“Let me guess. Someone stole your sweetroll!”
– Guard, Skyrim
Until recently, no other game could to live up to the same heights as Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011), with its deep immersion, customization, and exploration elements that even today’s open world RPGs have trouble emulating with complete accuracy. Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015) has since taken the throne; I commend it for its cutting edge approach to storytelling, impressive graphical fidelity, multifaceted characters, dynamic world, and overall wealth of content. Hearts of Stone (2015) and Blood and Wine (2016), the two expansions to Witcher 3, actually added new meaning to the term “videogame expansion,” setting the bar high for story-based DLC and adding on to what was already a gigantic game. Before Witcher 3, however, Skyrim was something special.
It’s no secret that I had strong feelings for Skyrim (that makes it sound like I was romantically attracted to the game). I invested about 300 hours into the Xbox 360 version, which might not seem like a lot in the context of how massive the game truly is, and purchased Skyrim Special Edition on a Black Friday sale. Essentially, Skyrim was so special to me because I kept crawling back to it for five years. It possessed an intrinsic that, apart from Witcher 3, today’s RPGs ostensibly cannot recreate. The all-important question is, what did it get right?
The first and perhaps most important thing that Skyrim got right was its novelty factor. Part of the reason that I was disappointed by Fallout 4 so much is that I was always pitted against the other factions when I didn’t want to be. If you sided with the Minute Men, then I couldn’t play through the Brotherhood of Steel quests, and I would miss out on all of that content. In Skyrim, on the other hand, I was able to play through all faction quest lines at my discretion, and didn’t have to worry about making enemies. Furthermore, there was an insane number of caves and dungeons to explore, as well as quests that I accidentally stumbled upon while straying off the beaten path. There were even quests that, to this day, I haven’t completed.
The second thing that Skyrim got right was its level of customization and personalization.
Customization wise, the game gave me the freedom to play as whomever and whatever, a trademark of Bethesda’s approach to immersion. I typically enjoyed playing as an anti-hero in Skyrim; I could murder an entire town of innocent NPCs, yet not have to feel guilty about it since I’ve just saved the world from total annihilation. I was also free to traverse the map as a vampire-werewolf hybrid, and later return home to my dog and two kids after a long day of questing, looting, and exploring.
Personalization wise, many experiences in the game felt non-scripted, as though they were designed for me and no one else. For instance, I could slaughter all the guards in Whiterun, and if I was feeling regretful afterwards, I could reload the save and pretend like it never happened. I could drag around battered corpses and toss them into the nearby river to watch them drift away. I could pickpocket lords and jarls and hope they wouldn’t notice. I could defy the laws of gravity by riding my horse down an incredibly steep mountain. I could assassinate the High King of Skyrim and then parade around with his clothes in public. I could stick a bucket onto the Riverwood Trader’s head and steal everything in his shop. Then, if I become over-encumbered, I could drop dozens of pounds of useless junk in the middle of the road. I could do all of those things because the game simply let me, and it always ended up feeling like an experience that was handcrafted for my personal enjoyment.
The third thing that Skyrim got right was its music. Skyrim simply wouldn’t have been the game that it was without Jeremy Soule’s epic, emotionally charged score. Every piece not only complemented the game’s atmosphere, it enhanced the atmosphere altogether, making you feel like this was your story that you are writing as you go along. The music also told a story in itself. For instance, The Streets of Whiterun communicated the quiescence of the town of Whiterun, while the heart-pounding Watch the Skies communicated the fast-paced nature of a dragon attack. My favorite pieces were The Jerall Mountains, Distant Horizons, Dawn, and Aurora. Soule really knows how to compose an unforgettable soundtrack.
I could go on forever about how amazing The Elder Scrolls V was, continuing with its superb leveling system, well-written quests (sometimes), and satisfying combat mechanics. However, I’d have to admit to a bias with respect to the game’s actual quality. It is not without its faults; some quests, at least back in the day, were bugged and thus could not be turned in. Also, companions annoyingly blocked your path, the same six or seven voice actors were used for virtually every NPC on the map, and the game could generally become repetitive after enough playthroughs. Nonetheless, Skyrim earned its spot in my Top 5 favorite games, and it may be awhile before it loses its spot. You could argue that my fondness for the game is a function of my nostalgia, since a lot of media always seems better than at the time I first consumed it.
What it all came down to was the view. Even though Skyrim was a virtual world with no physical basis in reality, it brought out the nature lover in me. Sometimes, the best parts of the game were emerging from a cave that I had been stuck in for hours, and taking in the awe-inspiring view of the vast, snowy landscape (and then getting attacked by a dragon to ruin the moment). It truly made me glad to be alive to experience such profound beauty, even if it was, at the end of the day, just a video game.
Sadly, Skyrim will never be as special as when I first played it—I know that. However, it will always have a special place in my heart for opening me up to a world with so many things to discover and memories to make.