Skyrim: Unfinished (Dragon) Business – UPDATE
Like many people in November 2011, I was captivated by Skyrim. Every night, I played until the early hours of the morning, clearing dungeons, dispatching dragons, and grinding my blacksmithing skill, iron dagger by iron dagger, to 100. I sank nearly 75 hours into Bethesda’s vast, wintry world. Unlike many people, however, I never actually finished the game. Clad in the full finery of his Dragonbone armor, my level 44 Orc languishes on some snowy crag, waiting for me to continue his quest. One assumes he is getting extremely bored, not to mention cold.
It’s hard to fathom, after crafting 373 weapons, completing 82 quests, and contracting 4 diseases, exactly how much I still have left. The game has many flaws, but brevity certainly isn’t among them. Starting today, however, I am resolved: Skyrim will fall.
Newly rededicated to the denizens of Tamriel’s northernmost province, I plan to chronicle my exploits in a series of daily updates, designed to amaze and amuse. If all goes well, I should be done by the end of the week. Given my track record, however, I know better than to make any promises.
Before delving back in, I’d like to ask our readers for some advice: which quest chains are most worthy of my attention? The College of Winterhold has been saved, and the tragedy of the Companions guild concluded, but the Thieves Guild, Dark Brotherhood, and Bard’s College all vie for my attention. Which mods should I install to improve my experience? Skyrim doesn’t track the amount of time spent navigating its ridiculous menu system, perhaps because the game is not equipped to display numbers in scientific notation.
I did it! Skyrim is done! Not done, of course, in any real sense. There are probably a couple hundred sidequests I haven’t completed, and a couple hundred locations I haven’t discovered. But the important thing is that I feel like I’ve beaten the game, and that’s enough for me.
Before I tackled the remaining portion of the main quest chain, I finished my business with the Dark Brotherhood. Assassinating the emperor was a suitably momentous task, and I liked the idea of impersonating a famous chef, which is a hilarious concept in the context of Skyrim’s relentlessly meat-and-potatoes world. It also reminded me of Fallout: New Vegas’ White Glove Society, which was one of that game’s strongest sidequests.
I was sufficiently surprised by the whole bait-and-switch that results from Astrid’s treachery, although that kind of betrayal in video games never really sits right with me. Since you’re not really given a choice as to whether or not you want to trust quest-givers, or encouraged to second-guess their motives, the game basically forces you to feel like a dupe. The original Bioshock, of course, pulled off this trick to perfection, but it’s not something that’s easily repeated.
That said, sneaking onto the real emperor’s ship to murder him was a great set-piece, and really made me feel a master assassin. It also reminded me of the Witcher 2 intro, below:
The Emperor’s fatalistic conversation was bizarre, but in a good way. In a lot of video games, you can predict what an NPC is going to say before he says it, and I was pleasantly puzzled by the Emperor’s acceptance of his fate. Convenient, too, that his cabin had a little porch — good for making escapes.
With the Dark Brotherhood installed in their new hideout, I was free to pursue the main quest line. In contrast to most of Skyrim’s sandbox-style gameplay, the end-game is heavy on scripted sequences, which come one after another in quick succession. The first showdown with Alduin at the Throat of the World was appropriately epic; Bethesda gets a lot of praise for their detailed environments, but I think they deserve particular credit for the way Skyrim depicts extreme, wintery weather, another key feature of its setting.
Conveniently, I had already acquired the Elder Scroll, without realizing that it was a MacGuffin related to the main plot. Once Alduin was (temporarily) defeated, I suffered through Paarthurnax’s interminably slow dialogue, which sounds like a homage to Lord of the Rings’ lugubrious Ents. Interestingly enough, the helpful dragon is voiced by Charles Martinet — the voice of Mario.
Next step was the peace conference. This is an admirably ambitious scene — I love how Skyrim’s design allows all the important NPC’s to literally walk in and sit down — but also showed some of the rough edges in Bethesda’s scripted sequences, which tend to feel jerky and a little uncanny. I was also perplexed by all the decisions I was asked to make during the course of discussion. Would choosing the wrong dialogue option torpedo the peace talks? Would it matter which territories I gave to whom? Skyrim suffers, in general, from having the illusion of choice in dialogue, without a lot of actual consequences, so I put these questions to the back of my mind and muddled through. Thankfully, I was able to convince people to let me use Dragonsreach as a giant dragon trap.
Though not particularly challenging, trapping a dragon in a giant vice is always fun. So too riding on a dragon’s back, and I was soon fighting my way into Skuldafn, which I found a little disappointing — too much like every other dungeon in the game for my taste, replete with simple “match the mythic animals” puzzles and one of the omnipresent colored claws. I also missed having my companion along to add some damage — the profusion of Draugr Overlords was no easy challenge.
Sovngarde was a different story — a beautiful, haunting piece of design, which really evokes the intended otherworldliness. I enjoyed the fight that earned my passage into the great hall, as well as a little mingling at the world’s hairiest eternal cocktail party.
Fighting a giant dragon by the gates of what is, effectively, Valhalla. Is there any other way that Skyrim could have ended? I found the naked simplicity of this idea strangely satisfying, and enjoyed the hell of the final showdown with Alduin. And just like that, it was all over!
When Skyrim came out, I looked askance at all the perfect scores it received. I even wrote a nitpitcky editorial, “6 Things Bethesda Must Fix in the Elder Scrolls VI,” which to date has received 76 comments — mostly people telling me what an idiot I am. I stand by my criticisms, but now I can better understand all the effusive praise. Still, despite the epic set pieces and deafening shouts, my favorite moments in Skyrim are quieter, more specific, more subtly sublime, found tucked away in corners of the world where the Northern Lights shine on cold lakes. Now that I’ve finished the game, though, I have to admit: the epic set pieces are pretty cool too.
Someone should invent a word to describe that specific, disorienting feeling you get while trying to remember the controls of a game you know well, but haven’t played in months. Immediately after firing up Skyrim for the first time since 2011, I tried to run, but hit RB instead of LB, which resulted in a startlingly loud shout. I’m pretty glad no one was around to witness my spasm of terror — I almost fell out of my chair.
As it turned out, my last save put me right on the doorstep of a Bard’s College quest dungeon, so I decided to head on inside. I think you can imagine what happened next: Fight draugrs. Avoid traps. Fight slightly stronger draugrs. Avoid traps. Fight large group of draugrs. Fight one particularly strong draugr. Collect Shout word. Depart. Skyrim’s level designers clearly worked hard to add some variety to the dungeons, but they were undone by Bethesda’s vaulting ambition. There are simply too many for them not to start feeling the same.
Thankfully, the events that ensued upon returning to the Bard’s College were much more interesting. First, I indulged in some highly unorthodox literary scholarship, using my Persuade skill to give King Olaf’s verse the Michael Bay treatment. I then accompanied headmaster Viarmo as he read the new version of the verse to the Solitude court. One of the things I love about Skyrim is its refusal to give in to irony; the game takes place in a world in which epic, spoken-word poetry is serious business, and if they player thinks different, the game couldn’t care less.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t occasionally have the grace to laugh at itself. After being inducted into the Bard’s College via a cool, creepy ceremony (effigy burning is always a win), I struck up a conversation with one of my new colleagues. She needed help retrieving her priceless flute, which had been stolen by a necromancer. The dialogue response provided totally broke the fourth wall, and made me laugh out loud: “What would a necromancer want with a flute?” Great. Question.
On the advice of the commenters below, I then turned my attention the Dark Brotherhood. First up was some fetch-questing to Riften, to talk to a member of the Thieves Guild about an amulet I was supposed to fence. My three-month break from the game meant that I had absolutely no notion of the context, but on the plus side, the “cockney criminal” voice acting by the fence was spot on. Amusingly, he paid me in a letter of credit. Who says there’s no honor among thieves?
With that task completed, I was back to the essential business of the Brotherhood: killin’ fools. My first target was a bride at her wedding — a really neat bit of quest design. In the past, I’ve been a pretty objective-focused Skyrim player — get in, go to the quest marker, get out. Something about the Dark Brotherhood makes me want to role-play a little bit. For example, I love that there’s an option to “remain silent” during all the conversations you have with your fellow Brotherhood members, and I select it exclusively.
The quality of the “One Wedding and a Funeral” quest design also made me want to step up my game when it comes to assassinations. I even bought a set of appropriately formal clothes to wear to the soiree. Unfortunately, my character is crap at Stealth and even worse at Archery, which left me with only one option, as far as I could tell: stab the bride in the face and run away. Still, I enjoyed the madcap chase through the streets of Solitude, and as I was riding for the hills on a stolen horse, music swelling, guards fruitlessly pursuing, I had a little moment of pure Skyrim satisfaction.
My next target was a good deal more imposing — a sort of Imperial Secret Service captain. I was sneaking up on his HQ, about to steal his travel itinerary, when suddenly I heard a telltale “you’ve just drawn aggro” vocal cue. I was reaching for the Quickload button when I realized — the town had been attacked by a dragon. In the confusion, I was able to snag the document and leave undetected — aint’ Skyrim grand?
The itinerary revealed that the target would be staying at certain places at certain times, so I resolved to do the deed during his stay in the Windhelm Guard Barracks. Again, I made a half-hearted attempt at role-playing, deciding to lock myself into a cell in the barracks basement until the time was right to strike. As I was waiting, it suddenly struck me: why the hell do people in Windhelm tolerate an inspection visit from an Imperial functionary? Aren’t they, y’know, in the throes of an all out war with the Imperials? I’m no expert on Skyrim lore, but it seemed like a pretty huge continuity error at the time.
As readers might have guessed by now, an assassination in a guard barracks is an absolutely terrible idea. Rather than wait for some other more opportune time (with less complication caused by approximately 15 nearby guards), I waylaid the Imperial as he was making his way through Windhelm castle’s main hall. To my great delight, I found that hopping on and over the long banquet table was a great way of avoiding the attention of sword-wielding enemies, and by the time my target was dead, I was feeling like the Elder Scrolls’ answer to Errol Flynn.
After another stolen-horse escape, I called it a night. Stay tuned for the next update. Two parting observations:
- Jzargo was blocking a doorway, so I used Fire Breath to get him to move. Surprisingly, he didn’t seem to mind.
- I think I understand this from a gameplay perspective, but I still have to ask — why can’t you keep a stolen horse? Have people in Skyrim not mastered the art of, y’know, tying horses to trees to keep them from running away?