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Skyrim: The Illusion of Choice


Skyrim: The Illusion of Choice

Dawn is breaking on Morndas, the 8th of Frostfall. My character, a ruthless Imperial battlemage, has just finished cutting purses and throats in a subterranean bandit hideaway, on bounty orders from the leader of a nearby fiefdom. The real treasure from this quest isn’t the bounty, however, but the flawless amethyst I looted from the corpse of the bandit leader. This one makes three, the exact number requested by my Aragonian contact in the faraway town of Riften, who needs them to craft a wedding band for his beloved.

I had met him by chance in the Riften marketplace as he sought to buy the gems himself, and offered to help find them for him. I set off for the dingy hamlet, across snowy tundra and open plain, making my way past hostile wildlife and more than one menacing dragon flying above. It’s nearly dusk when I stumble into Riften, past city guards who seem vaguely aware of a few petty thefts I’ve committed during my stay in the city, but who aren’t particularly motivated to bring me to justice for them. Thankfully there were no living witnesses to report any of the more serious crimes. I enter the inn where my contact works, pushing past the usual rabble – a pontificating preacher, seedy mercenaries, and a couple regular old folks drowning their sorrows. Talen-Jei, my reptilian contact, sees me enter and slithers up to me.

“You’ve got real nerve coming back here after what you did to Keerava” he hisses, referring to the time I strong-armed his bride-to-be into paying overdue protection money to the local Thieves’ Guild, using information he supplied in confidence. I’m thrown by his anger – perhaps the days spent scouring the countryside on his behalf will end up being for naught. His tone changes immediately when he sees I’ve brought the stones for his wedding band. “Oh, thank you stranger! I was certain kindness like this was dead in these dark times. I couldn’t be happier. Keerava and I are forever in your debt!” he gushes, paying top dollar for the jewels. Pleased to have an ally in Riften, and hoping to find more work, I attempt conversation again. “Haven’t you already done enough damage here?” is the only response I get. “You’re no longer welcome”. A million miles away, as dawn breaks on my apartment on a random Saturday, I recoil from my TV like Brad Pitt had just spliced a single frame of turgid cock into my experience. What just happened? The game goes on without missing a beat, but this audience member is now a little bit the wiser.

Skyrim: The Illusion of Choice
It was either BP or the turgid cock, and Russ tells me dicks hurt traffic numbers. Sorry to disappoint. (Editor’s note: This convo never took place.)

To be sure, this isn’t going to turn into a gripefest about Skyrim’s many glitches and how they break the game’s flow. There is a certain tacit acceptance of bugs in Bethesda games – after all, with such a huge game world and so many moving parts, there are bound to be a few hiccups or hilariously misrendered pixels. So long as it isn’t a savefile corruption or an impassable glitch in the game’s main storyline, the bugs themselves are generally more humorous than odious, and give the experience a weird kind of charm. Glitching the game is almost like a rite of passage for a Bethesda product. I was over 40 hours in before I had my first in Skyrim, the result of a court steward tasking me to clear a bandit hideout I’d sacked a few hours prior. The only damage done is a quest log entry I can’t clear, an innocuous bug if ever there was one. The bugs themselves can be overlooked because they are unintentional, clear mistakes that no game developer would have ever left in place had they been discovered.

Far harder to move past are the instances in the game world where characters cease to be cogent personalities and become transparent, acting as agents of the game developers themselves. I took the gem-collecting quest from Talen-Jei at first meeting, when we were neutral toward one another. After blackmailing his girlfriend and threatening her family for money, he became bitter and hostile, yet he still was willing to accept my help. At this point he had stopped being Talen-Jei, the down-on-his-luck wistful romantic. He became the receptacle for fetch quest #2904. He said he hated me for what I had done to the woman (lizard?) he loved, but never broke off our agreement. His flowery speech about undying gratitude was similarly for naught – the whole exchange was hollow and artificial, the last two things a role-playing game ever wants to represent.

Talen-Jei is hardly an isolated case. There was also the case of Faendal, a wood elf whose relationship I destroyed when I gave slanderous letters to his love interest. He always greets me with a testy “Why would I talk to you, after all you’ve done to me?”, but happily provides Archery lessons when asked. Or there’s Brand-Shei, a Riften merchant I planted stolen goods on before reporting him to the town guards. Even from his dungeon cell, he turns to me to help him uncover the secrets of his ancestry. The game is full of characters I’ve wronged who, under the normal rules of human/elf/lizard/etc interaction should want nothing to do with me (if they don’t already want me dead), yet are still willing to serve as skill teachers, quest facilitators, or reward dispensers. A casual gamer might not notice or even be bothered by these things, but the rotten cynic inside me sees it for what it is – a game developer’s attempt to create the illusion of choice.

Skyrim: The Illusion of Choice
Machine City from Matrix Revolutions : Bethesda’s studio

Skyrim wants you to believe your actions have repercussions, but it’s also deathly afraid of closing doors to the player. Closed doors mean lost quests, missed goodies, and the very real possibility of an irate gamer yelling “Well if I had KNOWN I wouldn’t have done THAT!” Unfortunately for the weak-willed, such is the risk you take in making a decision, both in real life or a fantasy setting. Decisions are tradeoffs, and 99% of the time the gain associated with choosing one side is balanced with a loss (or prospective loss) on the other. Without the threat of loss, the impetus to make the right decision (“right” here meaning the decision most associated with what a person wishes to gain, not necessarily morally “right”) is gone – choose whichever option you want, and come back later to claim the other side. By taking the teeth out of choices, Skyrim blunts their effectiveness – I don’t have to ponder the weight of my decision, just figure out which option is most expedient at the time.

This brings us back to the illusion of choice Skyrim presents as it attempts to substitute some of its width for depth. When I was given the option of betraying Talen-Jei’s trust, I should have been forced to weigh the loss of a potential ally with my desire to join the Thieves’ Guild. Same with Faendal. Would his Archery training be better for my character, or should I choose the cold hard gold from the jealous lover seeking to set him up? As it turns out, there was no downside to the choices I made – both characters still offered their services or quests, they just did so with a harsher tone of voice if they’d been maligned. The choice to help or betray, be virtuous or be cutthroat, exists entirely in the player’s mind. Normally this is a good thing, as it necessitates some degree of imagination on the player’s part, but sadly the game makes no commentary on choices made and, with scant few exceptions, never forces the player to take a stand and accept a loss of freedom or feel the repercussions of their decision. Without risk, there’s no role to play, and it takes a toll on the enjoyability of the experience.

Skyrim: The Illusion of Choice
What he should have said when I tried to woo his reptilian love: “You try to strongarm my woman? That’s cold blooded, holmes. I’ma cuff that chick when I see her next. As for you, get those little kidney stones out of my face and kindly get the f--k out of my tavern.”

When I first started Skyrim, I didn’t know these things. When I first reached Whiterun, the first major city a player will usually encounter, I was immediately accosted by an intimidating Nordic warrior demanding to know which of the city’s two factions I pledged allegiance to, his or “the enemy”. Fearful of giving the wrong answer, I tried to explain to him I was new in town and had no idea which side I supported, and he let me off with a stern warning not to choose the rival clan. I appreciated his frankness and, more to the point, that he left his sword in its sheath. Some thirty hours later, when I made it all the way across the map and into another major city, I met a palette-swapped version of an intimidating Nordic warrior, demanding to know which of the city’s two rival factions I pledged allegiance to, his or “the enemy”. Knowing full well my answer was without consequence, I confidently told him to get out of my face lest he want to be strangled with his own entrails. He told me “he’d let that slide, because you’re new here” before letting me off with a stern warning not to choose the rival clan. Rudeness, and in other cases vandalism, theft and even petty violence, all failed to evoke any permanency or close any doors. The rich world of choice I thought lay before me had once again been boiled down to a simple binary question, the only real “choice” Skyrim offers : Will you do my bidding, or will you not?

Choice and consequence. For a game that offers a myriad will-you/won’t-you of the former, it is surprisingly light on the latter. NPCs hardly register your actions, no matter how disruptive they are. As an initiate in The Companions, a group of warriors in Whiterun, I was caught looting their main hall. They simply asked me to stop, despite their previous insistence on honor and fealty. Upon becoming Harbinger (leader) of the group, I still had to take flak from members asking aloud why the previous leader allowed me to enter and what he saw in me. Shopkeepers threaten to sic the Dark Brotherhood (Skyrim’s Assassin’s Guild) on me should they catch me stealing from them, even though I lead that group as well. Ulfric Stormcloak, leader of the rebellion in the Civil War questline and Nord supremacist, will still gladly appoint the player to be his right-hand man even as an Altmer, the very same race Ulfric believes to be behind the oppression of his Nordic people. A cabal of dragon hunters takes you as their ultimate champion after countless centuries of toil and sacrifice, but should you align yourself with a reformed dragon rather than kill him as they demand, their wrath manifests itself in a glorified “son I am disappoint”. A potent quest reward item can be made significantly more powerful by allowing it to consume human souls instead of non-sentient ones, but no harm or loss of standing befalls the player for choosing the decidedly more evil option. Towns can be overrun and emperors can be killed or deposed, but somehow these otherwise gameplay-changing events are almost entirely cosmetic. Once you pass the character creation screen, you’re no longer playing an impossibly huge open-world game. You’re playing the most engrossing and well-disguised rail shooter ever devised.

Without consequence, the game world becomes static, and a rigid game world destroys any sense of immersion. Very rarely in Skyrim do you see the results of your actions manifest themselves in any significant way, which begs the question : why was I given a choice in the first place? Am I really free to do whatever I want, to plunder and loot and screw over as I see fit, if in the end nothing really changes? Once you begin questioning the decision-making of game developers, you’ve become acutely aware of their existence, and Skyrim’s spell is broken.

Skyrim: The Illusion of Choice
If I go into this bar and ask this fine serving wench to “Shake what her momma gave her,” I expect to be reprimanded. Big, lumbering bald boyfriend comes out of the back with a knife. Or, well… sweet, sweet reprimanding. In the form of medieval lovemaking.

The real tragedy here isn’t that Skyrim isn’t 100% immersive; it’s that Skyrim is 98% immersive. When you’re knee deep in Draugr corpses, cutting down giant spiders and trading spells with Dragon Priests, the game truly is exhilarating. In the moments where you’re standing on a windswept field, rattling sword and shield and screaming dark curses as a dragon circles overhead, you become the warrior of legend. The music swells, the dragon crashes to earth, and the next 60 seconds are a pitched battle where everything else besides man and beast is only so much grey. It’s the quieter moments where the game loses its hold, when you notice the developers were better at modeling the fantastical elements than they were the mundane. When an NPC’s reactions don’t quite match common sense expectations, and slide slowly into the uncanny valley. Or when what you thought was an agonizing choice leaves you not with unforeseen consequences, but rather no consequence at all.

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