I have, for a long time, held Skyrim as my personal favorite game of the generation. To this day, it's a bit of a divisive game - some people claim it's pretty boring, some people strongly dislike its mechanics, etc. Of course those are valid opinions and I understand them, but I wanted to write down what I liked so much about the game. So I did. And I wasn't going to post it to Giantbomb, but after finishing it I thought I might go ahead and do just that. So, here it is.
I can’t sit here and tell you that Skyrim is a perfect game. Far from it. You even have good ground to stand on if you want to make a case for Skyrim as a bad game. I understand those reasons, I could elaborate on them myself in an article as long as this one if I so wished. Deep as they are, though, Skyrim’s flaws are easily ignored by me in favor of its world.
Skyrim is a place of rolling plains, shimmering ice caves, dark ruins, and great mountains. Scaling one of these mountains allows you to see a majestic vista below, full of trees, snow, plains, towns, cities, and other mountains off in the distance. Look up at night, and you’ll see an aurora borealis, a northern lights display that falls short only of the real thing. Wait until the morning and you can see the sun’s brilliance shine across those snow-capped mountains and you’ll find rays of its light shining through a tree’s leaves. On a grand scale, Skyrim is the most beautiful game I’ve ever seen. That I can be a part of this world, and I can go anywhere and do anything, only adds to that grandeur and that beauty.
Up close, Skyrim doesn’t lose any of its luster. Every plain, every mountain, every city, every cave, and every ruin has its own individuality. No single place in Skyrim is an exact repeat of another, save for perhaps the inns outside of cities that pockmark the landscape. Making a bee-line from one place to another is almost impossible as you stop to discover new places to visit and new dungeons to dive into. Towns and cities have many citizens walking about, talking with each other and going about their business. Go into Whiterun and you can hear characters chatter about the feud between two big families in the town, talk about the state that Skyrim is currently in, a woman complaining about her husband never leaving the Jarl’s palace, and more. Peek your nose into a dungeon and you’ll find various treasures, monsters and traps. If you’re lucky, you might find something that reveals a new quest or a new Shout or any other number of things that might catch your interest.
I am no Elder Scrolls lore expert, but a defense of this game cannot go by without some mention of the story and the lore. You can find books scattered about the world that tell you what kind of stories exist in Skyrim. These books encompass practically anything that can be placed between two covers, and there you’ll find plenty of information about gods, history, characters, and even details on how to, say, work a special forge near Whiterun. Outside of the written word, you can talk to practically anyone to hear opinions on Skyrim’s war, current events, gossip, and more.
The final detail I must describe is this game’s music. Previous Elder Scrolls games have had a largely triumphant soundtrack. Morrowind starts with triumph as you emerge from the boat in shackles and ragged clothes. Oblivion’s music tends to have an air of whimsy about it, especially some of the town tunes. Both of these soundtracks are great, but Skyrim’s gives a distinct feeling of bleakness. It is not a soundtrack without triumph, but it also isn’t one without sorrow. It’s largely made up of slower, deeper sounds that really help to deliver the world’s desperation.
And if you’ve made it this far, then here is where I must wrap all of this together. What makes Skyrim different from other RPG’s? After all, doesn’t practically every RPG have towns that try to give off a feeling of a living, breathing community? Can’t you talk to everyone in Dragon Age Origins? Doesn’t Just Cause 2 have some brilliant vistas of its own? Doesn’t The Witcher 2 have those small details? Yes, but none of these games come together quite like Skyrim does. There’s a certain atmosphere of bleakness and dark times in Skyrim that no other game I have ever played gives off, and it’s only compounded by the northern, harsh conditions that these people live in and the uneasy, constant threat of another war erupting. You can spend all your time diving in caves if you want to, but you would be ignoring the larger conflict sitting above ground. I’ll be the first to admit that actually participating in the conflict between the Stormcloaks and the Empire isn’t a great quest, but the talk that you hear from citizens surrounding it does so much to cement the world. The discussion of troubles and the harsh world that these people live in does just as much to tell you that, even without a war, there would be considerable issues to deal with. And yet these people keep living on, and Skyrim does a fantastic job of placing you among them.
In any other form of fiction, this would seem cliché, but Skyrim places you right in the thick of it and it does so in the best way I’ve ever seen. Are any of its parts perfect? No, but Skyrim gives off such an aesthetic brilliance and absolutely nails its bleak atmosphere and tone so well that I can’t help but forgive its inadequacies, and its high points appeal to my own specific interests so directly that I can’t help but call it my favorite game of this generation.