I think that Skyrim might finally be the Bethesda game where I lose the thread. Or maybe I should say threads — this tapestry is so rich, and I have so many loose strings running through it, that I find myself letting go altogether and simply admiring the whole mess. The main quest seems great — and I'm sure it is! — but I've wandered so far from it that I don't know if I'll ever return.
I've heard many people say that they never finished the story for Fallout 3 or Oblivion, that they simply wandered the world and did sidequests and maybe started up a business somewhere. To them, the fate of Tamriel/Morrowind/The Capital Wastes may well remain a mystery.
But not me! I was a storyteller, man, I was a finisher. I plowed through the main story for Fallout 3, pausing some to take in the sights along the way but not really hitting most of the sidequests until my second playthrough. I rose up, lightning-hammer in hand, and defeated Dagoth Ur in Morrowind, too. I even finished Oblivion, which in retrospect may be the most thankless of Bethesda's story campaigns. These were games, and they had stories. It was my duty as a gamer to see those stories through.
But Skyrim has me stuck.
I played through the story missions up to Whiterun, I defeated the first named dragon outside the city, I absorbed my first dragon soul and was revealed as a Dragonborn. "Go see the Greybeards at the Throat of the World," they told me. And I tried, really I did! I went all the way to Ivarstead, I talked to some folks about the climb to High Hrothgar, and I got on my way up the mountain. Then I ran into an Ice Troll, who kicked my arse so hard that I turned right around and walked back down the mountain.
That was when I started walking.
I've played plenty of hours since then, but most of them haven't even been spent doing sidequests, they've been spent doing… well, not much of anything at all. I've joined the Thieves Guild, I've tracked down the Dark Brotherhood. I'm also a member of the Companions. I have some quests from each of those factions, though I don't feel particularly compelled to "do" them.
These days, I mostly just wander around. And it's great! This isn't a complaint. But I don't believe I've ever played a game where I would forsake the story that's been written for me, or even the sidequests that can help me level my character, in favour of aimlessly wandering around.
Skyrim drives me to distraction more perhaps than any other game I've ever played. I'm still getting my head around why this is, but the fact remains: the more I discover, the more I get distracted. I boot the game up with the intention of doing something — anything! — and find myself staring at the map for a good five minutes. I look at my frankly insane list of miscellaneous quests, blanch, and exit the quest-selection screen. I start walking again.
It would appear that for me, the nation of Skyrim is much more compelling than the game, Skyrim. Of course, that's not a criticism! For starters, I'm sure that the story is great. But more than that, it couldn't be a criticism even if I intended it as such — Skyrim the game is nothing if not a "place simulator," and it succeeds marvelously at this task. Skyrim, the place, is one of the most spectacular creations yet seen in gaming.
But it raises the question of what a game like this is supposed to be, if anything. Is it an epic tale of adventure? Is it a series of RPG sidequests, dungeons and castles built into a large overmap? Or is it something more than all of that, a collection of ideas and stories and locations and randomania that is so thorough, so exhaustively large, that it finally just becomes habitable? I fear for the people of Skyrim — the Gods have given them a saviour with kitty-cat memory, a guy who is just as likely to valiantly Climb the Mountain and Fight the Dragon as he is to forget why he came to this town and spend a few hours looking in storefronts.
I've never quite believed the people who said that they bought a house and lived a life within Fallout 3 or Oblivion, how they never gave a whit about the main questline. I took their boasts of non-completion with a grain of salt. But here, I can finally see it. Skyrim is the first game I've played that feels so exhaustively expansive, so deep and well-realized, that I can be satisfied doing nothing much at all.
I'm curious if it's just me. Do you find yourself getting more distracted in Skyrim than in past Bethesda games?