Opinion Piece

Happy (Slightly Belated) Birthday, Skyrim

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Note: this was written on 11/11/14, the exact date of Skyrim’s birthday, but obviously publishing was delayed a few days.

Three years ago today Bethesda released the epic Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a game that would devour the lives of thousands upon thousands of unsuspecting gamers, transporting them to a cold realm filled with dragons and hardy people. It’s fair to say that when it was released, I hated it.

Those of you with a good memory may be questioning that statement since three years ago I spent a shade over 5,000 words describing how awesome it was before giving it full marks, despite a small raft of glitches and problems that left many people decrying the high marks Skyrim was getting across the board. They had a point, to be fair. There was a lot of problems. The answer to me is that it was an amazing game and I felt it deserved that score despite the problems, but for the sake of the review I had packed in something in the region of 70-80 hours in just under two weeks, going so far as to Email Bethesda to state I was delaying the review because I felt like I needed more time with a game of that size. Following the publication of my review I never wanted to see Skyrim again. I hated it, and its world and its people and its sodding dragons. I was fatigued with adventuring and stealing and killing.

That saddened me in a way because it was such a damn good game, and it took me a long time before I felt like I actually wanted to touch it again. I’d packed so much adventuring and dragon slaying into such a short span of time that the idea of returning to it felt kind of horrible. It’s like eating most of a gigantic steak. You sort of want to eat the rest because steak is bloody awesome, but you feel sick and can’t bring yourself to do it. But return I eventually did and I inevitably fell in love once again, getting lost in the chilly landscape. Just recently I’ve learned to love it all over again, too, due to purchasing the game in a Steam sale and discovering a whole new world of better graphics, better framerates and fantastic mods.

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Tossed into a huge world filled with quests and cities when one stops to consider it Skyrim probably shouldn’t work. The quality of the dialogue is pretty low across the board and everyone you meet looks stiff and mechanical. The cities don’t feel alive so much as functioning waxwork museums. And yet something about the land of Skyrim, and that of Oblivion before it, makes us buy into the experience. Sure, there’s some world destroying danger to be stopped that people insist you should be helping with, but that can be put on hold in favor of simply roaming the absurdly huge landscape and stealing everyone’s cutlery. Even today I continue to find quests that I never knew about, or little areas I had never visited. It’s a whole virtual life.

Few games these days grant us such freedom and vast amounts of content to find. Assassin’s Creed: Unity may have a map filled to the brim with activities, but Ubisoft can barely resist telling you all about them so that you never miss a single one. You can avoid this problem by refusing to ever climb a viewpoint, but even then when walking through the city your map will be populated very quickly. Skyrim doesn’t tell you about its myriad of quests and instead leaves it up to you to actually explore the world and discover its many strange secrets and little tales.  It’s a game that trusts in the depth of its own world and the innate desire of its players to explore the land given to them, a trust that developers of other open-world games need to understand. As gamers we don’t need to be shown everything. Just communicate your ideas well, and let us sort out the rest.

Your reward for abandoning the world to its horrific fate and just doing what you want is a parade of beautiful landscapes, fun battles and quests to undertake. It’s so satisfying to visit a shop, tool up, pick a direction and just go, tackling the many dangers that come your way and exploring the settlements, caves and ruins which you stumble upon. Few games manage to create such a wonderful sense of adventure without feeling the need to constantly point everything out and remind players about what you can do.

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As someone raised on fantasy books I confess to loving Oblivion’s more vibrant, lush world a bit more, but Skyrim’s bleak landscape taps into the modern desire for more grim fantasy and in doing so creates a more believable world. There may be dragons roaming around and strange cat-people, but if you just stop for a moment and look at the land you could see it being a real place here on Earth, whereas you’d never confuse Oblivion with a place on our fair planet.

My recent rediscovery of the game on Steam has been a revelation of sorts, a powerful example of how a good PC can provide access to an entire new world of experiences. With texture packs, lighting mods and more installed Skyrim looks beautiful, even on my sort of mid-range computer, while some cool armor and weapon collections provide access to a range of gear. I’ve even got a program that lets me tweak the games color settings,  bringing a more vibrant look to the world of Skyrim. Another mod gives me a better user interface, plus user-made bug fixes result in a more stable game. In a ways it’s like a whole different game, especially once you start throwing in entire custom missions, some of which are of very high quality.

There’s just so much to love about the game. The open levelling system was a step in the right direction for the franchise, no longer hemming us into playing a certain way and instead rewarding us for playing however we wanted. The inclusion of dragons roaming the skies finally presented us with the chance to live out those epic fantasy dreams of battling fire-breathing beasts, but with the added benefit of then claiming their souls and using them to fuel powerful magic. The wide range of spells gave mages plenty of ways to feel awesome without always needing to resort to using a sword. You could doddle off and become a werewolf, gain leadership of the mages, fight a civil war and steal as much crap as you could carry.

In what other game could you climb a mountain while battling a dragon before exploring some old ruins, fighting off some bandits and then admiring the view before beginning the long trek to the next adventure? What other game could have you wander in the same direction for a couple of hours and make it feel so worthwhile? More games need let go of our hands and let us explore their worlds on our own.

Nothing is perfect and Skryim did of course have a host of glitches, especially at launch. There was also a general lack of flair in the storytelling that stopped most people getting invested, and enemies still levelled up with you, making the acquisition of new gear seem like much less of a big deal. And those epic dragon fights did tend to involve players hiding a lot until the bloody flying lizard decided to land. And there’s so many more problems I’m not mentioning here. For some the glitches and bugs were enough to warrant not bothering with the game, and I can understand that. Bethesda’s games have a history of game-breaking problems and Skyrim was really no exception, but for me none of those could overcome the sheer sensation of joy, freedom and exploration that Skyrim elicitted.  It’s one of my favorite games of all time.

It’s just one of those games that I can fire up and start playing, picking a direction to head off in and enjoying whatever I can discover. It’s just one of those games I can fire up and start playing for an hour, only to remember at 4am that there’s other things I should maybe be doing.

Maybe.

Happy (slightly belated) birthday, Skryim, you life-devouring, soul-sucking magnificent bastard.

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