So I finished Mass Effect 3 last week and I immediately went back to playing Skyrim again. I think it is telling that I am done with Mass Effect after what Raptr tells me is around 35 hours (for now anyway) while I am still engrossed by Skyrim even though I am closing in on 200. I think the difference is that Mass Effect told me a story while Skyrim invited me to come live in its world.
There was a moment in my first playthrough of Skyrim when I was scrolling through my quest log trying to decide what to do next when I noticed a quest called “Diplomatic Immunity”. I read the description and had to struggle to remember who gave it to me and what it was about before finally remembering “Oh yeah, that’s the main quest!”
Skyrim gives you so many things to do and so many opportunities to do them that it seems as if the various storylines have minimal importance. Don’t follow-up on a murder in the streets in Markarth and you will never find out about the secret of Cibala Mine and the history of the Forsworn. Don’t bother investigating a rumor you hear about a child performing the Dark Sacrament and you will never even get involved with the Dark Brotherhood. The world is out there for you to explore and it is up to you to do so. Want to spend all your time clearing out tombs and hunting for Nirnroot along the streams? Go ahead.
Contrast this with Mass Effect where the story is always front and center. Mass Effect tells an incredibly detailed and effective story (quibbles about the ending notwithstanding) but it does so at the expense of everything else. You can fly almost anywhere you want in the galaxy but it feels as if its world is smaller than a single small province in northern Tamriel. Everything in Mass Effect is in service to its story and nothing is there to distract you from it.
This lets the writers of Mass Effect tell their story but when a story is over it’s… over. I don’t feel the need to play it again because I’ve already been told that story and the game is the story. Sure, I can make a few different choices along the way but so what? All I’m doing is picking the colors to use to fill in between the lines that someone else has drawn.
Skyrim on the other hand is about a place. I’m on my third playthrough of Skyrim and I am still uncovering things that I didn’t find on the first two. I still haven’t completely finished the Thieves Guild questline in any game yet and I know there something about crimson nirnroot that I’ve never bothered with. And I suppose I should play the civil war from tne Nord side at some point.
Yeah, the story itself isn’t that original or engrossing. Remember, I had to struggle to remember what it was at one point. But I would almost prefer a breadth of choice over a deep but narrow experience.
Consider the Citadel in Mass Effect. Think about how many places you can see. Now, how many of them can you get to?
Go into Skyrim and stand outside of Whiterun. How many places can you see? Now, realize that you can visit every single one of them.
Screw the story. I’ve got a world to explore.