Skyrim was first released almost a decade ago. A lot has changed in that time, but Bethesda’s open-world epic is still very much alive. As of this moment, it has over 13,000 concurrent players on Steam and is available on six different consoles. Those are some very impressive numbers. Despite its success and acclaim, I have always been fairly ambivalent about the game. Sure, I had fun with it back when it first came out. Two console generations and ten years ago. But I’ve certainly never felt the need to buy it again, and I’m not sure it’s as brilliant as it’s made out to be. I can only apologise. However, if you aren’t already too busy writing me hate mail, I’ll try and explain.
I’m not going to deny the Skyrim is a fun game, or even that it’s an important one. There are moments of real genius, such as the removal of character classes, and the perk system. The world feels handcrafted and is undeniably a joy to explore, and the variety of monsters, weapons and characters is outstanding. So why doesn’t it grab me the way other RPGs have over the years? Bloodborne, Nier Automata and Divinity: Original Sin all rank significantly higher than Skyrim on my own list of best RPG’s of all time. What was it about these games that drew me in where Skyrim didn’t?
There are two big clues that point the way as to how best to start this investigation. First, almost everyone I know who played the game, even those who claimed to love it, never actually finished it. Sure, people often only get so far through a game, but this is allegedly one of the best games of all time we’re talking about, so what happened? Second, most people I know who still play it do so exclusively with a suite of mods enabled. Neither of these are criticisms in themselves, but I do feel they point to what Skyrim actually is, and why I didn’t enjoy it as much as everyone else.
So a lot of players didn’t necessarily finish the game. But then what were they doing the whole time they were playing? I know people who have played the game for hundreds of hours but have never seen the credits. Were they just on an unusually long sightseeing holiday to the land of Tamriel? Possibly, but there’s more to it than that. The fact that many of the game’s biggest fans are happy to ignore the critical path is a testament to Skyrim’s organic and immersive nature. It does also point to the lack of a strong central narrative, but we’ll get to that.
There are countless games with open worlds, many of which claim “exploration” as a feature. In many cases, this is a stinking lie. Content is either repeated endlessly to the point of meaninglessness, (a la much of Ubisoft’s current output), or the game completely misses the fact that exploration is only satisfying if there is something to find. I “explored” No Man’s Sky for hours and the most exciting thing I found was a vaguely phallic alien lizard thing. And even that didn’t amuse me for long.
Skyrim doesn’t have this problem. Locations are varied and feel handcrafted, and the lore is rich, deep, and intriguing. The developers built a world, as opposed to a playspace if you see what I mean. This alone appears to have been enough for many people. Interacting with a world that felt coherent and alive was worth the price of admission. I, however, am a miserable old bastard (at least in spirit). While I appreciated the obvious care with which the world had been crafted, it was only immersive while static. Once stuff started happening, the cracks started to show.
Fighting dragons for instance. I’m not totally sure what I was expecting but it certainly wasn’t five minutes of waving a cudgel in the beast’s face before it collapses at my feet. They looked impressive from a distance, but I was sorely disappointed by how my encounters with them actually played out. I remember playing Dragon’s Dogma shortly after and being blown away by the big monster fights. You can clamber all over them, clinging on for dear life, while they writhe and bellow. You can also target specific parts of the monsters to gain an advantage; eyes, hands (forcing them to drop a weapon) armour etc. It all works brilliantly. Shame the rest of the game is a load of old rubbish.
My point is that Bethesda didn’t so much develop a game as build a world. A very impressive world no doubt, but severely lacking in depth. This is where my point about mods becomes relevant. Skyrim is one of the most modded games of all time, and it’s easy to see why. Skyrim is in essence, a beautifully crafted foundation. People love the lore, they love the characters, they love the world, but they don’t love the game. Therefore, the modding community exploded. Bethesda provided the raw material, but it was up to the fans to mould it into something worthwhile.
This brings us to an interesting philosophical point. If most people can only bear to play a game after quality of life improvements, balance updates, bug fixes, extra content, music, and graphical upgrades have been modded in, who deserves credit for that game’s continued success? And can we even praise the original game that highly? As part of an already beloved series, pre-existent goodwill would have spurred modders on in a way a new IP could never hope for. I really don’t know how to feel about this one. Bethesda certainly provided the platform, and it’s a particularly lovely platform, but is that really enough? It is if you want a pure, modular, sandbox experience, not if you want a fantasy epic that feels as good as it looks.
Moving on, I crave structure, a beginning, middle, and end. I also don’t just want to mess around in a mod-filled playground. As the dearth of mods appears to attest, the main campaign was nothing special, and players would rather have an Elder Scrolls sandbox anyway. That just wasn’t what I wanted. This trend would continue in Fallout 4 which had an almost comically bad story and again left me cold. These games are about a kind of player freedom that I just can’t get behind. Maybe I’m not the free spirit I perhaps should be.
In focusing on breadth and player freedom, Bethesda RPGs always lose control of pacing, and without good pacing, the story can’t have the impact it should. All open-ended games suffer from this to a degree, but it’s particularly bad when a game is explicitly about exploring and enjoying the world. Perhaps something more like Breath of the Wild would have been the way to go. As things stand. I can’t get into Skyrim’s story in a meaningful way. And that’s a real shame. The lack of context for anything I’m doing eventually kills the experience for me. Mods can’t fix that.
That was a long overdue rant. I think it was helpful though. Apparently, I need to be told how to have fun. Maybe that makes me some kind of deviant. Hopefully, somebody out there somewhere knows what I mean. I’d also like to reiterate that I bear Skyrim no ill will whatsoever. It’s just not a classic in my eyes. Freedom’s not all it’s cracked up to be.