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Player Freedom vs. Player Agency: Why Skyrim is not a good RPG

There are many things Bethesda's first part titles are well known for. Some are great: Consistent mod support, a commitment to single-player-only experiences, large quantities of content, player freedom, ludicrous amounts of lore. Some aren't: bugs, poor overall performance (often regardless of hardware),†using a handful of voice actors for dozens of different characters, clunky combat mechanics, forgettable writing. Like any developer, they have strengths and weaknesses

Role-playing isn't one of their strengths.

"But wait!" you may ask. "What? Bethesda, the public face of western RPG development (along with Bioware) doesn't provide quality role-playing? But I can catch fish, create potions, and smith armor! Those are roles! I am playing them! Isn't that role-playing?"

Good question. Not exactly.

The Oxford dictionary defines role-playing as "the acting out or performance of a particular role, either consciously (as a technique in psychotherapy or training) or unconsciously, in accordance with the perceived expectations of society with regard to a personís behavior in a particular context."

Bethesda's recent games either don't do this, or they do it poorly. I'm going to stick to Skyrim here, as I think it's the best example and a post on the problems with Fallout 3 would simply take me too long to write.

Skyrim provides the freedom for the player to do whatever they want in a fantasy world, without any of the advantages and disadvantages that come with being an actual person or playing a specific role. The world revolves around them, the apocalyptic main story simply waits for them to finish whatever fetch quest has caught their fancy before continuing, and they can just as easily wield a great sword at the start of the game as a dagger. The Dovahkiin is not a character. You are not playing a role. The Dovahkiin is simply an avatar for whatever it is the player feels like doing at the time in the fantasy sandbox that has been provided. The relevant key words in the dictionary definition would be "expectations" and "context." In Skyrim, Dovahkiin (regardless of it's literal meaning) is effectively another word for player and that's how everyone in it treats you.

That's not to say that TES V is a bad GAME as a whole. I have my fair share of problems with it, but I've put a good amount of time into it and generally had fun. I think in many ways, it comes the closest to the vision Bethesda has had for the series since Daggerfall. As a game world (albeit filled with extremely similar tombs filled with variations of the same undead creatures), it can be engrossing. The lore they present is detailed and often well-integrated. It does a decent job of adapting to your play style as you play. The world of the Elder Scrolls is full of things to do, NPCs to do fetch quests for, and factions to simultaneously lead, regardless of their conflicting motivations. It's a pretty fun, open-world action game in a fantasy setting with light RPG trappings. Skyrim is a world that excels at player freedom on a large scale, but utterly fails at demanding player choice at even the smallest.

This problem starts as soon as the game does. After the player is caught and arrested for a crime that is never mentioned again and indeed dropped as quickly as it was introduced, the player selects their race (which has essentially no impact on the rest of the game) and are thrown straight into the linear tutorial level that does its best to outdo the similarly unclear beginning of TES IV. And that's it. That's your character development. That's all of the background your character has: A country of origin, presumed criminal status, and apparently a complete lack of any skills (or as much as that's possible given that you start proficient with all weapons, armors, and various magic). They don't have any talents or handicaps, your character has no personality or history to speak of, and even the star sign, which once was an appreciable part of your character build is now a fleeting bonus that you can switch out at your earliest convenience. Oblivion may have had a convoluted, imbalanced mess of a progression system that required tedious micromanagement to keep up with the enemy and item scaling, but at the very least you played a character. In Skyrim, the Dohvakiin is nothing more than a blunt instrument of the player's power fantasy: the faceless lens through which you view the game world.

But it isn't just that you play an empty non-character, it's the that entire game world lives and dies based on what you can be bothered to do. The story won't advance and the big, menacing, world-destroying dragon won't continue trying to destroy the world until you can be bothered to go to the next quest marker. Factions have no investment in events until you decide to start the quest-line. Nothing happens unless the central player is there to fetch an item or kill something. The impact of your actions, as with all Bethesda games, is measured on a binary scale of "good" to "bad" and even that has pretty minimal impact. The closest thing they come to providing consequences is town-specific notoriety which goes away fairly quickly anyway. It seems like they are so intent on preventing any sort of inconvenience to the player or any situation in which the player can't do exactly what they want when they want to, that they removed almost any meaningful reactivity from the game-world itself and in doing so, removed almost all legitimate player agency from any of the story, aside from being able to pick from two huge factions at war that have different accents and clothing (oh, and one of the leaders is just an asshole. PLAYER CHOICE!!).

In short, Skyrim has you "play the role" of a catalyst, an avatar, not a character and the only meaningful RPG systems are the vague sense of progression you get when you hit things repeatedly with the same kind of weapon. Is it a fun game? Sure. Is it a genre-defining masterpiece? Not even close.

Surely, I'm not the only one that finds it ridiculous when people associate the entire genre with Bethesda's last 3 games.
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About arglactableone of us since 1:07 PM on 08.17.2010

Communication, Music, Sound Design, Videogames. Telling stories with new media. The individual formerly and presently known as arglactable.
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