In my last post, I mentioned that I’ll likely be playing Skyrim for a while. This is partly because Skyrim is a huge game with tons of different things to do, and I anticipate I’ll want to try most of them, probably playing a few different characters in the process. But another reason is that Skyrim is a game that encourages the player to relax and take things slowly as often as it provides action-packed adventure. Sure, there’s plenty of places to explore and enemies to fight, but you can also visit a city and just talk to people, or craft some items, or hang out it the tavern and get drunk.
In a recent play session, I did nothing but read books in-game. One of these triggered a side quest, but for the most part they were just there to flesh out the world, and provide a bit of history. I’d just finished traveling the wilderness, so it was nice to take a break in one of the cities and just read about things. I learned a lot too. I learned about the history of the Nords in Skyrim, about the other cities I haven’t visited yet, and about the events that happened in the time since the previous game (turns out quite a lot happened, and I now view the world in a very different light). It’s a rare thing for a games (single-player games, anyway) to provide this kind of break from the action, and it’s something I’d like to see more often.
In fact, with the exception of the earlier Elder Scrolls games, the only other game I recall that felt the same was Evochron Legends, an indie space sim (that has since been supplanted by its sequel, Evochron Mercenary, which I have not played). A space sim sounds like it would have nothing in common with a fantasy role-playing game, but Evochron Legends shares Skyrim’s focus on an open world, where players can do as they please. In the vein of Elite or Privateer, players pilot a ship around a seamless galaxy, trading, mining, or hiring themselves out for escort or bounty missions. And while all that was fun, the best thing about Evochron Legends was simply flying around. I would spend hours just drifting through star systems, occasionally firing my thrusters to adjust my course through colorful nebulae or into a planetary ring. Then I might go through one of the game’s breathtaking seamless planetary descents, and explore the surface before returning to space. Sometimes I would follow in-game rumors to try and find hidden worlds or stations, a task that was much more difficult and time-consuming than you might expect, involving countless hyperjumps and careful checking of coordinates. Too often playing games feels like work, as I strive to get through several interesting games because there’s another set of interesting games waiting for my attention. Sometimes it’s nice to forget about progression for a while and just relax a bit.
My problems with Evochron actually came when I’d had enough downtime and wanted something more involving. I quickly tired of trading, as the star systems had little to distinguish themselves from one another and there were only a few goods and items worth ferrying around. Combat with AI ships was interesting at first but soon become monotonous once I had some better equipment. But for simply providing a place to fly around and explore, it was excellent. The reason it worked, and the reason Skyrim works, is that the game world is designed to actually feel like a place, rather than a game level. There are many open-world games these days, but few manage to get this feeling right. Too often their “worlds” are merely empty space between the gameplay areas, painted to look like cities or countries but with nothing underneath. Evochron’s world was designed with exploration in mind; rather than acting as backdrops, the various stars and planets were the main attractions. Skyrim’s world boasts a meticulous attention to detail, from the flora and fauna and their believable ecosystems to the different cultures mixing and clashing in the cities to the rich history of the land documented in songs and books, making it a much more interesting than a simple collection of quests and dungeons.
It’s strange, then, that Skyrim’s books are one of its most criticized features. Some simply argue that the books are not very well written, which is a fair complaint to make. But others harp on the fact that the books are “useless”, as the majority are not tied to the gameplay in any way and are therefore a waste of time. This is a very modern design argument, one based on streamlining the experience so players do not miss content, and to ensure that development time is spent on the aspects of the game that will really matter to the player. But in this case, the argument could not be more wrong. If Skyrim were streamlined in this way, it would stop feeling like a real place, and would just feel like a game instead. As I argued in my History Lesson on System Shock, sometimes it’s better to put things in a game for purposes of immersion rather than gameplay. Skyrim’s books might not help improve my character’s skills, or advance quests, or any of the other things that help with my adventuring, but they’re there because they should be, because Skyrim would be a weird place if it didn’t have any books. And because they provide some optional background and context that allow players to enjoy the world all the more.
Further, Skyrim is a game designed to let people play the way they want to play. This means that for any individual player, there are going to be some things that player isn’t interested in doing. Some people don’t want to read books, and prefer to get on with the adventuring, and there is nothing stopping them from doing so. But to argue that those books shouldn’t be there simply because one finds them boring is to miss the point. Those books are there for the other players, the ones who like reading about the history and lore of the world. Don’t worry, we’ll go and fight some trolls eventually. But for now, we just want to sit down with a book and take it easy. And Skyrim is one of the few games that lets us do that.