is Dragonborn, which, long story short, means you can kill the baddest of all the dragons. For many fans of the genre, this is a cardinal sin–if I want to be a beggar, let me be a beggar–but it also allows the game to flow very naturally.
The problem with many of these complaints is that no player ever enters Skyrim anew. Whether you like it or not, the world has existed before you started playing and would continue to without you. Regardless of what character you choose, there will still be a civil war brewing, there will still be dragons flying overhead, and there will still be mammoths walking the plains. Your existence as the Dragonborn hardly changes what you’re able to do. Though its status gives you a few special powers and easier access to various various perks, the decision to reveal yourself as a Dragonborn is entirely up to you.
This logically leads to the question of autonomy. How much autonomy can a player actually be given and can you give a player full autonomy over their virtual life?
I don’t play games simply to exist. The wear marks on my favorite pair of jeans say I do. What open-world games offer, and Bethesda games in particular, is the ability for people to exist as whatever they want. The complaint about Skyrim is that by forcing the player to be Dragonborn, that freedom is impinged upon. But to exist in Skyrim as anything other than a Dragonborn is to not exist at all. Without this birthright, you are but another villager or knight or high elf, roaming the countryside, choosing an allegiance in the impending civil war, and eventually, having your world destroyed by a bunch of dragons which you are ultimately powerless to stop. You’re existing in a world that prophesy states will end, unless you–or rather, what you’re supposed to be, Dragonborn–appears, which, for the record, is not a guarantee.
The ability to barter, pick locks, sell items, improve your single-handed weapon skill, these are means to an end, not ends themselves. If the purpose and goal of Skyrim is to allow you to interact with and impact the world in some way, you have to be Dragonborn. Otherwise, the world doesn’t exist. Doom is always imminent. Not being the Dragonborn is the equivalent of playing a Star Wars game as Luke Skywalker except without the high midichlorian count and ability to stop the empire. If the key is to exist in the world, there has to be a world to exist in.
Skyrim is a brilliant game with many flaws, but to criticize it for being what it is, misses the forest for the trees. If your character is not Dragonborn, you might as well be playing Knights of the Round Table or Dungeons and Dragons or Medieval Shop Owner. Skyrim exists because of its mythology, and your place in that, regardless of what you choose to do, is essential.