Hail, friend, and well met.
Flagon of mead? Well, if you’re offering…
Let me tell you a story then, since you’ve been so generous. There was this time, back before the bloody flying lizards started popping up everywhere, that I served the Jarl of this one-horse little market town called Whiterun. The chief was a jerk, always sending me off to slay trolls and find ancient treasures and such, but the pay was good and my axe-hand got a good workout.
That was the thing about Skyrim in those days – full of a right ugly assortment of monsters, bandits and thugs a man felt good about taking on face-to-face, spitting rage right in their eye. Even cleaning out a nest of dirty vampire filth felt like the righteous thing to do.
Even got a little place out of it, fixed it up right cosy with trophies of my most glorious victories. One day, the Jarl must have been drinking some specially good vintage, since he gave me the woman Lydia to guard all my treasures. Bit embarrassing that, slavery and everything, but I couldn’t seem to get rid of her.
Things were going well enough, see. That is, until I got myself mixed up in politics.
It all started out so simple. The lily-livered Imperials were everywhere, oppressing our fine upstanding countryfolk, collaborating with the damned Elves and banning the worship of our own gods. A true Nord couldn’t just stand by and let this insult pass. Them legionnaires were just crying out for a war hammer to the teeth.
So I stood up to be counted, and thousands stood up with me. We trashed forts, burned strongholds and worked to undermine the rule of the weak and faithless outlanders. We were fierce and hungry for victory, and none could stand before us.
And that’s how I came to be standing in front of the gates of Whiterun with a horde of my brothers-in-arms. The Jarl was of a mind to oppose us, and threw in his lot with the cowards. But when we broke down his palace gates, he met us like a true son of the north, sword in hand. When we lead him away in irons, I knew we had proved the justice of our cause.
Everything just seemed to go wrong from there. I began to see the resentment in Lydia’s eyes every time I told her to pick up some of my extra gear. My brothers were worse men than I had thought, not confining their hatred to the Imperials, but letting it spill onto the heads of the damn Elf refugees and poor cat-people merchants.
And the dragons, the sodding dragons. It got so I couldn’t step out of my door without a winged shadow trying to burn the place down around me ears. A man might have got a bit paranoid, the amount of times an ancient primordial evil attacked just when I was settling down for a nice spot of blacksmithing.
It’s just a good job I turned out to be a mythical reborn dragonslayer, else my whole week could have been ruined. Still, that’s a story for another time.
I’m not going to lie to you, this is in no sense a fair and balanced review of Bethesda’s masterpiece. I have personally thrown a vast amount of my precious free time into its gaping maw, and I feel as if I’m teetering on the brink of an abyss that could claim the rest of my tattered social life.
I’ve killed a dragon, but I’ve never hunted down a giant and his pack of mammoth buddies. I’ve ranged across most of the vast and detailed world, but every journey between well-known points becomes a new adventure as markers for unknown landmarks pop up on my screen. I’ve barely even dipped into several of the significant quest lines, despite the ever-increasing ‘time played’ figures Steam insists on taunting me with.
In crude terms, Skyrim is easy to describe, and instantly recognisable to anyone that has played a first-person Western RPG this century. While it may have more in common with stat-based Dungeons and Dragons gameplay than a Bioware title, and is certainly more of an open world experience than the Dragon Age games, its mechanics and themes share deep similarities with both. This is a world of orcs and elves, high fantasy and low conduct, where large men hit spiders with solid metal implements or sparkly magic powers.
Downside of up
The game certainly shares some of the trademark downsides of Western fantasy games — combat is rarely viscerally satisfying, the weapons and powers lacking a feeling of brutal effectiveness and destructive potential. You can weild any combination of magic, shields or weapons in either hand, and skill progression is based on how many times you do the thing you are trying to level up. The plot is often laden with cliché, and sometimes downright obscure, to the point of often leaving you with very little idea of where you fit into the grand scheme of things.
There are certain rough points in the presentation certainly, with the main interface seemingly the biggest bone of contention for most critics. True, the simple navigation of top level menus is well designed when playing with either keyboard or controller, but finding out simple information like the relative benefits of one weapon over another, or the current magic effects your character is suffering are just too difficult. The menus seem to have been designed to look good first, with usability coming in a distant second — a big flaw in an RPG where you will spend significant time browsing inventories and crafting screens.
Thankfully PC users can address most of the game’s limitations and rough spots with mods, such as QD Inventory, which handily improves almost every aspect of the menu system. Console players are unfortunately unable to use such helpful community fixes, which to me represents the single most important factor in favour of the PC version. Graphical pretties are roughly comparable between the platforms, although PC gives the black boxes a serious hiding when it comes to draw distance and dynamic lighting effects.
Don’t let the fact that I’ve chosen to lead with Skyrim’s flaws mislead you, however. This is one of those rare titles that is so very charming, so much more than the sum of its parts, that you are prepared to forgive it the traditional mess of implementation flaws common to all Bethesda games. It’s difficult to put what I feel about this game into words (hence the digression into fanfiction at the beginning of the article), but I’ve had a stab at trying.
Upside of up
First of all, the game is big. And not big in the sense of many games these days, that there is a large amount of content to churn through before reaching the end, but big in the sense of the best science fiction or fantasy writing — it inhabits a world which is more than just a blank canvas to give the player actions some meaning. Indeed, the problem that I mentioned earlier, that you often feel peripheral to great events happening elsewhere in Skyrim, is paradoxically also a strength. While many games, in a laudable attempt to make you feel important and powerful, fall into the trap of giving the other characters in the game no agency of their own, Bethesda has made the kings and heroes of the land actors in their own destiny.
And what a land it is. I can’t praise highly enough the artisans who crafted the craggy peaks, pleasant valleys and windswept tundra that makes up this massive and varied playing field. It’s a sheer delight to watch the change in biome between the north and south, or west and east, or to watch how the wildlife and NPCs fit into the overall design with a smooth biological efficiency. The first time you see a pack of wolves bring down a stag, before being ambushed and killed in turn by a gaggle of itinerant human hunters is a breath-taking spectacle.
After a while, the algorithms underlying the behaviour do start showing through, especially in the re-use of incidental dialogue between NPCs and from your followers. I’m willing to forgive that, when so much attention to detail is on show, from the intricate and substantially unique cities you encounter, to the smart dialogue writing and interesting quest lines that see you crossing and re-crossing the map on your way from heroic rescue to dastardly assassination and back. The team has also managed to address one of the most frequent complaints levelled at Oblivion, the lack of variety in the dungeon design, which now look stunning while remaining substantially linear and easy to navigate.
It seems the developers have pulled off a herculean task, fitting a polished mechanical structure refined from the earlier Elder Scrolls games to a more fully-realised world, with more scope and freedom than ever before.
Choice of a new generation
For my part, it is the writing that really takes the experience beyond the level of a competently executed action RPG. Managing to create multiple involving storylines, with complex characters whose interactions with you are sometimes touching, sometimes infuriating and sometimes downright hilarious, is more than just good design work, it’s superior craftsmanship.
It’s moments like these that really rejuvenate my faith in gaming. Don’t get me wrong, we remain as far from the perfect game as we ever did, but I love the fact that a major studio can pour millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours of hard work into a project that is as full of innovative thinking, obvious care for the player experience, moments of extreme and beauty and a whole barrel-load of fun as this one.
I loved it, and I think that you will too.