‘Skyrim’ Is Still The Game Of A Generation
Ten years on, 'Skyrim' is still as powerful and beautiful as it ever was.
There’s a reason that Skyrim opens with you waking up, beleaguered and confused, as though you have been asleep for decades.
It’s not just a masterstroke of storytelling, a way of introducing you to the world at the same time as your playable character, drawing you and the avatar you will eventually select closer to one another. It’s also a meta-commentary on Skyrim itself; on the very game that you’re playing.
With its depth, intelligence and singular power, Skyrim provides its own process of waking up, making players suddenly alive to the very possibilities of a medium with more boundless imagination than its critics allow for.
This is, after all, the game that you can sink hundreds of hours of your life into without growing bored, or the gameplay growing stale. Even those who know the experience like the back of their hand will encounter new surprises, random interactions in the wilderness, old, dusty texts to be pored over and read. There is simply nothing comparable to Skyrim in sheer scale, in the time and effort that has been put into its every digital object.
Such maximalism has been attempted again since the release of Skyrim, of course. These days, triple-A games are expected to provide mountains of content for the player to sift through, from world-building to endless campaigns. If a player can’t revolve their entire world around a new title, then something is seen to have gone wrong.
But there is a difference between overwhelming the player with detail, and gliding them through it, carefully. It’s not just that Skyrim is big. It’s that it’s big in a manageable way, and the game’s ability to guide you through its criss-crossing paths has not been equalled since its release.
After all, most regular gamers will know the experience of being drowned in side-missions and quests that they have absolutely no interest in. Or, perhaps even worse, the experience of being utterly lost in a world, unsure what to do next or for what reason. The genius of Skyrim is that it always highlights, more than anything, the player’s sense of purpose. From the moment you avoid having your head sliced off in the opening ten minutes, you are constantly aware of the stakes, forever on top of the people who surround you and their complex, intersecting designs.
This is a balance between breadth and depth; between scale and detail. After all, for all of its fountains of lore, the “plot” as it were of Skyrim is extraordinarily simple: dragons are back, and it is your job as the Dragonborn to do something with them. Of course, how you want to go about taking on such adversaries is entirely up to you. There are branching paths at every possible point, and you are forever in a process of constructing a self and a world to move through.
There are branching paths at every possible point, and you are forever in a process of constructing a self and a world to move through.
Importantly, this process is one that expresses itself in small details as much as big ones. Sure, there is still a dizzying, powerful thrill to sniping a giant from a distance with your arrows, avoiding being flung into space. And there are few gaming pleasures as distinct as standing on top of a mountain, looking down at a world moving and thriving with human and non-human life. But there is just as much pleasure to be gleaned from standing in a tomb, reading a book. Or encountering an old woman, her shack off the beaten path, harvesting leeks.
Some of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in Skyrim haven’t been the battles, or tense back-and-forths with allies I am desperately trying to get onside. They have been simple moments of discovery, stumbling across some tiny lived-in detail, or retiring to my homestead at the end of a long day adventuring, to take a nap in a bed safe from my enemies.
It may have been ten years since Skyrim was first unleashed upon the world, but time has done nothing to lessen the thrill of these intensely human, beautiful details — flourishes of a game that is there, waiting for you to make it yours.
Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Junkee. He tweets @JosephOEarp.