When I decided to return to Skyrim, I was planning to take a more critical stance on the game. My writings during my first stint with the game focused on the positive, but this does not mean the game is without its problems. My most recent post does point out a few complaints, but mostly I’ve been struck by just how much I’m enjoying myself again. So I decided to write about why that is; how Skyrim’s enduring appeal overcomes its weaknesses.
First, let’s discuss those weaknesses. Skyrim offers a massive open world to explore, but few meaningful ways to interact with it. Everything involves fighting and killing, with the occasional reading break. Theft is the exception, but there’s little use for wealth, honest or otherwise — it all ends up funneling back into better ways to fight and kill. Players can create their own goals and activities — popular ones include collecting items and decorating homes — but even these require exploring the world and therefore fighting lots of people and creatures. To make matters worse, the combat mechanics — while improved over previous entries in the series — are simple and not particularly interesting. Only archery shows any real evolution as player characters gain skill; other combat remains largely the same throughout. Even magic gets repetitive quickly.
Detractors also take issue with the open world itself, arguing that it contains little of note except for countless caves, ruins and barrows. And those are all the same: a linear path to follow, with things to fight along the way, a big treasure chest at the end and a convenient shortcut back to the entrance. When visiting towns, a smattering of uninteresting characters offer a few banal lines of conversation and provide a laundry list of quests to the player, the vast majority of which involve exploring one of those caves, ruins or barrows. The longer stories associated with guilds or the main plot are just a chain of such quests, and aren’t particularly well written either.
These are all fair criticisms, and I realized this even when I was playing the game for the first time. Now, after several years away from the game, I was expecting these cracks to be all the more obvious. Instead, I found I was sucked right into the game again and having a blast. The key, I think, is that open world. Functionally it may be little more than the space between towns and caves, but it’s an utterly compelling one. It’s not as large as it seems at first, but it’s beautiful, full of soaring peaks, grassy plains, rocky hills, frozen swamps, glaciers and hot springs. Even with limited space, all these areas flow naturally into one another, each populated with appropriate flora and fauna. At this point in the Elder Scrolls series, Bethesda are experts at creating believable landscapes that are a joy just to traverse. This is only improved by the Campfire and Frostfall mods that I’m using this time around, which require keeping my character warm and using campfires and tents to stave off frostbite at night. The perfect complement to a cross-country journey.
But the world of Skyrim is more than just the landscape. It also has a rich history — established across the four previous games in the series — to draw upon. In fact, the province of Skyrim marks the earliest civilization of men on the continent of Tamriel, founded by migrants from the northern continent of Atmora. That took place thousands of years before any of the games, and the elves (or mer) were already living in Tamriel, their civlization dating even further back. Each game in the series fleshes out more of Tamriel’s history, through the events that occur in the games themselves and by adding more details to historical events that took place before and between the games. The slew of books scattered around Skyrim detail much of this history, but it can also be felt in the land itself, and the cities players can visit. Solitude, historically the seat of Imperial power in Skyrim, shows clear influence from the Imperial province of Cyrodiil, from its architecture to its social customs. Its storied past of political schemes and open rebellions is easily unearthed by a curious player. Other cities have equally long and varied legacies, be it centuries of traditional Nord culture, or the occupation of an ancient Dwemer city after their disappearance, or literal and cultural clashes with Dunmer from neighboring Morrowind.
In short, it’s excellent worldbuilding, which makes Skyrim great fun to explore even if the writing for characters and stories is less remarkable. In fact, that unremarkable writing suits the game, because complex characters and gripping stories would distract from one’s sojourn through that world. As is traditional for the Elder Scrolls series, Skyrim is all about giving the player freedom to wander where they please, and while characters will provide me with countless tasks and destinations, none are captivating enough that I’d feel bad postponing them while I go have a look at what’s past that mountain on the horizon.
Perhaps the most surprising thing, however, is just how much I’ve enjoyed exploring all the caves, ruins and barrows that are scattered everywhere. Yes, they are all linear paths dotted with enemies and treasure that conveniently lead back around to the entrance, but within that framework their design is excellent. Each location has its own character, a small story told through its environmental details, that sets it apart from the others and makes it lodge in one’s memory. I noticed this when I first played, and it’s still true now. These places are a huge improvement over those in the last game, and having played two different characters over countless hours, I still haven’t tired of them.
But starting over as a new character has highlighted a few more of Skyrim’s weaknesses. Skyrim is the first game in the series that does not require players to pick their character’s skills at the start, instead encouraging players to simply get out and explore and choose skills specializations as they go. For the most part this works well, but letting a single player character do everything creates some odd situations. A character might focus on melee fighting, but then decide to join the mages’ college at Winterhold, despite barely knowing any magic. They might also make contradictory moral choices, acting as selfless hero and thief and killer as the situation (or guild) requires. The skill system isn’t quite as forgiving as it seems, either, because learning a new skill takes practice and trying to get by later in the game using untrained skills isn’t tenable.
Hence my decision to try a new character, who would join different guilds and use different skills. But this led to more repetition than I anticipated. The narrative nuggets that I wrote about the first time I played the game had lost their impact when I encountered them a second time, and I was surprised at how many caves and ruins I remembered from my first character’s start. Part of the problem was that I was wandering the same small portion of the world at the beginning — something that might be fixed with a mod like Live Another Life — and after I gained some experience and started traveling more widely things started to feel new again. But Skyrim’s design assumed that I would simply make one character and proceed to do everything, with little consideration for the restarts and multiple characters that were common earlier in the series. If I’d stuck with my first character longer, it may have further undermined my new one.
Overall, though, I’ve been impressed with Skyrim all over again. It has real weaknesses, but it plays to its strengths so well that I find I’m more than willing to overlook them. Maybe my mind will change after I’ve spent more time with the game, but right now I’m still loving it. Whether that persists or not, I’ll be writing more about it here, so stay tuned.