Review: "Elder Scrolls: Skyrim"
I often felt that the NPCs of Skyrim, numerous as they were, were disappointingly flat, and that the player had no ability to interact with them in meaningful ways. When you would get your shared house with your chosen companion, there weren't dialogue options or quests devoted to them or your relationship with them -- they didn't have inner lives or possess unique qualities. You could marry a variety of characters, but there was no depth given to the process. You simply did the romantic quest-line and before you knew it you were married.
Even with the more interesting characters, such as Kodlak, I remember being disappointed in how his internal thoughts and motivations only became known after he was gone and you were reading his journal. The writers had the aim of constructing him as a wise, fatherly figure for the Dragonborn. Rather than developing him through dialogue and time spent alongside him, you receive all of this development after the fact. I felt that this happened frequently -- that anything in the game that was the least bit interesting, whether it was an aspect of the world or a character detail, tended to be delivered from a journal instead of being integral to the story.
Compared to NPC dialogue in games such as Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age, and Mass Effect, Skyrim’s dialogue felt remarkably shallow. While there are numerous NPCs, you can't explore relationships and they don't develop over time.
So much of the landscape in Skyrim is indistinct, though it’s markedly better when compared to Oblivion. There are certain games built around the poetry of world exploration, such as Journey, or Zelda games such as Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker. In those, the NPCs are deliberately simple and sometimes ridiculous -- the cliché of the JRPG where a townsperson says the same line again and again -- because it isn't the primary focus of the game.
Players are expected to care about many of the NPCs in Skyrim and consider them realistic, but I don't believe the game establishes them nearly enough to merit the hours that you spend with them. I have no issue with a game being centered on world exploration, but when it decides to pad itself with inclusions that don’t contribute to that, then I lose my investment.
Skyrim succeeds at providing a focus on exploration as an experience at times, but overall, the lack of variation and precision in design detracts from it, along with focus on other aspects, such as NPCs. It reminds me of people who attempt to defend Avatar by saying that it's not meant to be about plot or characters and that it’s devoted to spectacle. If that were true, then why does the film spend so much of its runtime concentrating on plot and character conflicts? This structure seems to be at odds with its purpose. Contrast this with Fury Road, a film that did downplay plot and character in order to focus on spectacle, which I feel is similar to how the game Journey operates.
I’m not convinced that the creators ofSkyrimcould have done better with more disk space, because so much of the world and NPCs were already so repetitive. I don't trust them to compose the complete characters and complex plots seen from other companies. It's not as though the development team ofSkyrimis new to game creation. By now they should have a clear idea of what will and won’t work, which is why I think a lot of smaller, shorter games outperform them -- they are planned out more effectively and with a greater, steadier focus of what’s being imported.
A common issue many modern RPGs face is voice acting. If there’s going to be intriguing NPCs along with cities and towns each with their own distinct feel, historic detail, and internal politics, it all needs to be portrayed well. It needs to be given the care it deserves. This places a heavy burden on the writing team, and because of the rush of deadlines games typically have it doesn't allow for rewrites of anything that isn’t working.
It rather surprises me that more games haven't taken inspiration from Knights of the Old Republic, which incorporates the technique of aliens speaking in their own language with subtitles, allowing writers to add or tweak lines throughout the development process without the burden of rerecording sessions.