Skyrim: A Rambling Review
I really wanted to love Skyrim, the latest in the Elder Scrolls series. From the moment I started hearing about it on X-Play, The Most Watched Video Game On Television (as well as The Only Video Game Show on Television), I wanted to own it, snuggle up with, make it my own. I’d played plenty of Morrowind and Oblivion, although I never even came close to finishing the main storyline in either. But a lot has changed for me in gaming since Oblivion came out, not least of which the fact that I’ve stopped playing PC games over the last couple of years and have almost exclusively gone to the XBox 360. I did worry a bit about the transition, especially since the default character models in Oblivion were such total and complete ass that it made a gorgeous video game into a trip to Wal-Mart at 3 a.m. The advantage of the PC version was that you could download mods that changed the way characters looked. On the XBox, there is no chance for that. I wasn’t going to let it stop me.
The closer to release it came, the more I heard about its epic awesomeness. I didn’t get it at release, since I was trying (and failing) to finish a novel in November, plus I have editing to do on The Storm of Northreach and was afraid of a timesink. It seemed like every fantasy fan I knew was playing it. I heard about it on Facebook. My friends talked about it. My expectations and hopes were raised to a level that it would’ve been nearly impossible to meet them. My awesomely wonderful wife bought me a copy a couple of weeks ago, and that became the moment: could it possibly live up to it?
HOLY FREAKING GOD I LOVE THIS FUCKING GAME SO MUCH.
I do. Everything I heard about it is true. The negative things I heard about it (which weren’t much) were so blown out of proportion that it made the complainer look like a complete tool. It’s, quite simply, the greatest fantasy game I’ve ever seen. Could it be made better? Yeah, I suppose so. Such a thing would be the fantasy nerd’s version of the Matrix. And yes, I’d totally sell out everyone I knew to get the chance to stay in it, so I’d totally Cipher all of you resistance-types out there. It’s going to be an effort to make this even remotely coherent and not just a pile of drool-mouth fanboi ravings and flying spittle, but I’ll do my best.
After a long-ass cutscene that basically sets the scene for you, Skyrim allows you to make a character. Unlike other Elder Scrolls games, there is no class selection, no shifting of stat points, none of that number-crunchy thing that a lot of people like. I am one of those people. Instead, all you get to choose is how you look. Surprisingly, I find the fact that I’m not trying to figure out how much to put into Strength and Charisma and all that shit a very liberating thing. That shit doesn’t matter. Just trying to make my dude look good was enough for me. Plus, it’s a big enough challenge that I didn’t miss the fretting over whether or not to put points in Luck.
Why is it a challenge? Because the makers of the Elder Scroll series, Bethesda Game Studios, apparently hate people. At least, they have a different view of what someone should look like. From Morrowind on down, the defining characteristics of the Elder Scrolls have been huge open worlds and ugly-as-fuck character models. It’s bizarre to travel through a world with breathtaking majestic mountain ranges and vast cities with different architectural styles depending on the culture that built them, and ever single person you run into looks like they were sculpted from modeling clay by a six-year-old with ADHD. Lumpy, misshapen, thoroughly unattractive people live in the Elder Scrolls universe. A friend of mine bought Oblivion for his XBox. One look at it sent me straight for the PC version and the world of mods to change that shit. Yes, the character models in the Elder Scrolls games tend to be so bad that people spend weeks working on skins and different things to change them, all for free.
So I go to make my dude. I want to be an elf, because I am an Elfophile. I’ve got this image in my head of an Elf with a sword in one hand, a big ball of fire in the other, kicking down doors and kicking ass. I start fucking with the character creation thing to make him look right. One problem: the makers of the Elder Scroll series also really hate Elves. It’s like when they started to make the first one, and some corporate dude in Marketing pushed for Elves to be in the game, since they’d be huge overseas. The designers, grumbling, went back to fit them in. They decided that the biggest group of uptight assholes in the game would be the elves, and that they would be ugly as shit. I swear, they look like trolls, or the archetypical Halloween witch (slight segue here: I know people who insist on spelling it Hallowe’en. These people are pedantic asshats. And if you’re one of them, know that I mean that in the best possible way.) with the gigantic pointy chin and nose and bug eyes. They are uniformly awful.
So I tried for an hour to make my Elf look right and just gave up. I could’ve made a decent female one, and lord knows I’ve played female characters a shit-ton over the years. One main reason why is that, for some reason, most video game makers can’t make a decent-looking male character. To me, they oftentimes look goofy and lame, and I can’t handle it. My wife called me out on this fact after my first try at character creation in Skyrim, asking why I thought it was such a big deal. I went on about having my avatar being important to convey the image I wanted about the heroic blah blah blah and that the hero should be handsome and dashing and blah blah blah and she just kept looking at me, so I admitted it. “Because I’m vain, that’s why.” This amused her to no end. But it’s true. I’m vain enough that I want my dude to look good.
So anyway, I move on from my Elf idea with a grumble. I settle on trying for a Nord. I futz with it, trying to make him look halfway-decent, and finally start to give up. I do the best I can, and I ask my wife for approval (because, you see, I’m vain). She looks up and remarks that it looks just like a certain friend of ours from years ago. I immediately start changing it. Not that I don’t love the guy. It’s just that I don’t want to spend the rest of my time in Skyrim looking like him. I try some more, and the best I can come up with is a guy that looks just like Lemmy from Motorhead.
The next day, on the advice of friends, I switch to the Bretons, futz around for a bit, and end up with a guy I can deal with. He looks good, there is no weird frog-throat thing happening, his eyes aren’t on the side of his head like a fish. He’s good. He’s a leader. He’d get promoted in a posh office. I can live with this guy being my face as I roam around the world gutting bandits and trying to persuade people to let me into places I have no right to be.
So that’s a really long-winded way to explain that you have infinite choices in character creation, providing you accept the fact that 90% of them will make you look uglier than sunrise after a night of binge drinking. But honestly, that’s all you have to choose for a character. Everything that happens after that, how you want to play the game, what armor you want to wear, how you fight, whether you want to be a sneaky pickpocket or a whispering mincy mage – all of that gets determined by what you do in the game. Want to wear heavy armor? Put it on. Want to cast spells? Go for it. Sneak? Ditto. Whatever the things are you want to do, you just do, and you get better at them. It’s simple. It’s fucking brilliant. I loved skill-based games, where your success is determined by your character’s skill in a particular area, rather than some arbitrary class-and-level horseshit. There are levels in the game, which I don’t feel like are necessary, but still – the game revolves around the play choices you make. My dude is a sneaky, sweet-talking archery machine that can put out a bad guy’s eye from 50 yards away, because that’s what I want to do. I could just as easily have been my original Battlemage idea, but I went full Sniper Mode instead because why not, that’s why. It’s this freedom of choice that helps make the game so awesome. Tomorrow, I could take my same guy, throw some armor on him, grab a battleaxe, and start chopping shit apart. I wouldn’t be great at it at first, but the more I did it, the better I’d be. You’re never locked in, there is no “optimum build” horseshit, no stat and race Munchkin shit happening here. It’s one of the game’s greatest strengths, and it’s a fucking doozy.
So you’re who you want to be, and you got this big-ass world around you. There’s a main storyline, about dragons and rebellions and shit, that’s really cool and takes you all over the place. But the best thing about the game is that you get to do what you want. Don’t feel like climbing a mountain to talk to some monastic old guys who are the next step in the main story, and instead want to get in good with the local bigwig by scouring some ruins of bandits? Go for it. Want to find the Thieves Guild and join it? Boffo. Become a Bard, or join a band of warriors and learn their secrets? Hell yes. There are side quests all over the freaking place, so much so that you can play for 100 hours and barely advance the main plot. I know, because that’s what I’ve done. I got involved with this group called the Companions, and in the course of helping them and learning about them, I sort of inadvertently joined the Thieves Guild, because, you see, I’d found this odd gem in a Jarl’s bedroom and picked it up and put it in my pocket, but it wasn’t exactly stealing, you see, since it didn’t say “Steal Unusual Gem”, it just said “Take Unusual Gem” and I thought, Hey, Don’t Mind If I Do, and I needed it appraised, but the only person who could tell me about was in the Guild, right, and she wouldn’t say shit to me unless I joined up, and well, the life actually ended up appealing to me, so now I’m as likely to prowl through towns stealing shit and framing people for crimes they didn’t do as I am to go around saving the world. Why? Because I can. I’ve literally not done a goddamn thing about the main story in over a week, and I have roamed around the world and done some seriously cool shit. I’d have enjoyed a game where I did the Thieves Guild storyline and that was the entirety of the game. I’ve loved games that had less story than that one little facet of this game.
That’s the thing about Skyrim. There is just as much effort put into making compelling stories for things that have absolutely nothing to do with the main plot at all. You’ll find books in the game that you can read, histories and funny stories and over-the-top romance stuff that are amazing, and they aren’t important to the game at all. They’re just there if you want them. The detail and effort put into crafting the world is simply staggering, and it is Bethesda’s forte. The Elder Scroll and Fallout series share this aspect of open-world richness and detail and nuance that just aren’t found anywhere else. You aren’t forced down some arbitrary path. You get to make these choices and explore the world in your own way. It’s staggering.
The world itself is also just an amazingly beautiful place. Windswept crags – seriously, you can see the snow blowing across the ground – to ramshackle lean-tos to massive stone cities and old ruins and lakes – it’s all there. I find myself running to the top of a town’s walls just so I can slowly pan the horizon and see the world. There are caverns and tombs to explore, and each of them have a unique feel instead of the carbon-copy crap you commonly see in video games (cough Dragon Age II cough). Some of them are trapped, and it’s not some hidden thing that will glow red if you have a high enough Detect Traps skill. No, there will be a fucking bear trap on the floor, or a tripwire across the stairs, or a plate on the floor that if you, yourself, don’t see and just wander into, then you’re going to get a faceful of spiked metal door or a mammoth skull dropping on you. It helps immersion so much to have these obstacles actually represented in the world.
I could go on for the rest of my life about the little things they do so well, from the sound of the bowstring being drawn back to the sight of a dragon soaring through the air before it lands with a crash on a building with flame jetting from it’s jaws to the singers in the inns to, well, a lifetime worth of stuff. Skyrim is simply this: an amazing game, an experience you will enjoy, a gaming experience like nothing else.
I mean, you don’t need me to tell you this. It’s won Game of the Year, and it should. The fact that it was beaten in the Fan Choice Awards on X-Play by the god-awful Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is more a testament to how desperate for a playable game Nintendo-philes are (as well as the preponderance of morons in the world) than any reflection on Skyrim. I loved Mass Effect 2. It was my favorite video game ever. I love Skyrim more. I think. It’s close. Anyway, if you’re on the fence and haven’t decided, I just want to add my voice to the idea that you need to be playing this damn game. If you are, say, female, and aren’t sure about getting into this kind of thing at all, I also recommend taking a look at Jen Kirchner’s Game Reviews for Girls. She has actual screenshots instead of metal frontmen.
(UPDATE: Oh, and for all you people Googling to find out about shovels in Skyrim: No, they don’t do anything. They are found in mines and outside farmhouses. No, they still don’t do anything. So there you go.)