With the merest pinch of imagination, Skyrim can become your world entire. It was designed to.
In Skyrim, you can stalk a deer, bow in hand, through the low brush at the foot of a mountain. Creeping ever closer, the lilting tack of blue and yellow butterflies threaten with distraction, but you are focused. You nock an arrow, draw the bow and loose.
This critical hit wounds the animal, but not lethally. You bound after it as it fords a river, loose another shaft which takes it in the neck, and it plunges, limp, into the icy water. The current sweeps it away downstream and you dive after it, quickly stripping the corpse of vital goods before you see - too late - the edge of the waterfall, and go tumbling into the abyss.
Before you break the surface and take your terrified gasp for breath, what awaits you above the water could be anything. A town, thick with people and needs and narrative - a peaceful valley, grown over with flowers and moss ripe for picking, patrolled by gentle mountain goats - a giant, scaly leviathan of eons past resurrected by the apocalyptic World Eater.
No matter what it is, you are free to involve yourself and change what you find or to simply walk away, and discover what waits over the horizon. It is intimate and epic - if you let it be.
Skyrim demanded a healthy dose of optimism to create, and requires a pinch of the same hopeful, romantic spirit to enjoy. What were the good folks at Bethesda thinking, when their fertile minds spawned this prodigious property? They were being arrogant, is what they were doing - but so beautifully.
Bethesda are the most attractive of optimists. They believed it could be done. They, in their proud, self-righteous way figured they could produce a massive fantasy kingdom for gamers to play in that could be squeezed on to the current gen yet managed to bypass our cynicism. A game that would make us forget about bugs, forget about the graphical limitations of our gaming tech, and become entirely absorbed in a fantasy.
They wanted to make the fantasy game we imagine a fantasy game could be. In assembling Skyrim, they reached for the sky - and descended from those snowy peaks with a definitive experience. Skyrim is a supernatural success.
It shouldn't work. It's too big to work. It's too much. Its map is ridiculously spacious, packed tight with landmarks and sights and towns and set pieces. Look at any horizon and, lest ye be standing at the edge of an ocean, your view will be filled with gorgeous, mile-high summits. Mist and snow streams from their jagged edges - incredible effects that turn your first-person view into a National Geographic wide-angle shot. A postcard.
Its people are so richly drawn that they stop feeling like NPCs and become characters - from the charming young woman carrying her basket of flowers through Whiterun who dreams of running away and joining a Khajit caravan to the cruel matron of Riften's orphanage to the boastful elf in the tavern, challenging you to a drinking contest.
The cynic in us - after meeting a character or two, still doesn't believe it. There's no way that, when we come to the next town - a big city, for example - that it will be populated entirely by defined, backstoried characters who have their own tales to tell and are always, somehow, involved in a tiny or titanic narrative.
Well, they are.
One could argue that Obsidian accomplished near the same thing with Fallout: New Vegas, but Bethesda manages to breathe far more life into its world than one would think possible, given the sheer amount of content on offer, here. The only place you'll find rank-and-file NPCs are in your enemies (unless you make an enemy of civilization), and given the sheer scope of character elsewhere, one entirely forgets to care.
There is still more than a modicum of context within the confines of the subterranean dungeons you explore - a shred of a journal here, a coven of witches worshiping a half-human monster there - interesting outlines, ready to be filled in with the broad strokes of the player's imagination. Elsewhere, you'll find yourself creeping through the ancient ruins of Dwarven culture - long since abandoned by its diminutive hosts, now lorded over by their mechanical guardians and the twisted ancestors of their cursed slaves.
Despite being a further exploration of the somewhat familiar Elder Scrolls universe, despite being so densely illustrated with countless in-game books and exhaustively explored through the (absolutely ridiculous number of) quests, the province of Skyrim retains the sense of mystery so essential to its genre.
That is a tender tightrope to walk.
We demand certain things of the fantasy genre. We expect swords and greatswords and daggers - we want horses to ride and followers to command and the ability to pitch fire from our fingers. We want the sense of fantasy worlds that so absorbed us as children, and those have certain ingredients - but a crucial component is that sense of wonder. A sense of not knowing what lay around the bend - that vital pull of discovery and mystery.
Skyrim achieves this. It is as comfortable as an old pair of jeans and as thrilling and mysterious as a new lover. It also has excellent writing, uniformly strong voice work, one of the best original scores of the year and consistently thrilling art direction.
It's also not perfect. I have two complaints.
First of all, you can do excellent melee combat in an open-world, first-person game - and Skyrim doesn't. There is often an unfortunate disconnect between you and your weapon, and one rarely feels truly in control of your wild, flailing swings of steel. It's a strange beast in that the act of playing it is significantly less pleasant than the experience of playing it.
Second - while appreciating that it's open-world, and the province of Skyrim is no doubt a sizable chunk of data - Skyrim suffers from distressingly long load times. This issue is compounded by your inability to fast-travel from any but an outdoor environment.
Say, for example, you're puttering around your house, working on some alchemy and you decide to take a trip up to Windhelm. You have to exit your house (long, long load) before you can fast travel to another location which, of course, requires a long, long load. Even if you'd like to do a bit of shopping at the local vendors, you're required to walk out of your house (long load), walk down the street to the general store (load), conduct your business, leave (long load), walk ten steps to the alchemist's shop (load) and... well, you get the idea.
You spend a great deal of your time in Skyrim waiting to play Skyrim.
But you will wait, and you most assuredly will accept its mediocre - yet satisfyingly tactical - combat. The package, as a whole, is far too seductive. All the load screens in the world won't stop you from getting your ass to Riften to murder that evil orphanage mistress, and the daunting, awkward task of felling a frost troll is no stop to you.
The game sets an incredible number of potential paths before you, and in its inestimable beauty is quite comfortable to see you attend none of them. It is a grand, soaring, sweeping world, begging for exploration - and if you don't feel like saving it, you're welcome to pick a point on the compass and just start walking.
Epic battles and intimate tales of valor, cowardice, honor and sin are just over the next mountain, waiting for you to discover them and treat as you will. A tapestry as rich in focus and features as the night sky over Solitude lays before you, and it is for you to write the song.
It's so damned absorbing, so immersive that one could easily lose hundreds of hours to its insane scale and mythos - but Skyrim is not perfect. It's too ambitious, too huge, too impressive in so many facets to be perfect - but it may be the most perfectly-realized fantasy-world simulator to ever grace gaming.
- strong writing and voice work - and I love that Stephen Russel plays like, half the thieves in Skyrim. A lovely gamer in-joke, that.
- absolutely wonderful presentation. Dungeons are suitably gloomy, towns bustle and the mountain vistas will take your breath away.
- the music is particularly great
- tons of scenery switch-ups - forests and swamps and tundra, oh my!
- the game world is ridiculously huge
- the magic system is a lot of fun
- cutting dudes' throats (and one-shotting dragons) with top-tier assassin gear feels deliciously powerful
- stealth works well
- the skill system, while a bit constrictive, is a welcome addition to the Elder Scrolls formula and allows you to really define your character's abilities
- every townsperson (incredibly) has a story
- at least 150 structured quests, and limitless "radiant" quests
- excellent storytelling, overall
- profoundly immersive
- seeing, fighting and slaying dragons never got old
- you can and will lose hundreds of hours to this game
- honestly, I could go on and on
- significant load times (and I should be able to skip some by fast-travelling from indoors!)
- the melee combat doesn't feel particularly tactile
- while it's much harder to do, it's still technically possible to level yourself into a corner
- bugs that I can't even bring myself to care about when the overall experience is so damned incredible.
Skyrim may be the most perfectly-realized fantasy-world simulator to ever grace gaming.