The following is part of Now Loading, a series that renders verdicts on whether or not your favorite video games deserve a place in the canon of works that have contributed to video-game storytelling in landmark ways. Read the series’ full mission statement here.


Where were you on 11/11/11?

In a legendary marketing move, Bethesda decided to release its landmark title, The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim, on the kind of day where people felt compelled to make a wish. And I’m willing to bet many of those wishes came true that day. Mine did.

It was a transformative day for me—not because of any superstitions tied to the eerie appearance of the date, but because I have never felt more excitement in my life than I did that morning. I had my uncle come from a city over (because I was still but a wee lad of 15-and-a-half years) and drive me to the local Best Buy bright and early in the morning. Upon arrival at the retail store, I was relieved to find that copies were still in stock.

(I hope I’m not dating myself, here.)

I couldn’t wait a second longer. I opened the game case immediately after Best Buy removed it from its plastic prison of an anti-theft box. I took a heavy whiff of the aromatic new plastic game box smell. I was high on life already, so no amount of any hallucinogenic plastic-factory smell was going to ruin my day.

And there it was: the beautiful physical game map that came standard with every Elder Scrolls game since Morrowind, a beautiful gesture from a bygone era of video game packaging that I still mourn for today.

After waving goodbye to my uncle whose sole purpose in life that day was to be my personal chauffeur (what a saint), I inserted the disc into my red, Resident Evil 5 limited-edition Xbox 360 Elite.

The soft drums, the solemn mist, and the choir chanting “Dovahkiin.” Five minutes into staring at this main title screen, I already knew this was a special and soulful game with an ambitious vision behind it.

The rest is history.

Nearly 7 years later and we’ve been blessed, maybe cursed, by constant reminders of this game’s existence and its purported impact on the gaming industry. Releasing to nearly universal critical acclaim and consumer adoration, Bethesda had a gargantuan success on its hands. They are still milking the game to this day through over 4 re-releases, ports, remasters, and an evolutionary conversion to the VR format in the fall of 2017. If at any point Skyrim was about to fade from the public consciousness, Bethesda was determined to jam it right back in.

Skyrim, now featuring: The Legend of Zelda.

The game’s ubiquity is undeniable, and if that were enough to earn it a place in With A Terrible Fate’s hallowed video game canon, then this piece could end right here.

But that’s not how we roll here, and providing yet another puff piece providing more evidence of just how large Skyrim’s open-world actually is would be boring. We sense that many gamers feel similarly, with the game’s critics compounding as the years have gone on and the afterglow of receiving another entry in a beloved series has waned.

Indeed, it is not hard to view Skyrim as the RPG analogue of the thoroughbred jock from high school with great looks who was born and raised in privilege. It is tempting to dismiss the game as pleasing to the eye, but with little substance.

Having been tuned into the Skyrim fan and modding community since its release, I have found many of these critical observations about the game to be valid, but not necessarily damning. I believe that much of this dissension ties back to the deep and storied tradition of the “role-playing game” genre. Specifically, the criticism stems from a misalignment in how gamers have come to define the RPG versus the direction that Skyrim’s creators were attempting to take it in.

In this article, I will be re-examining core aspects of the game and appraising whether or not they successfully contribute to the game’s storytelling goals. If it’s not apparent already, I am a huge fan of the game and will disclose from the outset that I will be arguing for its admission into the canon. After over 300 hours of playtime across my Xbox 360, modded PC version, and now on PSVR, I have found Skyrim to be the watershed disruption to the RPG genre by attempting to broaden the definition of the “role-playing” game and delivering, to this day, one of the most compelling simulations in the medium.

Role-Playing Games

Before we dive into the core of this analysis, it is important to survey exactly what “role-playing” games were and how they have come to be defined today.

The most parsimonious origin for the video-game RPG lies in tabletop role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons. Here, the storytelling is self-directed and interactive, framed under an overarching campaign or loose story detailed in adventure books or an analogous guide. A leading player, or the dungeon/game master, uses these preset or homebrew guides to steer the story, while other participant players are given the opportunity to define their own characters and backstories.

Lacking a robust audiovisual component, most of these games rely on analog materials such as a pen, paper, and a board with static figurines. Much of the color offered by these games is driven by players’ imaginations and their own propensity for storytelling. The analog nature of this type of game also pivotally limits its “gameplay.” Key gameplay typically includes, but is not limited to, a dice system, which leaves to chance whether or not a player’s action is successful.

From this broad description of tabletop RPGs, there are two important limitations to highlight:

  1. The analog nature of the “text” (e.g., materials, player artifacts)
  2. A numbers-based system to determine gameplay and character (e.g., character levels and attributes)

The character sheet used to define your character and track its growth in Dungeons & Dragons.

Regardless of these limitations, these experiences offer a convincing simulation of stories and characters to compel the games’ players.

  • Player imagination could run free
  • Their actions and decisions hold stakes and consequences
  • The dynamism of interacting with unpredictable agents (i.e. fellow players) produce emergent stories

At its essence, role-playing is about escaping your own person and embodying another character in another world. To reference the formal definition of “role-playing”: it is the “acting out of the part of a particular person or character.”

Fast-forward a few decades, and video games are now the dominant medium through which players are “role-playing.” With a digital, computing backbone, developers are able to render worlds, characters, and artifacts on behalf of the player. In addition, the numbers-based gameplay and character systems are now often managed behind-the-scenes in the backend processes of the game. Players can now focus on experiencing these stories, characters, and worlds without having to track dice rolls and character attributes on the front end.

After several influential titles in the genre, such as those from the Final Fantasy series, video-game RPGs have taken on their own conventions and status quo that gamers continue to expect from new releases:

  1. An explicit storyline and a defined character as which to role-play
  2. A numbers-based system to define your character and the outcome of his or her actions

While there are many other RPG conventions that fans of the genre hold dear, these are the prominent and relevant ones for our discussion about Skyrim. I highlight them because they are what many critics consider to be either lacking or underdeveloped in the game. I want to suggest that these are not flawed: rather, they are delivered in a method that is unconventional for the genre, actually bringing the player experience truer to the essence of “role-playing.”

Given the limitations of tabletop games, players rely on numbers and chance to drive gameplay and character. In other words, player experiences in these games are often defined by systems and mechanics, rather than by the storytelling itself. For example, a player will progress their character by artificially distributing earned points across their desired attributes (e.g., Strength or Intelligence).

While the outcomes of these dice rolls are inherently driven by chance, players are incentivized to take gameplay measures to influence the effect of that randomness on their actions. Character attributes act as modifiers to impact the chances of rolling a successful outcome. For example, investing in dexterity effects a greater number of successful rolls when shooting an arrow. Both table-top and video-game RPGs are largely driven by this mechanic to determine gameplay and storytelling outcomes.

Video-game RPGs have the opportunity to leverage its unique advantage in audiovisual simulation. A more direct simulation of character building can connect the growth of attributes to be tied to relevant experiences that build upon those attributes (e.g., firing a bow to become better at using the bow) rather than the numbers and the dice rolls behind it. Even if a numbers-based system still modifies these outcomes in the background, a player still perceives these actions as the outcome of their input instead of their dice roll. However, the traditional gameplay philosophy still largely holds true for video-game RPGs today, with most games being driven not by the collection of experiences, but rather by the collection of experience and attribute points.

Take, for instance, the RPG trope of “grinding” combat scenarios for experience points—a trope that is still prevalent in many games today, like Pokémon. This much-maligned trope can become negative when games force players to engage excessively in gameplay systems with little storytelling justification or fulfillment. This is not to accuse these systems of being fundamentally flawed, but rather to highlight how many modern RPG developers uphold decades-long traditions in their games because that is how the genre has come to be defined—it’s what players have come to expect.

What if there were a game that eschewed these conventions? What if there were an RPG that abandoned the systems and the numbers, and attempted to bring the player as close to the pure experience as possible?

Skyrim feels like it was made by and for all the young boys and girls out there who have ever fantasized about trekking out into the woods on some adventure by day, and resting to eat salted pork by the campfire at night. It wants to fulfill our Tolkienian impulse to escape our existing reality and find the power to change the world around us. It is the high fantasy power-trip that satiates our unending desire to simulate and, ultimately, “role-play” that adventurer’s life.

The following sections will detail the core elements of the game that may contribute or undermine this desired outcome.

Story and Characters: From mundane to empowering, it’s what you make of it.

The Elder Scrolls series exists in the fictional world of Tamriel, and Skyrim focuses on a specific province of its own name, as its predecessors Morrowind and Oblivion did for Morrowind and Cyrodil, respectively.

Skyrim’s world benefits from the series’ rich and storied lore. It is its own complex character defined by a past history and trauma, and it struggles to look toward the future. Every single interactive aspect of this world you encounter, from the books you find lying around to the unimportant citizens you pass by, are seeped in a deeper connection to the larger mythos, and sometimes heavy-handedly so. Anywhere you look or listen, you will pick up something new to inform you about the province of Skyrim, or the larger sociopolitical climate.

For example, you can immediately enter the city of Whiterun, and get interrogated by the Battleborn and Grey-Mane families, desperate to gain allies in their city-wide feud. You can enter someone’s home and find books on the history of unforeseen places, or speak to a Nord tavern owner who expresses racist sentiments about the Khajiit caravan squatting outside the city.

Skyrim’s triumph here is not unlike that of its predecessors: every character and object you see has an intentional purpose. Collectively, Skyrim’s many constituent parts form a successfully living and breathing world that operates on its own schedule, waiting for the player to make their move.

Following in series tradition, the player’s avatar begins as a prisoner with little explicit backstory: a true “blank slate” to be occupied and molded by the player’s actions. Some incident occurs to allow your character to set your character free—in this case, a dragon attack. Over the course of the game, your mission, should you choose to accept it, will sweep you across the province to fulfill your destiny as the chosen “Dragonborn” and mediate a Civil War to ultimately prevent one uber-dragon from destroying the world.

Some may take issue with the player’s avatar being so minimally characterized. However, this intentional design choice provides players with a pure representative for their actions, rather than a character defined by scripted story cutscenes out of the player’s control.

This main questline pays homage to the high-fantasy hero narratives of ancient legends and myths, and contextualizes it within the already dense and rich lore of The Elder Scrolls. It’s a competent main quest that occasionally excites and awes, though many players spend hundreds of hours playing the game without even completing it. While the stakes of the story are technically “high,” the tasks required feel so all-encompassing that it would be sensible for players to want to put off the gargantuan task of saving the world for later. It is a dissonance that will be found in any open-world game, but it is especially present in Skyrim.

While this dissonance might initially appear to be an irreconcilable flaw in the game, a player’s lack of interest in the main quest can end up being a valuable narrative element. Here is a prophesied hero to emerge from nothing and nowhere—yet the player—and by extension, the avatar—has every right to go chop wood instead of carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. It shows that, in spite of all the prophecies and objectives these NPCs would like to assign, the avatar has the free will to ignore this one particular call to action.

I’ll still take the superhuman dragon shout powers, though, because those are just awesome.

Regardless of whether players undergo the main quest, they’ll find a multitude of smaller stories packed away in every corner of the world through side quests. It has been a running joke for RPGs to depict a world where literally every person you happen to encounter has something that you specifically can help with, and Skyrim is no exception. After suspending disbelief, as one must do in any RPG, players will find themselves intrigued by this sheer volume of quality side content, especially the questlines tied to guilds and factions.

In Elder Scrolls tradition, these stories are where the game allows itself to be experimental, challenging, and incisive. They thrust the players into unexpected positions and ask them to make difficult decisions.

Because of the sheer amount of narrative content available in this one game alone, there will be something for any player to enjoy, and the game positions the player to pick and choose as they please: pursuing what compels you and ignoring what doesn’t. From the absolutely deranged personalities of the Dark Brotherhood to the sensational feeling of driving one side of the Skyrim Civil War to victory, players will have the chance to become involved in small citizen drama, deal with tantalizing magical threats, or become the leaders of guilds by climbing their own internal political ladders.

The question of whether or not these quests are “good” becomes a moot point when they are essentially incentives for the players to toy around in and live an interesting life in this simulated world. Littered throughout the map are these pockets of purposeful stories, like breadcrumbs to lead the player to the next location of interest.

On the surface level, the player is indeed just scouring the land, interacting with troubled citizens, spelunking to loot chests, or just admiring the sights. Yet, the player is always driven by the promise and desire of another often unplanned moment lurking just around the corner. The explicit quests themselves are focused and linear, but the path by which the player finds them is completely self-driven.

Here the notion of the “emergent narrative” re-enters our discussion. Skyrim exceptionally simulates a world where the player can walk in almost any direction and find something interesting. It may be something as mundane as a wolf attack or somehow uncovering a tomb being raided by bandits, which might also happen to hold an item that will come up in a completely different quest later on.

The beautiful thing is that players are made to feel as though these moments, which are in some cases scripted, spontaneously happened to them and were their own discoveries. The game doesn’t spoon-feed you characters and moments: in Skyrim, the player owns their story path.

The “radiant quest” system, in contrast, is perhaps the most categorically flawed story element in the game. These are evergreen quests that live under the “Miscellaneous” section of your quest log, and continually re-emerge with slightly different contexts (e.g., location, task, character) determined by a back-end algorithm. These were typically reserved for tasks that would conceivably be never-ending, such as farming or fulfilling bounties on criminals.

“The Dark Brotherhood Forever,” an assassination-based radiant quest.

By essentially piloting the procedural generation of quests, the developers introduced something of an inconsistent rogue element that clashed with the ethos of the game’s mainline quests. It makes narrative sense to simulate the continual emergence of problems that might be evergreen in a living world, such as cabbage shortages in wintry locations, or criminals in general. Yet, these radiant quests are typically impersonal, lacking strong characters and any real “ideas” behind them.

Radiant quests betrays what the player comes to expect from the main and side quests, all of which have their own dedicated, voiced characters with their special story progression. By principle, these quests are a progressive attempt to imagine a world where players can literally never run out of things to do. But when they have the blatant artisanship of a math equation, players will inevitably lose interest and emotional investment in these “stories,” if they can even be called that.

Skyrim doesn’t merely hand you a pre-made story and character. By nature of the “open-world” and nonlinearity, the onus is on the player to seek out the stories and mold their own character within them. Criticisms of this open-storytelling inevitably come down to the paradox of choice: the objection that players won’t know what to do if the game doesn’t tell them.

Yet Skyrim doesn’t have to tell the player to do anything: the player need only walk a few feet to find something new to do or see. Ultimately, Skyrim’s multitudes of crafted stories and characters scattered across its world empower the player to “role-play” an entire existence in a rich fantasy world.

Let’s return to the two RPG conventions we defined earlier and focus on the first one:

  1. An explicit storyline and a defined character as which to role-play
  2. A numbers-based system to define your character and the outcome of his or her actions

Skyrim’s non-linearity and open-world storytelling might frustrate those who’ve come to expect that games will have a single dominant, driving storyline and a substantive, rigidly defined character. While the game includes an overarching main quest that does have far-reaching implication for the game’s world (e.g., the dragons attacking everyone around the province), Bethesda subverts convention by significantly increasing the importance of player agency in the role-playing equation.

The blank-slate nature of the avatar binds it as close to the player as possible. The game’s world moves forward even if you choose to ignore the main quest; in this way, the avatar ends up truly being defined by the player’s choices, rather than by a destiny that requires the avatar to fulfill a specific mission. In this way, players aren’t just controlling another character, but are ostensibly controlling a digital manifestation of themselves inside Skyrim’s simulation, which comes closer to pure escapism than the typical vicariousness we experience in most other games.

The important story in Skyrim is that of your simulated life within its world, regardless of whatever you decide to do with it.

Gameplay, Visuals, and Music: “Immersion” with a Capital “I”

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Skyrim is an audiovisual marvel. Players are highly likely to find themselves actively staring or listening, perhaps at one of the many majestic waterfalls while a soundscape of bugs and wildlife envelops the scene. At that moment, the player is no one and nowhere else but that avatar in front of that waterfall.

“SERENITY NOW!”

A simulation is nothing without convincing audio and visual assets. Skyrim thoroughly delivers on both, which results in a special kind of experiential, shared intimacy between the player and their avatar.

Visually, Skyrim is not as heavily dependent on technical fidelity as it is on technical artistry. You’d expect a 2011 game to be showing its graphical age by 2018. Yet, Skyrim VR—the newest version of the game, rendered on the low-resolution screen of the PSVR—was technically the ugliest version of Skyrim to date. Its textures were muddy, and the blurry draw distance was something akin to a level of nearsightedness just short of legal blindness.

All the same, the experience reached the same emotional heights I’d first experienced in 2011. Sure, visual fidelity can help to draw the player in; but, as the VR version shows, a game’s visual artistry goes beyond mere graphical resolution. The artistry of its visuals is preserved in its purposefully designed assets, from creature and character models to the uniquely lived-in towns. Just ogling the armor and weapon sets in the inventory screen alone shows the craft that was imbued into each design, with elven and dwarven blades showing fundamentally different, culturally-specific inscriptions around their hilts.

To this day, Skyrim can be admired as if it were an impressionist canvas: breathtaking in broad strokes until you see the technical limitations up close. However, it is the sum of the parts and its scale that has perennially made even past entries in the series, Morrowind and Oblivion, beautiful to the modern eye.

Key to the visual experience is the first-person camera, a rare and audacious choice for a genre that typically revels in the third-person. While there is the optional third-person camera, that is typically considered to be the less practical and inferior way to experience the game.

The following merits of the first-person perspective all contribute to the player’s ability to assimilate into the “simulation”:

  1. It is literally the closest the player can be in a video-game to seeing from the avatar’s eyes and living in their shoes
  2. It brings the player closer to the world, thereby engaging player interaction from a microscopic, tactile level (e.g., being able to pick up and organize small, mundane objects)
  3. It sizes perspective to the individual scale, making the world all the more impressive and mysterious

Players can hearken back to those vivid moments of entering a city for the first time and being overwhelmed, or being dwarfed in the shadow of a mountain and watching as the wisps of the clouds roll by. This visual experience of awe would be fundamentally different if it were done in the third person: in that case, the player is instead watching someone else being dwarfed by their surroundings, and the player is supposed to sympathize with this other being’s experience.

Bethesda has visually created something of a dynamic and digital interpretation of the Caspar David Friedrich painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. Both the painting and Skyrim engage the ideals of romanticism: an artistic movement concerned with the primacy of the individual, as well as humankind’s relationship with nature. While the painting may show a subject in the third person, the point was to convey the subject’s size when compared to the scale of the unending nature that still lies before him.

Left: Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, by Caspar David Friedrich. Right: Dragonborn Above the Sea of Fog, by A.J. Hateley.

In just this way, Skyrim provides constant visual reminders of the avatar’s insignificance and awe in the presence of the province’s geography, all the while urging the player to master its world as the chosen Dragonborn. This tension between humankind’s impulse to dominate and conquer the world around them and the impossibility of that task is core to romanticism and finds its roots in high fantasy tradition.

Skyrim contrasts pockets of industrious civilizations with the mysterious natural surroundings that dwarf them, full of mystery, danger, and magic. Ingrained into Skyrim’s visual themes is the explorer’s modus operandi: the impulse to discover, master, and control these surrounding elements, which involves the player disrupting natural habitats of sprigs and bandits alike.

Skyrim Developer Art.

Skyrim’s AAA-grade sound and music design isn’t all that complicated or interesting to dissect, because it’s just categorically superb. The usual suspects of realistic sound effects are present and healthy, from the sharp clanging of swords, to the THWAP of a bowstring, to the crunch of crushed snow.

Bethesda enlisted the talent of hundreds of voice actors to provide color to the countless inhabitants the player may come across. There are still repeated voices, but few games possess the ambition to commit to a fully-voiced to the extent that Skyrim does.

Sound effects can make or break a simulation, especially if players find the world not providing audio cues where there should be. Skyrim successfully supplies the sounds of a real, living, breathing world full of people who notice you as you pass, or wolves that howl in the forest even when they are off-screen.

Diegetic music, when the player can find it, is special because it is an old-fashioned fantasy world where such sounds can only be generated by live instruments and voices, rather than being played on a loop through a Pip-Boy. Players will remember entering their first taverns to hear the simple yet enchanting and prophetic melody of “The Dragonborn Comes” from the bard and their lute.

This organic soundscape is made more vibrant by a dynamic layering of ambient sounds. Caves enlist unique reverberations that are also punctuated by spontaneous and ambiguous clangs and vague “noises” that echo from deep within, suggesting ominous mystery waiting just beyond. The forest, on the other hand, is not as sparse or ambiguous, enlisting a cacophony of bug chitters, bird calls, and wind to remind the player that even as they may be currently alone, they exist in a wide open space surrounded by life.

If you stripped away the visuals and had players just listen, they will still vividly imagine themselves in Skyrim.

Series-regular Jeremy Soule delivers non-diegetic compositions that are not only distinct, but are also engineered to dynamically interweave with each other according to player location and context. It is as if Soule were following the player around with an orchestra and choir and dynamically composing the soundtrack behind their travels. He accentuates dragon fights with thunderous music while also providing silence during moments of harsh bliss upon reaching the snowy peak of a mountain. It is tastefully designed music that is noticeable when it wants to be and silent when it wants the moment to speak for itself.

These orchestrations are so well aligned with the atmosphere and player scenarios that they blur the line between the diegesis and non-diegesis. Take, for instance, the tavern ambient music that sounds so natural. Most players may not even think to second-guess the source of these sounds and realize that there really isn’t a full band of people somewhere in that space playing this music.

The overall soundscape is modulated and mixed to such great effect, that even Soule’s non-diegetic music is made to feel natural to the world and an extension of the player’s own experience.

With all the praise for Skyrim’s audiovisual aspects out of the way, the time has now come to discuss its gameplay, the most controversial element of the game. The gameplay can be deconstructed into two parts:

  1. Combat
  2. Exploration

The combat is action-oriented and engages the player in one-to-one inputs. Each button does something discrete, and these discrete actions limit combat to each swing of the sword or the casting of a spell. The combat then is more akin to a hack-and-slash game than it is to the lengthy and complex combat systems of the conventional RPG games.

Many denounced this combat as dull and unsatisfying because it is more visceral than it is cerebral. Melee and close-quarters combat also don’t convey impact as well as they should, which can make swinging and physically striking an enemy feel and look clunky. Even then, most encounters are mercifully short enough to minimize the over-sensitization to these flaws, which also de-emphasizes the need to have lengthy and “deep” combat scenarios.

I actually find this to be a refreshing departure from what might otherwise be countless, grindy, Final-Fantasy-style monster-mob fights. The one-to-one combat system, while not perfect, does more to simulate real-time melee, ranged, and spellcasting combat authentically. Players can assign independent functions to their avatar’s left and right hands, such as by casting a fire spell in one and swinging an ax in the other.

This is simplified and naturalistic combat, but not necessarily “dumb.” The tactics and strategy shift over to real-time positioning, skill selection, and aiming, which still require a degree of acumen.

The theme of simplification doesn’t end with the moment-to-moment combat: it also extends to character leveling and progression.

Traditionally in RPGs, players complete quests and defeat enemies to gain general experience points towards an all-encompassing pool, no matter what the source. Each time that pool reaches the next level, the character is typically allotted points towards attributes and skills that the player can choose to dole out as they see fit.

Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid, a more standard kind of RPG skill tree system.

This kind of system feels arbitrary since it’s insensitive to where the “experience” points actually came from. For instance, a player can grind a monster mob and continually defeat enemies with melee attacks, but then spend the resulting experience points to improve their character’s archery skills. It is this artificial development of a “character build” that is symptomatic of the RPG’s explicitly numbers-based system.

As a reminder, let’s revisit the two identified RPG conventions we identified earlier and focus on the second one:

  1. An explicit storyline and a defined character to role-play
  2. A numbers-based system to define your character and the outcome of his or her actions

As discussed above, Skyrim eschewed conventions of RNG and dice-based combat by committing to a real-time combat design. Similarly, the game eschews conventional character progression systems by making it more naturalistic. Characters can now only level attributes by, well, doing actions require that attribute (or by training under someone skilled in that attribute).

Want to increase your lockpicking skill? Pick locks.

Players need to kill more enemies with archery to improve the archery skill, create more potions to improve the alchemy skill, and barter more goods to improve the speech skill. Characters are now more closely defined by their actions, rather than the numbers or their “build.” This still involves a certain amount of statistics, such as perk modifiers for each skill and a base character level by which all enemies scale so the difficulty will always match player level. This way, there are never any “zones” where the player cannot survive because of their arbitrary character level. Instead, players need mere skill to survive.

While critics might call the departure from numbers and complex systems a “simplification” of RPG conventions, there’s no reason why that should be a bad thing. The systems make sense for the purpose of immersing the character as closely to “role-playing” this character as possible. It’s not about forcing yourself to kill enemies to grind for experience points. Rather, the game is about earning experiences without the pressure of needing to level up or increase attribute points. The philosophy behind this design is to finely focus players on the emotional beats and the character moments of the game, rather than on the numbers behind them.

One unique aspect of Skyrim’s combat system is the discrete “dragon shout” system, a power that has its own dedicated input or button. This suggests the importance by which the developers expect these shouts to be in the player’s arsenal. Even if they aren’t, these shouts are so regularly reinforced and useful in key combat scenarios (e.g., shouting a dragon to force it to the ground) that they remind the player of their avatar’s mystical connection to the world and its destiny as the “Dragonborn.” No other person in the world possesses such power, thereby marking the player as the one decisive factor in Skyrim’s overarching conflict against the dragon threat.

The shout system naturally builds upon itself over the course of the game: as the player uncovers more “Words” of shouts to make these abilities stronger, they are also more likely to run into and slay more dragons to gain the “currency” (i.e. dragon souls) to unlock these abilities. In this way, players are nudged to develop their dragon shout abilities and become more in tune with their destiny.

Dragon shouts are deeply mechanically satisfying. Having a button or input dedicated to this one ability posits it as an intentional action that cannot be mistaken for anything else. Players looking to press the shout button know what they are doing and why. I have a primal feeling of satisfaction once my character yells “Fus-Ro-Dah” and blows my companion, Lydia, a mile off of the cliff of a mountain.

Ooops.

For those lucky few who owned a Kinect and played Skyrim on the Xbox 360 with voice controls, this mechanically becomes even more satisfying when powers are activated by actually reciting the words to these shouts. These shouts do more than just freeze whatever is in front of you or blow them away: they contribute to the larger sensation that the avatar is fully and intentionally in the player’s seamless control. They make you feel closer to your avatar, as though you were this all-powerful, supernatural shouter in Skyrim.

With a simplified combat system, the player’s efforts are reprioritized towards exploration. This is the other major part of the game by which characters can engage with the world: speaking to characters, hiking through marshes, and the like.

While most games occupy players with the worry of encountering the next enemy, Skyrim more often concerns the players with the task of discovering a path to the next objective and, hopefully, not becoming too distracted by encounters that might occur along the way. The obstacles here are not so much about defeating enemies, but are rather about finding your way through the geography and engaging with its inhabitants in a suitable manner. “Progression” is tied to the places you discover and the people you befriend (or not).

Bethesda makes good on its promise of exploration by making the world fully accessible after the first hour of the game. Once the player emerges from the tutorial level, they are permitted to travel literally anywhere and speak to anyone that they want to. One need simply walk in any direction and they will find something to engage.

In this way, the player is liberated from linearity and artificial restrictions of other RPGs. This freedom grants the player a self-direction and agency to determine their own faith, regardless of any systematic nudges that may come their way (such as quests they may not care about). The result is a sensation of ownership over the avatar and their destiny. This gameplay experience is truly the player’s, and is not merely controlled at the whim of the game director—unless the player chooses to play along.

Skyrim’s objectively simplified combat and character progression is perhaps the most divisive aspect of the game, and what makes its attachment to the RPG genre feel so dubious. Defying decades of RPG tradition, here is a game that compromises on complexity to fully commit to its promise of real-time simulation. Discrete turn- or ability-based combat systems can inadvertently tear the player away from the avatar and any semblance of immersion. Therefore, this may not be the most engaging or rewarding combat system to be found in an RPG, but it is essential to Skyrim’s broader vision of total simulation.

Impact on Video Gaming and Culture: Hard to Overstate

Skyrim’s prevalence through multiple releases has prolonged its legacy and popularity across generations, and its ability to successfully adapt to the new VR format affirms its core timelessness. The game popularized action-oriented combat, massive open worlds, and the notion of the “emergent narrative.” To this day, the current Assassin’s Creeds and even The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild follow closely in Skyrim’s open-world footsteps. Simulation and player agency have come to the forefront of open-world design ever since Skyrim proved that a game could simulate a large, autonomous world which can both be molded by player input and live on without it.

Like it or not, Skyrim is the current yardstick by which new releases are constantly measured. Discussions of Kingdom Come: Deliverance and Sea Of Thieves inevitably pose the question of how their worlds and simulations compare to those of Skyrim. The game has become a classification of its own: it is synonymous with that type of epic, ambitious, open-world RPG that so many of us crave now. Upcoming games may naturally surpass Skyrim in technical fidelity and scope, but the standard it set in 2011 is still firmly intact.

Skyrim’s popularity also penetrated mainstream media, which is a rare thing indeed for a single-player game with no microtransactions or evolving online service platform. It offered something for every kind of player: the hardcore gamer, the filthy casual, and even academics at Rice University.

Accessibility is not a flaw when there is an emotional depth to be found at any point in the game. The gaming medium in general benefited from Skyrim’s presence: it generated the revenue and interest that blazed the trail for more people to discuss, respect, and admire video games.

BONUS LEVEL: The VR Factor

Virtual reality is a crucial gameplay factor that maintains Skyrim’s relevance seven years after its initial release.

Playing Skyrim with the VR headset, surround sound, and PlayStation Move controls does not fundamentally change its gameplay philosophy. Rather, it significantly enhances every one of the strengths mentioned so far, and even alleviates experiential issues with the combat.

The visual experience is made all the more immersive when the VR headset simulates the player’s point of view in the game world. That way, the player experiences the convincing illusion that they are actually standing in a true-to-scale rendering of Skyrim’s lands, heightening the sensation of romanticist awe we discussed earlier.

The player’s interactions with the world’s objects and characters are also made more intimate by a truer-to-life distance between the avatar’s position and the people and objects that surround it. Physically moving around and using the PlayStation Move controllers to reach out and pick up objects creates the sensation that the game avatar quite literally is the one-to-one manifestation of the player in the game world.

After a few minutes, the player may find herself completely lost in the game as the VR headset tricks the mind into believing that what she is seeing is real. Important visual elements—such as the first-person perspective, the realistic sense of visual scale, and artistically detailed assets—are all made significantly more compelling in what could possibly be the most convincing simulation I have played to date.

The real-time combat is also made more sensible by tying each controllable hand to a respective Playstation Move controller. This translates every movement of the player arm into the game world in real-time. There can still be a technical wonkiness to blocking and aiming with spells, but it makes what was previously weightless combat more impactful because the player can feel the aggression and the adrenaline in every swing she makes.

Perhaps most impressive in the VR combat is the archery. The player can nock the bow, pull back on the string, and release the arrow with coordinated gestures so satisfying and realistic that the archery combat can become a full-fledged hunting simulation all on its own. It makes stalking prey and hunting enemies all the more exciting because it feels tactful and aim-based, rather than just moving analog sticks around.

While still not perfect, Skyrim’s real-time, action-based combat made for a seamless transition to the one-to-one design of VR, and it reinforces the holistic sensation that these virtual arms on screen are an organic extension of your own body.

Skyrim VR may be the definitive way to experience the game, even if it is far from being the most beautiful or most accessible way to do so. It takes the game’s already-established successes in simulation and amplifies them. The gap between the player and the avatar is made so minimal and intimate that the experience becomes no longer about “role-playing” this fictional character. Instead, the player is granted the chance to truly be the fictional character.

Skyrim VR successfully blurs the boundary between role-playing and existence in its fiction, expanding the possibilities of what RPGs can and probably should aspire to be. Through my experiences in this form of the game, it is made even clearer to me that the RPG experience is not founded in complex combat systems, nor in numbers-based character and skill progression. Rather, “role-playing” can be more loosely defined as the simulation of being in another’s shoes, in another world.

Skyrim meets those standards with flying colors.

VERDICT: A Lasting Legacy

Duh.

People have been playing this single-player game endlessly for the last 7 years, and they will continue to talk about it in the years to come, even if that comes at the price of enduring yet another ritual re-release or remaster of the game. Regardless of fan appraisal, Bethesda has brute-forced Skyrim into the video game canon. Does it belong in the canon of our hearts and minds? That, as always, is in the eye of the beholder.

But yes, it does.


Richard Nguyen will be featured as a panelist in “Which Games Belong in the Video Game Canon?”, one of three panels With a Terrible Fate is offering at PAX East 2018.  Don’t miss this chance to learn more about the series and join us in a live discussion about whether an audience-selected game belongs in the canon!


Richard Nguyen

Richard Nguyen - Video Game Analyst

Richard Nguyen studied psychology and film, and thinks about how each of these disciplines inform decision-making in video game storytelling.  Learn more here.

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