Submersing in Skyrim

This post originally appeared on Vagary.TV. We work awful hard over there, so if you like it, please consider adding us to your blogroll. I decided to write this because — *gasp* — friend and co-host, Adam “Ferrel” Trzonkowski has decided to wait on buying the game. Here I hope to capture a little bit of what has me so entranced with The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. Enjoy!

I never made it past the first couple hours of Oblivion. I got as far as the first major city before petering out. I killed things, this being a video game and all, but the omnipotence of the guards vexed me. I would sneak through the hillsides, take out a bandit (or travelling salesman) only to find a stand of guards over the next rise, somehow having seen my dark deed and demanding that I surrender or die. The world, full of collectibles and hidden treasure as it was, couldn’t overcome the immersion breaking logic that dictated the AI. I wasn’t much of an Elder Scrolls guy.

Until now.

Skyrim is, hands down, the best RPG I’ve ever played. It’s better than the Final Fantasy’s of my teendom and the Dragon Age’s of my twenties. Its open world makes linear stories like Mass Effect 2 seem almost cinematic in their rigidity. Character development is meaningful and based only on skills used in context; gone is sneaking for sneak’s sake or magic missiling to the empty sky. Replacing these are bigger, less frequent gains and much quicker levels.

The beauty of Skyrim is in making you the stranger in a strange land. In one fell swoop Skyrim has accomplished what MMOs have sought for over 10 years: Tamriel is a living, breathing world that begs to be explored. It invites you to daydream about its darkest depths and hidden treasures. It invites you seek what’s just beyond. What stands out most, however, is the utter appropriateness. Snowstorms will assault you in the mountains and obscure your vision. Elk run in herds and frighten away tiny mountain goats. Dragons will circle you, and taunt you, but you might just be able to hide. If she sees you, be sure to keep your distance because one good bite will make you a meal. Should you win the day, however, you’ll witness a fire sear the flesh from its bones and leave behind a skeletal carcass to mark your triumph. The score underlining it all is written to an epic tee, perfectly cued and wonderfully orchestrated.

Skyrim, in at least one way, introduces a new contradiction. The story is engaging, at times visceral, and the player often feels the impending hammer-fall above their heads; the dragons have returned and they aim to destroy… unless you, the Dragonborn, stop it. There’s a certain amount of pressure in such a quest. At the same time, the game-world invites me to craft a character from my avatar. I am a ranger, a woodsman with a flair for magic and a love of dual swords, and if I can save the world then it is my duty to do so. But every quest sends you trekking across large swathes of land, tempts you with each dungeon diversion and necromancer’s haunt. It is woefully and delightfully tempting to forget questing entirely and just explore. The game asks for a cognitive dissonance. Its dialogue is resonant, imploring; its world a place worth saving, a place worth getting lost in. At times, it’s as if your travels exist in a vacuum where the dragons are always in mid-flight and their mystery remains in wait.

I play on the PC but I use a controller. The UI feels built to suit the scheme. Some players hate that but I’m not one of them. Skyrim handles fine on a keyboard, even if it doesn’t let you rebind certain keys – but then, this isn’t an MMO, so who ever said it had to be? There’s a duality present here. The game, quite obviously, has been built to take advantage of modern PC hardware – the graphics lack nothing on seminal powerhouses like The Witcher 2, though indeed they differ in style. Blurry texture-work is non-existent on Ultra — if you can run it. Yet, for that, it still feels made to suit a gamepad. Pay attention, PC players, because this is what next-generation console games will be aiming for and you have it now. Congratulations.

Skyrim is a work like no other. It is an amalgam of fantasy tropes blended and presented with audacity, a keen eye for the keen observer, and a seriousness more at home in Winterfell than Tamriel. Perhaps a bug comes forward – a townsman walking between you and a lazy Jarl, a wolf floating hundreds of feet in the air – but even these are only slight reminders of the imperfection of video gaming; they are smile and nod moments on the way to greater deeds. I don’t know yet if there is a damsel in distress or a mountainous dragon lair filled with gold, but I wouldn’t doubt it. Skyrim is a pool of familiar water found fresh with submersion. It is, in the world of open-world RPGs, revolutionary.

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