Bethesda dropped The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim earlier this month, and I figured it was only appropriate I make a return to tumblr with a post dedicated to it.
Anybody who knows me will agree when I say I’m certainly not one taken by fantasy settings (in any creative medium). The Lord of the Rings was never particularly interesting to me, I know nothing about Dungeons and Dragons, Warcraft, etc. It’s simply never really appealed to me. However, there is one exception, and that’s The Elder Scrolls.
I was 11 when I somehow picked up TESIII: Morrowind. Most of it was over my head. I didn’t really understand the world, and the plot consisted of a lot of reading (very little dialogue was spoken) beyond my level of comprehension. But I was taken by it. The world, full of hazardous locales such as dungeons, crypts, caves, grottos, and monsters terrified me, but my intrigue outweighed my fear; I played hours and hours of Morrowind. However, I played Morrowind naively: I never completed the main quest, nor any of the faction quest lines. In fact, I don’t really remember what I spent so many hours doing in that game (probably stealing expensive items) but I knew that I liked it. I liked that I could totally disregard what every other game would otherwise force me to do. I loved that I could have so much fun and waste so many hours doing nothing to progress a story.
Later, when TESIV: Oblivion came out (2006), I was similarly smitten. I was older, so I completed quest lines, understood the world around me much more, etc. Oblivion really kinda taught me what TES were all about and the lore of the world they took place in. Akin to it’s predecessor, a giant open landscape I was not only allowed, but encouraged, to explore on my own accord was present in all it’s next-gen beauty. The setting, the heartland of the continent, Cyrodiil, was less phantasmagoric than Morrowind, but still a total blast. It was very much standard medieval fantasy, but that was okay. It felt like a slightly safer world to frolic in.
Bethesda then went on to make Fallout 3, which I loved, as it was basically “The Elder Scrolls: Post-Apocalyptic Wasteland D.C.”. The best part of the game (open world) was still there. Plus they very much refined the leveling system; making it more approachable and involving less number crunching, but allowing for deep customization as well.
And now Skyrim is finally here. I may be a Bethesda fanboy, but critical reception confirms my opinion that it is perhaps the supreme experience available today in the video game medium. This game is fucking HUGE. Not only in physical size (it’s actually only slightly larger that Cyrodiil from TES IV, but it’s much more vertical and varied, making travel lengthier) but in level of detail, quests available, number of NPC’s, and things to do. In all the prior TES games, all there really was to do was quests, be they the main story, lengthy questlines for particular factions, or random favors for NPC’s, and exploring on your own. Previously, that seemed like enough, and at the time it indeed was, but Skyrim has brought it to a new level. Quests and exploring are still the main draw (and there are many many more quests to do and locations to explore), but I can also cook, split wood, fight dragons (who are awesome, but the way), make armor and weapons interactively, get married, climb mountains (literally), get in bar fights, and even punch a woolly mammoth in the face shortly before getting launched into the stratosphere via the club of the giant who was herding said mammoth. I have played almost 50 hours (largely thanks to the long weekend of its release and my desperate acts to clear my schedule for it), and I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what this game has to offer. I’ve discovered over 150 locations in the world, but have probably fully explored/entered less than 30 because each location is so vast, and still there are massive expanses of the map still entirely unexplored. I am level 30, of roughly 50 (80ish if I were to max out EVERY stat). Considering the difference between leveling from 30 to 31 and from 10-11 are dramatic, I’m probably a good distance from “half way” to level 50.
I want to avoid talking about specific gameplay elements as, while they are extremely well done and in many cases groundbreaking, what makes Skyrim great isn’t the leveling, combat, crafting, menu systems, etc, it’s the second to second experience of being in Skyrim. The landscape is breathtaking. Set in the mountainous region of Skyrim, I can’t express how gorgeous the game is. Even now, after 50 hours of play, I will regularly round a bend or summit a peak and must stop to appreciate the sight before me. Often times it’s a towering, mist covered mountain range in the distance proceeded by a snowy, windswept tundra glistening under a glowing aurora lit sky, or a cliff with waterfalls plummeting down into a searing gorge, and other times it’s something more simple, like a couple of Giants herding a group of Mammoths through the tundra passively. The best part is that I don’t see these and think “oh, that’s a nice backdrop”. These things exist in the world, and I can cross that tundra to brave that mountain range, I can pioneer into that rocky gorge, and I can walk up to that mammoth and punch it right in the mouth. All the of the Elder Scrolls games have included fantastic worlds to explore, but none have ever seemed so genuine and so full of beauty. The same goes for the various dungeons/caves/crypts/forts/etc to explore. Instead of 1 artist to design all the dungeons (the case for Oblivion), Bethesda dedicated an entire team of artists and level designers to ensure that each location was unique, beautiful, and fun to play through. They certainly succeeded. Simply put, Skyrim, even devoid of human life, breathes.
But Skyrim IS full of human life, well… humanish life. In previous Elder Scrolls games, The peaceful inhabitants, while essential, were probably the least immersive aspect of the games. I supposed the same could be said for Skyrim, but it’s still a vast improvement, and very rarely do character interactions seem awkward. Without having played the previous TES games, listing NPC characteristics would seem insubstantial, so just trust me when I say that just as Skyrim breathes, as do it’s citizens.
Combine all this with a quest AI that can actually generate infinite amounts of quests, dynamically altering them according to where you’ve been and what you’ve done previously (this means no fetch quests to already explored locations), 5 or 6 questlines telling interesting stories all 15+ hours long, countless random quests with similarly interesting (although shorter) tales, random DRAGON encounters in which, when defeated, you collect their soul to be used to unlock powerful shouts that send people flying through the air, call a storm to strike upon your enemies, breathe fire or frost, slow time, become invincible, disarm opponents, etc., and tons of other features I haven’t even begun to take part in and the result is something truly awe inspiring.
Video games have kinda a bad rap; they are typically very violent, nonsensical, lack any kind of artistic merit, or all 3. It is unfortunate that thousands of people will write off this experience as being “just a video game” when in reality Bethesda Softwork’s Skyrim is truly a work of art.