I’m not what I would consider to be much of a gamer. My Wii was a prize I won at work, and the most attention it gets from me is when I’m dusting. My PS3 came bundled with the TV I bought, basically thrown in for nothing because retailers were panicking about sales a week before Christmas in 2009. I used to reliably play the premier Nintendo titles like Mario Kart, Metroid and Zelda, but I stopped playing Metroid about 10 percent into Metroid Prime 2 and haven’t played Mario Kart in longer than I can remember. I suck at first-person shooter games and online multi-player holds no interest to me. I never played the last Grand Theft Auto game. Whenever somebody would ask me if I played RPGs, I would tell them that I draw the line at Zelda when it comes to that sort of thing.
This year, I put the latest “Zelda: Skyward Sword” game aside after playing it for a night and being sore the next day from all the flailing around with the motion controls, which I never really felt comfortable with. I probably didn’t need to be swinging my arms around quite so vigorously, but nevertheless, I wasn’t really enjoying myself.
So why have I spent over 200 hours of my life these past 6 weeks playing fucking Skyrim?
It was probably mostly spite. My long-time allegiance to Zelda had left me with nothing but a sore shoulder and rote gameplay. I was jealous of those Playstation and Xbox gamers with their HD graphics and normal controllers. This would be my protest.
So off to the dreaded all-night Wal-Mart I went, becoming that guy who buys video games at 2 am. When I got home and opened the box for my PS3 copy of Skyrim, the case was empty. No disc. This was probably some sort of cosmic warning from the universe, but rather than heeding it, I went back and exchanged it for another, becoming that guy who exchanges video games at 2 am.
I wasn’t lying, I don’t normally play RPGs. They always seemed like way too much work and not a lot of fun. And this is basically true. Also, I wasn’t into all that anime Final Fantasy stuff. But there’s an element of detail and control — combined with a seemingly endless list of tasks available in these games — that’s like catnip to a certain kind of mind. My kind of mind, apparently. You hit the start button and there’s this handy lists of quests and tasks that you’ve been assigned, and it always seems to be getting longer. I hate clutter. I crave order. I must shorten that list! It would be sloppy of me not to.
And look at all these skill categories you can upgrade. I want to be able to decapitate people! I want to make those cool-sounding weapons! So I had better get to work.
The dragons are definitely part of it. There’s something undeniably rad (yes, rad!) about taking on a dragon with a sword and shield. Of winning, as epic music thunders on the soundtrack. Why am I screaming “Sit the fuck down!” at my TV? Because I just kicked that dragon’s ass after dying the 20 previous times trying, that’s why. I am 31 years old.
What’s crazy is I’ve still barely done anything in the main questline of the game. I don’t want to yet, because there’s all this other cool shit to do. And before I do that cool shit, I gotta level up my character so I don’t have to worry about getting my ass kicked all the time. So I level up Smithing to make better weapons.
The easiest way to do this is to buy lots of iron ingots and leather strips and make tons and tons of iron daggers with them. You can then sell the iron daggers back to the merchants, but at a fraction of the cost. I am seriously destroying the market for daggers in Skyrim. Somewhere in Whiterun I surely must have put some other blacksmith out of business by flooding the market with these cheap daggers at commodity prices.
So I have a money problem. You can make money by doing small jobs for people, or stealing, or looting corpses. But you can only carry so much stuff around with you at once, so you need to buy a house to put it in. Once you’ve got that house, you should really buy some furniture for the place. Oh, and now that you killed that first dragon, you’ve got this assistant named Lydia following you around, so you’ve got to make some better weapons and armor for her too.
And every other time you talk to somebody, you get a new quest added to the list.
Do quests, loot corpses, sell your loot, buy iron and leather, make daggers, level up.
Oh, but if you want to make yourself really powerful, you’ve got to use potions and enchantments too. So you better start gathering soul gems to level your Enchanting ability, and lots of ingredients to level your Alchemy.
Do a quest, loot corpses, gather any ingredients you can, sell your loot, buy more ingredients, buy iron and leather, make potions, make daggers, sell potions, buy soul gems, enchant daggers, sell daggers, make a new set of armor, use your new enchanting powers to make that armor raise your Alchemy skills, put on the new armor, make potions that improve your enchantment skills. Buy more soul gems. Make more armor. Drink the enchantment potion to make this new set of armor even better at raising your Alchemy skills.
Now you’re out of money and all the merchants are tapped out of supplies. Gotta do another side quest or kill some giants. You’re on your way to the bandit hideout you’re going to clear out for the Jarl when you talk to a random person or find a mysterious item and then boom, even more tasks added to the list.
If this sounds incredibly tedious to you, you’re not wrong. It is. I can’t stop. Not when I know that my weapons and armor could be even better than they are now.
Jump to six weeks later.
I went and re-bought the game for PC because the Playstation version was too buggy and slow. Lydia’s dead. She was weak and in the way, and I never took to her, so I looted her corpse and sold her armor to buy more iron ingots. My Smithing, Enchantment and Alchemy skills are maxed out. My sword now one-hit-kills most bad guys I come across. I’m basically unstoppable. A human killing machine. The list of quests keeps growing. Apparently the game generates them automatically, so they’ll never end. I still haven’t done anything else in the main storyline. There is no joy in these sidequests, it’s just another item in my list that needs clearing. I plow through every new dungeon, slaughtering my foes and ignoring all the cool loot they leave behind. Loot means nothing now. I have too much money. I am the 1 percent of the 1 percent Skyrim. Why bother picking up some enchanted iron armor? It weighs 25 and is only worth a lousy 200 gold. Fuck that.
Oh look, I just killed a Dragon Priest and claimed his mask. It enhances your archery skills by 25 percent. Big fucking deal. I made my own necklace than raises archery by 48 percent. I two-hit-kill dragons now. No randomly-generated reward is going to match what I’m packing.
Decapitations are still satisfying.
My main concern now is finding a new set of armor that is aesthetically pleasing. Why put my character in a big bulky helmet when she could be showing off her cool war paint and pixie haircut? At various mansions that I own, I have mannequins to show off all the armor I made and then got tired of wearing. I keep a chest full of sacred artifacts and weapons that I can’t be arsed to carry around because they’re crap next to my custom-made kit. My garden grows all the ingredients that I need for potions, but I have no need for potions anymore.
I don’t see the epic HD vistas and endless draw distance anymore, I just see a bunch of progress bars and lists. I won’t be satisfied until every item is checked, every bar at 100 percent. You’re not a dragon, you’re just a little piece of Light Armor skill improvement.
And when I’m all done with that, I can focus on improving the Thieves Guild. It only takes 125 quests to max them out. And then there are the Dark Brotherhood assassination jobs, and so many bounties to hunt down and collect. Or maybe I’ll just start all over and be a mage this time, or a thief, instead of a warrior. Sometimes I find myself using sub-par equipment, just to make it a little interesting.
I’m only getting about 4 hours of sleep a night. I forget to eat sometimes, so I think I’m actually losing weight doing this. I stopped paying much attention to the internet. I have a bunch of podcasts I want to listen to. TV shows I want to watch. People I should call. I forgot to pay my water bill. They were probably close to shutting it off by the time I noticed.
Some of the other guys at work play Skyrim. When I told them what I’ve done, they frown and say I’m taking all the fun out of the game.
I told myself I’d stop at New Years. Then on Martin Luther King Day. But I still have so much to do. This game is ruining my life.