The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is built solely on the idea of discovery. In the very beginning you have no idea who you are, where you are, or why you’re aboard a carriage filled with condemned prisoners. All you know is you’re an outsider, and once you’ve reached your destination, your execution awaits.
The caravan arrives in the small forted village of Helgan, where you’re pulled from the carriage. Your captors fail to recognize you; they’re just as puzzled by your appearance as anyone else. Are you a man or woman, an Argonian or Breton? This is your first opportunity to ask yourself who you are and who you want to be in Skyrim; it won’t be the last time you ask yourself this.
Lucky for you, the execution fails, granting you an opportunity to escape Helgan. This is where Skyrim commences and where your story within Bethesda’s world begins. You’ve been told to visit a town not far north of your escape, but nothing other than the word of your new friend is there to compel you to visit it. The entire province is at your fingertips.
Skyrim is structured in a loose manner, allowing the player to discover its world and various narrative strands at the pace that they desire. Characters will tell you where you should go, but there is never any real urgency to do any of it. The world is cluttered with distractions and what makes this experience unique is the distractions form the very heart of Skyrim. The core narrative, as it is, is a mean to an end, an excuse to pilot you from one corner of the world to the other. It’s hard to imagine anyone following a single narrative strand when it’s impossible to travel from one quest point to the next without stumbling upon some sort of ruin, cave, encampment or fort. The narrative has its high points, but it’s always made secondary by the next undiscovered location on your compass; and that’s because Bethesda wants you to pave your own story.
Undiscovered locations dot the entire province of Skyrim, leaving the map a venerable piece of swiss cheese after a few dozen hours. Discoveries are the actual loot and tracking every single one of them down is the addiction that thrusts players headfirst into Bethesda’s fiction. Every location, small or large, is populated with its own personal story, which makes every journey feel special and rewarding. There’s an understanding that this world, this place, existed before you fell upon it; there’s also an unshakable feeling that it’s all been staged for you.
Skyrim would have you believe it’s a dynamic world that’s constantly in flux, when in reality it’s more like a car stuck in neutral, waiting to be put into gear. Characters go about their daily routines but they merely exist to bestow quests or impart dense records of lore; no-one is truly alive when you’re not engaged with them. One of the principal quest lines revolves around the Imperials and the Stormcloaks, two factions waging a purportedly bloody, savage civil war that has split the region in two. In each and every town across the land nearly every single person is happy to share an opinion on the war, telling you how dire the situation has become. But there is no war, no conflict, not unless you decide to take part in it yourself; you may see hundreds of random encounters in this Nordic land, but you’ll never see the ‘War for Skyrim’ unfolding.
Fiction aside, Skyrim is a vast, majestic world to discover. Bethesda is unparalleled when it comes to world building and when you’re wading through brooks, scaling mountains or eviscerating another cave full of bandits it’s an absolute joy. It’s a remarkable, liberating feeling that this province was crafted specifically for you; a huge playground with apparently no rules or boundaries. That isn’t the case. Skyrim has its rules; they’re specific and they have a nasty way of reminding you this fiction was written in binary.
Every city subscribes to a simple bounty system: commit a crime and you’ll be struck down, pay a fine, or spend the night in jail. There is a clear consequence to crime, but it’s merely an illusion. On my first evening in the town of Morthal I snuck into the Jarl’s house and then into the private quarters of her daughter, where I then attempted to pickpocket the young sleeping woman. Without the deftest of hands, the girl arose, alerting the guards of my treachery. Not wanting a fight or untimely death, I submitted, volunteering to pay my bounty and spend the evening locked up. The following morning, strolling from my cell, I bumped into the sleeping girl once more: she asked me to deliver a letter of utmost importance for her; she trusted me.
The bounty system is a dirty way to gloss over any real consequence for your actions. There is no gray area; everyone is either a friend or foe. When an enemy is nearly defeated they may beg for mercy, pleading with you to spare them. You can sheath your weapon but they will never flee, every single one will get up and rush you. Once, a villager followed me into a vampire’s hideout, hoping to avenge the death of his wife. Madness erupted and amid the scuffle I inadvertently grazed him with a fire spell, turning him immediately against me (note: the vampires who killed his wife were still very much alive). Afterward, instead of arriving to a town full of indebted villagers, I returned to an armed welcome and an outstanding bounty. There was no way to explain how the town learned of my accidental deed and no way to silence the vengeful widower – I tried killing him several times.
Once you’ve found the parameters that Skyrim works with, it’s not difficult to play by its rules, and even enjoy it. There is a huge, jaw dropping world to discover at whatever pace you desire. Along the way you’re free to author your own story, defining your unique character and experience through whatever style of play you prefer. When you’re lost in its rich landscape and enthralled within its fiction, Skyrim thrives, and is truly unparalleled; it’s when you take a closer look, you can’t help but discover the seams holding this tapestry together.