The Elder Scrolls series has always been an ambitious one. Ever since its first iteration, Arena, debuted in 1994 Bethesda have been edging ever closer to reaching its goal of creating a vast, epic, fully-realised immersive fantasy world in videogame form. A place where a player can truly be the hero or anti-hero they want to be, whether its a wizardly thief with a heart of gold or a brutal armoured warlord who makes Vlad the Impaler seem like the ideal babysitter. Skyrim is Bethesda’s latest attempt to fulfil that lofty aspiration and has garnered a lot of well-deserved praise for how close it comes to doing so.
Skyrim is not without its problems however, and not tolerable ones like levitating NPCs. Some problems apparent across all platforms on release day include wonky texture scaling on the Xbox 360, regular crashes to desktop on the PC, and a swathe of still-unresolved issues on the PS3 stemming from a save-file bug that has its roots in Fallout 3. Nearly every major review for the game conveniently glossed-over these issues and you’ll be hard pressed to find one that’s actually forthright about them. Still, these sorts of technical quirks are bound to crop up in a cross-platform title and they can’t be fixed overnight. I can accept that.
What I cannot accept is how many of Skyrim’s vast multitude of quests are outright broken, and have remained broken since its release over a month ago. This isn’t simply a case of “a few rough edges,” “a bit of jank” or a few random side quests being “a tad wonky.” No. A large amount of Skyrim’s quests are flat-out fucking broken in a way that makes Oblivion, with all its quirks, look like bloody Morrowind by comparison. Kaput. Cassé. Quebrado. Bound for the knacker’s yard. Not fit for purpose. Well and truly buggered. SNAFU. Royally shafted. I could go on. Basically, Skyrim’s quest bugs and other trouble bear all the signs of a developer rushing to meet its release deadline, neglecting thorough QA in the process.
I’m not just talking about the game’s theoretically-infinite number of randomly generated “radial quests” that like to stay permanently lodged in your miscellaneous quest log, even after you’ve “officially” completed them. Your progress in the main quest – the central narrative of the entire game – can come to a complete standstill depending on the phase of the moon, which way the wind is blowing, or if an essential NPC decides he’s too good for this world and wills himself out of existence. Consider that for a moment. An arbitrary fluke of code can make it literally impossible for you to complete the game’s central story, denying you access to content you paid for unless you start all over again.
And don’t think by ignoring the main quest you can get off glitch-free. Many of big secondary quests including the story arcs for the four major guilds can be just as temperamental. Want to become the leader of the Skyrim thieves guild? Better not sell your nifty thieves guild armour before you get the opportunity to upgrade it or you could forever be ranked a common pickpocketing guttersnipe. Pure random chance can ensure you’ll never be able to join the assassins of the Dark Brotherhood, even if you’ve met their murderous entry requirements and bought an all-black wardrobe. The storylines for Skyrim’s brand of fighter and mage guilds can also come to abrupt standstills if the game suddenly decides you’re having too much fun.
Then there’s the fucking Bards College, the most pointless institution in the entire game and a trove of broken half-arsed quests that don’t work properly. After going through the hassle of joining them your reward is a Skyrim interpretation of Guy Fawkes’ Night that wouldn’t even impress an easily-amused 5 year-old, after which you become eligible for several tedious fetch quests to retrieve a bunch of stolen musical instruments. Musical instruments that remain stuck in your inventory for the rest of the game even after you officially resolve their respective quests. You can’t even bash out a tune on the bloody things!
Some of you might think I’m being too hard on Bethesda. Skyrim is a massive game after all and they couldn’t possibly test for every possible eventuality. That argument might carry weight if we were only dealing with a few duff sidequests dotted hither and yon but unfortunately the rot goes much deeper than that. A user thread on Bethesda’s forums has catalogued literally hundreds of bugs and glitches for the 360 version alone, ranging from minor annoyances to full-blown game breakers. These are not “features” or “fun bugs” like giants that launch you into orbit faster than a Russian Soyuz rocket. They are symptoms of buggy code and broken content in a game over 3 million people have paid good money for.
Where, other than in the medicated daydreams of a long-term psychiatric patient, is it acceptable for a triple-A title to ship with so many bugs and other assorted problems? Usually the gaming press would crucify any other game with even a fraction of the bugs Skyrim has, yet Skyrim currently enjoys a rating of 95% on Metacritic with most reviews giving it perfect or near-perfect scores. As it stands right now Skyrim is not a polished product and we have all essentially paid 40-60 Euro-Quid-Bucks to be QA testers. Do Bethesda even have a dedicated Quality Assurance (QA) department, or do they contract that shit out to the Chimp Forest at the Maryland Zoo?
I’m not calling for the severed head of Todd Howard or pounding Skyrim into paste for nerd-bait. I love Skyrim, I really do. I’ve put over 100 hours into the game so far and I’ll probably put in at least half that again playing great user-created mods (or trying to create one myself) after the Skyrim Creation Kit comes out in January, not to mention future DLC. I also hugely admireBethesdafor being bold enough to release a big-budget, single-player RPG experience at a time the industry is madly bolting extraneous multiplayer onto anything it can. None of that means I also have to gleefully roll over and accept shoddy QA or tolerate broken content. That’s the road to drooling, cretinous fanboy territory and nobody wants to go there. It’s a ghastly little place.
Skyrim’s bugs bear all the signs of a developer rushing to meet its release deadline, neglecting thorough QA in the process. In the meantime as a PC gamer I can work around bugged quests using the in-game command console, which is not something I should have to do for a big budget title from a major developer in 2011. Sadly PS3 and 360 owners don’t have that option. If their game arbitrarily decides to break a major quest or several they’re up the proverbial faecal stream minus an oar, unless they’ve got an earlier (hopefuly not too early) save to load from. For other problems, like the persistent issues troubling PS3 owners, the only recourse is to hope and pray Bethesda get round to patching them sooner rather than later. Ideally without breaking the game even further the way they did with the 1.2 patch.
This article is not intended as a hatchet job. I still think Skyrim is a great game, and when these numerous problems are finally nipped in the bud it will be an absolutely outstanding one. I know I’ve ranted about broken questlines and other issues but a lot of people, including myself, have played Skyrim through to the end of the main quest without hitting more than an armful or two of these snags along the way. For many players however Skyrim has persistent problems that prevent them getting the maximum enjoyment from their purchase. Issues that need to be raised and addressed, not brushed-off as a fact of modern gaming life or some such twaddle. Anyone who perpetuates that particular attitude deserves their shitty, overpriced weapon skins DLC.
Consider all this as a pinch of salt, to be taken with any glowing review that neglects to mention Skyrim’s current flaws or as an antidote for fanboy apologism. Believe it or not some people actually insist that if you haven’t personally experienced the same bug as someone else then that bug doesn’t technically exist for you, therefore you’re somehow forbidden to complain about it. As arguments go it’s as ludicrous as saying you can’t voice an opinion about vehicular safety unless you’ve been involved in a car crash. Bitching about trivial shit is one thing, but it’s not wholly unreasonable to ask that developers properly test their games as best they can before foisting them upon us. We never signed away our souls to be unpaid QA testers, and I could have quite happily waited an extra month or two if that meant a game with less bugs and more polish.
I probably can’t say that for the rest of you though. You eager, excitable little scamps you.