Years ago, I spent weeks of my life knee deep in the muck and snow of Skyrim; fighting my way across the continent as the fabled Dragonborn and saving all of existence with my strong sword arm and fierce magic spells. I also got married, saved the queen, and robbed just about everybody who so much as looked at me. So I was quite excited to jump back into that world when The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim- Special Edition came out for the PS4 this past year. While I’ll be talking about the game in general, I want to focus how different, or not, I feel about the game this time aroundd
Set in a rugged land of snow, fir trees and civil war, Skyrim sets the player up as child of destiny known as the Dovahkiin, or Dragonborn. You have come to this land to fight off the evil dragons, settle a civil war, and save the world from annihilation. Along the way, you are also going to talk to at least a hundred will developed and well voiced NPCs and get sidetracked into an endless number of side quests, some of which are great fun and some of which are quite boring. You are also going to make about a thousand iron daggers; I had forgotten how many of those you have to make honestly.
The central story revolves around the Dragonborn understanding their power and destiny and the civil war between the empire and Stormcloaks that is ripping the land apart. Both stories are as well done and entertaining as I remember, though this time around they felt much shorter than I remember. I also switched sides; years ago I remember siding with the rebels and this time I had no patience for them and mercilessly stamped them out and brought the country back into the Imperial fold. I usually play these games as I would if they were real life. What I mean is, I don’t usually choose the really virtuous path or the really dark path; I play as me and make the decision that I would make. I’m not sure what’s changed in five years, but something has. I found the Stormcloaks message and goals to be really childish and unconvincing. While I don’t think America or other powers in the world should interfere around the world all the time, endlessly meddling in less developed or powerful parts of the world, I loathe isolationists and racial nationalists even more and that is essentially what the Stormcloaks are for. “Skyrim for Nords” is not a message that works for me. Having my real-world politics so perfectly mirror that of a video game is an odd thing to experience.
The Dragonborn story line is a bit more conventual of other video games. You go around the countryside developing your control of different kinds of shouts and eventually you face the father of all dragons for the fate of the world. A lot of the backstory and story fluff here are really good. The ancient dragon war, the Blades evolution throughout the centuries and even some of the choices and actions you get to make are unexpected and fun. It’s a very solid aspect of the game that helps anchor you into the world better than most other aspect of the game. Video games often share a pretty standard central narrative based around self-discovery and Skyrim wonders into that familiar landscape just as much as any other game. But in a game as big and open and formless as this one, that central familiarity actually helps and benefits the player. It allows us to navigate the world with a core sense of structure and direction that open world games sometimes don’t have but desperately need.
The gameplay is familiar and solid, with some flaws in the melee combat and some minor challenges in the magic system. Melee revolves around a sword and shield layout or a two-handed layout with a giant sword, club or ax. I always found the shield to be extremely useful and so I generally stuck with that path of combat. The only problem is that the depth perception of the game is deeply flawed. It is just difficult enough to judge distances while in combat that I found myself running in circles just wailing with my sword, never completely sure if I was going to hit something or not. While there may be a certain amount of realism to this, I still found it very frustrating.
Relying on magic has a different problem in that the spells never feel strong enough. While I used magic throughout the game to summon golems or thralls to tank for me or distract my enemies, going on the pure offensive with more straightforward attack spells never feels like enough. I was forced to kite most powerful enemies for what felt like several minutes just to finally burn them down with a fire spell. Thankfully, the bow based combat is kind of amazing. Maybe it’s just because I got really good at it, but I have rarely found a combat system as rewarding and fun as loosing a storm of arrows on my enemies, or infiltrating a castle and silently dropping guards with a well-placed arrow from behind. Everything about it feels right, and I found myself prepping for battle in much the same way as the first time I played this game years ago.
This game is massive; massive in a way that is hard to really articulate. Other games might be bigger relatively speaking, but few games feel as big as Skyrim. Climbing mountains, exploring long lost caves or wading through a swamp that is slowly killing you, it all feels big, wild and oddly real in a way that no other game has ever quite done so for me. After a long time spent in the wilds, coming back to one of the towns really feels like you are entering back into a world that the forests and tundra have made you forget. Even though they constantly respawn, hunting down and killing bandits, or destroying vampires really feels like you have done something for the larger world, even though the game itself barely acknowledges such actions sometimes. The central characters, of which there must be near a hundred or so, are well fleshed out characters who have great design and fun voices bringing them to life.
Sadly, the Dragonborn herself is somewhat lacking. For a character who shouts some of their more unique abilities, the Dragonborn is basically silent the whole way through the game. And unlike games like Jade Empire or the Mass Effect series, there is no morality system that helps guide your actions or reputation with the rest of the game. It’s up the gamer to decide what kind of role playing experience they want and for me that is a problem. Whenever I’m given this amoral choice, I turn into a psychopath who makes whatever choices suit my merest whim. Kill that guy? Sure! Save that girl? Sure! Steal from my loyal allies? Why not? See how many guards I can kill before somebody notices? LET’S DO IT! I become a chaotic force with no rhyme or reason to my actions. And this fine from a video game standpoint (what is a game if not to play with it and see what the systems do as you engage with them?) But as a part of the narrative of the game, which Skyrim is definitely trying to do, it fails. I have no connection to my Dragonborn or her husband or even her adopted children because they all act the same to me pretty much no matter what (also, my daughter just disappeared from the game for about thirty hours for no reason that I could tell. Skyrim is still buggy like that). My hired mercenaries leave little impression because they come and go as I will with no sense of their own desires or morality. And that all is fine, I promise, except for the fact that Skyrim sits on the very edge of something more, something holistically transcendent instead of something merely really, really, awesome.
Overall, I had slightly less patience for aspects of Skyrim and found myself enjoying other parts in a way I can’t imagine I did four years ago. While I have matured as a person in that time, I can’t imagine that is the reason for my evolved enjoyment of the game. I found myself dropping into it for a little while each day in a way that I never used to do. I’d open my checklist, check somethings off and then move on to other enjoyments for the rest of my evening. While it never felt like chores in the bad way, I found myself treating Skyrim like an enjoyable, very entertaining chore. And I think I got more out of it that way.