On this previous Friday (the 11th) Bethesda Studios released their fifth installment of the Elder Scrolls video game series: Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. And as is the case usually with games as physically large as this: one either loves it or hates it, and as for why – that is often a matter of personal taste.
For many, Skyrim managed to stay undetected up until the very day of its release due the game market’s crowding with many rushed and low-quality third installments such as Resistance 3, Gears of War 3, Saints’ Row the Third, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (all in no particular order of quality, or the lack thereof). However bear in mind this is the fifth game in the Elder Scrolls series and this indicator of age is certainly to be taken into account in that this game’s ancestors kept integrity within their bloodline long enough to allow any changes made between games to truly amount to something more than 15 USD worth of content boxed and sold for 60 USD.
Bethesda Studios has consolidated a position on the studio ladder as the front-runner Open World Game developer with previous successes in open games like the Fallout series and earlier Elder Scrolls games. Though upon inspecting the parchment map of the game’s world by the same name I thought Skyrim to be a relatively small island that would be crammed tightly with mountains; ‘off-guard’ is too kind a word to describe the state in which I found myself upon entering the true expanse of Skyrim.
While there were as many mountains as I thought, they formed insurmountable ranges whose peaks could only be reached by traveling miles up treacherous paths in blinding snow, and yet they remained in stark contrast with the game’s many other regions: plains, forests, swamps, deserts, and hill lands.
And despite being so varied, it is all very well made in that while traveling across very large spaces one does not grow bored: small packs of roaming enemies are often weak enough to kill, but they provide a challenge to keep one thinking. Besides that, many small points of interest dot the landscape in such a manner as to make one climb every hill in hopes of finding something new. Every rock in the distance becomes a possible bandits’ camp to plunder or a tomb to search! The world becomes real to the player beyond the idea of it merely being a hub for towns and quests.
Before any great action occurs, one must of course go through the all important process of making their character. Though upon being given the menu from which I was to choose my characters features, I realized soon that there were no classes such as warrior or magician or rogue to base my character’s strengths and weaknesses on. Sure while a large Orc will have great strength and a High Elf may have more magic in their blood, the concept of scaffolding a player’s character has been completely torn away and we are left to choose what sort of person we are as the story unfolds and we choose our friends and foes.
To the player, this means greater devotion. That is to say we are more involved and invested in the progression of our characters as we see fit. For example: one playing an earlier Elder Scrolls game may choose to make their character of the class ‘Thief.’ For the rest of the game as a thief they will end up wearing only light armor and using small weapons (and stealing things, of course); in other words, their choice in the beginning to be a thief will end up forcing them to take certain opportunities instead of others, even when that is not what they want. Whereas in Skyrim, one may spend some time training themselves at picking locks as well as at casting spells or archery. But rather than before when a class would force us to do these things, we do them because we want to, and there is a level of personal freedom that becomes embedded in our character as we play.
Beyond one’s involvement with their own character, an incredible level of involvement is invoked upon the world of Skyrim. A single choice can have outcomes that change the course of the game, but not solely in the form of choosing to say one thing to someone instead of something else. This includes unscripted choices you engage in by your own means.
I was in a royal Imperial court one evening when first playing the game after I had saved a town from a dragon. The leader of this town was treating me like a hero, though his right-hand advisor chose to treat my character like trash. This advisor, though, stepped over the line of verbal rudeness to the point where in my rage I attacked him with a searing jet of flame. I was then aptly chased from the town and into the mountains where I survived on the run for 3 days before my arrest. Though in that span of 3 days I encountered soldiers of the rebellion. With the empire now my enemy, my only possible ally was the rebels, and so I joined them. Now, whereas I was before fighting alongside the empire, I fought with the rebellion; all of this was caused by me losing my temper in a court, and it was entirely my choice – not an option given to me by the game.
In my experience in playing fantasy multi-player functions (such as Rift & World of Warcraft, albeit only briefly the latter), I have known there to be one golden rule to making your players explore your world, and that is to give them quests that send them to places they have never been. That is, rather than wait for them to venture into the cave, give them a quest telling them that there is treasure in it for them to find!
However this ends up becoming a system of ’go there, kill these, and bring me what they drop’ as a form of questing (the infamous ‘fetch-quest’, as it were). Skyrim surprisingly resisted: ‘with such a big world at your hands, why not fill it with hundreds of enemies and make fetch-quests, Bethesda?’ To which Bethesda replied, ‘because that would be rather silly.’ Skyrim populates its expanses with dungeons, as I said before; meaning that rather than putting five bandits down in front of a rock, there is a rock with a cave tunneled beneath it and in that cave are five bandits and stores of food for you to find along with a few chests to practice lock picking on and some traps to watch out for. It is not hard to say which is more fun to play.
While Skyrim‘s dungeons do have small mobs of enemies within them, those enemies are certainly not the focus. One is only ever sent to a cavern or temple or tomb if there is something at the end waiting for them that they need enough to fight for it: a sacred horn, a golden claw, freedom from a prison camp to name a few from early on in the game. And when one mixes that with traps and even puzzles at times, each dungeon makes for a unique and exhilarating experience!
An enthralling world, genius design, powerful writing, and other areas in which Bethesda Studios cuts no corners and takes every extra step to ensure greatness are what makes Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Often games will focus on so much action and physical struggle between the player and hordes of generic enemies that we don’t think twice about what overcome because of how little effort is put into it. Skyrim is a game that may even be called ahead of its time because it demands a level of attention and emotional involvement (and skill among other things) to fully enjoy, and with many self-proclaimed ‘gamers’ being hand fed casual passes at challenges, there is no doubt that many will not take well to the game.
It may very well become unpopular, and it may live in the shadow of the Fallout games solely because it does not have guns and takes place in a world that is not a worse version of our own. Case in point, it may not garner the legions of fans that the generic shooters are roping in this time of year, but popularity has never been a real mark of quality to me. I will stand firmly with those with the integrity not to ride off into the sunset declaring ‘we only want to see stuff burn!’