“I used to be an adventurer like you…” | Skyrim at 10
What’s left to say about The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim? What hasn’t been written about the 19th best selling video game of all time? There have certainly been better RPGs. There are RPGs with more focus, with grander scale and with better mechanics. What kept Skyrim from falling into history’s dustbin was accessibility. I don’t mean accessibility in the sense that Bethesda had disabled gamers on its mind when they wrote Skyrim’s janky code I mean that they wanted to make the genre they helped shape into one capable of producing AAA blockbusters. They succeeded and no one since has even come close.
Let’s be frank, Americans aren’t the best RPG makers in the world. The next most successful American RPG on the best selling video games of all time list is Borderlands 2 which says it all. When it comes to role playing games the Japanese always clean up with European studios like Larian Studios and CD Projekt Red gaining increasingly strong footholds in the diverse genre. But Bethesda have been making games since the early 1990s and have a wealth of experience in knowing the basics of what RPG players want and what to do to make them more popular with each iteration.
Two centuries after the Oblivion Crisis the Cyrodillic Empire is a vassal state of the High Elf Aldmeri Dominion who have outlawed the worship of Talos, the only man to ever ascend to divinity and a Skyrim native to boot. Awakening on a prison transport the player character or Dragonborn as they will come to be known is headed for an ignoble death beneath the blade of an executioner’s axe. Before the axe can fall a dragon, long thought extinct, destroys the fort allowing the Dragonborn to escape. From there the Dragonborn enters a world brimming with possibilities. Will they pick a side in the ongoing civil war between the colonialist Imperials or the xenophobic Nords? Will they seek brotherhood in a werewolf cult or join an ancient society of assassins? Will they bother to find out why the dragons have returned to Skyrim? The choice was theirs…
If you’ve never heard of Skyrim but have spent time on the internet you’ve seen it referenced, knowingly or not, in thousands of memes, videos and even TikToks. That’s how you know a game has life. Even it’s director, Todd ‘It Just Works’ Howard has become something of a meme since the game’s release with his declarations of ” See that mountain? You can go there” becoming a sort of prophecy of how bigger meaning better would come to define open world games for the next ten years. It’s a part of the Zeitgeist now as much as it was a decade ago. That has of course been helped by Bethesda constantly re-releasing the game onto next-gen platforms which is something that also became a meme after Bethesda released an ad starring Keegan Michael Key announcing the release of Skyrim for Amazon’s Alexa. That’s fuck you money right there.
But Skyrim’s pop-culture footprint and overwhelming success was made because it was genuinely fun to play and its content was compelling even if its main story wasn’t. The Elder Scrolls series has always benefitted from its side content being better than its main story lines which are, by their nature, heroes journeys. Skyrim’s side content like the Dark Brotherhood missions, Thieves Guild saga or even just exploring caves or Dwemer (Dwarven) ruins let players’ imaginations and play styles run free. With that said certain play styles fared far better than others and it was where Skyrim stretched most in calling itself an RPG.
Who has ever played as an illusionist in Skyrim? Plenty of people I’m sure but who has not had an infinitely better time playing as an illusionist in an RPG whose combat feels tailored to every kind of play like the Divinity series. It’s unfair to call Skyrim a hack ‘n’ slash game as it does have a great deal more nuance than that but when swinging a sword or skulking from the shadows are the two most effective methods in combat it gets harder to try and succeed at a new style of play. Anything beyond hacking, slashing, shooting or blasting fire from your hands seems like a great deal of effort and fair play to those that stuck to conjuring demons and resurrecting corpses. But even Skyrim’s most physical attacks still felt almost weightless in comparison to even older games like Dark Messiah of Might & Magic whose kick attack remains satisfying 15 years later. With that said the iconic “Fus-Ro-Dah” Shout, one of a number of voice powers discovered through learning ancient words and absorbing the souls of slain dragons to power them, is almost as weighty as a hit from a giant’s club.
What separates Skyrim from the modern crop of open world RPGs is that it never felt like it was forcing you to do anything or bombarding you with endless amounts of shit work. Bethesda wanted players to explore and thrive in the world they had taken years to build not run them through it leaving them exhausted by endless fetch quests. In fairness to Howard being able to go to that mountain and climb it actually meant something. To stand on the slopes of High Hrothgar and look down on the great plain stretching from Whiterun to the border mountains that contain the embattled city of Markarth is always breathtaking. The same can be said of walking through the hill country that descends from the Throat of the World and into the frozen tundra near the city of Whitehold, home of the Storm Cloak rebellion.
Skyrim, for all it’s broken code, bugs and wooden NPCs, remains a gorgeous game as well as a prescient one with its attempted coups, racism and religious fanaticism dominating its story. It’s a game that’s left its mark on several generations of gaming and, more importantly, on several generations of gamers. It’s legacy is written in Ubisoft’s endless failed attempts at bettering it, in the endless amount of memes generated from “I used to be an adventurer like you but then I took an arrow in the knee” but most of all it’s legacy is written in the glitchy, absorbing, janky thrilling world Bethesda brought to stunning, snowbound life ten years ago.