While I was playing Skyrim a few nights ago, I lamented that for all the stuff there is still for me to do in this game, even after my combined 600 something hours across all my characters, nothing I do really makes a huge overt difference. True, I can fuel the Civil War in either direction, or slay dragons and save the world, but none of these really does anything beyond change a few lines of dialog, or change city guards into soldiers. Maybe a bard will write a whole new song for you that’s 10 lines long. Whoop-dee-fucking-do.
This is not me disparaging Skyrim. It’s a wonderful game with great immersion and a myriad of play styles so that each new character can feel like a new game experience. Skyrim does SO MUCH RIGHT for the sandbox quasi-genre, but this only makes the failure to address the player’s heroics even more staggering. Sure, you get complimented or dished on depending on who you support or what you do, but at no point does the game world actually change. Everything stays relatively the same regardless of what you do or don’t do, and this was likely done to meet time and resource constraints.
Whatever the cause, you are NOT the master of this game world, no matter how hard you try to be.
There is one world where this could probably be worked into a benefit, however: Middle Earth.
If we were to take Skyrim and re-gussy it into a Middle Earth game, the unflinching nature of the game world becomes more forgivable, especially in a War of the Ring or an earlier War of the Jewels setting.
These events were so big and epic that nothing any single person does would amount to much change. This isn’t a series of events where 12 Dwarves, a Hobbit and a Wizard could change everything, or 4 hobbits, two men, an elf, a dwarf and a Wizard could change everything, kill a dragon or bung a ring in a volcano and put the world to rights by themselves.
In these greater settings, the badassitude of the player avatar is unltimately inconsequential. Yes, you may be a legend by the end, but your individual actions wouldn’t change ANYTHING. Everything you do is a delaying action for the real heroes, who are trudging, suffering, and dying offscreen, very likely completely unknown to your own character.
In Skyrim, you are encouraged to live your own legend: be the savior of the world, Hero of the Empire or the Rebellion. You can become Grandmaster of the Thieves Guild, Thane of the Nine Holds, Harbinger of the Companions, Archmage of the College of Winterhold, and Listener (and Leader) of the Dark Brotherhood, and Assassin of the Emperor Himself. Or you could even destroy the Dark Brotherhood entirely (but not the Thieves Guild, much as killing Brynjolf and his repeated “NEVER WORKED AN HONEST DAY IN YOUR LIFE FOR ALL THAT COIN YOU’RE CARRYING, EH LAD/LASS?” would be a complete FUCKING DELIGHT).
But what does your legend actually accomplish?
What do you really change? The initial thrill of the titles and accomplishments soon wears off. You appreciate the perks of course, like additional stores, more bases of operations, and some kick ass loot, but you haven’t changed anything. Winning the war for either side doesn’t cause celebrations among your supporters, and doesn’t even result in a High King or High Queen sitting on the Throne of Skyrim. EVEN KILLING THE EMPEROR HIMSELF doesn’t cause political turmoil or fuel the civil war. All it elicits is a tired “Oh, so the Emperor is dead? Dang.” laced with plenty of ennui from the city guards. You can headcanon your way to anything, of course (mine is quite impressive and involves no fewer than four of my separate Dragonborns interacting), but the reality of gameplay is that you will never become king, or a general of an army. You will never lead the Stormcloaks or Imperial Legion against the Thalmor.
Why? Because the developers didn’t have time.
But in a world as big as Middle Earth during the tumult of the War of the Ring, Skyrim’s “what can one man change?” attitude becomes so much more apt.
Why don’t you become King of Gondor? Because Aragorn is going to do that. Why can’t you kill the Witch King of Angmar? Because Eowyn is going to do that. Why can’t you save the world from Sauron? Because Frodo and Samwise are already doing that. Those same restraints that bind players in Skyrim for no reason suddenly have valid reasons in Middle Earth, and the gameplay style of Skyrim would likewise adapt quite well.
Which is why it boggles my mind that there is no Lord of the Rings style game in the mold of Skyrim. It would be amazing, and easier to forgive with the same limitations.