Skyrim. The name needs no further introduction. If you are even slightly interested in computer gaming, you will have heard, or more likely played it. Currently, it has been released on seven platforms, was remastered only half a decade after its original release, has three official expansion packs and has sold over 30 million copies. It’s a game that has probably taken up potentially billions of hours from humanity. Hours that could have been dedicated to reading War and Peace, learning a foreign language or perfecting that soufflé recipe you saw in one of the glossy Sunday supplements.
It’s the very definition of ‘High Fantasy’. If J.R.R Tolkien, G.R.R. Martin, and Brynjar the Viking from Jorvik had a brainstorming session, with copious amounts of coffee and mead; Skyrim would have been the result of their epic meeting. Not being computer programmers, (linguists, authors and the bane of the Saxons are not known for their overwhelming skill with the propriety Creation Engine) they would have passed this onto Bethesda, who would bring their epic vision to life.
I’m something of a Skyrim fan and a keen student of the open-world formula that Bethesda has been refining for well over a decade now, at least since Morrowind, the first truly ‘live your own adventure’ game that I ever played. Morrowind soon became one of my favourite games of all time, despite a shaky start on the titular island of Vvardefell where I stupidly and naively went a puny imperial and was harassed, robbed, mugged, shaken down and killed by all manner of insect life, angry traders and cliff racers. I then created an orc character and had a fantastic adventure, solving every conundrum by hitting it on the head with a two-handed axe in what became an all-encompassing and enthralling adventure that in many ways has not been beaten since 2002.
But back to Skyrim. The re-release on the Nintendo Switch and the lingering VR version on the PS4 (Yes, I’m very tempted, despite not owning a PlayStation 4 or the VR headset) has had me hankering to get back to the snowy and unforgiving province for the first time in about two and half years. This time with the Special Edition that was generously on my Steam account for some reason.
Also, to be honest, with the unfortunate dearth of truly unique single player games this generation (The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is the standout exception) I was eager to revisit, what for me at least, was the pinnacle of the last console generation.
On installing the game, the basic mechanics have remained identical to the original version and are totally untouched. The Special Edition is mostly an aesthetic upgrade. But the addition of mods cannot be ignored and add an amazing and wide range of gameplay fixtures and features to an already densely packed game. New, unique followers, with often well written, humorous dialogue can be downloaded to accompany you on your travels. Little incidental details like lampposts along the roads and beehives add to the notion that people are meant to live and work here. You can even get a camping mod and one where you get hypothermia.
True to all Elder Scrolls games, you start as a featureless, raceless and nameless protagonist. Bethesda games don’t really start until after the character creation and the obligatory introductory set-piece. Once this glorified cut-scene is passed, the game truly begins. Think of the moment in Oblivion where you leave the Imperial Sewers and are left squinting at the forested hills and sparkling waterways of Cyrodiil after the dank gloom of the labyrinthine sewers under the Imperial City. In Fallout 4 it is the moment that you leave vault 101, take the elevator to the surface, and survey the irradiated and blasted wasteland that used to be your white picket fenced home with the dilapidated skyscrapers of Boston just visible on the horizon.
From this moment forward, the special edition upgrades (and mods, if you have them installed) become apparent immediately. They add another level of detail to an already intricate and beautiful game world.
Clouds gently waft over crags, ravines, and mountaintops. Flecks of light snow prance in front of your eyes before being carried away by a breeze, where they lie in great drifts and twinkle when they catch the light. External masonry looks old and weather-beaten, scarred by millennia of snow and ice. Great iron braziers crackle with fire, keeping the cold at bay, spreading their warmth to the frigid surroundings. Timber is split and has a slight coating of green mold. Landscape features such as mountains, hills, and trees now block out the light with ‘volumetric god rays’ leading to some lovely shadowing effects.
Internal environments are also more noticeable and vibrant. Roots hang down into cave systems, searching for water and nutrients. Ancient Nord burial chambers look damp and mossy with centuries of water ingress. They almost look clammy to the touch.
The game is so richly detailed and so well designed that I’m not sure what was from the original game in 2011 and from the Special Edition from 2016. When I first played the game in 2011 one of the most immersive moments was watching salmon leaping up river to their spawning grounds. This small, almost minuscule detail added to the immersion in a very subtle way. In a similar manner, eagles soar on updraughts and insects swarm over marshland areas. All of this was present in the original version of Skyrim. The Special Edition adds to this sense of place and history by augmenting the landscape with another more detailed layer of fauna, flora, weather effects and lighting.
Admittedly, the quests do all have a certain clockwork monotony to them. Investigate this. Go here. Come back with a snippet of information or a quest item. Within a few days, I was Arch-mage of the College of Winterhold despite being a novice when I arrived at the gate. I’ll be the military commander of the province of Skyrim, after successfully crushing the Stormcloak rebellion, by the time you read this. I’ll be parading through the Imperial City, with a laurel and a slave whispering ‘memento mori’ into my ear as a reminder of my mortal existence on this plane.
Unlike Morrowind where you had to make irreversible decisions at certain points in the quest lines, but in a similar manner to Oblivion, nothing is closed to you. You can be a thief and a fighter. Loyally destroy the enemies of the Emperor, but kill him with another faction. Such gameplay features may upset RPG purists, but at least it allows you to access the full game without doing multiple playthroughs.
Like most RPGs, you end up doing menial tasks well below your station. As the only person who can devour the souls of dragons, it probably isn’t appropriate for me to be delivering letters between the members of a love triangle. Perhaps I shouldn’t be collecting three flawless amethysts for a wedding ring when the world is burning in dragon fire. Why can’t this alchemist from Riften collect her own damn nightshade? But alas, you do these things because it’s an RPG and let’s be honest, you enjoy the world revolving around you. You want to be the hero.
For the most part, the quests provide gameplay, narrative structure, XP to level up and a gradual way of exploring the map at a leisurely and constant pace. The well realised world and the sense of leisurely exploration is a gameplay element in its own right and you will end up stumbling into an unexpected quest just by walking into a mine.
Environmental storytelling has always been one of Bethesda’s strong points. For example, skeletal remains can be found at the entrance to a barrow, looking like they were trying to claw their injured bodies from some unknown and ancient horror contained in an antechamber of a long abandoned and foreboding city. Sets of shoes, just outside a tent, can be found next to sweet rolls, implying a romantic liaison that resulted in a tragic death where two lovers were swept out to sea. A woolly mammoth can be found embedded in a glacier with Dwemer (An ancient and long extinct race of dwarves in Elder Scrolls Lore) arrows piercing its side. A man can be found slumped over a bloody grindstone, implying a grizzly and painful end. Often, no further clues are given in these scenarios, letting you construct your own narrative with a few breadcrumb pointers left by Bethesda. It creates a world where people, again, admittedly mechanically, have lived a life, loved and lost.
Skyrim was never quite the ‘virtual world’ where NPCs live their own life, independent of your character. They do have a certain routine; get up, go to work, come back. Nothing complicated. You can get ‘married’ in the game, but your spouse won’t react to your long absences. No computer game has ever achieved this level of realism, despite the promises (I’m looking at you, Fable and Peter Molyneux). And I’m not sure it would be a desirable feature either.
To all intents and purposes, you are a God in Skyrim. Nothing happens without your agency and consent. Leave your character standing forlornly outside a city and nothing will happen. The dragon Alduin won’t enslave the Nord race with the help of his scaly compatriots. The Stormcloak rebellion against Imperial rule will go dormant until you decide to take up arms again.
Bethesda have taken a lot of flack for re-releasing Skyrim on multiple platforms over the past few years and for using this particular IP as a ‘cash cow.’ However, they are one of the few dedicated and large RPG developers still standing, now that Bioware is increasingly directing its efforts on the ‘destinyesque’ Anthem now.
Regardless of what platform you decide to play on, if you just have the ‘vanilla’ version or are using mods, the core fundamentals of Skyrim are impeccable and it is one of the ‘must plays’ of that last two generations. Very rarely has a game realised a sense of place and history so well through expert world building and the use of in-game lore.
It was a flawed masterpiece on release. The plethora of official and unofficial patches over the years has ensured that the game now runs smoothly and largely without incident. Mods on consoles have delivered a game rich in new features and gameplay elements that were previously the purview of the PC.
All you need to do now is set aside 450+ hours to experience it properly.