Skyrim is a work of art. While it accomplishes nearly everything a modern video game can hope to, unlike many other games, it does not attempt to function on the terms of any other medium. Prose and cutscenes make up parts of the whole, but you are almost never allowed to forget that this is an interactive experience. Though the narrative has a penchant for the epic, you can walk away from most events and interrupt most conversations (But I doubt you’ll want to). During a main story quest, I sat at a table with a handful of the most important people in Skyrim, serving as a sort of mediator. This quest was a step away from a cutscene; light on gameplay, essentially there to just move the plot forward. All I was really doing was making a few conversation choices and listening to dialogue, but I didn’t feel trapped into watching the scene. I actively traveled to the meeting place, sat down at the table, looked around at the different faces, switched the camera to third-person view and panned out. I was offered just enough ownership to remain engaged, but it also felt like I could have just walked away. This sense of freedom legitimized the events as they unfolded, and it speaks to the entirety of the Skyrim experience that even cutscenes feel like unfettered exploration.
You play as a blank slate, fetch-quest extraordinaire and glorified courier. You’ll start out by selecting a race, giving your character only the most general of backgrounds. Your mission is to fulfill a prophecy, slay a dragon and save the world. The protagonist’s characterization is largely unaddressed and irrelevant. In a game like this, the protagonist doesn’t matter so much because the most interesting character is Skyrim. The main character is simply a lens through which you can begin to process your surroundings, and the main quest an elaborate sight-seeing expedition, which encourages you to delve deeper. By no means does the narrative of the main quest fail to engage, but it doesn’t show you what Skyrim is, any more than a single chapter can reveal the entire scope of a novel.
Skyrim, with its picturesque plains and furious, frozen peaks, is a thing of beauty. Since Oblivion, graphical textures have smoothed significantly, and the style of the armor and architecture is less generically medieval and more something uniquely Elder Scrolls. This world breathes. In dilapidated ruins, the dead push themselves out of crypts to welcome your approach with rusted Nordic steel. Instead of staring blankly, waiting for the player to legitimize her existence, the smith sharpens her dagger on a grindstone or forges steel plate armor at her workbench. Elk, rabbits, wolves, and deer roam the wilderness. Townspeople chat amicably as you walk past. You are not a god in this world, but a participant, just like anyone else (Granted, a really important and uncannily gifted participant).
The fourth wall sometimes crumbles unintentionally, as glitching is no less frequent here than it is in any other Elder Scrolls game. At one point, I observed a fox, jerking like a malfunctioning, animatronic robot, as it attempted to walk across water. Towards the end of the main quest, in a heated battle with a powerful enemy, I was moments away from death, only to be spared because my foe fell off of a steep ledge. No one else was around to witness my laughably unheroic victory, so when I returned to civilization, I was hailed, unquestioningly, as a hero. Strangely, I found moments like this one almost as rewarding as the frequent examples of the world’s polish and sophistication. Skyrim is definitely imperfect, but the slight tears in its reality provided additional reasons to continue exploring.
And if you’re anything like me, explore you will—sometimes focused, sometimes aimless, but consistently with wonder. Skyrim is littered with treasures that demand discovery. Instead of telling an extremely focused story, the game makes you want to personalize your experience by finding and making your own stories. As I climbed an enormous staircase, built on Skyrim’s tallest mountain, in search of monks devoted to dragon language, I came across a small shrine. At its foot were a few sacks filled with apples. As I removed an apple or two from the sack, I reminisced about the toilsome journey I had just undergone, and I was struck by the idea that there must have been others before me; those who left this offering to future weary travelers. The wealth of interactable objects allows you to absorb narrative gradually through the setting. Implied narratives, the subtle moments that make you want to plunge deeper into the lore, are just as powerful as the stories that are explicitly stated.
Both the Enchantment and Smithing skills now offer tangible rewards for exploration. You learn new enchantments by breaking down a piece of equipment that already holds an enchantment. You can also forge equipment from scratch, and the most basic materials can be mined throughout Skyrim. Leveling has been stripped down and simplified. At each level, the player can increase one stat and select one Fallout-esque perk, though perks can be horded indefinitely. The streamlined system is effective, as it draws unnecessary attention away from grinding or backtracking, some of the more tedious aspects of Morrowind and Oblivion, and emphasizes exploration.
Combat is no longer a chore, and it encourages experimentation. You can dual wield melee weapons or equip magic and melee simultaneously. If you’re more traditional, you may opt for a sword and shield, two-handed or unarmed approach. The mechanics are so well-balanced that all character builds have the potential to be equally effective. Attacks have weight, reinforced by satisfying blood spatters and well-timed crunches or clangs. Periodically, you’ll be treated to cinematic, slow-motion death sequences that heighten tension, but somehow avoid becoming banal, even after thirty hours of play. I began with the intention of creating a straightforward melee fighter, so I could tank through the main quest quickly, and then restart with a different build to experience more of the system’s nuances. The character I ended up with was so surprisingly well-balanced, however, I felt as if I had already engaged in all aspects of combat. The game remained challenging, but I didn’t feel like I had to start from scratch in order to alter my approach or try something new.
A game like Skyrim does not come along very often. I’m not exactly sure what it takes to create a universe like this (I think it has something to do with magic. That, and hours and hours of overtime.), but I have to tip my hat to the planners, programmers, artists and writers that made this world breathe. The auditory and visual experiences complement each other perfectly. It is somehow both exciting and meditatively serene to simply wander. Much of the game is spent traveling from point A to point B, but the journey is so rewarding that you’ll likely find yourself en route to an unknown destination. Do yourself a favor, and take a few hours out of your day (or days out of your week) to get lost in Skyrim. Don’t feel like you have to work on the main quest, either. Go hunting, buy a house if you’ve got the coin (I’m partial to the one in Whiterun), or sit in a chair and read Dwemer Inquiries Vol III—Alduin’s tale will still be there when you’re done.
Developer: Bethesda Softworks
Release: November 11, 2011
Available On: PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Fallout 3: Loved
Fallout: New Vegas: Loved