“Let me guess. Someone stole your sweetroll!”
– Guard, Skyrim
No other game has been able 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. To be clear, Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015) comes close—very close. I commended Witcher 3 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. And yet, even 5 years later, Skyrim still outcompetes CD Projekt Red’s masterpiece.
It’s no secret that I have strong feelings for Skyrim (that makes it sound like I’m 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 is so special to me because I keep crawling back to it after all these years. It possesses an intrinsic charm that the Witcher series, GTA V, and Fallout 4 ostensibly cannot recreate. The all-important question is, what does it get right?
The first and perhaps most important thing that Skyrim gets right is 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 you couldn’t play through the Brotherhood of Steel quests, and you would miss out on all of that content. In Skyrim, on the other hand, you are able to play through all faction questlines at your discretion, and you don’t have to worry about making enemies. Furthermore, there is an insane amount of caves and dungeons to explore, as well as quests that you just accidentally stumble upon while straying off the beaten path. There are even quests that, to this day, I haven’t played.
The second thing that Skyrim gets right is its level of customization and personalization.
Customization wise, the game gives me the freedom to play whoever and whatever I want, a trademark of Bethesda’s approach to immersion. I typically enjoy playing as an anti-hero in Skyrim; I can murder an entire town of innocent NPCs yet at the same time not have to feel guilty about it since I’ve just saved the world from total annihilation. I am 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 feel non-scripted, as though they were designed for me and no one else. For instance, I can slaughter all the guards in Whiterun, and if I’m feeling regretful afterwards, I can reload the save and pretend like it never happened. I can drag around battered corpses and toss them into the nearby river to watch them drift away. I can pickpocket lords and jarls and hope they won’t notice. I can defy the laws of gravity by riding my horse down an incredibly steep mountain. I can assassinate the High King of Skyrim and then parade around with his clothes in public. I can stick a bucket onto the Riverwood Trader’s head and steal everything in his shop. Then, if I become over-encumbered, I can drop dozens of pounds of useless junk in the middle of the road. I can do all of those things because the game simply lets me, and it always ends up feeling like an experience that was handcrafted for my personal enjoyment.
The third thing that Skyrim gets right is its MUSIC. Skyrim simply wouldn’t be the game that it is without Jeremy Soule’s epic, emotionally charged score. Every piece not only complements the game’s atmosphere, it enhances the atmosphere altogether, making you feel like this is your story that you are writing as you go along. The music also tells a story in itself. For instance, The Streets of Whiterun communicates the quiescence of the town of Whiterun, while the heart-pounding Watch the Skies communicates the fast-paced nature of a dragon attack. My favorite pieces are 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 is, 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 block your path, the same six or seven voice actors are used for virtually every NPC on the map, and the game can generally become repetitive after enough playthroughs. Nonetheless, Skyrim remains at the top of my list, 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 comes down to is the view. Even though Skyrim is a virtual world with no physical basis in reality, it brings out the nature lover in me. Sometimes, the best parts of the game are emerging from a cave that I’ve 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 makes me glad to be alive to experience such profound beauty, even if it is, 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.