Earlier I wrote about Skryim’s cities, and how I found them much more interesting than the cities in previous Elder Scrolls games. The same is true of Skyrim’s countryside, but not in the way I was expecting. In many respects, Skyrim’s playable world looks a lot like that of its predecessor, Oblivion, but I was surprised to find that exploring Skyrim’s countryside was far more enjoyable, and it completely changed how I play the game.

The Elder Scrolls games always been about huge, open game worlds to explore. Well, I actually haven’t played the first game, Arena, but I gather that a large explorable world was one of its main features. The second game, Daggerfall, had an incredibly vast world, many times larger than that in Arena (despite taking place in a much smaller area, paradoxically), filled in through procedural generation. This meant that the countryside was mostly flat and empty, but it served as the setting for thousands of towns, dungeons, and other locations to visit (many of which were also procedurally generated). With the third game, Morrowind, the developers opted for a smaller, more focused world that was completely hand-built, giving it a lot more character. And it certainly helped that the world of Morrowind was quite bizarre, with houses built out of gigantic mushrooms or the hollowed shells of massive crabs, and an evil volcano that slowly spread its blight over the land if the player dallied too long. The fourth game, Oblivion, largely followed the same design ethos for its world, but many players found the setting to be bland and generic in comparison to Morrowind.

In playing all of these games, I definitely appreciated the huge worlds that served as a backdrop for my adventures, but they were just that: backdrops. I might do some wandering in between quests, especially in Morrowind and Oblivion, but my main focus was always on quest lines, be it the main quest or the various guild and faction quests. The truth is, exploring those worlds with no set objective wasn’t particularly interesting. Sure, I might stumble across a cave or dungeon and decide to explore, but these locations all felt the same, and often offered little in the way of reward. In Morrowind I might occasionally find something truly excellent, like my Nord warrior who found a Daedric Battleaxe (the most powerful kind) lying in a tomb, but Oblivion scaled all loot to the player character’s level, so there was never a chance for an epic find like that. More to the point, in both Morrowind and Oblivion, these places had very little character to them, and simply weren’t interesting to explore, except for the prospect of loot. I found I would travel by foot the first time I went anywhere, just to see the lay of the land and maybe find a few caves to loot on the way, but after that relied on fast-travel systems to move around quickly and finish my quest objectives. The meat of the games was very much in these quest lines.

Onward to Skyrim, which, despite its close resemblance to Oblivion, completely changes the feel of exploration. Here, I found that simply wandering the land was one of the most enjoyable activities in the game. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the most important, which I touched on in my post about narrative structure in the game, is that the various caves and dungeons have much more character to them. In Oblivion, if I stumbled across a cave in my travels, I would find myself weighing the pros and cons of entering; did I want to spend twenty minutes exploring a rather bland and uninteresting place in order to get my hands on the money and equipment within? In Skyrim, these places are a joy to explore, because I never know quite what I’ll find. It might be a smuggler’s cave hidden beneath a waterfall that’s been invaded by trolls. Or a mine where the miners accidentally broke into an ancient tomb full of undead Draugr. Or a trap-filled tunnel leading underneath a mountain, emerging somewhere completely different. Or a particularly interesting bandit lair. One memorable location was a small mine not far from one of the cities. I headed inside, creeping through the dark tunnels, waiting for an ambush by bandits, or spiders, or undead, or a troll, or something. None came. I didn’t find any ore either, which was unusual for a mine. After some brief exploration I found a journal left on a table in a large chamber. Reading it, I learned that the author’s friend had convinced him to buy this mine, and they were working it together, but they weren’t striking any ore. The author began to suspect that they’d been scammed. Then, the friend disappeared. When he hadn’t returned after several days, the author wrote him a note in his journal and left it there in case the friend returned. “If you find this,” it said, “I expected more from you.” That was it. A tiny mine, with no enemies and no loot, but it still had more character than anything in Oblivion.

With locations like this, I no longer needed a quest to get me to venture inside. But Skyrim does have plenty of quests, and most of them serve to encourage exploration more than anything else. There are the faction quest lines, and major sidequests that function much like those in Oblivion, but then there are all sorts of “miscellaneous” objectives that you can get from nearly anyone you meet. Sure, these are often simple fetch quests or “kill the bandit leader at X” types of quests, but their main purpose is to provide an excuse to get out into the world. And, according to the developers, they are more or less infinite, with new ones being generated and pointing towards locations that the player has not explored yet. I found that at the start of the game I was spending quite a lot of time in and around the city of Whiterun, simply because I’d decide to tackle one of these objectives and would end up sidetracked by all the different places I found along the way. Eventually I realized I should probably try traveling somewhere else, since I had all of Skyrim to explore, and that’s exactly when I ran into a rather brilliant sidequest. Taking one last stop at the pub in Whiterun before heading east, I met a stranger who challenged me to a drinking game. Before I knew it, I blacked out and woke up in Markarth, all the way on the western border. I was tasked with retracing my steps to find out what exactly happened that night, but that soon went on the back burner because Markarth was a far more interesting city than Whiterun and there were so many new things to do and places to explore. And when I did finally start looking into where I’d been that night, it started a trail leading all over Skyrim, each leg encouraging me to head somewhere I hadn’t been before. It was as if the game designers knew I might be overwhelmed by all the stuff to do, so they stepped in to point out some interesting places to go. Which is probably exactly what they were thinking in making that quest.

Even Skyrim’s role-playing systems encourage this kind of play. Unlike earlier games in the series, Skyrim doesn’t task the player with picking their major skills up front. Instead, practicing any skill will help the player progress to the next level. Increasing high-level skills gives more progress towards leveling up than increasing low-level skills, so specialization is still rewarded, but players can decide what to specialize in as they play. It’s a system that encourages players to just get out there and have fun.

So, in stark contrast to the previous games in the series, I found that I’d taken my character to level 30 without joining a single faction, or starting the main quest. I was just traveling around, exploring, doing the odd sidequest, and generally having a blast. When I got to level 30 I had to actively force myself to shift gears and join a guild, because I wanted to see what those quest lines were like. And because my woodsman-type character actually had the appropriate skills for the Thieves’ Guild even though he wasn’t a thief. It felt a bit weird from a role-playing standpoint to join the Thieves’ Guild, but I didn’t want to start a whole new thief character that would basically play the same way. So I joined, and I’ve been following the Thieves’ Guild quest line, and all indications are that I’m nearing the end. Which would mean it’s a good bit shorter than the guild quest lines from previous games. But that actually fits the change in focus for Skyrim, as the Guild also offers other opportunities. Simply want to steal some things? The Thieves’ Guild will send you out into the world to perform heists, or fix some business ledgers, or other nefarious deeds, much like the miscellaneous objectives I’d been collecting in my travels. These objectives are separate from the main Thieves’ Guild quest line, and help create a feeling of day-to-day life in the Guild. And, again, they encourage the player to get out there, and have fun.

Having ignored the main quest, and only done part of one of the guild quest lines, there’s still a ton of stuff I haven’t done in Skyrim. I still haven’t even been to two of the cities, or fought a single one of Skyrim’s purportedly infinite dragons. Even so, I feel confident in saying that Skyrim is possibly the best in the series at putting its world front and center. Unlike the other Elder Scrolls games, Skyrim’s open world is not a backdrop, it’s the star of the show. And it’s fantastic.