I could not be trusted to play “just a little” of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim when it was first released. A pattern quickly revealed itself: find a dungeon, kill everything within it, make multiple trips back and forth from said dungeon to my house in the city of Whiterun to stow all the loot, and then sort through and sell everything I looted and decided not to keep.
I could do this for eight hours at a stretch if I lost track of time on a weekend, and the fact that I was completely disinterested in the story and only cared about killing things and taking their stuff was my first clue that something was off about Skyrim, but I couldn’t lay my finger on the problem. Then I met Agnis the Fort Frau.
One of the lovely things about Skyrim is there is no doubt whatsoever if a human being is an enemy or not. They will warn you to stay away, and if you get too close they attack. This was the reaction of the bandits in the courtyard of Fort Greymoor when my companion Lydia and I strolled through the arch over the front gate. We efficiently slaughtered the bandits outside before we kicked down the front door and, like hot knives through butter, sliced through their friends in the Fort’s interior.
Two of the last bandits to fall were in what looked like a kitchen. Just as I finished stripping the loot from their dead bodies, which included all their clothing and therefore left them lying on the ground in nothing but underwear, I noticed an old woman standing next to me.
Her name was Agnis. She wasn’t attacking me, so wasn’t an enemy. I clicked on her to try and begin a conversation. “I just cook and clean and do whatever they ask of me,” she said. I thought, “Why isn’t she reacting to the two dead bandits at her feet?” If she was being held prisoner, which I took as her meaning, then why wasn’t she glad to see two of her captors dead? I clicked on her again.
“I can’t even keep track of all the people who have been in and out of this fort,” she told me. “They come, they go, I barely notice!” I sighed at the lost opportunity for some proper roleplaying. Why didn’t the game developers recognize the emotional potential in this encounter? I could have told Agnis she was free, and she could have fled to the nearby city of Whiterun where I would have found her later and basked in the good deed I’d done.
Maybe serving those bandits was the only life Agnis had ever known, and she could have been angry at me for killing them all, forcing me to decide whether wandering the wilderness looking for Forts to empty of their inhabitants and loot to sell was something I could do without considering the consequences. Agnis muttered something about having cleaning to do, instead, and a broom magically appeared in her hands whereupon she began sweeping the floor around the pair of half-naked dead bodies.
I returned to my looting. The next room was a storeroom, and when I saw all the food and wine on the shelves I thought, “What is Agnis going to eat and drink if I take all this?” Understand that I normally looted a dungeon blind of every single item that wasn’t nailed down and might have had value to a merchant. I had left countless hideouts and dungeons filled with nothing other than empty metal tankards and wooden plates and bowls.
The word “Steal,” written in red letters, did not appear when I passed my crosshair over the items on those shelves in Fort Greymoor, meaning the items didn’t belong to anyone, much less Agnis. All of that food and wine was therefore fair game but I left it alone, and as I continued my looting spree left anything that might have been of value to Agnis where I found it.
When I’d finished exploring the Fort I returned to the kitchen where Agnis was now cooking something in a pot over the fire. I clicked on her. “Hard enough to keep up with who owns this Fort,” she said. “One side takes over, the other runs away. I tell them, ‘I ain’t leaving, I come with the place.’ Ha!” and returned to her cooking.
I saw a room connected to the kitchen and peeked in to investigate. It was Agnis’s room, and the items in her dresser and on her table and shelves would earn me enough money to make it worth my while to take them. They still weren’t indicated as items I would be stealing, but definitely felt like they belonged to Agnis.
“I remember one morning long time ago, I woke up and the place was run by some Orcs,” she said when I clicked on her again. “Went to bed that night, it was all vampires. Pshh. Don’t matter to me!” When I clicked on her once more, she muttered, “Now, then, I’ve been gabbing long enough. Too much cleaning to do.” The broom appeared in her hands again and she swept the floor upon which the two corpses still laid.
I tried to get more out of Agnis but she’d run out of dialog. She ceased to feel real to me. I loaded up Lydia and myself with loot, and made the trek to the city of Whiterun to drop all that loot off in my character’s house before returning to Fort Greymoor for the rest.
Upon my return I found Imperials, soldiers from a human empire occupying the land of Skyrim, in charge of the Fort. I had no quarrel with the Imperials and so kept my distance when they warned me away, sneaking back into the Fort through a side door so that I could collect the rest of my rightfully-earned loot, and ran into Agnis again.
Nothing had changed. She was still oblivious to the two corpses on the floor getting in the way of her broom. Her indifference to the change in ownership at Fort Greymoor was in line with her previous dialogue, but even a little recognition of the fact that I had changed the conditions of her world yet again would have been nice. After all, it was just one more line of dialog to record.
I finally realized the problem I was having with Skyrim: It felt soulless. I may as well have killed Agnis and taken her stuff, because what did it matter whether she was there or not? I suspected that nothing I did would ever matter, and that has been my experience as I’ve progressed through the game. Skyrim is a huge world drawn with a level of detail that entices us to lose ourselves there, and is filled with things to do, enough to keep us occupied probably for years. But it also feels empty and pointless.
Everyone is so impressed with Skyrim, but I can’t help thinking about another open-world role-playing game published by Bethesda last year, Fallout: New Vegas. By the time I had logged as many hours into New Vegas as I have in Skyrim, I felt like I had big decisions to make that were really going to change the world of New Vegas.
Perhaps I haven’t arrived at that point yet in Skyrim, but I’m finding it difficult to continue caring about a world that feels completely indifferent to me and what I’m doing.
First Person is a weekly column by Boston, MA-based freelancer Dennis Scimeca. You can read some of his other musings on his blog punchingsnakes.com, or follow his random excitations on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.