Skyrim Part Two: Information overload

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Back in July, I wrote about my frustration with Skyrim, the game where all my horses died. At that point, I’d quit playing and told myself point-blank that I wouldn’t be touching Skyrim again.

Yeah, so uh, that didn’t work out.

What I’m trying to say is the reason I didn’t write anything last week was because I was too busy doing the Thieves’ Guild quest. God, I love that Nightingale Armor.

On the other hand, starting a new playthrough of Skyrim gave me a fresh perspective of it. Namely, that Skyrim has too much stuff in it.

Every single one of those books can be read.
Every single one of those books can be read.

I’m not talking about how big the world is, or even how many quests there are. It’s the amount of lore that can trip players up. See, Skyrim is part of the Elder Scrolls series, which has been going on since 1994. And Bethesda Games, the makers of Elder Scrolls, have decided that new players should have as much information about the entire series as possible. Maybe reading about Morrowind will make them interested in buying Morrowind someday! Plus, longtime fans of the series love to see the older games being referenced. It makes them feel like Bethesda hasn’t forgotten about them!

So they put all this information into the game, mostly in the form of books you find scattered across Skyrim.

Now let’s talk about this from the perspective of a new player. Before I played Skyrim, I had spent a couple hours blundering around in Oblivion, the previous game in the series. I decided Oblivion wasn’t for me and quit, but at least I came into Skyrim with some very basic knowledge of the lore. Like, what the different races were, and what the Empire was, stuff like that. Then the game starts with a long scene explaining the conflict between the Stormcloaks and the Imperials, which sets the plot into motion. That’s all you need to know. Just that and following the main plot explains the rest of the necessary information you need for Skyrim.

I didn’t know that. So when I saw a book called “A Brief History of the Empire, Part VII,” I read it. Maybe it would be important! Spoiler: It wasn’t. Also, it wasn’t brief, and yes, there are six other volumes that you can find.

So the books are just decorations, then? That’s what I thought at first. I started collecting them, because you could put them on bookshelves in your house and make it look cool. But I stopped reading them. And then one day, I had a drinking contest with a shady man in Riften and woke up the next morning in Markarth with a very angry priestess standing over me. After paying for temple damages, I set out to track the guy down. Eventually I found him in some weird alternate universe, and he turned into this horned demon thing. He then announced that he was a Daedra.

Daedric Prince Sanguine, who is only explained in a book. (Skyrim wikia)

A what? What’s a Daedra?

It turned out he was just screwing around with me and I got out of there alive, but I still had no idea what a Daedra was. The game just seemed to assume that I knew.

And, well, I should have. If I’d read the book that explains what the Daedra are. That I’d found days ago. That was in my house. That I hadn’t read because I thought it was just a useless bit of lore that didn’t apply to actual gameplay.

Note to video game developers: don’t do this.

This is a major problem with excess lore in video games. Without extensive knowledge of the series, there’s no way a player could figure out which information could save them from a Daedra and which information was a bit of trivia some bored developers came up with one day and stuck into the game for fun.

And the Nightingale Armor.  Seriously, look at it.  (From Beauty to the Geek)
And the Nightingale Armor. Seriously, look at it.
(From Beauty to the Geek)

I understand why Elder Scrolls and other big video game series love their lore — it helps flesh out this imaginary world that so many people have spent so long creating. This goes all the way back to Lord of the Rings, the greatest example of modern epic fantasy. I spent a part of my teenage years soaking up every detail on Middle-earth I could find. Complex history, an epic scale, imaginary languages … they’re all par for the course in fantasy nowadays. So I get it.

But my problem with Skyrim’s lore is just a smaller part of my problem with Skyrim in general. For all its size, Skyrim is a hollow game. Events happen without any emotional connection towards them. Dragons are coming back? There’s civil war? Who cares?

I don’t. That’s why I’ve been spending all my time in the Thieves’ Guild, one of the only places where the story and characters have actually managed to interest me. I got my information about them from actually talking to NPCs and seeing them in action, not reading about them in a book.

Lore is good for developing an imaginary world. But if it can’t connect with the story as a whole, it might as well be useless. Here’s hoping for better expositional writing in future video games!