Sort of the quintessential image of this game.

Special note: I play Skyrim on the PC via Steam but with an Xbox Controller.

So first, a preamble: I am going to have to take my time on this review and it may run fairly long, longer than some of my really long shit that you may have read. Well, maybe not longer than that “How to Film Mass Effect” thing. I’m not going to split this review into fucking parts unless I absolutely have to. What I will do is break it down into sections if only to help me concentrate on the specific things I want to talk about, all in good order. But hey, you may not be interested in every shred of whatever I happen to conjure up for this and are maybe more into just knowing (if only in advance) what I, in general, thought of this game.

How to put it?

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is simply one of the best games ever made. More than that, it’s got some serious clout toward the elevation of games as a medium that deserves to be regarded shoulder-to-shoulder with other commercial art media like movies, comic books, and novels. Every now and then an example of x media comes on which is not only a milestone in its own territory, and Skyrim is certainly a milestone game in whatever context, but also a cultural touchstone. There’s a lot of rocks in Skyrim, mountains and so on, so maybe I have stones on the mind. Anyways, what I’m getting at is that Skyrim is one of those games that should cross entertainment boundaries irrespective of whether people like video games and simply be one of those experiences that everybody should be. Not all that dissimilar from how Watchmen is a graphic novel that transcends the limitations of its own context to become just the same type of cultural touchstone. Every medium has its examples of such works and Skyrim belongs among them.

So yeah, this is going to be a glowing review.

Section the First: Game as Environment

Whiterun is simply gorgeous.

More than being an interactive narrative or a sandbox-style game, Skyrim is an example of a somewhat specifically Bethesda approach to game design: the game as environment. In their games, including The Elder Scrolls series and their quarterback/coach relationship with Fallout, the environment is paramount. Skyrim is focused on a province of the long-lived Tamrielic Empire, a collection of territories on a particular continent in a world that is designed to be at least as large and varied as our own. Skyrim is the Northern province, a mountainous and cold region with its own flavor of lore, inhabitants, etc that are meant to differentiate the experiences players have had in previous games in the series. Home to the Norse-inspired Nord race, Skyrim’s rather direct relationship with Northern Europe is an excuse for Bethesda to ground the series in as gritty and realistic a tone as has been seen in their games. In the post-Lord of the Rings (movies) world, gritty realism has had its way with fantasy and revitalized the genre first on TV with Game of Thrones (to which this game owes a bit) and now in video games with Skyrim. Movies trying to capture the same lightning in a different bottle are sure to follow.

As an environment, Skyrim is full of things to do and see and 99% of this is determined by the player. This can be daunting for some people, it was for me up until Fallout 3 where I finally “completed” (you never really complete) a Bethesda game after eventually losing interest in both Morrowind and Oblivion after whatever amount of time. Because of lessons learned by the experience of making Fallout 3, which was definitely meant to capture more mainstream interest than their Elder Scrolls series, Bethesda has created the most accessible and player-friendly of its games and this is a condition that can do nothing but help those players who need a bit of effort to adjust into this type of game.

Skyrim feels like a real place, a pocket universe of a level that has not been accomplished before. I’ve never played a game that sucks you into its environment as thoroughly as this, that still has the capacity to surprise you after over a 100 hours of exploration. The amount of attention to detail is staggering, the time and effort involved nothing short of heroic, and the final product is the most well-realized environment in gaming history.

Section the Second: Working with the Environment

Windhelm, an ice-locked walled city and fortress of the rebellious Stormcloaks.

What the achievement of this environment portends for the player is the possibility of the greatest degree of interactive involvement ever seen in a single-player game. When you play a game, interaction occurs on primarily two levels (one more than in movies or books). First there is the control you exert on the game via your avatar, whether it’s a cartoon dog or a brawny barbarian warrior. Second is the more abstract level of engagement you achieve with the entirety of the experience you’re having with the medium (this is the same as in movies or books). For example, a player can create a character purely in response to the game’s programming architecture: a character that will be especially successful within the context of the game’s design, in this case some cocktail of mathematical relationships between the various interrelated systems (combat, stealth, magic, various skills) involved. This approach emphasizes the first type of interaction and treats Skyrim as a game in the strictest sense of the word, one which tabletop roleplaying games (and video games) has long since transcended much as out-of-touch commentators deny it.

The second approach, the antithesis to what I described above, is the treatment of the game environment as a context within which to engage in a narrative almost completely of your own make. In this approach, the player will create a character that combines what they are most interested in playing for systematic and aesthetic reasons as well as because they have the beginnings of an idea for the character as a who not simply a what. This leads directly to roleplaying, wherein the player infuses the character with motivations and attitudes partially of their own invention and partially in reaction to the limiters and opportunities of the game environment. They are literally working with the environment of the game to create a meaningful experience beyond exploring and overcoming the game’s systems in order to be successful at whatever mechanical tasks the game includes, as in the first approach I described.

It all begins with the ridiculously robust character creation system that begins play.

The reason why Skyrim‘s potential to invoke the second approach, the second primary level of interaction that is taken for granted in books and movies, is that it allows Skyrim to have more narrative meaning than most other types of games and one that is uniquely generated by playing the game. Other games have sophisticated narratives, making them legitimate texts subject to the analysis and legitimizing regard with which we treat those books we designate as literature and those films we consider to transcend the status of commercial art. This narrative meaning is accomplished by the player’s taking the environment into account when making decisions for the character including which factions to support, how to treat NPCs and their problems, and even whether to complete or bother with the framing narrative: dragons have returned after thousands of years, an event that signifies the end of the world, with only the Dragonborn (the player’s character) able to stop it.

Honestly, I played my first character to do everything, to be a vehicle for my will to explore as much of the game’s content in a single play-through as possible. More the case in Skyrim than in any other game I’ve ever played, this behavior led to contradictions in ethical choices (which are not tagged in this game) that left me with a vaguely unsatisfied feeling about how I was playing the game. I acknowledged after a while that it would have been better to treat Tyrn, my Nord warrior-focused character, in a consistent manner. It didn’t make sense for Tyrn, for whom I’d concocted some basic characteristics, to join with the Thieves’ Guild or become a Dark Brotherhood Assassin. Nor did it make sense to save the main narrative for the “end” of my playthrough as I’d long since established the urgency of the dragon resurrection. This is all because I was playing Skyrim against its environment.

The visually arresting skill menu, including constellations administrating various “perks” as unlockable abilities necessitating development of a given skill.

To Bethesda’s credit, they allowed for this in the game. Skyrim doesn’t force you to play the game any one way as long as it doesn’t involve going beyond the limitations of its environment, which are as unrestrictive as possible. Still, I believe there’s a more satisfying way to play this game than how I did, or how the pure-player example I used earlier would. Similarly, there is a more satisfying way to read Moby Dick than that it’s “a story about a madman hunting a whale” and a more satisfying way to watch The Matrix than “hackers fight machines in a virtual world”. Both texts include the tag-lines I’m giving here, but are not captured by them. Likewise, my experience with Skyrim in my first playthrough did not capture what makes this game a transcendent media.

So now, after 125 hours with Tyrn, I am replaying as Loa, a female Imperial who is more concerned with the intensifying civil war than in dragons… at least for now. In Loa I have instilled a higher degree of character, thinking constantly of how she might justify this or that behavior within the context of the game (who to help, why or why not, what motivates these choices?). I feel like I am better approaching a satisfying engagement with Skyrim, a way that will allow me to derive narrative meaning and significance from the Story of Loa. This may sound like a bit too much but a lot of people would argue that an awareness of and appreciation for the complex themes and narrative sophistication of many movies, books, comics, games is also a bit too much.

Fuck that.

But look. At the end of the day, Skyrim is great because it has the potential for this type of experience. That is to say, it doesn’t mandate this nor really expect it of the player. More than other games, it lays the groundwork necessary for the possibility and it certainly invites you to engage. Without doing so, you’re still playing the best game in years.

Section the Third: A Beautiful Country

One of the most awe-inspiring locations in the game.

Skyrim has the best graphics I’ve ever seen in a game. There are games out there, Rage for one, with cleaner textures and better animation and fluidity and so on, but those games lack the complexity of this one. Skyrim is such a big game with so much involved with its graphics that it has to be considered the best. And, with modding, it can get even better.

I’ve already talked about the environment of the game. It should be clear that one of the strongest parts of Skyrim‘s graphical acumen is in that element. Everything looks gorgeous from the mountains to the buildings to the waterfalls. The lighting is also spectacular, distracting you from the fact that you’re playing a game and forcing you to appreciate the in-game environment as one. You can be distracted from the deer you’re stalking or the barrow you’re traveling to by leaves falling through trees, by a ruined castle jutting from the peak of a distant foothill, and by the goddamn waterfalls. Waterfalls, by the Divines.

Screenshots do not do this justice.

Other striking elements are the atmospheric effects such as the night sky, weather (like rain and snow, which actually accumulates on objects temporarily), and even the falling leaves in the forests of The Rift. This stuff deserves to be appreciated as it is not only exciting for its own sake but as a harbinger of things to come. If you’re curious about some of the best sights in the game, my favorites are (in no particular order):

-Whiterun, specially Dragonreach and the Gildergleam

-Markarth, the coolest city in the game

-The country surrounding Solitude, a city built over a bay on an arch of rock. Seeing it off in the distance is always special.

-Underground waterfalls and streams.

-The waterfalls around Riverwood.

-The Mage’s College at Winterhold.

-The Northern Lights, especially the rare orange-gold ones visible in The Rift.

There are tons more, some of which are particular to events in the game that I don’t want to spoil. You’ll no doubt have your own favorites and seriously, it is okay to fall in love with this world. In fact, I recommend it.

Dogs: mer’s best friend.

Beyond the environmental graphics, atmospheric effects, and lighting… there’s the character models. There have never been better looking (and moving) player models in a game than this. Realism is the name of the game with bone structure, pores in the skin, scarring, etc all at such an extremely high level of detail (made even better by modding!).

It’s really the little things, like the moles and blemishes on your character’s back to watching the muscles move in a tight-third person camera view to the way light reflects off the scales of Argonians.

Section the Fourth: What of Game

The combat includes cinematic kills sometimes and it’s a very cool, immersive feature.

Now that I’ve written on some of the abstract stuff and the purely visual, it’s time to get into the mechanics of Skyrim in case you were thinking I’ve been saving them because they suck. They do not suck.

As in other Bethesda games, combat is mostly first-person though in The Elder Scrolls there is an emphasis on melee combat which isn’t perfectly executed due to the physics of positioning, timing, etc. While not perfect, I can’t imagine what would be, it’s a vast improvement over previous games in the series and is never a dysfunctional mechanic. Glitches are glitches and a game as big and complex as Skyrim is bound to have them but, mechanically speaking, the combat system is sound. Skyrim is the kind of game that has so many factors, ingredients, cogs, and shit that no one is ever perfectly happy with everything. This is why Akatosh invented modding and suffice it to say that it is, and will become even more, possible to adjust the in-game systems to suit your pleasures. Again, it comes down to what Bethesda and their game allow you to do with the product and the experience.

There is an extensive variety of Norse-themed weapons and armor as well as versions of those particular to the races of Tamriel and beyond. Some of the mechanics are simplified and this is especially apparent in weapons and armor where there are fewer categories and thus fewer linked skills. This may be called a misstep by those who lament the simplification of RPG-style mechanics and menus in RPG games but it’s a false complaint for Skyrim as it is well implemented and completely intuitive, the result of lessons learned over years of changes in game design and play. In other words, simplification is perfectly justified if it actually improves the experience. It also implies that game companies are able to course-correct if they know x will work better than y after y has been tried. In games like Skyrim and Mass Effect 2, that’s what’s going on (less so in Dragon Age 2 which is sort of the banner example that legitimizes the complaint in some cases).

I’m making story gravy!

Aside from the obligatory action elements which make up a lot of the fun of the game, there’s also the crafting. In Skyrim, the player is able to forge weapons and armor using metal they have mined and smelted themselves as well as using tanning racks to make workable leather. Then there’s the enchanting which drastically enhances the value of your equipment and the modular gameplay afforded by potions where underdeveloped skills can be temporarily bolstered to give your character a scrappy resourcefulness in the face of Skyrim‘s many challenges.

Unfortunately the cooking is a bit undercooked (har har) and food has little value as healing item or beyond roleplaying purposes. There are also some items that can’t be crafted but as a basic template for what is possible with this game engine, I think Bethesda has intended it as an experimental addition to the game (well, the enchanting and alchemy feel more final) with room for development in additional content or via player modding (which has already greatly enhanced the crafting).

Dragons, man. Dragons.

One of Skyrim‘s central gameplay features is its implementation of unscripted dragon battles. On the surface, this element is meant to be a special type of random encounter (many of which are had in the game) akin to a boss battle. The reality is that dragons are kind of everywhere in the game, the math governing their appearances skewed toward providing the player with many opportunities to fight them. After a while these fights are not as special and the dragons not very difficult (even when compared to presumably lesser creatures like bears and giants). The dragons do become more difficult as there is a hierarchy of type that escalates as the player-character becomes more powerful. Even though the fights do become routine at times, there is always the potential for a really epic battle derived from a combination of other in-game elements. This is what, after a while, keeps the fights true to concept and a very special part of the game. For example, I’ve had encounters with dragons fighting giants leaving me to wait for one to weaken the other as I was too weak to fight both. I’ve also chased dragons, on horseback, across the countryside as they scorch farms and villagers. Then there was the time I fought a dragon on the peak of a mountain and leaped down on it to deliver the killing blow after it crash-landed on a plateau below me.

Beyond the combat and random encounters, there is the stealth gameplay. Deus Ex: Human Revolution is the superior first/third-person hybrid stealth game but aside from lesser precision and the lack of non-fatal attacks and certain other mechanics, the stealth in Skyrim reminded me positively of that experience. Like I said, my first playthrough was with a character who was focused on warrior stuff. He wore heavy armor and wielded mostly 2-handed weapons. It wasn’t until much later in the game that I tried my hand at stealth which significantly opened up my experience. Skyrim can be functionally played very much like a game along the lines of Human Revolution or even a Splinter Cell game. Focusing on stealth skills and perks makes every straight-up fight a high-stakes challenge you may not survive. It’s a very fun way to play this game and will appeal to people who dislike the straight combat or archery mechanics.

Section the Fifth: Skyrim is Other People

Marriage is a somewhat underdeveloped element of PC-NPC interaction.

Like so much of the subtler, distinctly narrative, elements of the Skyrim experience, there are various ways to treat the inhabitants of the game world. Bethesda gave each one a schedule and tasks to perform regardless of what the player does. This makes the towns and cities and whatever feel much more lifelike than in previous games. Most NPCs have little time for the player, saying only a couple of lines of scripted (and voiced) dialogue. Others have problems that need solving and some are involved with the big swirl of events going on in the province. It’s easy to ignore the NPCs after a while, unless you need them, and I believe Bethesda intended for this to be more a realistic reaction to the way the game is designed than as an inevitable result of being bored with the same old NPCs, voices, and lines. It’s a subtle trick, a great one, in that when you stop and think about it you’re only ignoring them and going about your business in the same way they are with you. It’s obviously different because they’re simple virtual intelligences and you’re a human player with several orders of magnitude greater influence on everything in the game. Still, the illusion sells the immersion which is the point.

If you do start to think of NPCs as characters with their own lives, motives, and personalities (especially the ones for whom these elements are developed to serve the game’s storylines and quests), the experience becomes richer. If you visit a particular merchant often out of convenience in location, you may find yourself growing somewhat fond of them and imagining a bond between your character and them. The mostly excellent voice-acting helps to give these “people” more dimension and personality, though it has to be acknowledged that even with 70+ voice actors this time around, you will eventually be distracted by the particularly distinct ones coming up again and again. There is a particular male voice that has the monotone and inflection of Kevin from The Office (American) which rankles in particular. I dunno what the fuck they were thinking with that voice but it can’t be good.

Still, they managed to grab some great voices in Max Von Sydow, Christopher Plummer, and Joan Allen. I think I even heard the guy who voiced Fenris in Dragon Age 2 in there. Probably other voice actors I’ve heard (and you’ve heard) before. Their choice of “celeb” actors definitely skews toward the prestigious in the sense that Von Sydow and Plummer are both venerable masters of their craft, each able to infuse their characters with all the necessary gravitas and wisdom. I had less of an impression with Allen, though.

One of the more interesting components of interaction with the game characters is in the relationship between the player and followers. There are a lot of possible followers in this game, both temporary and available continuously, from mercenaries to retainers to people who you’ve actually befriended. One of the prominent ones, acquainted to you early on if you follow the main story, is Lydia the Housecarl of Whiterun. She’s a loyal retainer for the player if they become a Thane (a sort of knight in the feudal system of Skyrim). The decisions about which followers to use when, how to react to their deaths (if it occurs), and the possibility of marriage with some of them are all part of yet another source for player involvement and the creation of narrative.

They also serve a valuable function as Skyrim is a dangerous fucking place.

Section the Sixth: Nicks and Bruises

A Conan moment.

As I’ve gone on, I’ve gone into a few things that are a bit underdeveloped. It is more fair to judge this game for what is and isn’t here than on what it can do later. At the same time, a novel or movie is in a finished state and cannot be modified so this seems like a way of applying critical thinking that is not necessarily appropriate for games, which can be in an intentionally unfinished state.

The only real criticism that can be lodged against Bethesda and Skyrim is that it’s buggy. There are some quests that bug out making their chains uncompleteable. There are also more routine glitches and problems like hair clipping through headgear that could have and should have been attended to before release. This feels like a legitimate complaint but one which has a lesser degree of severity due to the inevitability of patches and fixes from Bethesda themselves, as well as the already staggering amount of user-generated modifications.

Anything else I might include here would be personal complaints based on stuff I’d like to see in the game that isn’t there, or elements (like the cooking) which could have been more satisfying. For example, there isn’t a lot of different types of creatures in the game and dragons should always be the most dangerous of what you encounter in the larger environment. Conversely, it makes sense that powerful magical or undead monsters could rival a dragon, and there are many creatures (dragon priests and draugr deathlords especially) which do just that. Still, you’re going to kill a fucking lot of spiders and bears and wolves in this game. And, because of the way gear in NPCs scales, you’ll have slaughtered armies of similarly-equipped (and looking) humanoid enemies as well. I don’t know how this could have been improved, honestly, but it’s one of my tiny nitpicks.

Another is the lack of horseback combat. This forces the player to dismount, draw weapons, etc whenever they can’t outrun an enemy. This process takes time and breaks immersion a little as you roll your eyes and think about how you could have just smacked the thing from horseback or shot arrows at it. I hope Bethesda looks to Red Dead Redemption for additional influence (they brought in the cute treasure maps) when they work on horseback archery.

But more than any other “problem” I have with this game, there’s that I always want more. I mean, take the music for example. It’s fucking great, especially the theme that kicks in when you meet a dragon, but there needs be MOAARRR of it MOAARRR often.I need not worry, though, as Bethesda will add DLC and (especially once they release the construction kit) the modders will continue to add more more more for people like me who can’t fucking get enough. Sometimes I wish I were a modder so I could make all the shit I want to see in this game, shit like riding dragons or visiting the other provinces and areas Bethesda improbably included in the general (inaccessible) game-world. Seriously, almost all of Tamriel is more or less there which is suggestive of what they plan to do for the next half-decade while they work on The Elder Scrolls VI which I hope takes place in Akaviri!

Section the Seventh: Final Thoughts

Fuck yeah, Tamriel.

Obviously the only thing left to say is that, after almost 150 hours, I am still playing this game with the same level of energy, enthusiasm, and excitement as in the first hour. More, probably, because now I know what is possible and how to change even that via the mods and my own level of engagement with Loa and the characters that will follow her.

This is a game that deserves your 100+ hours even if you only like games a little. It’s a singular experience, evolving out of its familiar parts to be something more than I ever expected.