I’ve played a lot of RPGs in my time as a gamer, of all varieties, various concepts, lengths and plots, good and bad, deep and shallow. No other franchise has games that I’ve spent as much with as I have with The Elder Scrolls over the years. I dabbled in Morrowind (and, by dabbled, I mean only about 50-60 hours), I completely lost myself in Oblivion three times over. No matter how hard you look, there is not another franchise out there, of any genre, that gives you such a life-like, vibrant, unending fantasy world to spend your time in.
Enter Skyrim, the fifth game in the franchise, and likely the first one that most modern gamers will be overexposed to. The hype has been building for the last year, gallivanting to a dramatic climax in the last month or so leading up to release. Gamers who have never played or been interested in The Elder Scrolls before are now clamoring to delve into Skyrim. Part of this is, perhaps, because of the success of Bethesda’s last big RPG project, Fallout 3, and Obsidian’s follow-up, Fallout: New Vegas. Now gamers the world over are aching to jump head first into this massive fantasy world where you can be and do just about anything your heart desires. It is, really, the epitome of what a game should be and is possibly the best example of such in the entire industry to date.
If you know me, you’ll know that story, character development and interaction are three of my biggest concerns in RPGs, and it’s where I get most of my enjoyment in this genre. You know what? Throw all that out the window. Yes, in Skyrim you create a generic character. Yes, the main story isn’t the only story in the game, nor is it the biggest, most involving narrative in the game. You don’t even have to do it! I’ll be the first to admit that it took me almost 300 hours of playing Oblivion before I finished the main story, and that was only fairly recently for a game that came out in 2006. None of that matters. What matters is that you’re thrust into the world as a blank slate and you have more freedom than ever before to mold your character into what you want to be, creating their life and their story from the ground up.
The serene mountain peaks and quiet cities of Skyrim haven’t seen too much in the way of action in the recent past. But now, 200 years after the Oblivion gates were shut for good to the South, the Empire is spreading its wings and encroaching into what was a traditionally Nord area, bringing with it its ideals, customs, people and military presence. This doesn’t sit well with some Nords, and the rebels have formed the Stormcloaks. The province of Skyrim is on the brink of a civil war and, what’s more, the ancient dragons are returning for some unknown reason. The stage is set real early in the game for things to get pretty bad in quick measure.
At its heart, the main story that has been advertised revolves around your character being Doväkiin, or Dragonborn. You can learn and use the language of the dragons, who have been silent for centuries and are just now coming back to the world of Tamriel. What begins as a slow carriage ride to your death, quickly changes pace so you’re running from a dragon attack and, ultimately, to begin your new life in the province of Skyrim.
During the course of the main narrative track, you learn what you are, how to gain and use the “Voice” and what your purpose is as a Dragonborn. The plot is very well-written, twist-filled and well-acted. This is also where you get your first taste of fighting and killing a dragon, which has been one of the huge promotions for the game throughout its entire ad campaign. Regardless of your difficulty setting, these battles are a rush, let me tell you. I get more of a rush fighting a dragon in Skyrim than I do escaping a burning building in Uncharted 3 or climbing up a precarious stairway as the ground falls out from under you in Catherine. Possibly because, you know, it’s a freaking dragon.
After your first dragon kill, you can learn the “voice” powers, or shouts, which are special abilities that can be upgraded to three different levels. They are focused on helping you become more adept at taking down these powerful foes, however they can be used anywhere and in any situation you want. Some of them are story-related, and you’ll acquire them as you move through the main quest. Some, however, are entirely optional, and you can discover them at the many different dragon shrines scattered around Skyrim.
I tend to think of Skyrim – and, really, The Elder Scrolls franchise as a whole – of not necessarily having a “main story”, even though that story is typically the one that is hyped up the most. Like in previous titles, there are also guilds you can join – the Thieves’ Guild, for example. There are also Skyrim’s equivalents of the Mage’s Guild and the Warrior’s Guild. On top of that, you can choose sides in the on-going war in the province – you can either take up the cause of the Imperials or that of the Stormcloaks and plot a strategic victory for the side you chose. All these combine to basically give the game six major stories, all interwoven with the province of Skyrim and the Dragonborn story in general. In those narratives, there is probably more gameplay, characters and story than many of this years’ top games combined. And that, my friends, is just scratching the surface.
While there is just too much content in those major plot directions alone to go through before I wrote this review, I did make it through the Thieves’ Guild quests, so let’s talk a little about the improvements and variety here. In Oblivion, the Thieves’ Guild was basically just a straight series of quests, each progressively dove farther into the story, and you saw the guild (and yourself, as a member) evolve as you progressed. In Skyrim, while you do have that main story, you also have side jobs you can participate in, and choices to make along the way. I got in the habit of picking up side jobs from Vex in the Thieves’ Guild headquarters in Riften before I go out to do anything, then just swing by and complete that job before returning, netting some extra cash and brownie points in the process.
I also enjoy that now you’re not prevented from killing people during the main Thieves’ Guild story quests, which basically increases the amount of freedom you have in completing the quests. There are some quests related to this guild that task you with purposefully preventing unneeded bloodshed, and you’re made very well aware of those. However, for the most part, you have free reign to complete those quests how you please.
Speaking of quests, they are, in essence, the catalyst that makes the world come alive. You can put all the wildlife, NPCs, vendors, weapons and dungeons in the world that you want, but ultimately what makes you feel a part of that world is the quests. Aside from the six main quest lines, there are other large individual quests that you can pick up from just about every NPC you meet. The world also includes procedurally generated quests, meaning that they are randomly generated based on what you do. It is very, very rare to see a similar quest more than once, as they always send you into a different dungeon, have you pitted against different mobs or face a different situation each time. I’m seriously blown away by how real they make the world feel, especially through adapting content to the player. No other game does this. None. Although some have certainly tried.
The closest these randomly generated quests come to in recent memory are the ones in Red Dead Redemption, but even those began to feel repetitive very quickly. The ones in Skyrim do not, after dozens of hours of play, begin to feel repetitive. You get the sense that you are, in fact, in a living, breathing, ever-changing world that adapts to your character, your decisions and your actions.