I am raw and tired from a weekend spent at a funeral for a relative who died of what my mom has, with all the “so how much longer has she got?” interrogation that comes with that. So I don’t expect to make too cogent an argument here. But I wanted to say it anyway. Or at least to try. Because after staggering in the door, everyone’s morbid lines of questioning momentarily ceased, I didn’t pour myself a drink or even head out for a run. I booted up Skyrim.
I’ve heard it from my Slack group last week and I’ve heard on from the ProducerHax podcast today. No one is excited about the 64-bit Skyrim reboot. Reactions range from disinterest to skepticism to outright peevishness that Bethesda is trying to milk the fans for more money without bringing any new content to the table. I am neither of these things. I resent none of it; am excited even. But I don’t think it’s either slavish devotion to the franchise motivating me (even I can admit that ESO’s non-PVP content is meh), nor is there some grand judgmental disconnect taking place on anyone else’s part. I think it’s just that while we as people generally pay lip service to the “different strokes for different folks” platitude, extricating a cultural artifact (like Skyrim) from the rating scale built into the back of everyone’s eyes nowadays, and allowing it to exist in another context, takes work.
The complaints against the Elder Scrolls series are many and long-winded. There aren’t enough voice actors. There isn’t enough direction. It’s too big. It’s too small. (I’m looking at you, people who complain when you can’t sew all the maps up together.) There are too many bugs. And on and on. And all of these things may be true. They might be game-breaking if someone was looking for a grandiose and powerful narrative, say, or heart-stopping combat or touching love scenes. But by now, the people who wanted those things from Skyrim have long since sold the game back for credit at a store somewhere, or removed it from Steam. They aren’t still playing.
The people still playing now are after something different. “Less of a game,” will be the snarky interjection, but that’s only correct if you shrink the term game down to apply to only a very narrow stretch of territory. I completely get that some people want to walk in, level from 1 to 20, beat the big boss and walk away — and that’s okay. Some people want to have their hearts cracked open over and over again at key plot points, and aim themselves toward those points with tissues at the ready. And that’s okay too. But anyone playing Skyrim in 2016 isn’t playing for any of these reasons. They’re playing to get away.
This is news to no one, and yet “escapism” and all its synonyms have been trotted out too often to have any meaning anymore, at least in this context. Skyrim is old news by now. There are mods, yes, and there continue to be new mods, and they are glorious. But you don’t keep the monstrous rickety old game on your computer just for the sidequests lovingly crafted in someone’s freetime, or for smoother water or more realistic clouds. Not any of those singular things draw you back to a game that is five years old, and looks it. You come back to get out, plain and simple. To disappear, for a few minutes or a few hours. Yes, I know “immersive” is another term that gets brought out too often. But it isn’t the landscapes (and it certainly isn’t the plot!) that makes Skyrim an immersive experience worth coming back to. It’s precisely the aimlessness of it, the degree to which you can ignore the requests and at times demands placed on you by others, and just strike off in a given direction and keep walking.
Lots of people find this terribly trite and boring, I know. “It has been done.” “The openness of the world means the plot is crap.” “If I wanted to wander around why wouldn’t I do it in the real world?” That last is more in the line of what people who have no interest in games level at those who do, and proponents of this line of thought would do well to keep this in mind. If I could walk out my door and walk along cliffs, I would. I’ve climbed mountains; stood on cliffs; puffed clouds of breath into the dawn air. But that isn’t my life now, and I’m not alone. It isn’t most people’s lives. You cannot just walk away into the sunset, away from people with badges and titles demanding you live your life in a way that fulfills their wishes. You can’t walk away from failed job applications, disinterested coworkers, or the 17-second voice message your mom left on your phone once six years ago, because you know she’ll never call again. You can’t forget any of that.
In Skyrim, you can. At least for a little while.
So am I excited about upping Skyrim from 32- to 64-bit, an upgrade that will be (for me, and for many others, if you have all the DLCs as you likely do if you’re still playing now) free? Yes. Yes I am. Because the clouds will get more cloud-like, the surf will pound on the shore more like surf does, and giant sprawling projects like Falskaar will have that much higher of a technical ceiling in which to sprawl glitteringly across our consciousnesses. Blinding us, yes, to the story that is by and large lacking in such games. Sometimes, though, your life is too much like a story. A bad one. You don’t need to further your own miserable plotline here. You just need to keep moving. And make sure you don’t run out of arrows.
Like next to every employed person I know, there is an “other duties as assigned” clause in my job description. The percentages vary, but it tends to hover between five to twenty percent, that I’ve seen. In presentations and articles, though, it is that extra 5-20% that people keep talking about. The time they went the extra mile in extraordinary circumstances. The year they had to learn that skill because its previous doer took off and there was no money left to hire someone new. The time, money and occasionally people they saved by doing something they hadn’t planned on doing. Something they didn’t even know needed doing. Until it did.
Well, rescuing players — however temporarily — from being characters in their own lives is Skyrim’s other duty as assigned. You can’t brand something that way (not with all its taken-to-the-extreme hikikomori connotations) and it certainly isn’t something to crow about at conferences, I know. No one, we are assured, spends that much time and money on a commercial product just to help people, or to give them an escape. The goal is money and it always is.
But whether they — the people who bothered to raise the ceiling of Skyrim’s capabilities — care or not, their product performs this other duty as well. Serving as a Somewhere Else for all the miserable Heres. Most of us modding and tweaking and playing the game now will receive the reboot as a free upgrade. They will make no money off us. They didn’t have to give it to us. They are sitting pretty on their Fallout accolades and are still working busily on that DLC; they didn’t need to pay attention to those of us still tromping through the Reach, or taking the same screenshot of the aspen forest in Riften that we’ve taken three times before. None of it was necessary.
But it will be very much appreciated.
And I am excited.