Updated: Feb 16, 2021
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim — and more specifically the Dragonborn — is iconic. Everyone and their mother knows the imagery of the horn-helmed figure standing over the body of a dragon. They are the poster child of Skyrim: the hardened, melee-adept warrior, beheading dragons with their bare hands. The overarching plot of the game supports this image, too. Every story hook and NPC interaction places the player on the pedestal of a noble champion going on an epic adventure to save the world.
Why then, if you were to ask someone their favorite way to play the game,
would they likely reply, “stealth archer”? Why, in a game so bent on making the player a valiant hero, do most players opt for the route of petty theft and backstabbing? This is not just an overused meme. It is the result of Skyrim’s narrative dissonance.
Let’s analyze this dissonance in the context of two core systems: player progression and the world.
Difficulties In Early Progression
Skyrim’s in-depth skill tree system is iconic. Reaching a new level grants the play a skill point which can be spent in any of 18 trees, each belonging to one of 3 class archetypes: the Mage, the Warrior, and the Thief. While this system provides plenty of opportunity for the player to fine-tune their character to their preferred playstyle, the viability of upgrading certain skills at the integral first levels is where the flaws in Skyrim’s player experience begin.
In theory, the skill tree system should make each path equally viable, but in practice, it becomes much more complicated. The process of leveling up Thief-related skills like archery, stealth, and pick-pocketing is much quicker and immediately rewarding to the player than other paths.
Developing Mage skills requires you to cast excessive amounts of magic. This is a slow and taxing endeavor that eats up Magicka — a rare resource at lower levels. Attempting to use magic in combat at early levels (where skill progression choices are much more significant and impactful) leaves the player vulnerable and often sees them having to resort to traditional combat to compensate for an insufficient Magicka pool.
The Warrior path is similarly punishing. The path is made entirely up of weapon and armor skills, which require the player to hit a lot of things and get hit by a lot of things. Much like Magicka, Health and Stamina are in short supply at the important early levels, and the processes of taking and dealing damage are taxing on those resources. Being in constant close combat and tanking damage sees the player having to frequently pause the game to quaff potions, creating a slow and frustrating loop of resource management.
The Thief path, on the other hand, is more versatile and viable at earlier levels. Skills like Sneak can acquire experience outside of combat, while offering a host of in-combat benefits, all while being less resource reliant. This versatility lets the player upgrade it more quickly than a combat-exclusive Warrior skill like Block, granting archetypical Thief players a more immediate reward for their playstyle.
Those early levels in games with skill tree-based player progression are integral to the player experience. The skills players choose to focus on when upgrade points are harder to come by are much more impactful, as they define the player’s build. Making one build easier and less taxing to pursue than others deters other styles of gameplay, setting a precedent that the easier one is better or the intended style of gameplay.
Interacting With a Static World
Skyrim’s plot is very static. While side quests allow for the player to side with factions and develop their character’s personal narrative, playstyle has little bearing over the story Skyrimtells. Whether the player is a heavily armored warrior or a cloaked assassin, they will have the same NPC interactions, follow the same destiny, and gain the same renown. This would be fine if these interactions were ambiguous so players not adhering to a specific playstyle wouldn’t feel singled out. However, most main quest NPCs herald the player as a hero of the people. They are the chosen one that will defeat Alduin and admired by the most powerful people in the region— a strange position for a common thief who spends their time stealing wheels of cheese from Maven Blackbriar’s basement. What about hiding behind a rock and slowly sniping a dragon to death over the course of 20 minutes screams “hero”? What about buying a new, enchanted ring with a guard’s stolen money creates a savior?
Being an openly practicing, civilian-killing necromancer will see you praised as much as being the noble, law-abiding hero the game paints you to be — so long as you cough up a measly sum of gold to the guard every once in a while. Everything the player does outside of the context of the “valiant hero” widens the gap between the actions of the player and the reactions of the world.
Does Flaw Equal Failure?
There is no doubt that the narrative expectations and gameplay systems are not in perfect harmony. Still, imbalance in different playstyles and narrative dissonance based on those playstyles are not unique to Skyrim; they are problems every designer faces when creating narrative-heavy games. The fact that Skyrim has stood the test of time despite this goes to show that these flaws do not define gameplay experience.