The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a massive open-world RPG developed by Bethesda Game Studios and published by Bethesda Softworks. It was one of the highest-selling titles of 2011, where it saw concurrent release for Microsoft Windows, Playstation 3, and Xbox 360. Post-release enhancements to the game through patches and official downloadable content concluded with an announcement by the developer in April 2013.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Role-playing game, open-world, first person, action
November 11th, 2011
Skyrim is the fifth title that Bethesda has released in their flagship RPG series, The Elder Scrolls
. It is set two centuries after the events of the previous two games in the series, Morrowind
. Skyrim is a region of the game world set along the northern coast of the same continent where the previous games have all taken place, Tamriel. The setting draws heavily from Nordic culture, and in fact the dominant race of the games region are called the Nords.
As has happened in previous Elder Scrolls titles, this game opens with the player as a prisoner; his/her escape from custody serves as a short introductory tutorial for the game, and as an interactive character creation process. Also in line with previous Elder Scrolls titles, the player is quickly thrust into the center of an epic crisis, foretold by prophecy.
Central to the game's story are three separate conflicts. The first major conflict is a war between humans and elves, which has settled into an uneasy truce in years just prior to the opening of the game. The second is an intra-species human war between Nords and the Empire, a direct result of the peace settlement of the war with the elves in which the Nords of Skyrim are attempting to secede from the Empire rather than abandon worship of their patron god Talos, a deified human who founded the Empire as Tiber Septim thousands of years before. The third conflict is a war between immortal dragons and all the mortal races of the world. This last war breaks out during the opening minutes of the game, when the player's execution at the hands of Imperial soldiers is interrupted by an attack on the garrison by a dragon. Dragons had previously been thought to be extinct. The player character is soon revealed to be Dovakhin, or Dragonborn: a human with the blood of a dragon, able to kill the otherwise immortal monsters and absorb their powers for his own. The plot of the game has the player discovering his powers, choosing sides (or not) in the civil war between the Imperial Legion and a secessionist Nord group called the Stormcloaks, and ultimately leading the fight against the dragons.
As in previous Elder Scrolls titles, the player can choose from a variety of different races, all of which are carried over from the previous games: Nord, Breton, Imperial, Redguard, Altmer, Bosmer, Dunmer, Khajiit, Argonian, Orc. There is less emphasis on a class system than in the previous games, replaced instead with a more open-ended system inspired by the positive reception of Bethesda's post-apocalyptic science fiction RPG Fallout 3. In Skyrim, as players level up by using skills, they spend perks to progress along various skill trees. The game also simplifies the set of core statistics used in previous Elder Scrolls titles; now instead of buying points in various D&D-style statistics at level-up, the player instead simply chooses whether power meter to expand: health, magic, or stamina. Health is the standard RPG hit points, magic is a slowly recharging meter governing the use of spells, and stamina is a slowly recharging meter governing the use of physical abilities. The stamina maximum also governs the character's max carry weight, which is an important metric in Bethesda's massive open-world RPGs.
Combat is much more action-driven and tactile than in previous iterations of the game. Enemies still have RPG-standard health bars, but monsters will reel and stagger as you hit them, and do more damage to you in turn. As a result of these refined physical interactions, blocking has become a much more core game mechanic; no longer just a "defend" button that reduces damage at the expense of stamina and mobility, it's now an active shift in play mode. You raise your shield or shift your two-handed weapon into a parry position; from here you can hold the stance to defend against light attacks, press the other trigger to bash, which does minimal damage but disrupts the opponent's offense and is your best means of avoiding power attacks, or at later levels on the perk tree even do sprinting attacks with enormous knockback. Archery is similarly enhanced, with the individual arrow strikes having more significant stopping power, with zoom and slow-time mechanics that make leading the target and finding appropriate range more meaningful, etc. Arrows are harder to come by, and matter more.
The systems for magic have also been reworked, with spells becoming much more effective depending on how you invest in the perk trees, eventually unlocking the ability to "equip" the same spell on two hands and cast a powered-up version at the expense of the ability to block. Defensive magic is no longer strictly passive stat bonuses: instead of equipping a shield you can cast a ward spell which works like a shield but continuously drains your magic as you hold it up. The same "trade defense for offense" mechanic offered by two-handed magic also exists with one-handed melee weapons: you can now dual wield, and eventually progress through perks to deliver power attacks in this mode which rely on both weapons. As you enhance your magic it even begins to get the same kind of stopping power that we see with the physical blows.
Finally, the system of innate racial abilities has been separated from the magic system of previous games and combined with a new system of "shouts." Shouts are the arcane speech of dragons, and give you dragon-like abilities such as frost or fire breath, the ability to knock back enemies with the force of your voice alone, and more. These extra abilities are just mapped to one of the bumper buttons and are not wielded the way ordinary magic is, and they recharge after some number of seconds instead of drawing from a magic meter the way normal spells do.
The architecture of the game's stories has also seen an overhaul, something Bethesda marketed in 2011 as the "Radiant Story" system. In practice this means that there are fewer scripted quests; the factions/guilds you join each have one specific, epic storyline which progresses to a conclusion quite quickly, and has a presence in only one city. The myriad extra quests we saw in the previous Elder Scrolls titles are gone, and instead you can get an essentially infinite number of minor quests from various people you meet. Fellow guild members, the jarls who control each hold (a large geographical region containing at least one city and perhaps also outlying villages), anonymous letters, meetings with random villagers, etc. These quests show up in your journal the same way the more scripted, story-driven quests do; they have objective markers, and affect your relationships with the people you encounter, but they're much more procedurally generated, designed to make the adventures that the world offers come to you. Now you don't have to explore the world to get new items on your to-do list; instead, your to-do list is the mechanism which drives you to explore the world. Almost every dungeon in the game, every building interior, and every NPC will eventually be shown to you just by working your way into the radiant quests. The radiant system shapes the world around you in other ways as well; once you complete a quest for an NPC, you might be able to propose marriage to them. The wedding ceremony will be largely filled by other characters you've accomplished quests for. As in previous Bethesda games, some characters will join you as followers, but now those characters will go further still, potentially joining one of your guilds, living alongside you in one of your homes, and so on. The end result you almost never experience the emptied-out sensation that completed quest trees tended to produce in earlier titles by this developer.
In 2012, Bethesda released a number of patches to the original game. These went beyond simple bugfixing to add new gameplay: the final 1.9 version of the game even added a Legendary Mode which added additional difficulty and raised the level cap to be effectively infinite. These enhancements to the core engine were accompanied by three officially packs of downloadable content: Dawnguard, Hearthfire, and Dragonborn. Dawnguard adds one more conflict to the world of Skyrim which the player must mediate: this one between vampires and those who hunt them. Hearthfire is referred to in many of the games internals as BYOH, for Build Your Own House, and allows precisely that, creating mechanics for a player to purchase land, dig a foundation, raise structures, furnish interiors, etc. -- and then allows you to move not just your spouse into the home, but other followers as stewards, and even allows you to adopt children. Dragonborn is the largest, most ambitious expansion, allowing the player to revisit Solstheim, an island region between Morrowind and Skyrim that we last saw in the game world as an The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind expansion called Blood Moon.
PC players also benefit from an active and vibrant modder ecosystem.
Every Bethesda Game Studios title since before Morrowind can be praised and criticized for the same reasons. These are games of truly epic scale; Skyrim is over 16 square miles of overland, with an enormous number of interior areas. All of this is hand-designed and populated with original quests and content, and there are simply no other major games in the world which can compete with Bethesda for sheer scale. This is a world you can get lost in almost indefinitely. You won't end the game because you ran out of content, you'll end the game because you have consumed well beyond your fill.
With this scale comes some common criticisms: first and foremost, this game and all of its DLC modules were quite buggy on initial release. PlayStation 3 users had an almost unplayable game until early 2013, and even then the experience fell well short of what Xbox 360 and PC players reported in terms of performance and stability. Performance is a problem because the architecture of the game requires it to save an enormous amount of state and it's always a balancing act deciding what to keep to improve player immersion and what to discard because players don't actually care about the position of every object cluttering every room of the world as much as they care about full hard disks and increasingly long load times. The garbage collection problem is ongoing, and misses in either direction can break the experience for players in real and frustrating ways. But the most immersion-breaking bugs aren't the performance issues, they're consistency issues: in a world this large there's no reasonable way for a team of humans to QA it all, and so as a result you have places where the player can fall out of the geometry, can't interact with required items or NPCs because they are sunken into fixed objects, can't initiate quest lines because some unintended interaction between objects broke the scripting, etc. Even in the game's final state almost 18 months after the initial release, players must still keep multiple saved games or risk getting stuck with unplayable results. Elder Scrolls wikis and message forums are littered with bug lists and proposed workarounds, and many of the problems in the game are simply never patched by Bethesda before the developer moves on to the next title. The games are just too big to get 100% right, and players have a love/hate relationship with the developer because of it.
Let's be clear: 16 square miles of densely cluttered terrain plus interiors and hidden regions is a lot. In total we're talking about something nearly the size of Manhattan. Unlike Manhattan, much of that space is just undifferentiated countryside, but a lot of it is building interiors where 2-3 people live and have hundreds of possessions stewn about a couple of rooms for you to look at, steal, ignore, buy, sell, whatever. I make this comparison because it's worth pointing out that there are people who live their entire lives in an area not much larger than this. The core mechanic of this game is exploration. Everything else you do is just about finding reasons to keep exploring.
It's an imperfect experience, but it's a triumph nonetheless. This is a world that can take hundreds of hours of your interest and attention. It's a world you'll dream about. You get to climb mountains and stare out across incredible vistas, lose yourself in immensely deep dungeons, and fight dragons. Dragons rendered in full 3D, never in cut-scenes. Dragons that fly, roar, breathe fire or frost or sheer arcane force. Dragons that bite, that hunt, that kill. Terrible monsters that terrorize whole towns, landing on the thatched roof of the local tavern and scream their fury as town guards pelt them with arrows. Noble, ancient beasts that see men as chattel at best and pestilence at worst. Skyrim gets dragons really right, and it's amazing. You can even ride them.
But wait, there's more! Disused tombs full of the restless dead, their grand, ruined halls and solemn burial chambers telling a prehistory of Skyrim that makes it feel even older than the rest of the Elder Scrolls world. Giants trodding slowly across the tundra with clubs swung over their shoulders, twenty foot high cavemen who will absolutely kill you in one blow the first time you try to fight them. Wildlife to fight that seems more dangerous than most of your early human opponents. Rushing mountain rivers, out of which you can catch salmon as they leap out of the water during their swim upstream. Sprawling dwarven ruins, all brass, steam, and crumbling stone, populated by huge, dangerous machines that don't just fight you, but the swarm of blind goblinoid creatures clawing their way up from even greater depths. It's a world that hits majestic notes even as it teems with detail.
And yet, somewhere at the end of it, your experience will fall apart with a feeling of more-ish-ness. There are numerous memes about it. Every guard used to be an adventurer like you until he took an arrow in the knee. It feels like three quarters of the game is voiced by only half a dozen different voice actors. The same priest whose tirade about the rights of elves and men to worship as they pleased seemed inspiring the first time you saw it seems silly and insipid the twentieth time you find yourself sprinting past him to sell some loot to the weaponsmith, and by the hundredth time if you notice the sermon at all the only thing you'll still feel will be loathing. The game is an engine built to exhaust our imaginations. You'll feel moments of genuine joy and wonder as you play this game, but those moments will fade with time--and all too often they will be tainted by immersion-destroying bugs.
It's almost impossible to sit down and write a decent description of a game like this, especially one without sound or screen shots or video capture. At the time of this writing the game has run its technological course; the developers are moving on to other things, and the game is entering a decade-plus end of life cycle where modders will keep it seeming new and relevant even as a smaller and smaller group of people touch the content on a daily basis. Side-by-side reviews of unmodded-versus-modded Morrowind or Oblivion are stunning, and Skyrim will certainly follow that same course--has already begun to do so. These games are enormous technological achievements and it's a privilege to get to play them--but they never
stop feeling like works in progress, even at the official end of the development cycle. For people who came to gaming through the much more intensely polished experiences offered by some of Bethesda's competitors and predecessors, these titles are almost shocking in their approach. What feels like ambition to fans of these games feels like arrogance to the detractors.
The thing that strikes me most about the game is the sheer substance of it. They get so much right. The soaring dragons. The shambling giants herding even larger mammoths, and the sense of animal fear I get from sneaking toward one of their immense bonfires in the middle of the night. The towering castles of stone and ice, the gloomy barrows hosting generations of dead heroes buried with swords in hand. The way the environment so slowly transitions from forest to snowfields to frigid mountain peaks choked in blizzard. The warpaint on those blonde, bearded faces. Fine detail etched into swords and shields. When I play Skyrim, the thing that I carry away days or weeks or months later is always the same: a very real sense of both place and time. A feeling of tradition which draws as much (or more!) from Norse mythology and from the Beowulf epic as it does from Bethesda's own Elder Scrolls lore. I've spent hundreds of hours in that game world and I still feel like an utter foreigner, which is startling to think about because after hundreds of hours in a Grand Theft Auto game or a Halo game or a Metroid game or a Zelda game, I don't feel like a native or a foreigner, I feel like the same seasoned gamer that I was when I started. Skyrim doesn't feel like a game to me, it feels like a place where I need to make my own fun. And in those hundreds of hours, the thing I'm doing can't always be described as fun. More like: Explore new places, meet new people, rummage through their shit and agonize over whether or not any of it is worth hauling back to civilization.
So, people ask me if I like Skyrim and my answer is always too complicated, because I'm not thinking about whether or not I had fun the way I would with almost any other game. Other games are fun or not. Not so, here. This is enabling technology, and ultimately the biggest factor in whether or not I have fun is me. I can talk about what the technology enables me to do, and more importantly what it fails to enable me to do, but at a certain point that isn't the right thing to be talking about.
Writing this now in mid-2013, I'm in the midst of my second playthrough of Skyrim. I got chased away in January 2012 after my first play-through because of bugs. One bug in particular, really: You get to own your own home, and that home has bookshelves. You collect books in the game world, and put them in the shelves. You decide what books to collect, what order to put them on the shelves, what to do with duplicates, etc. The shelves were pretty buggy--you could inadvertently get them into game states where you couldn't put any new books on them, couldn't remove the books that were already there, etc. Every time I would return to my house after an adventure, I would see one of these half-baked bookshelves, glitched up, and get frustrated. I resolved to myself that I wouldn't return until after Bethesda had fixed those bugs.
Think about that: A world where I can explore almost endlessly, fight giants and dragons and become a hero worthy of truly epic tales. A world where people in taverns will sing of my deeds, where I can live and die, fall in love, even raise a family. And I left because I had a hard time putting books on shelves. Putting books on shelves was my first real job, for six dollars an hour at Barnes & Noble in 1997, and it took an inadequate simulation of that experience in that tiny corner of this beautifully realized game world for me to realize that I had finally run out of game to play.
What gorgeous, baroque nonsense! You really ought to see it for yourself.