Pretty sure no bards created Tamriel

After having an abysmal time playing Diablo, I spent a while playing Skyrim through several “speed runs,” or the closest someone of my mediocre skill level will reach. I started with a sword and shield run to see how soon I could join the Dark Brotherhood and assassinate the emperor of Tamriel. (Level 15, pretty easy, actually.) Next, I did a two-handed hammer run to see how fast I could help the Stormcloaks end the civil war. (Level 17, a bit trickier because I needed a few more levels in heavy armor and alchemy to see me through to the end.) I then did a mage run to do the civil war from the empire’s side. (Level 19, as mages require a lot of skills that other classes can skip just to stay alive.) And then, finally, I just played through the main game, with detours to join the thieves’ guild, the bards’ college, the Dark Brotherhood, defeat an ancient god, and then help the Stormcloaks get rid of the empire. (Because if it’s good enough for Hammerfell, it’s good enough for the Nords!)

Before I get to the ranty griping, let me answer the question, “Zoe, why do you still play Skyrim if you were never a fan?” The answer is, I’m a fan of the mechanics. It’s like with Borderlands 2. I don’t like the story, but I love the looting, the shooting, and the creative paths of designing new builds for each character class.

The added twist with Skyrim is, if you want to get good at a skill, you need to keep doing that skill. You want to get better at picking locks? Buy some lockpicks and find some locks. Even better is that unlike Bethesda’s Fallout games, you can pick a lock with a high skill level requirement even if you’re an idiot. You found a master lock? Well with enough picks and patience, you can pick that lock, and you will get several levels for putting in the effort. You even gain experience by breaking picks. You can cheese lock pick leveling by buying up a bunch of picks and intentionally breaking them in a master lock.

And yeah, skill leveling doesn’t always make sense. Like, if you want to level up in heavy or light armor, you do so by getting your ass kicked. But in most cases, it’s a great system. Swing a sword to level up one or two-handed weapon skills. Shoot a bow to level up archery. Use a shield to raise blocking. Smith stuff to level up smithing. Cast spells to level up in magic. It’s a fantastic, brilliant idea, and I love it.


I am not a fan of the writing of Skyrim, because it’s just so Bethesda. I want someone in the company to explain why the technical side of their games get so much love, but the actual stories meant to immerse you in their worlds are so painfully bad.

Some of you may say, “Oh, it’s not so bad, is it?” Well let me show you.

Skyrim, Main Plot
You are a prisoner who manages a miraculous escape, only to uncover your role as “the chosen one,” who will help save all of Tamriel from a Very Bad Boss. Wow, that’s so cool. And it’s not like any other Elder Scroll games ever started with the prisoner just falling into The Plot.

Oh, wait, that’s all of them.

But anyway, we run with this premise and take on a test to prove we’re the real chosen one, leading to a meeting with the Blades, a faction formerly dedicated to the chosen one, who have recently fallen on hard times. But thanks to the chosen one, they can return to their former glory, and maybe even stop the end of the world. (Pay attention, this comes up later.)

Then, at the end of the game, the leader of the Blades proves that once again, Bethesda does not understand how a chain of command works, and the only way to remind this chick that you are her boss is with a mod.

The biggest problem with the main story is, it wants so hard to send you all over the place to look at the other stories, like it’s eager to show you how much work went into this Very Big Game. But that’s a mistake because it instead demonstrates how little work the writers did.

The Civil War
From the opening of the game, the player is told about a civil war going on between the empire and the Stormcloaks. But until the player goes to either capital to sign up, neither side is actually doing any fighting. Skyrim occasionally pays lip service to the war by having Imperials or Thalmor escorting a prisoner along the roads, but beyond that, the war can’t begin until you are ready to join in and become Captain Awesomesauce.

Once you do pick a side, go into it knowing that the missions are nearly identical, and even the dialog is word for word the same for both factions. Even worse, both sides hint that once the other side is defeated, the Thalmor will swoop in to capture a weakened county. Yeah, that never happens. They could have made a DLC to do that, but instead, Bethesda released a lackluster home builder DLC, a vampire hunting campaign that can break the game by killing story essential characters, and a nonsense side quest to slay a revived first Dragonborn, because of course he’s Eeeeeeeevil.

But the “real” war that was supposed to come for the winner of the civil war? Nope, to do that, you gotta get a mod, because Bethesda couldn’t be bothered.

The Dark Brotherhood
This side plot is thrust on players by guards telling them to go to speak to a boy who wants to kill an old lady. Should you go along with it, the Dark Brotherhood will kidnap your character and force them to kill one of three people. It doesn’t even matter which one. Do that and you’re in the club…er, guild. Upon joining the assassins’ guild, the player is told that these guys were once feared all across the land, but have recently fallen on hard times. But now that the player is with them, perhaps they can return to their former glory.

Then suddenly there’s a crisis in leadership. But if you can resolve it, the remaining members of the guild decide that you should be the leader. Then they do nothing and put you back to work. You get no cut from other assassin contracts, the quality of the contracts after the main story doesn’t reflect the supposed heightened status after pulling off a series of daring assassinations. Nothing changes once the story is over. And get used to that, because…

The Thieves’ Guild
While trying to find a member of the Blades for the main quest, the game tries quite forcibly to get you to join the Thieves’ Guild in Riften. You can actually ignore this and finish the game, something I’ve done from my first playthrough. But I figured that for the sake of being thorough, this time around I would join up.

Right from the start, the thieves are actually more like spies and saboteurs. The first few missions involve working for a client to find out who is trying to cut off her business relations. While the player can take on jobs of actual thievery, those are boring fetch quests that all yield a piddling 250 gold. I can make better money just crafting potions.

The player finds out that, surprise, the Thieves’ Guild was once feared by all, but have recently fallen on hard times. But, now that the player has joined them, bla bla bla, yakkity shmackity. But wait, there’s a crisis in leadership, you say? I wonder who’s going to become the leader, and then get back to work because Bethesda doesn’t understand how a chain of command works.

Winterhold College
As a mage build, this is an obvious first stop, but it’s also brought up by the main story, and several vendors and NPCs can suggest going there for various reasons. Getting in is easy, as the testing mage who asks to see you cast a random spell will sell it to the player for a steep discount.

Once inside, that’s when the stupid begins. The aspiring mage is told to attend a class, where bumbling dumbass Tolfdir starts a lecture talking about how magic is dangerous, and caution must be taught and observed. He says he will teach all students a basic ward, then only teaches it to the player and says, “Welp, that’s all for lesson one! Now let’s go diving into an ancient ruin that’s very dangerous and poke magic objects with a stick to see what we can learn. Hope nothing bad happens.”

Shock of shocks, something bad happens, and it’s only further reinforced that the guy who urged caution around magic can’t practice what he preaches. Stick around a bit longer, and it’s revealed that Winterhold College once held an esteemed rank amongst the Nords, but have recently fallen on hard times. Sigh.

But at least here, there are lots of clues why the college is looked down on. All kinds of side quests are about mages doing evil experiments, and you can’t swing a dead skeever without it getting resurrected by bands of roving necromancers. Whole camps of mages are ready to kill anyone on sight if they approach their camps. So yeah, I can see why folks in Skyrim might dislike mages. That’s because most mages in Skyrim are either idiots or dickheads, and sometimes they’re both.

Suddenly, there’s a crisis in leadership, but once the player saves the day, the remaining teachers decide that even though they all coveted the position for themselves, the player’s character is fully qualified to become the Arch-Mage. Even if they can’t cast anything higher than novice spells. Y’all, I love being a mage, but this college is almost the worst school I’ve ever attended in a game. Almost, because…

The Bards’ College
The final insult to the idea of higher education lies in Solitude, where the player can ask to join the Bards’ College and will instantly be sent to a dungeon to look for a book. Upon returning the book, a single creative editing session leads to instant success, and the dean makes the player an official bard. That’s it. No need for music lessons, poetry reading, nothing. They couldn’t even pay lip service to the bard class. You can own a lute, drum or flute, but they don’t do anything. Honestly, most of the bards in Skyrim’s taverns go the extra mile to prove what a shitty college they graduated from. But hey, at least they don’t elect you the leader just for being literate. So I guess that’s progress of a sort.

These examples are why, as we sit in utter silence from Bethesda, waiting for something on Elder Scrolls VI, I don’t feel anything at all. In the time since Skyrim was first released, and then rereleased, (and re-rereleased) we’ve seen Fallout 76, a game so poorly written that Bethesda had to introduce new chapters just to make it even remotely worth playing. Then we got Starfield, the first IP from the company in ages, and the actual story is pointless because they wanted players to get to the ending and then loop around to the start to become Starborn. Get it? It’s Dragonborn, but in space.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure when Elder Scrolls VI comes out, it will have some tweaked mechanics to make it interesting to play. But I’m not so stoked to become another prisoner chosen to take on a god or saving a continent as foretold in the prophesy. I just want to be a wandering alchemist or armor smith who occasionally spelunks in caves to look for adventure and crafting materials. Because that what’s kept me involved in Skyrim. It’s the mechanics, and not the writing.

On the day that Bethesda releases one of these franchise games with actual good writing, I think my head may explode trying to fathom how that happened. Until that fateful day, I’ll be here, playing, reviewing, and writing, and I’ll be happy to have y’all along for the ride.