GWJ Conference Call Episode 267

Conference Call

Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Super Mario 3D Land, Assassin's Creed: Revelations, Civilization World, Take on Helicopters, More Skyrim, Skyrim Mods, Why Should We Care About Your Quest, Your Emails and more!

This week Allen and Rob Zacny join Shawn to talk a bunch of new games and where Skyrim falls short. Karla also hops in for a segment to talk about Zelda: Skyward Sword!

To contact us, email [email protected]! Send us your thoughts on the show, pressing issues you want to talk about or whatever else is on your mind. You can even send a 30 second audio question or comment (MP3 format please) if you're so inclined.

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Good Old Games

Zelda: Skyward Sword
Super Mario 3D Land
Assassin's Creed: Revelations
The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim
Skyrim Mod Thread
Civ World
Take on Helicopters

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Show credits

Music credits: 

Intro/Outtro Music - Ian Dorsch, Willowtree Audioworks

Menu Theme - The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword - http://zelda.com/skywardsword/ - 35:30

Explore Day 2 - The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - http://www.elderscrolls.com/skyrim/ - 47:46

Comments

Interesting discussion on Skyrim. All the criticism is fair. But I do think we need to recognize that while yes a mark of the specific genre, open world games, it's really a case of no better alternatives.

See Dead Rising 2. One of the main critiques of that game is the fact that there is an artificial (in a game sense, it fits in the story context) timer to the whole game, forcing you to move along, or lose. For many people the timer prevents them from actually enjoying the game and having fun. Others like the sense of urgency and purpose you get, although they seem to be in the minority.

Specifically, if Khajits had a hard time of it, who wants to play a game with a character with a big handicap, just for story reasons. I'd venture not a large majority. Which means the Khajits would likely go mostly unusued, and then, what's the point of even having the option? I admire the idea, but just don't think it's that tennable when these at 15+hr interactive experiences, and not 120min movies/narratives. Make a game unpleasant enough and the player will just turn it off, never to return. That is a very tricky balance.

As usual, it all comes down to issues of taste. Something that often seems to be ignored (although briefly touched on in the previous weeks episode). Movies, book, food, are all broad enough that the idea of taste is a given, just because I don't like seafood, doesn't mean it's not actually good. To each his own. But games come from a much smaller base (that is only now growing) and so we still have these primitive ideas that if you don't like something it must because it's bad, or that a gamer should like everything that's good. Those concepts are quickly becoming untennable.

If your *tastes* are such that you prefer finely crafted narrative experiences, where the story is tailored to your individual, limited, actions, then an open world game is probably is too aimless and static for you. Conversely, if you are someone who really enjoys player freedom and the ability to go at your own pace, then a tightly scripted experience might not be too enjoyable. That is okay, doesn't mean anything is wrong with either (unless they are indeed poorly crafted games).

It can be hard at first identifying if the problems you have are underlying deficits in the game, or just a quirk of your own personal preferences and tastes. But the sooner we as a gamer can identify our own likes and dislikes, the more satisfied we can be with our pastime as a whole.

Keep up the great work, love listening.

Bullion Cube wrote:

Surprising downer of a podcast. 25 minutes devoted to why skyrim is unsatisfying, balanced by a 30 second disclaimer about how Certis is enjoying it and it's worth playing? I can understand the CC'ers feeling like this is balanced by last week's love talk, but I think you guys came across harsher than you intended.

It's not just the CC'ers. I thought I was going to need an insulin shot after listening to the Skyrim segment from the previous episode, so I greatly appreciated the more grounded discussion this time around.

Then again, I tend to enjoy the podcast more when the crew is more willing to critically examine a game, rather than taking turns giving AARs -- the GWJCC episode that hooked me to the podcast (and the community as a whole) was the discussion of the problems in Grand Theft Auto IV, which came at a time when the game was getting an embarrassing amount of praise from the press. Something about a "blight on the industry," if memory serves.

OzymandiasAV wrote:
Bullion Cube wrote:

Surprising downer of a podcast. 25 minutes devoted to why skyrim is unsatisfying, balanced by a 30 second disclaimer about how Certis is enjoying it and it's worth playing? I can understand the CC'ers feeling like this is balanced by last week's love talk, but I think you guys came across harsher than you intended.

It's not just the CC'ers. I thought I was going to need an insulin shot after listening to the Skyrim segment from the previous episode, so I greatly appreciated the more grounded discussion this time around.

Then again, I tend to enjoy the podcast more when the crew is more willing to critically examine a game, rather than taking turns giving AARs -- the GWJCC episode that hooked me to the podcast (and the community as a whole) was the discussion of the problems in Grand Theft Auto IV, which came at a time when the game was getting an embarrassing amount of praise from the press. Something about a "blight on the industry," if memory serves.

Heck yes.

aggies11 wrote:

Specifically, if Khajits had a hard time of it, who wants to play a game with a character with a big handicap, just for story reasons. I'd venture not a large majority. Which means the Khajits would likely go mostly unusued, and then, what's the point of even having the option?

I hope you are wrong about this. I would love to play a game like that, and I would like to think that people would be intrigued by how the world would be different if they were part of a group that deals with a lot of discrimination. That does not necessarily have to be a gameplay handicap, but it would just put an interesting spin on the setting. I really hope that gamers would not actively reject playing a character that was constantly hailed as a hero and welcomed in ever inn.

As usual, it all comes down to issues of taste. Something that often seems to be ignored (although briefly touched on in the previous weeks episode). Movies, book, food, are all broad enough that the idea of taste is a given, just because I don't like seafood, doesn't mean it's not actually good. To each his own. But games come from a much smaller base (that is only now growing) and so we still have these primitive ideas that if you don't like something it must because it's bad, or that a gamer should like everything that's good. Those concepts are quickly becoming untennable.

But I think we should be careful with what we decide is just a feature of the genre and what is actually a defect. I strongly disagree that Skyrim should get a pass for narrative failures because that's not what open-ended RPGs are about. If that were really the case, they wouldn't have stories at all and nobody would care.

Skyrim did not succeed in making me engage with the main plot, or most of the people in its world. It certainly sounds to me like Allen had the same reaction, and descended into Skyrim sociopathy in order to address his boredom and alienation from the story. Nor do most of the side-plots offer much interest.

I know fans of this genre have gotten used to overlooking these problems. I know these problems stem, in part, from the nature of these games. But they are still problems in need of solutions. It's not a matter of taste to say the main story is poorly established and the characters are bland talking heads.

Maybe it is a matter of taste that we weigh those aspects so differently. But I don't think differing tastes should lead me to qualify my problems with this game. I don't think Skyrim is a great game. I think a lot of things about it are mediocre, and my experience has been a mixture of the excellent and the mediocre. I can understand why people think this is a masterpiece. But I also think they are very wrong.

aggies11 wrote:

Specifically, if Khajits had a hard time of it, who wants to play a game with a character with a big handicap, just for story reasons. I'd venture not a large majority.

True, but every Bethesda game I've played has sooner or later acquired a bunch of mods to make it more difficult. They have yet to officially include a "hard mode" as part of the vanilla game (though Obsidian did in Fallout: New Vegas, which quickly got harder-than-hardcore mods), but there does seem to be a segment of the player base who would go for it if it were there.

Rob Zacny wrote:

Skyrim did not succeed in making me engage with the main plot, or most of the people in its world. It certainly sounds to me like Allen had the same reaction, and descended into Skyrim sociopathy in order to address his boredom and alienation from the story. Nor do most of the side-plots offer much interest.

I think this (and the podcast discussion) ultimately reinforces the conclusion from the prior week's podcast that Bethesda games work if you buy into them.

I don't see a lot of real difference there between Morrowind/Oblivion/FO3/FO:NV/Skyrim and the STALKER series, really, except for Shadow of Chernobyl's habit of letting NPC's die in battles the player never saw -- if anything, the way that NPC's in SoC completely failed to acknowledge you was weirder than PC-NPC reactions in Skyrim.

Rob Zacny:

I think we should be careful about declaring other people "wrong" or labeling other people's preferences as "wrong." At the very least, we should point out how it could be better, but still be the same game.

There are levels of narrative elements in games and they don't all conform to the same level. For instance, Street Fighter has stories, and in point of fact, I think its narrative features are stronger in SF IV than they ever were, but story isn't the point of SF IV, ultimately. Faulting SF IV for "narrative failure" is just not something I could consider with a straight face.

Clarification: I'm not a big fan of open world games myself, and I have not played Fallout 3 or Skyrim, and have no immediate intentions of doing so.

It seems to me that emergent narrative for the widest possible number of character interpretations is the ultimate game within Skyrim - the so-called "making your own game out of it," or "sandbox play." The overarching metaplot or metaplots are given some attention, but it's ultimately "slice of life" in an episodic sense, is what I get the impression that it is.

Being engaged with strong game-wide plots with a strong emphasis on narratively powerful main characters - this is a feature of games with strong limited scripts like Dragon Age, Mass Effect or Enslaved, or similar such games. The converse is that their range of story and character is necessarily curtailed. Infamously, Hawke can only be human in Dragon Age, and even then there exists a small narrative dissonance because Mage Hawke isn't constantly being hounded by Templar.

There's something to be said for personal taste, but we should not allow that to color our opinion of games without a sound logical basis. "I wasn't engaged," is not, IMO, a reasonable objective critique of a game unless it's backed by fact-based analysis that suggests a weakness within the game, taking its genre into consideration.

I won't get into the "reasonable objective" standard, but I do think there's something to be said for talking about what a game does. Maybe it makes you feel alarmingly detached, or as if your actions and status don't matter. Maybe the characters act startlingly robotic or otherwise inhuman. If this were a painting, I don't think a good analysis would drive toward a good/bad judgement. Rather, we would focus on what the painting is.

Elysium wrote:

Re: Saint's Row 3

The only reason there was no discussion is because I wasn't on the show, once again highlighting why it's awesome when I'm on the show. On the upside, this will hopefully give me some time to dig into SR3 a little more before talking.

Spoiler: It's pretty damn good.

Can't wait to hear it!

Listening to the issues the crew has with boss battles made me think of Red Dead Redemption.

I don't remember much of a bullet sponge enemy in that game, so I might be mistaken, but that last fight? Yeah, that's how you bring emotion into a game.

I wish I had jumped into this conversation earlier, great discussion on Skyrim.

Just an update on where I'm at though, I played about 10 more hours over the holiday weekend and I'm completely done with Skyrim. Probably going to buy Saint's Row The Third, that really feels like where I'm at. Skyrim just required that you were already into it's premise (i.e. fighting dragons is so cool) to really care about the main story.

I was stealing things from this old woman's house and when I stepped outside a damn dragon attacked. I had to fight the stupid thing for like 5 minutes to get rid of it. By the end of it, the only fun part was looting the bodies of the guards that died so I could take their stuff. At that point, I realized Skyrim is just not a game I enjoy and I'm trying to force it. Time to move on.

I would love to hear Elysium and Pyroman (note: autocorrect tried to change it to Pyromania, which is another kind of awesome) talk about Saints Row the Third together.

Certis wrote:

I understand the desire for fair and balanced (yeah, I said it) views on games where good and bad get equal representation all the time, but we're not robots. We can't spend an hour building perfect context for every game and still have fun doing the show in the off the cuff way we do it.

My views on Assassin's Creed: Revelations don't exist in a vacuum. I don't need to spend an extra 10 minutes extolling the virtues of stuff the series has always done well when I have a half dozen shows previous that do just that. Same for Skyrim in this case.

I agree. In fact I listened to the Conference Call for the first time in a few months precisely because this thread caught my eye. Too often games are gushed and gushed over and then 2 months later all the criticism comes out. I appreciate you guys keeping an open mind and being willing to talk about it.

I'm firmly in the camp of not liking Skyrim. I feel that the video game trope of being able to leave "save the world" quests to wander an open world for 20 hours is getting really old. It's getting old to a known "quest giver" NPC that sits in place until you arrive. It's getting tired to have someone instruct you to do something very simple they could do themselves. I was trying to get back into Fallout New Vegas last night and switched off my system when someone asked me to go save his wife from geckos. Where was she? Around the corner. What was he doing? Standing in place.

These things completely break the sense of immersion to me and remind me I'm most definitely playing a video game. Even worse are the "save the world" quests. It seems weird that there's such a sense of urgency, yet people are standing in place and not doing anything until you do it first. I have to believe that the next big jump in tech is going to be higher complexity of systems and AI, specifically with an eye on allowing you to fail quests and still progress *A* story of some kind.

I left Skyrim for Dark Souls. Dark Souls may not have the same meaty tome of text that Skyrim has, but there is a story being told there. It's just not the story that was created for me. Rather the story I'm creating myself.

Oh, and as someone who finished Fallout: New Vegas I would say my motivation for putting 130 hours into that game was that I was uncovering this world that I found really interesting. I wasn't presented with a "the world is at risk" scenario. Instead I was placed into a world that was messed up with grey characters fighting a very grey war and other non-black/white conflicts. Also, I had companions with me. As I learned more about those companions I'd frequently wander off to help them out because I actually had an emotional investment in them.

Anyway, great conversation, guys. You got into some game theory stuff that was, dare I say, Idle Thumbs-ish. Minus the babboos and puffins.

DSGamer wrote:

I'm firmly in the camp of not liking Skyrim. I feel that the video game trope of being able to leave "save the world" quests to wander an open world for 20 hours is getting really old. It's getting old to a known "quest giver" NPC that sits in place until you arrive. It's getting tired to have someone instruct you to do something very simple they could do themselves. I was trying to get back into Fallout New Vegas last night and switched off my system when someone asked me to go save his wife from geckos. Where was she? Around the corner. What was he doing? Standing in place.

The company that cracks this problem for a game like Elder Scrolls deserves some recognition. Unfortunately on the other side of the problem is the Deus Ex 3 "save the hostages" bit, where people were delaying, being told to hurry up or face consequences, and didn't like the consequences. Heck of a problem to solve.

Scratched wrote:

The company that cracks this problem for a game like Elder Scrolls deserves some recognition. Unfortunately on the other side of the problem is the Deus Ex 3 "save the hostages" bit, where people were delaying, being told to hurry up or face consequences, and didn't like the consequences. Heck of a problem to solve.

I agree. That's why I'm not saying Skyrim sucks. This is a very difficult problem. I'm just recognizing that this isn't enough for me. I've already detailed how I feel New Vegas (and really Obsidian) mitigated this problem, but this is that next-gen solution I alluded to. I hope the "next gen" is more about using the horsepower towards amazing AI and game design.

Scratched wrote:
DSGamer wrote:

I'm firmly in the camp of not liking Skyrim. I feel that the video game trope of being able to leave "save the world" quests to wander an open world for 20 hours is getting really old. It's getting old to a known "quest giver" NPC that sits in place until you arrive. It's getting tired to have someone instruct you to do something very simple they could do themselves. I was trying to get back into Fallout New Vegas last night and switched off my system when someone asked me to go save his wife from geckos. Where was she? Around the corner. What was he doing? Standing in place.

The company that cracks this problem for a game like Elder Scrolls deserves some recognition.

I agree. Origin Systems deserves a medal.

I'd like to point out that in inFamous, which is an open mission sort of game, story points gave you quests which only Cole can accomplish because, well, he's a superperson and most of the population isn't. Moreover, the other superpersons in his bailiwick, while present, are portrayed as having agends not compatible with his quest.

I think a significant amount of the problems in Skyrim (and in general, fantasy) quest structuring is that they're trying to draw on their lineage in D&D where one of the methods of drawing the characters in the word is to have them do everyday tasks that could be done by normal everyday folk. The break comes in that a DM could easily ad lib to add the necessary background, whereas there's a limited ability to do the same in a video game.

Games like inFamous and Batman succeed because they don't even try to do this. Everything Cole or Batman does is portrayed as being larger than life, so of course no one else can do it! I think that fantasy games of the RPG-ish or open world-ish persuasion would be improved by taking a similar tack.

In terms of modern game design ideals (mostly stemming from Raph Koster's theory of fun), bosses like in Zelda titles are considered the appropriate model. Give the player a new mechanic, train that mechanic, and then test the player's mastery of that mechanic in the boss battle.

Yes, that does make each level focused on what amounts to a gameplay gimmick, at least mechanically.

Scratched wrote:

The company that cracks this problem for a game like Elder Scrolls deserves some recognition. Unfortunately on the other side of the problem is the Deus Ex 3 "save the hostages" bit, where people were delaying, being told to hurry up or face consequences, and didn't like the consequences. Heck of a problem to solve.

I've thought a lot about that situation in Human Revolution, and I'm not sure what the designers could have done differently there. They present you with a situation and tell you that it's time-sensitive, and if you still linger, they remind you of that fact. The problem wasn't with the design of the game, I don't think, so much as that they're working against all the other games out there that have trained players that nothing is actually time-sensitive unless there's a big flashing clock on the screen. It's almost as though Human Revolution needed a clock like that or some other way to tell players "no, we mean it; this isn't like all those other games."

Mass Effect 2 did something similar with the Collectors and they also hit the player on the head with a massive hammer telling them the mish was time-sensitive. One of the first time-sensitive games ever was Super Mario Brothers, and that had both a ticking timer on a sparse UI, and hurry-up music that told you of your imminent demise nearly two minutes before it happened.

So it's not just that many games tell you something but actually are something else - it's that the template for being time sensitive involves bending the player over a blaring siren and smacking them upside the head with a truck at the same time.

I think it's what Valve has been trumpeting for the last few years, and many of the classics through the years have done but don't get recognised for, player training, or even more elementary, how to teach people things.

You have to establish what the rules of the game are, and let the player know what they're expected to know. Perhaps another section within the DEHR tutorial where you had a bit of time pressure to optionally investigate something or get something done within a time limit (some clue to the attackers), and someone in your ear telling you what happened depending on if you beat the challenge.

Sure, but that sequence with the hostages effectively is the game's tutorial.

True enough. The sequence before the credits is pretty much 'tutorial part 1', but they're still training you on that mission, before they set you loose properly. Both in DEHR and ME3 there's not many examples of time-limited sections, so it never really gets into people's heads while playing it.

Rob Zacny wrote:

I hope you are wrong about this. I would love to play a game like that, and I would like to think that people would be intrigued by how the world would be different if they were part of a group that deals with a lot of discrimination. That does not necessarily have to be a gameplay handicap, but it would just put an interesting spin on the setting. I really hope that gamers would not actively reject playing a character that was constantly hailed as a hero and welcomed in ever inn.

It'd be interesting, I admit, but I think it comes down to the fact that people play games for a variety of reasons, and those don't necessarily always overlap. See the concept of "min/maxing", changing how you play a game, often at the detriment of gameplay, just to get the "optimum" reward. Many people play there games that way, or rather, succumb to the temptation when given the option.

In general the main thrust I was trying to make is that that we have to have realistic expectations when we look at games of this type (I hestate to use the term genre). It becomes a question of breadth vs depth. Player freedom is a very big point of this game. However if the game had to provide a compelling narrative for each and every player choice (and the exponential different paths that could take), it would be nigh impossible. Maybe when AI design our games (and they aren't busy trying to take over the world), but as it stands that becomes prohibitive.

I certainly wont' champion it as the best game evar®, but for me the "point" (ie. main draw) of Skyrim (and the Elder Scrolls in general) is the idea of player freedom. Do what you want, when you want. So I don't expect the main story to be riveting and incredibly contextual. Case in point: I've played for maybe 20hrs, and haven't started the main quest (have yet to fight a dragon). I am more interesting in setting my own goals, doing any side stories that I find interesting, and exploring my freedom. Tightly controlled narrative experiences, while more rewarding on a pure story front, don't give you these options. I fully admit and acknowledge this is a a matter of taste. This is an experience I prefer. Many people might not (I have a friend who Bought Skyrim on a deal. I promptly told him to exchange it, as it probably wasn't his cup of tea. He's not a "core" gamer, so the concept of taste very much resonates).

Just because I don't like seafood, doesn't mean I can't "Understand" how others might. The texture is gross, and it tastes awful, but I certainly can comprehend how other people might have different taste buds that don't process that taste as "awful".

In talking about games analytically, and with critical discourse, we often forget to account for personal preference and tastes. It cuts both ways. If I love a game, then it must be a "masterpiece", and if I hate it, then it must be "a bad game". Very little though is given to the middle ground. That isn't to say we can reach some sort of general consensus of a games quality, but very often the lines are blurred.

So again to recap: I think the limitations of the "genre" are very realistic and reasonable, and I think the benefits outway the cons. It'd be nice if every game can be all things to all people, but at the current level I think that is over-reaching.

That being said there are plenty of things about Skyrim that could be imrpoved, ie. the gameplay of the combat is somewhat shallow and simplistic. But again, that isnt' the main draw of the game and so it can be forgived (although that is such a basic gameplay system that the style of game doesn't prevent it's inclusion).

For me I appreciate that the world is very consistent. See the following example of the internal consistency of the game. The world does indeed happen around you, without your presence. It's just not specifically tailored to your individual actions, because the sheer variety would make that prohibitive. Maybe SWTOR will be able to do make that leap, and I'm curious to see.

Limitations are understandable when we look at a game as a product. Limitations of production don't really enter into looking at a game as a creative work.

wordsmythe wrote:

Limitations are understandable when we look at a game as a product. Limitations of production don't really enter into looking at a game as a creative work.

I don't understand what this statement means. Is there really a class of creative work that is not subject to any sort of limiting constraint whatsoever?

This is probably off topic. But I'd like to know what you meant.

Edit: BTW, having played Skyrim and Oblivion and Fallout before it, I think Bissell mostly gets it right. I think it what it does well is what all Bethesda games always seem to do well: provide you with a collection of relatively interesting and mostly self-contained quest lines that you can play around in. It's always been hard for them to integrate this design style with an overarching game-wide narrative. So, the narrative parts of the game have always been weak, and Skyrim is no different.

OzymandiasAV wrote:

All in all, I think it comes back to the primary narrative and how weakly it is structured and reinforced throughout the game. If the main defense of a game's primary storyline is that the game affords you a number of interesting opportunities to avoid it, then why is that storyline considered anything but a major weakness?

This is how I eventually ended up abandoning Skyrim. I kept finding myself popping the disc out in favor of Dark Souls. At a certain point it became inevitable. Dark Souls was allowing me to craft or live my own personal story. The story of how things went for me in the game. The meta-story. It was far more interesting than any random thing I'd stumble on in Skyrim and since I didn't care for the story in Skyrim that was that.

EDIT: Turns out Bissell mentions Dark Souls prominently. I went back and read the article. Thanks Ozy. Here is the part I liked best.

Tom Bissell from Grantland.com wrote:

The NPCs of Demon's and Dark Souls are never primary vessels for storytelling. The primary vessels for storytelling are the nonpareil environments and the player's experience within those environments. We can be sure that From Software has a long and complicated bible that spells out its games' (doubtlessly quite formidable) lore. We can be equally sure that character and location sheets were at some point drawn up and iterated upon and revised and consulted, but all this work is wisely withheld from the player. Why? Because no one cares. Not really, they don't. And they don't care because it's not important. Dense expositional lore has no place in video-game stories — especially stories that go without highly wrought cinematics — and it seems increasingly clear that video games are neither dramatically effective nor emotionally interesting when the player's role becomes that of a dialogue sponge. More simply put, the stories of Demon's and Dark Souls are told in a way that only video games can tell stories.

Emphasis mine. This has been something I've been thinking about for a while. I have really enjoyed the meta-stories that arise out of games that give you open world agency, but without the same heavy-handed storytelling. I think it's why I rejected GTA, but love Saints Row 3. Why I rejected Skyrim categorically in favor of Dark Souls. I'm tired of being a dialogue sponge (good term) when I can play a video game and have the gameplay tell the story.

I disagree with his premise that games are flat-out ineffective in telling stories the way Skyrim attempts to. Same as Ozymandias, I really enjoyed Fallout. So I can be convinced to buy into store and listen to some NPCs talk. But largely I think I'm over that.

psu_13 wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:

Limitations are understandable when we look at a game as a product. Limitations of production don't really enter into looking at a game as a creative work.

I don't understand what this statement means. Is there really a class of creative work that is not subject to any sort of limiting constraint whatsoever?

I *think* what wordsmythe is saying is that there is a difference between what can be accomplished in a product vs. a creative work. That Bethesda wouldn't be encumbered (pun intended) by these limitations if they simply tried to create something interesting as opposed to something that would sell. Imagine a Skyrim with hundreds of random things to do in a world, systems interacting and no main storyline. I think that's a game I'd be more interested in playing.

aggies11 wrote:

I certainly wont' champion it as the best game evar®, but for me the "point" (ie. main draw) of Skyrim (and the Elder Scrolls in general) is the idea of player freedom. Do what you want, when you want.

So, what happens if you aren't as interested in exploration at that moment and you actually want to follow the main storyline? Does that somehow excuse that main storyline from lacking any kind of hook or momentum to draw the player in?

Maybe I'm being too reductive here, but the primary defense mechanism for Skyrim (and the Elder Scrolls games as a whole) seems to center around some variation of "explore the world" or "make your own fun." To me, it's always feels like an encouragement to divert away from the main story, which is somehow justified by the fact that the world outside of that main story is so lovingly detailed and rendered with all sorts of ancillary details and lore. It's not really a defense, even, as much as an apology.

I don't think Bissell's post on Skyrim at Grantland is his best stuff -- in fact, I'd say that the casual sexism at the start of the article is a fairly substantive turn-off -- but I do feel like it drills down to Skyrim's most glaring issue:

Tom Bissell at Grantland[/url]]The question becomes why the thing that doesn't make Skyrim so great is such a prominent part of Skyrim. Why, in fact, is it in Skyrim at all? I ask these questions as an admirer of Skyrim. Everything else in the game — from the beautiful simplicity of the user-interface system (at least when compared to previous Elder Scrolls games) to the crunchiness of the combat to the graphical fidelity of the environments — has improved upon previous Elder Scrolls games, so why hasn't this?

Bissell even talks a bit about how dialogue is staged, how the NPC cycling through a series of canned animations can kill your engagement with that conversation, but I'm not even sure that's the biggest problem (for me, anyway). The Fallout games share the same flaws in conversation and, yet, they never disengaged me in the same way that the Elder Scrolls games do...and I think that's primarily because, in those Fallout games, I had already bought into the narrative. I was already engaged and already riding the momentum from the current moment of the plot, so it was easier to treat the game's deficiencies in narrative presentation as idiosyncrasies.

(Side note: building momentum in your narrative doesn't lead to greatness unless you capitalize on it. When Fallout 3 railroaded my character into one of the worst anti-climaxes in recent gaming history, I felt more irritated and disgusted than I have felt playing any legitimately bad game ever. Still kind of feel that way, to tell you the truth. And yet, despite all of that, I'd still say that the storyline in Fallout 3 was more interesting than anything I've seen in the Elder Scrolls series.)

All in all, I think it comes back to the primary narrative and how weakly it is structured and reinforced throughout the game. If the main defense of a game's primary storyline is that the game affords you a number of interesting opportunities to avoid it, then why is that storyline considered anything but a major weakness?

Oh, so they put in the pointless main plot to make the game sell better even though everyone knows you don't buy a Bethesda game for the pointless main plot?

I could buy that.