Skyrim And The Compass To Nowhere

Why do you do what you do in Skyrim?

Here's the idea of an open-world game: you do what you want. Skyrim is certainly an open-world game, no argument about that. Can you do what you want? Well, within the obvious constraints of the game, you can indeed do whatever you feel like doing. Want to ignore the Greybeards and explore every cave to the west of Whiterun? Do it, and I won't tell you you're doing it wrong. Want to follow the main quest as directly as possible, only diverging when you need to upgrade your skills? I couldn't tell you why that would be bad.

But I'd be willing to wager that those aren't the reasons why you do you what you do. They aren't the reasons I do, after all, and don't seem to be why other people I talk to play Skyrim. No, what I do is pick up as many quests as I can, decide how to accomplish them geographically, and go to it. Along the way, I'll check my compass for points of interest to explore to fill out my map. Sometimes I'll dive in a cave or fortress and see what it has to offer. More often I don't. Exploration is my general goal, but it does follow two general rules: the exploration is attached to the compass, and my general direction is determined by the arrow on that compass pointing me towards those quests.

In fact, it's entirely possibly to play Skyrim by playing "follow-the-arrow". Pick which quest you want to do, and follow the arrow. It'll work, too, except it rare cases where your goal is on top of a mountain with only one or two paths. Alternately, you can select every quest in your book, and look at a compass full of arrows, and start walking. This is fine. This is even great sometimes. But here's the problem: the compass and the quest arrow can quickly become the dominant form of interacting with the game. Why do I do what I do? Ideally, because Skyrim is an interesting place to explore and become a part of.'s because the arrow tells me to do whatever it is I'm doing.

This has a moral element. Or rather, it has an amoral element. Skyrim's arrow will force you to be an arsehole. This is most apparent when you go to Riften, the town in the far southeast of Skyrim where the Thieves' Guild is headquartered. The first quest that points you to Riften will probably occur if you pick an "unusual gem", possibly in the temple crypts of the first major city you visit. Picking the unusual gem up immediately triggers a quest to find an appraiser. That appraiser — the only appraiser in the entirety of the province of Skyrim, apparently — lives in Riften. So, heading there and asking questions of the right people (whom you can distinguish because of, yes, the magical arrow pointing at them) leads to the quest to join the Thieves' Guild. Which involves framing someone for a theft that sends them to prison, and then extorting a bunch of local merchants for protection money.

At some point in this process you might think "Why am I being a total asshole?"

At some point in this process you might think "Why am I being a total asshole?" I know I thought it. And the answer I had, the only answer I had, was "because the quest told me to", and the arrow said exactly what to do. If I did not turn into a local bully, I would never find out what what this gem was. And I would never be able to clear that quest from my journal. So even though my character was nothing like a thief, I joined the Thieves' Guild. Even though I hated the process of joining, I did their quests. All because another quest told me to, and the compass pointed me in the right direction.

Skyrim doesn't help this process at all. There is no "cancel quest" option. You can play a totally non-magical character, but if you ever asked any character about learning magic — a constant dialogue choice — then you have a permanent quest to visit the Mage College in Winterhold, even if you click it just once, even if it's an accident. It's the same for the Bard's College, as well.

This creates two big problems. One is psychological, but it's still relevant: as a gamer and fan of role-playing games, I have the expectation that I should be able to clear my journal. At the most mechanical level, a part of me believes that this is the point of the game: add as many quests as I possibly can and successfully complete them as quickly as I add them. I will grant that this is partially training; virtually every other game which has various quests operates on this principle. But by not allowing me to cancel quests I have no intention of completing, for moral reasons or otherwise, Skyrim frustrates my initial impulses.

I would be happy to say that Skyrim was pushing me towards a different style of play and work in that direction, but the dysfunction of the game's quest/journal system has a far more negative impact than simply disrupting conventional role-playing forms. Simply put, there are two ways to play Skyrim:

• You can play it as an explorer, delving into caves and seeing what the world has to offer; or,

• You can play it as a competitor, attempting to succeed at whatever challenges the game offers.

Neither of these are "wrong", although I would suggest that the "explorer" option leads to the aspects which make Skyrim unique far more than the "competitor" model. The issue is that Skyrim doesn't allow for both models to be used at the same time.

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The culprit is the journal system. When you are assigned a quest, it's added to your journal automatically. If it is set as active, an arrow is added to the map, as well as adding an arrow to the compass, both of which tell you exactly where it is. You activate the quest by selecting it from the journal. The journal is unspecific. Its words provide you with the bare minimum of information needed to know what the quest is, and not how or where to accomplish the quest.

For example, in Riften, the castle mage gives a quest to find three of her lost items scattered across the country. The journal simply asks you to retrieve her satchel, and her soul gem, and so on. You are never actually provided the information as to where these might be. The only way to complete this quest is make it active, find which cities the quest items are in, travel to them, and then follow the arrow to the location of the quest item. It does not say "I left my satchel at the apothecary's in Windhelm" in order to give me, the player, the option of finding the item outside of the constraints of the arrow.

Theoretically, the quests in Skyrim should be effective mechanisms for teaching the player about the world, and encouraging its exploration. But because they're so directly tied to the mandatory arrow an unhelpful journal system, they do the opposite. They strip the game bare, revealing a dull core that says merely "Go here, kill something, come back."

That's not the game that Skyrim feels like it should be. That's not the game that Skyrim is at times, when I climb a mountain to see what's there, only to be attacked by a dragon from which I flee, tumbling down the cliffs hoping to survive the next fall. But that's the game that exists when I want to accomplish the quests set before me. This utterly mechanical, follow-the-arrow-on-the-compass manner of interacting with the game is devoid of soul, and makes it difficult for me to love Skyrim.

Rowan Kaiser is a fashionably underemployed freelance writer in the Bay Area. He writes about television and books at The A.V. Club, and has had video game writing published at The Escapist, Salon, Gamasutra, 1UP, and more. He is actively seeking more game writing work find out more at, or just Tweet at him @rowankaiser.
Republished with permission.
(Top image credit | Duncan Harris /Dead End Thrills) (Bad photoshopping by Kirk Hamilton)


    I had a problem with that Riften quest too. The shop keeper in question asked me to get him something which was added as a misc quest. The next person I spoke I asked me to frame him for theft. There was no way to know how this would affect the misc quest shoppie 1 had asked me to do. Silly really.

    There needs to be a way to get rid of the dragons after while they are the ultimate fast travel trolls.

      lol I did it again. Comment below was meant for this one.

    "arrow to the knee" HAHAAAAA, i did it mama...i did it!!

      I sorta ignored one of the early quests to collect the dragon stone from somewhere. Which seemed to be part of the main storyline, and I think because I skipped that I didn't see any dragons until I had finished most of my travelling. I already knew but hadn't unlocked about 5 shouts before i collected a soul to unlock one. haha

    I agree. This reminds me of the kotaku article a few months back about playing GTA IV without the minimap. Unfortunately (or fortunately) games these days don't let the player get stuck ever. To me this started with MGS - if you did nothing for a while you got a codec call telling you exactly how to progress.

    I have memories of playing sierra games, getting stuck, dropping the game for months, then trying the puzzle later and passing it. And there is a much more fulfilling achievement of discovering a new area in a game you have had for a few months compared to a week or so.

    I totally agree with this article and I think this mechanic is the difference from playing a game over a year (on and off of course) as opposed to a few months (if that)

    That and it simplifies the quests in skyrim into four obvious triggers - get here, talk to this person, collect this object(s), kill this thing.

    But then again, who wants to learn 400 different POI fantasy names to get around.


    I may be wrong, but I'm pretty sure Wylandriah in Riften actually does tell you where her 3 items are, there's a dialogue option along the lines of, "Tell me where to look".

      I don't think Wylandriah's item locations get copied into the quest journal though, so unless you initiate that dialog and do the quest immediately those location names are likely to be forgotten and you're back to being a slave to the quest arrow.

      I agree with the article and had a nagging feeling that because I'd triggered it and it was in the journal that I should complete it for some reason. Eventually you just get used to ignoring them I guess.

      I think the "unusual gem" mentioned in the article was where you collect the 24 Stones of Barenziah? Ironically, there aren't any quest arrows for where the gems are so you do need to comb the landscape for them. I considered searching high and low for all of them but the pay off didn't seem worth it so I just wanted to ditch that quest but couldn't.

    ... Turn it off you can still do it all. That's what I have done. only turn one quest on and ignore can put the others on if you get lost or cbf looking around for them.

    I approached Skyrim, and its formers, like I was the big, bald, bad dude from Witcher 2 (Or something to his flavour). I was a Knight Errant. Wandering from town to town and taking on the tasks from everyone, be them a Thane or a peasant, so long as they had the coin.

    Which, to me, is the best way to play it. You're always moving, you get to see all the sights, meet the people and really soak in the game. The problem? You can't stop moving. The second problem? Eventually you'll find yourself ending up back where you started, with all the danger cleared and the land saved (Althought its pretty hard to tell just from looking at it), which effectively makes your entire point of being there completely redundant.

    Which, if you didnt bother reading that, can be summed up like this.

    You start the story. You complete the story. The curtain stays up and the actors just faff about the stage.

    When I was younger, this wasn't a problem. Infact it was great. Now, it just leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

      Thats pretty much why I'm doing as many side quests as I can before completing the main.

      I have this filthy habit of completely losing interest in a game once I've completed the main story line. I just get this feeling that the game has nothing more to offer.

      I also very rarely play through games more than once. My justification for this is that I don't have the time to replay games, having a GF and a fulltime job vying for my attention. But really, I think its because the thrill of the unknown is gone.

    WTF is Skyrim?

    The journal in Skyrim is really journal in name only. I miss the far more detailed and immersive journals in Morrowind and Oblivion. The Skyrim one serves purely as a game mechanic.

    Be sweet if the "Where should I Look ?" converstaion dialogue was recorded in the quest journal, it's already been written after all..modders?

    I was happy trying to complete all the quests around whiterun then i got drunk and ended up on the other side of the world before i wanted to leave :p

      And ended up with an awesome staff, so it was all worth it in the end, right?

        That staff is the single most awesome piece of kit in the whole game. It's gotten me out of more shit than fast save lol.

      That quest was cool.

        Still half way through the quest, I did have a good laugh though when I woke up in the temple :D

    Geez. It's a journal. If you don't want to do something any more, you just stop doing it.

    I stopped using the journal as my guide pretty much as soon as I started exploring caves.

    Thankfully the game does let you disable all arrows so you don't have to deal with any quests unless you feel like doing them.

    I should probably go finish that fetch quest for the mage now.

    Simply put, because I must.

    I haven't yet tired of visiting a new patch of the map and seeing a structure, monument or some of the wildlife fighting. Much like Red Dead Redemption, hardly a moment passes when I'm out exploring or deep underground where I'm not in awe of the world Bethesda have created. Over 150 hours across 2 characters and still plodding along. So many distractions. Beautiful.

    And all the while I'm playing a great game.

    I was never one to be annoyed by un-finished quests in my journals in Elder Scrolls games. Which is odd, given that I can be absurdly OCD about other things.

    To me the quests that my character chooses *not* to pursue are just as defining as the quests that my character chooses to complete.

    I used to follow the arrows, then it hit me in the knee...

    But seriously, there too many bugged quests in Skyrim (i.e. missing Volendrung, Companion's Retreival mission that cause the game to crash, missing Gauldurl amulet fragment in Geirmund's Hall, just to name a few).

    Why should I bother with these bugged quests?

    I can see where your coming from Rowan I'm a bit like that with quests too but my biggest beef is with not being able to drop quest items from my inventory.

    I'm a born looter at heart and carrying that extra weight around just drives me crazy. I keep thinking of what I'm having to leave behind in dungeons that I could be selling.

    I'd picked up 4 of the gems before I got around to Riften and then I realised I didn't want to go down that path. :( Now I'm stuck with the freakin gems and I can't get rid of them.
    I'm also carying a STOOPID lute around with me that ticks me off every time I see it in my Inv.

    Oh well.

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