From flawless hero to dirty criminal, all options are on the table, and even if this is a quest vaguely centered on the fight against a particularly evil dragon, the journey contained here can take whatever form those who are in control choose to give to it
Captured by the Imperial Legion, a group of men is led to the town of Helgen to be executed. The accusation that hangs over them is a very serious one: being part of the rebellious group that has taken up arms against the Empire and, as a consequence, thrown the land of Skyrim into a brutal civil war. Among these men, in fact, is the leader of the movement himself, Ulfric Stormcloak, whose imminent death is bound to either put an end to the conflict or at least lower its temperature considerably. Unbeknownst to all of those involved in that opening scene, though, the most important person in it is neither Ulfric nor General Tullius, the leader of the opposing army and the one who is to preside over the execution; that position actually belongs to the character whose eyes let players catch a glimpse into this torn world.
Going by the name of Prisoner, not much is known about him. However, from hearing what those around him in the cart that is heading towards their final destination have to say, he might have been caught in an Imperial ambush when trying to cross the border and there is a strong possibility he has absolutely nothing to do with the struggle between the Imperial Legion and the Stormcloaks. Nevertheless, once Helgen is reached, he is pulled from vehicle, sentenced to death, and his head is placed on the support where it is to wait for the executioner’s sword. Right before the swing, though, a dragon timely shows up, throws the place into chaos, and gives the men a chance to escape, which they naturally take advantage of.
The fact that the protagonist of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a blank page could be chalked up to a number of factors. One could claim it is part of the old RPG tradition of turning the unknown guy that comes out of nowhere into the hero who will challenge fate. Others could state the writers from Bethesda were merely trying to open their epic tale with a mysterious tone by using a device that is equally quite common as far as gaming narratives go. And, in a way, those that opt for such interpretations would probably be quite correct. They would, however, have failed to see the biggest reason why the star of Skyrim is a nobody.
As the game opens, players will get to chose plenty of aspects about the character they are about to control for dozens of hours, or perhaps even more than one hundred. They get to pick the race, which can be pretty much any among those that are known in the universe of The Elder Scrolls, and receive the corresponding stats bonuses that are attached to each of them; adjust the details of the protagonist’s face; select gender, weight, and even give the unknown soul a name if they wish to. Once more, it is standard procedure for any game led by a character whose identity is meant to be undefined. However, again, it is also a way for Skyrim to announce what is to come.
The question mark that looms around the hero’s past and the ability to greatly customize numerous details regarding that avatar are actually more than just cliched features because they play into the hands of what is the greatest strength of Skyrim: the fact it gives gamers the chance to be whoever it is they feel like being. Although often remembered, and in a way rightly so, for its impressive overworld, the title thrives in being open not merely in a sense of exploration, but also – and most importantly – regarding the paths players will take during their journey in this particular universe.
If Skyrim is, like any other game, to receive a neat summary that describes the gist of its core storyline, then one would say that its world is about to be thrown into some serious trouble due to the return of a very evil dragon. Banished from the land by noble warriors long ago, Alduin was not destroyed completely, but actually somehow thrown out of existence through a window in time. Unluckily, however, Alduin, known in the local folklore as The World Eater, emerges out of his temporary exile not too long before the opening scene. Hungry for revenge and looking to reawaken the dragon followers that fought alongside him the last time around, the beast begins flying through the land to visit the burial sites of his deceased partners so they can be resurrected to get one more shot at their ultimate desire: enslave humanity or, better yet, destroy the world people have built.
Naturally, the protagonist is tied into those events quite neatly and, in the standard narrative fashion, through a prophecy. If the return of Alduin had already been foretold by those in the know, so had the appearance of a Dragonborn; one in a long lineage of individuals who come to the world with the body of a mortal, but the blood of a dragon. Usually emerging in times of need and believed to be sent by the Gods themselves, they have unique powers that allow them to put up a fight when facing the most powerful of dragons.
The struggle against Alduin is, by all means, the longest and most story-driven series of objectives that players will tackle as they go through Skyrim. However, it is far from the only one the game contains. Again, this is not a feature that is unique to the title, as any effort that packs a load of sidequests boasts such characteristic, but Skyrim outdoes most of those competitors – and certainly nearly all of the games that were released before it – thanks to the volume of goals it has and the depth with which they are developed. And that is exactly the point in which the ability to choose one’s own path comes into play.
The land of Skyrim is in the middle of a civil war between the Imperial Legion and the Stormcloaks, and gamers can choose to either ignore it completely or join one of the factions. Moreover, the ancient Dawnguard, a set of hunters united in the fight against vampires, is reforming to combat the threat once more, and it is possible to give in to the blood-sucking folks to join their ranks or try to bring them all down by enlisting in the fort that serves as the headquarters for the reactivated group. Similarly, other major guilds are available throughout Skyrim: the Dark Brotherhood, a clan of assassins who are hired via black-magic prayer, would gladly welcome a Dragonborn member; the Thieves Guild, operating out of the town of Riften, could use somebody new to carry out dirty jobs; and The Companions, an honor-based band of warriors with a secret, have plenty of tasks to be executed as they try to deal with their rivals, the Silver Hands.
It goes without saying that each of these roads, if taken, paves the way to chains of quests permeated by solid storylines and encounters with memorable characters. But, truth be told, that is just the tip of the iceberg. The island of Solstheim, to the northwest of Skyrim, is going through some problems of its own, and it would sure take the power of a Dragonborn to get to the bottom of it all. Religious groups, or lonesome individuals, dedicated to the many gods of The Elder Scrolls universe would love some extra help to either spread the faith or solve some of their more mundane issues. The College of Winterhold, dedicated to the study of magic, is accepting new students and some of their field trips involve exciting mysteries and life-endangering dungeons. The Bards College, though more poetic in nature, also needs fresh members to create art and hunt for artifacts. And there is no shortage of violent outlaws, be them regular bandits or the rebellious Forsworn, to be taken care of.
Dragon hunter, entrepreneur, imperial legionnaire, thief, giant slayer, assassin, explorer of dwarven ruins, treasure seeker, book fanatic, religious follower, homeowner, and even espouse or parent; in Skyrim, all of those options are on the table. And the twist is that some of the choices are not that simple to make. The civil war, for instance, features two factions that are problematic to say the least: while the Imperial Legion has allowed religious persecution to take place in Skyrim, the Stormcloaks carry the banner of racial superiority. In addition, plenty of quests include goals that have players murdering questionable targets, helping shady individuals, stealing from folks who are generally nice, and more. Given that it is all optional, though, it is up to gamers to decide whether they will play the role of knight in shiny armor, the one of the merciless criminal, or somewhere in between.
Curiously, it is a volume of content so considerable that it makes the main quest feel like a side-dish: a sequence of goals that was put there so that Skyrim would have something that could be called a main storyline. That is in no way a criticism to the way in which that plot was developed, even if its ending does feel a bit anti-climatic, but given the extent of everything else that exists in the game, it is a fact that the central struggle against Alduin comes off as one among others rather than the big fish that needs to be caught. Whether that trait will bother or merely feel like a consequence of an enormous overall scope will vary from player to player.
Alongside these goals of more considerable meat, which excel in dialogues and story, Skyrim also has the usual objectives of a more straightforward nature. These, which the game labels as miscellaneous, resemble the basic fetch quests found in many other RPGs, as they focus on the collection of items, the killing of targets, the delivering of goods, and even some good old talking (be it to solve political disputes or love affairs). Although obviously not as interesting as the other plentiful and larger quests, the game is still able to extract some mileage out of those simpler tasks. And the main reason behind that is an asset that, in a way, powers the game as a whole: its impressive overworld.
There is no denying the joy of exploring Skyrim. As such, any excuse players get to go to a new place or perhaps find a new location will be gladly accepted by most, even if one is going there just to find a lost book or gather some wild strawberries. Describing it as big is perhaps too redundant as, for quite a while and before other open-world games caught up with it and eventually even surpassed it in size, Skyrim was a synonym for that adjective inside the gaming universe; it was nearly an official parameter of comparison. But it indeed is large; and, better yet, it knows how to use that size with wisdom, as the map is densely populated with spots of interest, packing more than two hundred of them. Quite literally, one is not able to travel for more than three minutes without stumbling upon a unique place.
To better understand the greatness of the world of Skyrim, it is important to first comprehend its limitations. As the northernmost portion of the continent of Tamriel, its landscape is mostly mountainous and icy; as such, when put face to face with other open-world games, especially those that came after it and – therefore – also benefited from natural technological leaps, the palette of Skyrim is rather limited. This a medieval land of harsh climate; consequently, it has no access to the colorful and mildly surrealistic scenarios of Breath of the Wild; to the flexibility of the urban landscape of a Grand Theft Auto; to the architectural history of an Assassin’s Creed; or to the ability to pair its gray realism with the other-worldliness that was available to a title like Witcher III. Skyrim has snow, mountains, a few green valleys, castles, dragons, and a general inspiration in Nordic constructions; and it uses those as well as it can.
In total, the land of Skyrim is broken into nine holds, each with its central town and government leader. And the first miracle the game operates is giving those main settlements their own traits. Located in the middle of a relatively lush valley, Whiterun is built upwards so its dominion can be totally seen from the balcony of its castle; Winterhold is, given its geographical position, a small village ravaged by snow and a furious ocean; Falkreath is a pleasant forested settlement; Riften was constructed by laying wooded frames on top of water; Solitude, the capital and seat of Skyrim’s high king, impotently sits at the top of a seaside cliff, taking advantage of that fact to hold a powerful port; and so forth. Around these major locations, players will find a big assortment of caves, forts, ruins, mines, villages, farms, cabins, and more.
One more time, it is important to point out that due to its thematic limitations and also as a consequence of the time that has passed since its release, which has allowed open-world games to evolve, hindsight says that Skyrim could have done more work to make its locations more varied. At some point, after entering their tenth cave, taking over their twelfth fort, visiting their fifth dwarven ruin, accessing their eighth mine, expelling bandits from their twentieth hideout, or bringing down their sixth dragon at his sanctuary, it is normal to wish visuals and structures had a bit more flexibility to them. After all, there is only so much one can do with these places in such a restricted setting, and Skyrim is also quite keen on reusing the same basic puzzles repeatedly; as a consequence, many caves start feeling similar, forts begin to look alike, and if randomly placed somewhere around Skyrim, various players – even the most knowledgeable of the bunch – would have a hard time telling where exactly they are.
Yet, not only does the world of Skyrim succeed, but it also still stands after all these years, and the main reason behind that is because it feels alive. Its quests, characters, and locations create a web of stories that lend credence to this universe. It is a characteristic that exists in both the grand elements and the small details: it is in how the towns have backstories; it is in how the leaders that govern them are unique individuals; it is in how the multiple conflicts between warring factions that happen in Skyrim have strongly developed roots; it is in how word on the protagonist’s deeds, be them heroic or criminal, spreads among guards as well as the population, which may lead him to become admired or end up in jail for a little while; it is how inn owners speak of rumors that may lead to quests; and it is in how there is an absurd quantity of in-game books that can be read for further clarification on its script and the presentation of side-stories that greatly enrich its lore. These traits should not be a surprise considering Bethesda’s track record in the RPG genre and the long-running tradition of The Elder Scrolls, but they impress nonetheless.
What is most interesting about Skyrim is how gameplay rises to the occasion in order to complement this central concept of allowing gamers to role-play and be whoever they want to. To a certain extent, controlling the main character is utterly basic. The shoulder buttons – ZL and ZR – can be pressed to make the Dragonborn use the weapon or item he is holding on each respective hand. Meanwhile, the R button activates the currently equipped shout; emanating from the character’s mighty throat, these are basically unlockable dragon-created spells that have multiple effects, such as freezing enemies or stunning them, and distinct cooldown times.
Although it is possible to go through Skyrim in either first or third person and change between perspectives with the touch of a button, the former – which is the default setup – is the most appropriate one on account of how it makes combats smoother while also providing the ideal type of immersion for a game that offers so much freedom. Regardless of the chosen perspective, though, the left control stick will always be used to move the protagonist while the right one will dictate not just the direction of the camera but also the point for which the Dragonborn’s blows will be aiming.
In Skyrim, combats happen in real-time fashion, turning it thereby into an action-based RPG. On what is a rather interesting choice, the game opts to go the Monster Hunter way and abandon a locking system completely, leaving it up to players to keep track of the target they are fighting against; a decision that creates some specially interesting challenges when dealing with hordes of enemies, foes of the agile kind, or dragons.
Despite that unique and generally positive characteristic, there is nothing that is really too special about combats in Skyrim. Compared to a contemporary like Dark Souls, for instance, there is a visible lack of more nuanced mechanics: the Dragonborn’s stamina rarely comes into play even if it is spent whenever players perform a charged attack, which goes to show these are not exactly necessary; hacking and slashing is a viable strategy given there is little punishment for missing or being blocked; and, still on that note, at times it feels like fights could have used a more intense physical implementation, since both delivering blows and receiving them do not feel too different from missing and not being hit respectively. Yet, for most games out there, Dark Souls may be too considerable of a threshold on this particular front, and as such it is possible to state that in spite of showing plenty of opportunities for improvement and not being historically great like many of its other features, battles in Skyrim remain entertaining.
The flexibility that matches the openness of its world comes in the freedom players will have to set up and develop their character. If they feel like going for a standard configuration and use a lighter weapon on one hand, like a sword, while deploying a shield on the other, that is a possibility; if they want to forget about defense to invest on a weapon that requires two hands to be used, like a mighty ax, the door is open for that; if they aim to approach the game like an archer, bows and crossbows are available, and so are traveling companions (who can be hired at multiple locations) that specialize in physical combat, hence allowing one to stand back and attack from a distance; if they are looking to be wizards, they can equip one kind of spell to each hand; if they seek balance, they can match a weapon with a magical power; and if they are completely undecided, they can always switch between what they are taking out into the field.
Regarding that last point, Skyrim presents a problem that ranks as a minor annoyance, because there is really not a fast way to change the items or abilities that are currently being used. Whether it is for spells, weapons, or shouts, the path is always the same: pausing the game, navigating through the menus, and manually selecting the asset one wants to equip. Since options are many, it goes without saying that this process is a bit longer than the ideal threshold. Consequently, that task can get especially bothersome in caves and dungeons in which wanting to switch between an offensive spell to either a healing one or the candlelight skill, which lights up the numerous dark passages the game contains, is constant. Due to that scenario, it is only natural to wish developers had dedicated a few buttons to cycle through a series of pre-selected weapons, spells, and shouts.
The level of customization available in Skyrim stretches past what players can take into combat to reach the stats system itself. The game has a whopping total of 18 skill trees that cover everything from standard abilities like one-handed weapons, blocking, light armor, heavy armor, and archery, to more unexpected ones such as lockpicking (for opening locked doors and chests), alchemy (for making potions), smithing (for making and upgrading equipment), and speech (for intimidating, convincing, and even getting better prices from merchants); additionally, the spells themselves are separated into six types, each with its own skill tree.
Besides naturally improving as players practice them, these abilities can have their skill trees further unlocked via the spending of points that are earned whenever the Dragonborn levels up; as such, players are free to develop their avatar in a way that mirrors what they are doing with it out in the world. If a life of crime is being pursued, getting better at sneaking and pickpocketing is a must; if the hero is being tuned into a mighty warrior, mastering all kinds of weapons is the best option; if a powerful mage is the ultimate goal, a focus on the spell-related skill trees is necessary; and, of course, all roads that represent a middle ground between those are also acceptable.
Whether because time has passed and the genre has evolved or due to the simple fact it boasts opportunities for improvement, Skyrim has problems. The lack of variety in its caves, forts, and ruins can get on one’s nerves, especially considering most players are likely to spend nearly one hundred hours in this incredibly vast universe and visit dozens of locations of that sort; a few traits of its combat system could have been better developed; and its world sure would have gained a lot from having access to a wider palette of scenarios or perhaps more intricate puzzles. But even when faced with those points, there is no denying the game is a classic.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is ultimately the blueprint for all modern RPGs that seek to evolve while remaining true to the genre’s traditions. Even though the size of its overworld is certainly important for that success and Bethesda’s achievement in building it cannot be overlooked, this is – when it is all said and done – not an adventure that thrives solely because it takes place in a huge explorable landscape, but because it employs such scenario impressively well: using it to construct an alternative reality that other than incredibly deep also happens to be stunningly believable.
Behind all of those positive characteristics lies the title’s true major victory: the freedom it puts in the hands of players. After all, if the intent of role-playing games is to allow the participants to choose their own paths and be whoever it is they feel like, then The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is the true realization of that ideal. From flawless hero to dirty criminal, all options are on the table, and even if this is a quest vaguely centered on the fight against a particularly evil dragon, the journey contained here can take whatever form those who are in control choose to give to it.