How I Spent Christmas In Skyrim - Immersing yourself in a fantasy world won't always help you escape from reality
Despite Andy Williams' insistence to the contrary, Christmas is the most miserable time of the year. You have to buy and prepare an enormous dinner; spend roughly a million pounds buying useless presents and waste your time talking to boring bloody family members about how, I dunno, the pork chops at Marks & Spencer are more expensive than they were last December. Sod Christmas; sod its tinselly knockers off.
Owing to what a more restrained reporter than myself would call a "difficult" relationship with my parents, but what I'd call decades of pent-up resentment culminating in actual bloodlust, I opted not to travel back home for Christmas this year and instead spent the holidays slouched on my bed playing Skyrim. The idea was to throw myself brainfirst into a fantasy world so I could escape the stressful, hectic debacle of running around trying to organise Christmas; what actually happened is that I gave myself a drinking habit and nightmares from worrying about how I was ever going to finish a game of such ridiculous proportions.
Skyrim is immensely big, not just in terms of its physical map, but in the sense that almost every doorway and NPC gives you something to do. Travelling across its Nordic style tundra is a daunting prospect; a simple trip from A to B generally turns into a few hours-long slog as you can't help but get distracted by the dozens of caves and dungeons there are to explore along the way.
Arriving in one of the game's major population zones is even more intimidating; if you find yourself in a central Skyrim district like Whiterun, it'll be 10 or 15 hours before you've experienced all the quests and distractions it has to offer.
That's what I was facing over Christmas: With the January and February release schedules for 2013 already playing in my head, I knew it was now or never for me to play Skyrim. I'd already put it off for more than a year, but I was sure the five days I had set aside in December would be enough to break its back. After all, Fallout 3 and New Vegas had only taken a mere 75 hours before they felt complete. Skyrim would be about the same, right? Wrong.
20 hours in and I'd visited just two of the game's six major cities, and finished only three of the main story quests. The overwhelming size of Skyrim started to dawn on me, and when I read that some people had spent more than 500 hours in Skyrim and STILL not done everything there is to do, I started panicking, and everything got a bit Christmassy.
Toys 'R' Us
I'd started Skyrim in a relaxed, kind of Wordsworthian state, wandering about looking at the sky and reading the in-game books. But when I realised that the big day (i.e.2 January, when I went back to work) was approaching, and I still hadn't even scratched the surface of Skyrim, I started tearing a path through the game's quests like a frazzled single mum in Toys 'R' Us. You know those poor, beleaguered women in the sexist Christmas supermarket ads? They were me, playing Skyrim, trying to get everything done in time for the end of the holidays.
And not only did that step on my whole anti-Christmas, relaxing break idea, it was also a terrible way to play Skyrim. Skyrim really wants you to get lost in it; if you open the in-game map, it'll give you a general direction of where you want to go, but is also unclear enough that you have to find the road for yourself. Consequently, you end up stumbling over thousands of secret rooms, supporting characters and lustrous vistas, and the whole game becomes richer because you're treating it less like a series of tasks and more like a living, breathing, organic place.
It's a good idea to try and ignore your instincts when you play Skyrim, because the more you treat it like a computer game the less rewarding it becomes. We're accustomed to playing sandbox games like treasure hunts, picking through locations looking for optional quests, ambient challenges, easter eggs and collectibles. But do that in Skyrim, like I tried to do, and you end up ruining the game. It's a vast open-world that rotates without you noticing. NPCs go about their daily business of eating, working and sleeping, while, out in the wilderness, creatures and travellers fight and die off-screen for you to maybe discover their bodies later on.
Given the amount of things there are for you to do in Skyrim, you'd be forgiven for thinking it's a game built around you, the player, the Dragonborne. But what the size of Skyrim actually excels at is making you feel like a cog, rather than a gear; a participant rather than an adjudicator. Rather than scurry around trying to mop up every drop of in-game stuff, Skyrim works better if you admit that you can't see everything and play the game exactly as you want to, rather than how years of hidden achievements and unlockable extras have made you think you need to.
Deus Ex Machina
It truly is a convincing, alternate world - sprawling, nebulous and impossible to see all of. To properly experience it, you either need 500 + hours of free time, or to change your filter of how computer games work. It's not about completion, lists of objectives or levelling up - in a game the size and complexity of Skyrim, simplistic, numerical concepts like those feel reductive. Instead, Skyrim is a place you have to utterly put yourself into; you have to treat it as if you really are a person that lives there.
As such, you wouldn't go barging into other people's houses looking for hidden swords, nor would you help some stranger you just met out on the road collect ten Fire Salts for his blacksmiths. A friend of mine said it would be great in Skyrim if you returned to quests that you had turned down, only to be told they'd been completed by somebody else. I think so too, because the game world is so big, I feel happier believing I'm just a small part of it rather than the driving force.
Trying to live up to being The Player Character, the deus ex machina in Skyrim drove me to despair, exactly like some tired matriarch trying to make Christmas work for everybody. I gave up trying to do everything, because not only is it impossible, it feels like the wrong way to play the game.
Tonight when I turn on Skyrim, I'm going to raid a nearby cave, sell the plunder in Whiterun then curl up with a book and some homemade Apple Stew in Breezhome. I'm not getting things done in the way that games usually ask me to, but I'm still playing it; I'm still experiencing MORE of it. And that, I think, is the unique power of Skyrim.