What scant gaming time I’ve had lately has been spent playing Skyrim, at least when I can persuade the spousal unit to let me have a turn on the console. Let’s get one thing out of the way immediately: yes, it’s addictive – wait, no, it’s horribly addictive. Ironically, I didn’t think I’d like it at all; the first few days we had it I was too busy with work to do much more than catch a glimpse now and then as I dashed through the living room for more caffeine, and all I ever saw was snow. Blowing snow, flurrying snow, blizzarding snow, snow in the daytime and snow in the (not very different) night-time.
Eventually though, work calmed down a bit and I allowed myself to be persuaded to create a character. Resistance is futile, and I’m now firmly enmeshed in that ridiculously captivating game. Television? Oh yeah, that’s what we use to play Skyrim in this house. (Thank God for DVRs.) As it turns out, it might just be that a really good single player RPG was exactly what I needed to rekindle my interest in MMOs.
SW:TOR early access opened this week, earlier than most people expected in fact, but I’m going to stick to my guns and wait for the normal launch day. I think. Or maybe I’ll grab a preorder tomorrow, not that it’ll get me in that much earlier, but I am starting to be fired up about finally playing a new MMO. The last MMO I can remember playing at launch was Warhammer Online, and that was three years ago – since then I’ve just gone back to a bunch of MMOs that I’d already played before.
Every now and then I find myself wishing for a second that Skyrim could be an MMO, but then I remember all the very good reasons why it couldn’t – and shouldn’t – be. Interestingly though, that contrast in experience not only heightens my current enjoyment of Skyrim, but also makes me want to get back into a game I can play with other people.
The quiet in Skyrim is glorious. No trade channel – no channels at all, in fact. I can do what I want, when I want and where I want. If I want to spend hours rearranging my house (ahem, houses actually), I can, and nobody’s going to ask me why I’m not around to do dailies/dungeons/world events. For a brain somewhat frazzled by workload lately, the peace and solitude have been a boon… and yet, I miss my friends.
Collision detection is glorious. My Skyrim character is a sneaky archer-type, and there’s nothing quite like hiding behind cover while sending pointy death at your enemies from several dozen yards away. I’ll admit, I sometimes cackle when one of the bad guys suddenly drops dead and all the others run around frantically, trying to figure out what just happened and where it came from. Fear me, for I am ninja elf!
Of course the downside of collision detection is, well, colliding with stuff, which I do regularly. I’m not that good with controllers yet and when battles get close-up and nasty, half the time I end up in first person (which I hate), facing away from the danger with my foot caught between the rungs of a chair and screaming imprecations at the screen while my trusty companion does all the actual killing.
Oh yeah, and while we’re talking about trusty companions – I gave up on those recently. There’s only so many times you can hack a retainer to death (it was a mistake!) before you decide it’s time for them to stay out of the way. They’re only glorified mules in any case, and I don’t need the extra carrying capacity that badly. I have trained myself to ignore the looty lure of wooden bowls and bottles of wine – it’s difficult, but it can be done.
A world where moral nuances aren’t tracked on a reputation grind bar is glorious – as is a world where things stay dead. I’m really enjoying the fact that there are multiple factions and plots going on in Skyrim, but that there’s nothing in my character sheet that tells me I’m 47% evil or 63% Stormcloak. Right now, in fact, I’m neither – I try to avoid crime (though I’m getting an unfortunate reputation for assault) and so far I’ve avoided declaring for either of the major factions because any decision I make will have consequences, even if it’s after the game is finished.
I’m immersed enough in Skyrim to have spent time wondering whether supporting a bunch of nationalistic racists is better than supporting a bunch of declining imperialists whose strings are pulled by a bunch of supremacist Elves, even if the results of my decisions don’t come to pass in the game itself (and don’t tell me, I haven’t got far enough yet!). I never really wonder about that sort of thing in MMOs; for one thing, the whole “fate of the world hinges on YOUR decision” dilemma doesn’t ring true when there are eleventy-million other people all making that same decision at the same time. For another, when your relations with other people are depicted purely in terms of numbers on a reputation bar so that you can grind gear… it’s just not very compelling.
The downside in Skyrim is that when I kill a particularly nasty dragon or clear a really difficult dungeon, there’s nobody to share it with. There are plenty of chills and thrills in Skyrim (and some genuinely funny bits of dialogue), but there’s no fun shared with friends. And if I’ve noticed one thing in 10 years of MMOs and over two decades of tabletop RPGs, it’s that my best memories of gaming are the ones where we all howled with laughter. Granted, sometimes it was the hysterical giggling of the terminally exhausted (corpse runs that go bad at 2AM), but it was still laughter and those are the shared memories that have stayed most vivid for me.
Oh, and one more thing: annoying NPCs cross all game and genre boundaries. There’s one little girl in Whiterun whose belligerent taunting makes me wish I weren’t the type for whom slaying (or at least ear-pulling) children on the street is a bad act. Anyone who has played EQ2 will know what I mean when I ask “Have you ever seen a gnoll before?” And oh, Dragon Age and the “Enchantment? Enchantment!” NPC. There will be an insanely annoying NPC in SW:TOR; it’s comforting to know there are at least some constants in life.
So while Skyrim truly is a glorious game, I’m getting excited about SW:TOR. I’ll be playing it with friends I met in Asheron’s Call back when Y2K was a panic word, and while we’ve played a few launches together since then, the last one I can recall that really fired us up the way AC did was SWG, and that was eons ago in MMO years. Besides, it’ll give me something to do when it’s the spousal unit’s turn at the console.