Skyrim is by far the most popular video game that doesn’t involve mowing down enemy troops with a machine gun, selling almost three million copies in November alone (and it didn’t even come out until November was almost over). As such, there are a trillion Skyrim reviews on the Internet. So I won’t bother talking about the graphics, or the UI, the occasional bug or exploit, or whether or not the game is any good (duh — it’s really, really good). I’m going to discuss it as a role-playing game. How immersive is it? How rich are the stories and characters? How compelling is it to become a part of the world of the Elder Scrolls?
Skyrim is what I guess you’d call a massively single player role-playing game. It’s just you, one companion, possibly a summoned elemental, and eventually your spouse against a world full of conniving NPCs, undead lich kings, wicked assassins, and dragons. Lots and lots of dragons. The scale of the world is the first important thing that Skyrim has going for it. I don’t know how to quantify how huge it is — it’s just really, really huge. You can literally walk cross-country for hours on end, constantly discovering new places. The number of dungeons and ruins to explore is almost unfathomable, and that’s not to mention the towns, farms, forts, castles, shrines, mines, stables and something like half a dozen major cities. You’ll meet scads of different people, too (though not as different as they could be — more on that in a second).
A big world is fine, but no big deal if you’re stuck on a linear quest that railroads you from place to place. There is a main quest, of course, but you can complete it at your leisure. Mostly, I could care less about it. Every city is filled with a variety of quests and goals. Some of them are simple “fetch me the magic MacGuffin” quests, but quite a few of them involves surprising twists and strange encounters. You might find yourself inside a magic crystal seeking to defeat the soul of an evil wizard. You might get involved in a bizarre magical duel as you work to prevent a magical cataclysm from destroying an entire city. You might find yourself entwined in the politics and history of a fallen-on-hard-times thieves’ guild. Or you might skip all that and just plunder random dwarven ruins all day. That’s the beauty. You can do things in any order, or not at all. You can decide which aspects of the world are more important to you. And by the time you’ve purchased a house and wooed someone into marrying you, you will actually feel a certain sense of immersion, of being a part of this huge world.
The other Really Big Deal about Skyrim is how open your options are in terms of character design. There are no classes. There are no rigid limits on what a character can and can’t do. That means your character is completely customizable, allowing you to blend various skills and feats (called Perks, a holdover from Fallout) to create characters with varying degrees of focus or hybridization. I’m sure games have used systems like this before, but it feels revolutionary here.
This means that to some extent, all characters end up doing a little bit of certain basic skills. Every character is going to cast magic spells at some point, even if only to heal yourself or use the odd flame spell to clear away some spider webs. Every character is going to learn a little about making potions and smithing armor. Your skills improve as you use them, so those things you do the most often you’ll be the best at. Real differentiation comes from the perk trees. Each time you level up, you gain a new perk. The perks are divided into several skill sets, like alchemy, one-handed weapon, or casting conjuration spells (each set is beautifully rendered as a constellation, with each “star” a new perk for you to choose). So as you move up the Smithing tree, for instance, you’ll learn to craft new types of armor from different materials. That particular tree has two branches — light armor and heavy armor. So even if you decide, “I’m going to become great at smithing,” there are choices to make, fine details that make your character unique.
Me? I went the swordmage route, getting decent at one-handed weapons and light armor, but picking up some solid skills with destruction spells and conjuration. I can smith and enchant my own light armor, usually making it far better than any armor I loot from dungeons. I’m a half-decent alchemist, but my potion making isn’t really a focus. More of a hobby. Yeah, this is a game where I can plausibly say that my character has a hobby. I could have gone so many different routes, though. Heavy armor, plus blocking skill for use with a shield. Or maybe stealth plus illusion magic and some skill with bows? Maybe instead of smithing I focus on my people skills, so I can buy and sell items at significantly better prices? There are so many options, not even counting the choices I make in the world itself. And yet it never feels overwhelming — you can’t advance very far up the perk trees until you gain a certain skill level in that skill, so the total choices available at any given moment are very manageable.
There are a few drawbacks, things that keep the game from feeling truly immersive. The biggest is that there are actually few choice points within quests. Yes, you can choose which quests to take, but very few of them give you much choice when it comes to resolving the quest itself. A few examples come up in the city of Riften, which is dominated by a corrupt noble and the thieves’ guild. These people were clearly bad guys, and I wanted to “clean up this town” and make it better for all the poor working stiffs who were always complaining about how all the corruption made their lives miserable. I thought maybe the way to do this would be to rise through the ranks of the guild, giving me the power to put it out of commission. Instead, I ended up aggrandizing the thieves’ guild, doing the corrupt official’s dirty work, running shakedowns on the poor locals and running several families out of business. That’s not exactly how I envisioned my character behaving. Oh, and if you’re not the type of person who’s into putting women down for their sexual choices, there’s always this.
The other small problem with Skyrim is the voice acting. It’s not that the voice acting is bad, it’s just that they only hired about five different voice actors. It destroys your suspension of disbelief when you realize that the fisherman has the exact same voice as the shop keeper and the shady dude at the wizard’s college, and two dozen other NPCs. When it comes to non-human NPCs, every memeber of a given race seems to have the exact same voice. It’s a shame.
Many years ago, on a snow day, I hung out with my friends and played video games and role-playing games for hours and hours. We started talking about designing our own video game. What would the ultimate game be? At the time, video game technology was barely beyond Pac-Man (I think the big game of the day was Castlevania). We were forward thinkers, though. “What if a game let you see the world through the character’s eyes, and the controls let you move around and look in any direction? And you reacted to the stuff that was happening, and you could go anywhere in the world?” Oddly enough, the original version took place in a modern world, so our characters could go ahead and choose not to go to school every day. Or maybe rob a bank. But we quickly realized we could adapt it to our favorite fantasy settings. Guess we were a little ahead of our time.