Skyrim is too long for its own good
There hasn’t been a proper post on this blog for almost a month. There’s a simple reason for that – I’ve been playing (well, replaying, really) Oblivion and Skyrim throughout that time, and having way too much fun to stop. Yeah, those are amazingly long games. So long that I’ve, all in all, probably spent over 500 hours on Oblivion (spread across a disc install, steam install, and three different computers), and – as of this writing – 394 hours in Skyrim. Not in this less-than-month, obviously, but in total. Anyway.
I haven’t ever gotten higher than level 45 or so in the latter game. There’s an achievement for reaching 50 – which is expected to be nearing “the top”, and the mathematical maximum is somewhere around level 83, if I remember the figures right. Thing is, those 45 levels – that accounts for about 70 hours of game, at best. The rest of those 394 hours are spent on replays and new playthroughs. So where’s the problem, then? Why aren’t all those near-400 hours all attributable to one or two completionist runs?
It’s not because of lacking content. Well, fair is fair – I can’t definitively say that the game truly has enough content to last all of 400 hours. Then again, across all the runs, I pretty much have seen almost all the locations, all the quests (infinite permutations of radiant fetch quests excluded), all the methods of going through a generic encounter. Yeah, I’ve done a lot of those things four or five times over by now. But there’s still something pulling me back in, the niggle to start something else yet again and do a one grand sweeping do-it-all encore. Wait, back up. Currently I have a level 37 character that I like, and about twenty in-progress quests and many more yet un-started. By the terms of main plot and completion, it’s barely over half-way mark. So why am I feeling the urge to start anew instead of an urge to load and continue playing that? That’s not supposed to be the case. I’ve already done 7 characters – I know and am bored of the early rote stuff to death (tutorial-village-nearby ruin-whiterun-dragon-whiterun-start exploring). It should be the much less played late-game stuff that I would want, surely. But no. For some reason, I lack the desire to keep playing.
That reason being the way the character advancement/levelling system works.
When a player wants to play a character, there is, usually, some kind of a gameplay archetype in which the player’s approach to the world will fit into. You have your sneaky stabby-stabby with a backup bow. You have your elemental magic nuker. You have your sword & board basher. Barbarian. Archer. Magic manipulator. Magic + sneaking. Magic + melee. Sneaking + two-handed greatswords. Quite the lot, eh (obviously there’s much more)… But the crux of the matter is, per each character only one of those truly applies. Once a character is made and played, it does play more or less along the same lines in every dungeon. If one picks a sneaky backstabber, to make an example, then that’s what one will do all the time. Sneak up to an enemy, backstab, proceed to next. Pick lots of locks. And pockets. Sneak some more. Due to the natural system of Skyrim’s skill advancement and levelling, the character will level up as the player does what he likes to do. Great. And yet, not great. Because there is a limit to everything. Each skill can only go up to a hundred. There are only 15-ish perks for each skill. By following a single gameplay-style, it is very, very likely that your character will max out all the relevant skills used in that gameplay style, at.. Well, at levels between 30 and 40-ish. Perhaps even less, if one goes with just bashing everything in the face with a big mace while wearing armour with no grace. What happens next? What happens when your character has maxed out all the gameplay-relevant skills? There’s three choices.
One, you can continue playing as you always have. You won’t level up any further. You won’t improve your character’s ability to backstab better. Thanks to level scaling – much improved, but still – you won’t get many better items and harder enemies, because you won’t level up. That’s the way of stagnation. While there will be new quests, they won’t feel all that new, because every time it falls back to the basic gameplay mechanics, it will feel stale.
Two, you can change the playstyle to something entirely different, to improve new skills. Well, good.. No, not good. Because you are a high-level epic bad-ass the ultimatest, the enemies are fairly strong as well – you just don’t notice it that much because you are on their level. But now you need to re-start from zero, as it were, with low-power weapons and almost no skill (I am assuming that by changing the gamestyle, one really does change it, instead of artificially grinding some, err, crafting skills), whilst keeping the world suited to a high-powered butt-kicker. The game suddenly gets pretty difficult, your lovely character has a lot of useless stuff applicable to the old playstyle that gives no benefit now, and because low-level skill improvements give way less levelling-up EXP, your character will level up very very slowly. And thus not really gain enough perk points to match the skill advancement rate. At this rate, really, you’d be better off starting a new character along that new playstyle.
Which is option three, obviously. You start a new character, and try to do it all over again. Because the game doesn’t facilitate swapping gameplay styles mid-way through. And perversely because the game requires you to swap gameplay styles mid-way.
That’s the big issue Skyrim has. For the numbers and rates placed in it’s levelling system, the game itself has way too much content. The quests, world locations, number of shouts etc. – they all call for way longer playing time than the advancement system is balanced for. That’s insane, that’s stupid, and unfortunately (I believe that) someone at Bethesda realized that. Because while there is an achievement for level 50, and the maximum being 83-or-something, the enemy power scaling is capped, in unmodded Skyrim, to level 35. Somebody close enough to the balancing of this system knew that players will effectively max out their characters in one playstyle somewhere near that 35th level-up. It makes no sense to let enemies increase their power any further – it will just screw the players over, as they won’t have any mechanical chance to keep up any more.
I could say that the skill advancement rates needed to be toned down to half the current rate or so – to let players spend more time in a single playthrough, do all the things before reaching “maximum power”. Because that is one of the defining things about modern Elder Scrolls games – the ability to do everything, to become that Nerevarine/Champion of Cyrodiil/Dovahkiin. But it wouldn’t work well. At half the rate, there would simply be too much of a time gap between level increases. The game would feel overly similar to plain old MMO grinding. Alternately, I could say that the number of overall content should be reduced, to adjust the game for the 1-35 levelling path. Well.. that’s a ridiculous suggestion though, isn’t it? No matter which way you cut it, all in all, the fact of the matter remains – Skyrim is just too long for its own good. The disconnect between the way advancement works and the amount of stuff Skyrim has, it is too palpable. Too large. That’s why I always give up on those intended “big” playthroughs and start new ones. Because I really am done with my character. But I am not done with the world. And yet I shouldn’t be forced to restart, to re-experience all the initial bits on repeat ad infinitum to see something different. If I want to play a “full do-it-all” thing, I should be able to. Because that’s what Elder Scrolls is ideally about. Doing what and how much you want, not what and how much the game arbitrarily lets you.
~X2-Eliah will probably restart playing Skyrim – with a new character, of course – in a few months’ time. Perhaps when a new dlc comes out. This time, he will finish the game and do everything in one playthrough. Honest…