One of the first things my wife said, after watching me play Skyrim for a few minutes, was, "What must the computer think of you?"
That's because this is my play-style: "Is that a cave? Wait, what's down this path? Can I go in this house? I can? Rad! Some other time though, because that's a butterfly! I can pluck salmon out of the river, harvest mushrooms from stumps and tan leather? That's amazing!"
Watching me play Skyrim is like reading one of those Family Circus cartoon maps if little Billy paused periodically to fire an arrow into the back of somebody's head to steal their magical boots. The only consistent theme linking my actions together is that none of them, not a one, advance the game in any meaningful way.
"Yes, I will be doing this for hours." -- Me, I guess?
If you had come up to me a year ago, disc in hand, hopeful glimmer in your eye, and said that you'd designed a game about butterfly catching and leatherwork, and asked would I mind giving you some feedback? I would have spat in your eye and thrown it in the sewer, then harvested your tears to sell to a Chinese herbalist.
But in a world where you allow me to do anything -- fuel a political coup, join an assassin's guild, slay giants, battle dragons -- apparently green-sourcing my cooking ingredients becomes priority #1.
I'm not referring to just disobeying the orders of in-game authority figures (though to be clear, I absolutely do that all the time, and have, on occasion, opted to resist arrest rather than pay a bounty of $11 dollars). I'm talking about rebelling against the vague, nebulous authority of the game itself. Skyrim wants me to go the city and talk to the mayor about dragons.
That's kind of the point of the game: Let's get to the bottom of this dragon business.
And yet, the very second I'm told to go somewhere, it becomes direly important that I go literally everywhere else in the world first. But like all young punks with authority problems, I'm mostly just doing it to see where the limits are. Are you going to let me walk all the way to that mountain in the distance, Skyrim, or force me back to the quest with some bullshit invisible walls?
Am I supposed to save this beautiful maiden, Skyrim? All right. Is it cool if I just ... don't?
Oh, you want me to fight the usurper, Skyrim? Sure thing, but can I buy a house and spend an hour arranging the books first?
Unfortunately, Skyrim's answer to every one of those questions is a firm and resounding, "Yes. Absolutely. Go ahead and do all of those things whenever you want."
And that really, really, really fucking sucks.
"God, I'm so sick of having all of this freedom." -- Me, I guess?
Because I want to go save that wench, fight that bastard usurper and fell that dragon. I really do. It looks fun! Way more fun than introducing the Dewey Decimal system to Whiterun, at any rate. But you need to force me over there first, because I'm just not going to do it otherwise. I'm not faulting the game for giving me freedom or anything; I totally acknowledge that this is a personal failing within me. This terrible habit -- of scouting out every single other pathway before the main one -- may be a leftover impulse from older RPGs, where many areas became inaccessible after you advanced through them. So if you wanted to make sure you found all the secret spells and legendary weapons, you had to explore every other path before the right one, otherwise the story might drag you, kicking and screaming, away from the best toys. That's no longer the case with modern games. Most let you visit and revisit any area at any point, but it's too late for me: The behavior is learned, and the damage is done.
I'll harvest every fucking cabbage in this field before I so much as glance at the dragon's nest, and you can't stop me.
Even though I really wish you could.
Skyrim as a virtual world is beautifully, meticulously, painfully complete in its detail. Bethesda has really upped the bar here, to the extent that I'm actually kind of worried they may have broken gaming for good. Every time I walk by an in-game bookcase now and discover that the developers haven't written out every word of every chapter of every book therein, I will feel a small, unreasonable twinge of disappointment. Skyrim did it; they've proved it was possible. What's your excuse, other developers?
That it's irrelevant? That it doesn't affect the gameplay?
So what? Skyrim's designers not only forged an extensive world with thousands of quests and characters, but they then sat down and authored what must be tens of thousands of pages of text just to complete the atmosphere. This is a world with its own stories, folklore, science and history. And you can read about it all in-game.
Because I'm sure as hell not going to.
"Fuck these books." -- Me, I guess?
Oh, I picked up the first book. And, in fact, was so awed at their artful thoroughness that I read it cover to cover.
"That was cool," I thought to myself, "and it really added to the story. I feel like I understand this world a little better."
For the second book, I did the same: "Wow. Even their economy is detailed here. This is completion on a whole other level."
The third book, I skimmed: "I don't really need to know about seed counts in a rival kingdom," I justified.
By the 10th book, I had stopped reading altogether. I've always suspected that I was mildly OCD, and video games -- with their menus, customization and puzzles -- brought it all out into the open.
"I spent an hour organizing my fictional inventory by the number of characters in the names of each item! I've got a disease!" I would cry.
And that's bullshit, of course. OCD isn't tidying up your menus. OCD is thinking you have to twist every knob on the stove eight times because you cracked your knuckles out of order, otherwise your heart will explode. Me? I'm just a bit of a control freak. And Skyrim helped me finally admit that to myself ... by giving me homework. I read through like 20 pages of books before my "terrible neurotic disease" was downgraded to a simple case of "throw that shit in the gutter-itis"