Skyrim lives up to Bethesda’s legacy
The much-anticipated fifth game in the Elder Scrolls series, Skyrim debuted last week to overwhelming critical acclaim. You know something’s huge in the gaming world when even CNN gives it a mention, and Skyrim definitely jumped that bar on its launch date.
The game, alongside its predecessors, centers around one main mechanic: ultimate freedom. You are a rising hero in the fantasy country of Skyrim, and you have the ability to go wherever you please and do as you will on your own timeline. There are no mandated events, no enforced storyline, nothing that must immediately be done — and because of that, Skyrim unlocks infinite possibilities as a storytelling machine rather than a narrative experience.
The country of Skyrim itself has a little bit of that in-Soviet-Russia charm: It’s the snowy north, with harsh mountains and whipping winds, and most citizens of the various towns speak in corny, Slavic-esque accents. Your character begins as a prisoner being taken to his or her execution, stuck on the back of a small wagon; before this happens, though, a massive dragon attacks, giving you the chance to escape. And then — you’re free.
As for me, I immediately ran off to go explore a small outcropping of caves with a series of short puzzles – and some zombies too, I guess – inside. Upon arrival, I was surprised to find that a couple of bandits were inside, and one of them was in the middle of attempting to solve the first cave puzzle on his own. He met his death in the form of a wall of arrows, triggered by pulling the wrong lever. This, I think, speaks wonders about the AI system Bethesda has crafted as a whole: Non-player characters have their own desires, behaviors, and daily routines, and will frequently surprise players with their craftiness or loyalty. They each have a speaking style and mannerisms all their own. They’ll also surprise with their occasional vengeance: I killed a single chicken and had an entire town up in arms after me, torches ablaze. Apparently, chickens are highly prized in Skyrim.
On top of hundreds of quests available across the enormous (really, really enormous) sprawl of the world map, Skyrim offers players hundreds of random events and tiny encounters in between towns. Whether it’s engaging in a random dragon battle (cue epic music), stumbling over the hut of an angry witch, spending a night exchanging beer and songs with a traveling bard, or foregoing the main quest to attend Skyrim’s magical academy for a few months, the way in which players express themselves through their hero’s personal journey differs drastically from person to person. And the sense that the journey and the world are yours alone is what makes _Skyrim- truly the masterpiece of the year.
Of course, with a game so great in scope, there are definitely flaws — crashes galore, for example. If you’re playing the Xbox version, make sure to play from cache each time rather than installing: The hard copy has a glitch where, upon installation, textures revert to the lowest-resolution versions possible. I managed to stumble into a camp of giants and ended up getting clubbed to death by one immediately; my avatar’s body flew up off the map and into space, and refused to come back down again.
And Bethesda, we need to talk about horse design: Rideable in-game horses are laughably weak compared to your character. A horse will die horribly in a crack of flesh and neighing if asked to hop more than about... five feet. And you may think you parked your horse outside like a responsible owner, but nope — it’s gone. Sometimes it’ll trot back to the nearest inn to wait for you, and sometimes it just decides to enter the void and randomly disappear forever.
God or demon, hero or despot, wise wanderer or innocent novice — the role-playing aspect of games has been done before, but never with this scope and never before in such a realistic way. Skyrim offers us a peek into the possibilities of future games: freedom within a fantasy world that is somehow more beautiful than our own, a different time and place.