The nature of Bethesda games is a bit strange. I went over the details in a recent post, but the gist of it is a matter of evolving game design and trying new things. At least, that was the case in the era that Skyrim came out.
Skyrim was wholly enraptured in its ability to keep the player trained on a fixed amount of activities. The entire game revolved around that principle: one quest will open the doors to a couple of other quests and/or activities/locations. It gave the player a rather self-indulgent amount of mindless roaming to enjoy, and did so at the cost of a difficult and grounded world, a tried and true leveling system, and a level of writing that bothered the mind for more than a couple seconds of “yeah whatever’s”.
Despite these sacrifices, which are about as close to objective downgrades from previous iterations of the Elder Scrolls formula as you can get (aside from the leveling system, which beat out Oblivion’s by a huge margin), Skyrim managed to strike a perfect balance between involved world and mindless leveling/gameplay. The equilibrium between these two forces was so perfect that Bethesda, as a profit-first studio, is still banking on making another game that matches it (and it won’t).
But this equilibrium stands the test of time and proves to be the right variable in creating a game that is just so mindlessly entertaining to play. You don’t have to think, you don’t have to pen and paper your way through it, you don’t have to do anything but swing away and gear up your character. It’s just so satisfying.
Satisfying, of course, doesn’t equal quality. But that’s really the point, isn’t it? A game doesn’t need to be quality to be satisfying, and sometimes high-quality games are less fun to play than comparable games of lower quality with a more relaxing gameplay loop simply because they don’t require any work to understand.
I’d compare this phenomenon with movies to better understand it: a three hour piece of high art is, for many of us, harder to commit to watching than a one and half hour comedy about XY or Z precisely because it wasn’t made with the intention of requiring any work on the part of the viewer. This is true even if everything you know about the former leads you to believe that it is, in your opinion, simply better as a film.
The same is true for books, music, and, yes, video games. Skyrim is that one and a half hour (unintentional) comedy. A game like Morrowind is the piece of high art that simply doesn’t beckon a player back with as much fervor as its younger brother. And that’s fine, I don’t hold that against or for either game, but it is the way it is for most us for a reason.
I’ve started so many playthroughs of Skyrim. I’ve tried just about every playstyle at every difficulty, and have done all of the major quest lines the game has to offer a few times over. And yet, despite this, the game still calls to me. I don’t even consider it to be that great of a game. I think, all things considered, it’s fine. Good. Decent, etc. And yet, here I sit. Typing away just to keep my mind off the game like it’s an addiction (because it is.)