After 70 hours or so of play, I finished the main quest line of Skyrim. By this point I had completed the Thieves’ Guild quest line and a smattering of other quests from all over the map. I had discovered dozens of dungeons, slain many dragons, and finished more petty side-quests than I care to admit. When I decided to stop wandering the map and focus on finishing the central plot of the game, I was able to complete my remaining tasks in a couple hours, kept slow by my insistence on playing as a Bosmer archer instead of using any of the many methods of combat that render encounters trivially easy to complete. As the dragon-god Alduin evaporated in a shiny flash of elaborate death animations, I didn’t feel like a hero. I wasn’t even sure I had actually finished the main questline, there was so little fanfare. What I did feel like was that I had just finished a cheap porno, and that I should probably start playing something else before someone noticed me.
Why am I comparing a game that I enjoyed for 70 hours to grotesque sleazery? Essentially, I couldn’t come up with a better comparison. The key features of an Elder Scrolls game, Skyrimin particular, seemed to match up quite closely to the most prominent qualities of gonzo pornography:
- Highly visually glamorized characters and scenery (It’s Sexy!)
- Shallow details giving the illusion of coherence (It’s Fantasy!)
- Self-paced and finely categorized consumption (It’s Yours!)
- Exaggerated and unwavering mood (Hit Me Baby One More Time!)
I’ll elaborate a bit on what I mean by each of these headings in their own heading.
Why Gonzo Pornography?
Pornography is a fascinating industry with an immense vocabulary of ludicrously specific jargon for things which most people would probably prefer never had names. In porn, the term ‘gonzo’ refers to a particular method of production that emphasizes first-person style camera work while eschewing such trappings as dialogue, costuming, plot, or other features common to virtually any genre of film. It’s all about cutting right to the heart of what the consumer is looking for without any of the additional features one might search for to ameliorate one’s guilt about consuming the thing. It doesn’t pretend that you want to know that the man in question is a plumber or that there are quite believable reasons for him to be having a threesome with those sorority girl roommates; it’s simply the rawest, most base form of a product that could otherwise be delivered with niceties to assuage the conscience of the viewer.
So. How is Skyrim like gonzo?
Twenty minutes of playing the game will leave you floored at the visual quality of the presentation. Every flower is beautifully placed. Every stone is elaborately crafted to be geologically convincing and topographically novel. All the bodies in Skyrim are crafted to represent idealized hard-bodied northmen, hardy and lovely women, and anatomically improbably lithe elven folk. While the idealization of bodies is hardly unique to Skyrim, it’s just one example of a broader maximalist aesthetic. Every element is designed to be as exaggeratedly beautiful as possible.The sheer pervasiveness of the same level of detail across the whole setting is just stunning.
In fact, it’s so stunning, you eventually lose the sense of wonder at how gorgeous the whole thing is. Your aesthetic standard is almost polluted with beauty. Your innate need to have something unbeautiful to contrast it against starts nitpicking details the same way the gonzo consumer begins deconstructing his or her experience. The Skyrim player gets irritated at two people sitting at a table using the same shuffling animation, and the gonzo watcher becomes dissatisfied that the actress isn’t wearing heels in this one. In Skyrim, every book full of unique stories rapidly becomes a vacant prop that is to be ignored; in gonzo, the actress from the aforementioned threesome becomes background noise once she becomes familiar to the viewer if she isn’t the direct focus of attention. Simply due to direct and constant exposure, what can be a compelling and enthralling display rapidly becomes banal and insignificant by being presented as the normal and commonplace.
Skyrim lets you do exactly what you want in a game world. Do you want to cook? Create potions? Hunt bears? Lounge in the library of the mages’ college reading story books? Climb a mountain? Pick pockets? Save the world from a risen dragon-god bent on bringing about the end of the world as is his sworn duty? No matter what sort of high-fantasy activity you’ve dreamed of doing, Skyrim helps you do it in fine detail.
Compare to pornography consumption. Do you want one actress or three? Blondes or brunettes? Leather or lace? First person or third person? What positions and props? The menu of options is staggeringly huge and specific to a degree that makes your average movie categories seem woefully inept in comparison. Once you’ve made your selections, the details will be trotted out in the same form as any other gonzo piece. Posing, teasing, stripping, sex acts to match your specific order, and, finally, the ever important finishing shot.
In either case, the whole parade displays an astonishing degree of care and attention paid to the specific demands of the current audience. They don’t really need to fit into anything larger than their existent focus, they exist as self-contained motes of perfectly-packaged experience to satisfy a highly-specific appetite. The alchemy table is strewn with arcane goods, and your character diligently grinds mysterious things with a mortar and pestle while combining their magical ingredients. The gonzo camera moves to the perfect angle to expose exactly the view of human flesh performing exactly the motion you desire in the colors requested.
Do the props really enhance the whole? Do you really find Skyrim more compelling because you can actually read every god damn book in the game? Do you really find the gonzo cheerleader more compelling because the actress threw some pom-poms away before otherwise occupying her hands?
I finished the game having cooked exactly once, for the sake of getting an achievement (a statement which, in itself, probably deserves an article). Every activity in the game exists because someone might want it, not because it enhances something bigger than itself. The pieces don’t necessarily come into conflict with each other, but the fact that everything is optional in the game leads all the pieces to feel unimportant. Compare this to Arkham City, where every gadget you find adds a new dimension to combat, opens up new areas of the game world to explore, has unique puzzles that can only be solved by using that gadget, and is likely an essential piece of a unique and thrilling boss fight. Everything is necessary and everything has a purpose, yet you still have choices about how, when, and whether you accomplish them.
Am I wrong to think the Arkham City approach is better?
An essential part of the Elder Scrolls experience is that you be rewarded for seeking out the specific subcategory of the game’s options you want to pursue at that moment. Skyrim lets you do anything you want to attempt at any time. There’s no need to prioritize. You control exactly what you want to focus on at any time, and you get the appropriate reward for what you choose to pursue at no detriment to any other goal you could be striving toward.
Compare to a gonzo porn: all the pieces you might want from it at any time are there, and can be accessed with no detriment to the whole piece. While it would be fruitless and confusing to skip halfway through any Hollywood blockbuster, gonzo doesn’t care what you’re there for. If you want to skip the striptease, or put a particular scene on loop, there’s no integrity there for you to damage.
If I started listening to random clips of narration from Bastion, I would have no bleeding clue what was going on. There’d be no coherent plot, no drama, no tension, no mystery, no satisfaction when a hidden truth came to light. If I started jumping to random scenes from The Prestige, everything would be meaningless and confusing, and the delightful surprise revelation of the movie would be lost in a nonsensical jambalaya of film.
Structure for these experiences enhances their quality. Bastion has a superb array of decisions built into it, such as what weapon loadout you want to use, what upgrade paths to choose, and what order to complete the map in, but it nests all of these in challenges and narrative points that lend them all a beautiful poignance. Skyrim simply unzips its fly and says “Go nuts!’
Hit Me Baby, One More Time!
This last point is more of the aggregation of the above points. When your senses are assaulted constantly by something with hyper-glamorized visuals, highly specific content segregation, and no penalty or reward for jumping immediately to the portion most appetizing to your basest appetite, what does this make of the whole? A solid block of raw, homogenous stimulus, carefully engineered to over-stimulate your most fundamental lizard-brain pleasure centers.
Nothing in Skyrim is special. No one in gonzo is loved. Either one satisfies your immediate and specific appetites, but are you enriched by either? Or do you walk away from both feeling like you’ve consumed something that has altogether diminished not only you as an intellectual and moral being, but also reduced a potentially edifying activity to a degrading parody of something good? They satisfy your crudest desires but also mock genuinely enriching media by mimicking their trappings while failing to use them in any meaningful sense.
When my dragonborn was in Sovngarde, letting loose the arrow that slew the god-dragon, the experience held so little drama that I wasn’t sure that was all the battle and story had to offer. The combat had taken maybe 80 seconds of plinking on a bow-string while Alduin munched casually on one of the three Nord warriors assisting me in the battle. Some wooden characters stood perfectly still around me and played sound bites about how I’d be celebrated as a hero in the mortal realm. When I got bored staring at the pretty aurora in Sovngarde, I was sent back to Skyrim and told by Arngeir, spokesman of the Greybeards, that I was now free to choose my destiny.
It was roughly as thrilling as watching someone ejaculate, albeit not quite as creepy. Alduin’s death is supposed to be a climactic moment of intense emotional and dramatic release, but instead it ran together as just another shiny moment in a game full of sparkly objects.
Everyone Loves Porn
Pornography destroys a great deal of the experienced value of what it seeks to portray by exaggerating a stable of finely-tuned details to the greatest extreme possible. By focusing on breast size, noisy cries of pleasure, and colorful latex costumes, it focuses on extreme elements of experience to depict something that is larger than and wholly alien from the subject matter it supposedly depicts.
I don’t want this to sound like I’m moralizing, or even claiming that this is a bad thing. People have appetites, and we wouldn’t be playing Skyrim or watching “Butt Battalion 37” if there weren’t some sort of desire or need we had as human beings. I’m not going to tell people what to do with their joysticks.
What I do want to say is that Skyrim is not Citizen Kane or a Michaelangelo sculpture. It’s a phenomenal technical achievement. It’s actually really fun, and it’s very good at providing a large variety of game experiences. It just isn’t very good art.