Even though I’m a known Elder Scrolls elitist, I’ve also had a copy of Skyrim on the Xbox 360 kicking around forever. I’ve got all the DLC. 90% of the time, the disc just sits there gathering dust on a corner shelf, but every so often I get an itch only Skyrim can scratch, and I dive back in. Today I wanna talk a little bit about why that happens to me, and about the sort of gameplay Skyrim is conducive to, that I find so satisfying.
Long-time readers of the blog will know I like a lot of complicated, mechanically deep, and emotionally intense games. However, cutting through that desire for real Artistic shit is an equally-strong tendency toward Minecraft and other relaxing games. Skyrim falls into the latter category.
Despite sharing a series with Daggerfall, Skyrim could not be more different in every respect. Surface elements are there, of course, but the nature of the Elder Scrolls series changed dramatically between 2 and 3. We can’t say that the series has any kind of defined personality or soul at this point other than being a reskin of The Bethesda Game. That’s not necessarily the end of the world, even though, as I opined in my Daggerfall article, something truly beautiful and unique was destroyed in this transformation.
“The Bethesda Game” is, straightforwardly, the idea that Bethesda only really make one game over and over. They refine it, they polish up its appearance and tweak its mechanics, but the overall creative vision they’re going for is the same each time. Morrowind was still shaking off the trappings of the Elder Scrolls series. But Oblivion, Skyrim, Fallout 3, Fallout 4, and Fallout 76 have all been The Bethesda Game at heart.
The Bethesda Game is as wide as an ocean, and as deep as a puddle. It’s a game designed around a core loop consisting of combat, looting, and downtime (and nothing else). One where there’s no real consequences for – or possibility of – failure. One where the player’s sense of overwhelming power is paramount to the design, but is undercut by the extremely low difficulty of attaining that ridiculous level of power. The Bethesda Game is one with no sense of pacing or self-control, like a puppy frantically jumping at your chest or a child pulling on you to show you all the coolest stuff right away. One where (especially in Skyrim) your ultimate freedom to do whatever ends up making every character build exactly the same by the endgame. These are games that have the vestigial elements of action RPGs: “quests”, a “story”, “characters”, et cetera, but they exist as an afterthought, something best ignored or avoided as much as is possible.
And you know what? That’s fine! It’s okay.
Not every game needs to be an obscure Russian art piece. Not every game needs to be a brain-breaking challenge. Not every game needs to have a rich deep world, or solid storytelling, or a meaningful ultimate goal, or an interesting adversary. Capitalism grinds us into the dirt and force-feeds us the big dinner of human shit every day, and sometimes you want to come home to something that will just give you something easy to do with your hands and 3 of your brain cells, a quick dopamine infusion before you have to pass out and do it all again the next day. Does it suck that The Bethesda Game arose out of absorbing two of the most beautiful and deep role-playing franchises of the 90s like a shuffling gelatinous cube made of corporate greed? Yeah. It sucks. Can we move past that? Absolutely yeah, sure.
The game wants every character to be a sneaky magic archer smith enchanter warrior, but you can get a lot of mileage out of artificially restricting yourself for as long as possible. There’s mountains of fun to be had in resisting the game’s attempts to make you an all-powerful uber-god immediately. Make an illiterate character and read no books or notes. Make a racist cat who refuses to take quests from anyone who isn’t Khajiit. Make a superstitious character who won’t touch enchanted items or spell books. Make an antivax idiot who refuses to drink potions and will only “heal their gut” by eating raw mushrooms. Don’t use fast travel, restrict yourself to only clothing items and no armor, refuse to use bladed weapons. There’s some really interesting character concepts here. In a world that aggressively funnels you to the top of as many food chains as possible, how long can you stay at the bottom deliberately?
One of my favorite “builds” is a character that isn’t the Dragonborn. Don’t learn any shouts, run away from dragons, and don’t proceed in the main quest beyond maybe going to Whiterun.
Here’s some hilarious shit that can happen in Skyrim: When you walk up to the literal first major city in the game, Whiterun, you will always find a group of Companions (the Fighter’s Guild of this game) fighting a giant. They’ll always win, and afterwards if you were standing anywhere near them they’ll try and talk to you. No matter what you say, whether you helped them or not, even if you tell Aela the Huntress that her stupid guild sounds like a waste of time for big losers, she’ll give you the quest to talk to their leader and join up. Once you do join, it comes to light within literally two (2) quests that there’s a secret inner circle with a Big Secret that is Very Secret and the secret is that they’re all werewolves. The very next quest, you’re initiated into the big secret inner circle and they turn YOU into a werewolf too. It’s completely ridiculous how fast it happens, they were falling all over themselves to make you a werewolf as quickly as possible. I love it. You can start Skyrim and be a werewolf within less than an hour if you hurry, it’s extremely silly.
I also enjoy the fact that the innkeeper (and every other NPC you meet) in the very first small town in the game knows all the details of the plight of an orphan boy in an abandoned house half a world away, because that boy is how you start the Dark Brotherhood quest line and we can’t have you missing out on that! Or how, even if you completely bomb the test to join the Thieves’ Guild in Riften, or just sleep through it and miss the window, they’ll let you in anyway. You can be the guildmaster, even. You can hover on a bucket and complete the Mage’s College without casting a single spell. Be an anti-magic Arch Mage, who cares. Lead every guild in Skyrim, be thane of every hold within seconds of setting foot in them; the game showers you with honors and completely devalues them, it’s fascinating. Here’s another challenge: try to not become the thane of any hold you spend time in.
When Castlevania: Symphony of the Night came out, they hid half of the entire game from you unless you fulfilled an arbitrary and actually-secret set of requirements to unlock it. In Current Year, the conversation seems to be all about accessibility and making sure everyone can see every pixel and mesh of every game. Well, here you go, champions of the easy mode: Skyrim is a game that gets you. It’s all about shoving every piece of content directly into all your holes, as fast as it possibly can.
Fallout 2, Daggerfall, Morrowind, these games are still there. You can still go play them right now. Does Skyrim slap my entire bod? No. But it does slap. It slaps at least a little of my bod. And the weird, flat, glitchy, crash-prone, too-open, just straight-up nonsense non-design at play in TES5 is still well worth the price of admission, in my opinion. There’s something lovable and bizarre there, and the puddle ocean is fun to splash around in from time to time. Sometimes that’s enough.