You would imagine, then, that I’ve climbed every peak, slain a slew of dragons, quested until my coffers burst with coin gladly given by the fetch requesters and the life savees. After all that play, I must be a hero of awesome renown, with skills unmatched by any other.
Um, well, no, not really. But I have cleared Embershard Mine twelve times!
As I suffered with Fallout 3 (and to a lesser extent Fallout: New Vegas), I am burdened by Perfect Start Syndrome. Given that Skyrim is a huge sandbox of a game, with the main quest merely a suggestion for what to do with your time in the world (and without any annoying time constraints on putting the Big Bad Evil in its place), once you step out of the obligatory tutorial dungeon, the Sky(rim) is the limit. And sometimes, faced with such seemingly infinite freedom, one freezes. Perfect Start Syndrome claims another victim.
For me, a giant sandbox RPG like Skyrim, with something to discover behind almost every rock, challenges my sense of narrative immersion precisely because of the environmental immersion it offers. Ostensibly (and sans all but the mildest of spoilers), your character confronts, in the first five minutes of the game, the appearance of a dragon to the previously dragon-free skies of Skyrim. That’s sort of a big deal, probably a bigger deal than wondering what these bandits are doing in this mine or why there’s a sunken temple over here or how I can find more wood to chop for this mill owner who’s offering absurdly high prices for firewood.
Wouldn’t I refrain from picking flowers and rush right to the task at hand? From a narrative sense, yes, of course. Important things are important! But the game doesn’t put any pressure on the player to attend to the main narrative arc. So you play and get distracted and then it just seems, well, wrong that you’ve amassed so much Red Mountain Flower that you can’t run anymore. But the entire point of a sandbox RPG is that there is no wrong way to play. The dissonance is entirely of my own making. I feel like I’ve let down my character by not playing him properly, despite the fact that there is no proper way.
So I’ve started the game over more than a few times, each time vowing to stay true to my own conception of the character. I’ve started over because I’ve accidentally killed a friendly character fighting with me and didn’t realize it until an hour later. I’ve started over because I’ve made a poor perk choice. I’ve started over because my character looked stupid in a helmet or dithered on attending to the main quest for too long.
I could, of course, just revert to an earlier save, but then it feels inauthentic somehow, as if the entirely self-created narrative experience has been tainted. How can I live with this character who chased an elk for five hours but can’t summon help for a little hamlet about to get destroyed by a dragon? I’m not super hardcore in this regard—I’ll gladly reload after I get flung into the air by a giant who didn’t appreciate my snooping around his mammoths—but in a game where the only true narrative is the emergent one that derives from interaction with the environment and the loose quest threads, my final score, as it were, depends on how well I navigate the character in alignment with my understanding of the character.
Does this argument verge on a syllogistic fallacy, riddled with logic loops? Sure. But when faced with a sandbox RPG, I need to really create a character with a belief system. That system could be an absolute aversion to the notion of personal property, stealing at will, or a rampant animal rights belief that causes one to cut down every hunter and poacher encountered. Doesn’t matter what the belief system is, it’s how well you carry it out, how well you play the role. How much does the character really care about this whole dragon business? I need to figure that out and play accordingly.
Of course, there also comes a point where you’ve finally made enough progress that turning all the way back is just too painful to contemplate. I’ve got a Level 11 Breton loosely configured as a Battle Mage right now. Wish me luck . . .