Among the myriad pleasures to be found in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – and there are many – the one that stands out the most came about 15 hours in. Crossing vast tundra covered in hardy-looking, rust-colored plants that convey the hostility of the climate, I noticed movement on a side of the plain. As I walked toward it, it hit me that I was looking at a giant, walking, no, better yet, herding two woolly mammoths. This strange and docile moment kept me transfixed. It also perfectly crystallizes the thrill of Skyrim: being wholly lost in a world that is a product of such careful imagination that, amidst all the dragons, dungeons, and wraiths, the inner logic of this astonishing game can produce a moment of such organic quietude.
It’s A Big, Dragon-Filled World Out There
Skyrim, following Fallout 3 and Oblivion, is yet another ambitious title that presents a massive and fully explorable world with only the players’ disposition to guide them through the seemingly endless number of quests and adventures. Those previous titles were strong, evocative games that still had the lingering sense of not fully realizing their ambitions. Skyrim is that realization and is the apotheosis, not only of the open-world format, but of what games can accomplish. It is perhaps the finest experience ever made available in the medium.
The game takes place in Skyrim, the northernmost region of Tamriel, the continent of the Elder Scroll games. You begin the game in captivity by the imperial troops (governed by the emperor located in Cyrodill, the locale of Oblivion) on your way to have your head removed from your body for your crimes. Along for this ride are other criminals and representatives of a rebel force that is attempting to liberate Skyrim from the imperial control. Before the axe comes down, the festivities are interrupted by the appearance of a dragon, creatures that existed only in myth and were considered to have once ruled over humans like gods. Quickly, you must escape both your captors and the beast and, in short order, emerge into the amazing wilds, towns, and cities of Skyrim.
“Amazing” doesn’t do the landscape justice. Skyrim offers the single most impressive gaming landscape I have ever seen, not just in its scope, but in the variety and detail, a truly monumental achievement that allows for sublime absorption of the player in its verisimilitude. Towering mountains, sodden marshland, and arid plains comprise the landscape with such character and drama that you can sense the dry air and caustic environment that seeps with the harsh danger that informs the events of the game. Where the setting of Oblivion conveyed a seat of majesty in the Empire’s center on the verge of devastation, Skyrim evokes the eruption of natural forces that form the tenuous survival of its inhabitants against this menacing backdrop, underscoring the civil war and dragons that threaten to consume it all.
A Schmorgesborg Of Fantasy Delights
Every moment of exploration through Skyrim evokes awe. The most northern reaches of the map, where icy cliffs drop into the Ocean, look like the edge of the gamespace, and then it becomes clear that there are islands you can travel to over the cluster of ice cramping the shoreline, where you find yet more towering mountains, fully explorable with caves, creatures, and tombs. Such moments of discovery are incessant and exhilarating, as tens of hours into the game, there is still a fresh sense of mystery and more than enough reason to continue on through the game’s seemingly endless supply of content and activity.
It’s not just the external landscape of Skyrim that impresses it magnificence on the player. Cities are distinct, each with its own architectural character; one is built into a mountainside, incorporating the cavernous halls of the absent dwarven race, another is a seedy town in the waterlogged lowlands where thieves run rampant and homes on the canal ooze with desperation. The variety extends into the game’s countless dungeons and caves. No one dungeon or cave looks like the others. All, no matter the size, seem to have been the product of care and attention in their design and belie logic to their construction and have a story to tell. Even better, nearly all these spaces are well lit so the strange beauty of forests inside of a mountain can be admired in all of its surreal magnificence.
The effect of the environmental design in Skyrim cannot be understated; the mature grounding of the world at every level of detail exudes confidence and coherence that rewards the player through investigation and attention, not just in leveling up their character or finding superior loot. This is assisted through the sophistication in the writing and design of the quests that make up the core of your time in Skyrim. Acquired at an alarming rate throughout the game, these quests, unlike previous Elder Scroll titles, feel organically linked to this wondrous world and hold the promise of both heightening the sense of mystery and further bringing a canny sense of reality to the fantasy world.
More Quests Than A Quest Fest
Instead of one main quest, Skyrim presents two: in the first, you are dealt the return of the dragons and the revelation that your character is one of the rare dragonborn, possessing the historical lineage of prior emperors, exhibiting many powers of the dragon, such as the power to breathe, or “speak,” in flames and frost. The second is the simmering internal conflict between the kings, or “Jarls,” of the various regions of Skyrim, divided in their loyalties to the empire or independence.
This second storyline is a highly effective addition, as it functions as a counterweight to the high fantasy proceedings of the dragons and casts a murky moral ambiguity over the narrative. You will pick a side and neither one is terribly appealing. This display of human fecklessness as Dragons bring potential annihilation from the heavens serves as an exceptional narrative backdrop to the game, placing the player at the center of highly tenuous circumstances as threatening and overwhelming as the land of Skyrim itself.
The main quests, as compelling as it is, is only a modest portion of the quests to be found in the game. Skyrim doesn’t distinguish between main and side-quests in the log and for good reason; all of the quests are designed with the same precision, care and drama. Characters that populate the world and send you on your adventures are distinct, and the motivation to venture into the dark recesses of Skyrim never feels formulaic or repetitive.
These quests are also significant in their scope and breadth. Nothing feels like busywork and the monetary or treasure rewards are secondary to the sights you are treated to. Of particular note are the quests centered in the guilds or colleges. Unlike previous games where a series of odd tasks move you up the ranks, here, they all intertwine into a larger narrative hours upon hours long.
The Long And Bloody Road
Another section of the quest log marked “miscellaneous” is filled with small opportunities; collection quests, bounties, and general assistance to the public are listed. There’s a small touch among these mini-quests that is deliciously clever, some are coy lures into larger more substantive quests and this elegant tool of revealing them to the player is joltingly effective reminder of just how sophisticated the game’s design is. Even the unrevealing quests are not tiresome, because they are designed to push the player into untraveled regions of the map and all occur in an unexplored, wholly unique place.
The “miscellaneous” quests are also fun to play because the combat in Skyrim is as diverse and satisfying as all its other aspects. The Elder Scrolls games are philosophically predicated on the player having full choice, and the advent of dual wielding weapons, magic, or both, is the most significant articulation of that design prerogative. Weaken an enemy with a fireball, close the distance, and hack away with your sword, fill both hands with a fireball spell to maximize impact and damage, or go with sword and mace in hand for the personal touch. The strategy options open up immeasurable with both arms in use and a quick menu to select favorite items can make a simple combat instance a very diverse and deeply satisfying affair.
It doesn’t hurt that the combat finally has a visceral kick. The animations portray power and timing can make a difference. Finishing moves can be randomly triggered, and after some challenging confrontations, they elicited some strongly worded exclamations of joy. Combat can prove very difficult in instances; enemies follow the format of Fallout 3 and don’t level up at your pace, making some encounters power fantasies of one swing executions and others very challenging, especially in random encounters with dragons, dragon priests, and at the conclusion of quests. Nearly all of these challenges can be overcome with shrewd use of weapons, potions, and magic but expect frequent death and load screens (the difficulty can be adjusted on the fly) and some inelegant resolutions.
May The Stars Shine Upon You
Spikes in difficulty are an understandable by-product of the dynamic nature of the game and your ability to shape your character in it. The character upgrades have been significantly streamlined. Instead of adding numbers to your various stats, each level offers a perk point which has a clear material benefit to a particular skill. While purists may blanch at the thought of limiting stat development, the decision to focus on perks is the right one. Increasing skills by three points is to effect the change that the perks represent, albeit through an opaque mathematical rubric. The new system doesn’t just make the system more accessible, it makes it clear, and the results are immediately evident in the gameplay.
I also found myself obsessing far less over my stats and perks in Skyrim and realized that, even after the 70th hour of play, that typical motivation of improving my character’s numbers to achieve some personal goal was absent. There was no grind; I was just playing the game. This is the ultimate achievement of Skyrim. The game architecture stays in the background and the experience of existing in this phenomenal world remains paramount.
The game’s organic rewards of seeing new areas, finding new items, and evolving narrative continue to hold their allure and tantalize with the thought of what’s to come. In this, Skyrim manages an achievement that’s Wagnerian in its totality (and not just due to the use of Dragons). This is digital Gesamtkunstwerk; the disparate parts of the games seamlessly form an amazing collective that is true immersion, an experience that you relax into and become gloriously overwhelmed. Looking at the single disc, it’s not a game that’s contained in it, rather a world.
One Game To Rule Them All
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is less a product of creativity than an act of creation. The accomplishment on display is without equal, but it’s the sublimation of those efforts into a deeply personal experience that is the lasting effect and elicits the compulsive desire to consume more and more of what it has to offer. Playing it, I could recall getting the first Nintendo system and sitting down with my brother to play Super Mario Brothers. Upon reaching the subterranean level 1-2, the dramatic aesthetic shift awakened us to the giddy thrill of realizing that we had no idea what the game had in store ahead, and our excitement became an uncontained rapturous exaltation. Eighty hours into Skyrim, I’m still feeling like that 11-year-old.