A Museum of Our Medium
There’s a cardinal rule at play with video game reviewers, which is that you cannot review a video game having not completed it. The ramifications of such a thing are plainly obvious – it could send an incorrect message about a game, misguide readers, dramatically alter the score and worst of all, compromise the sales of a game. As unshakable of a rule as that is, it’s a spell that must be broken with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. If the video game media held Skyrim up to such a rule, it would presumably take months, if not years to properly “complete” the game in order to pen a review. With a game this endless, it’s safe to say that Skyrim would never have received a review. To put it plainly, I played Skyrim enough that I reached a point where I finally said “okay, I’ve seen enough. I know how I’m scoring this.” Keep in mind, that shouldn’t be taken as if I had decided that I was done playing with the game all together -- it was just a culmination of realizing that I was playing one of the greatest video games ever made, knowing the score I’d give a game of such rare caliber, writing the review and plunging myself back into Skyrim for as long as it possible. This is a first for me.
It is difficult to ponder which aspects of the game are worthy enough to mention in this review, which makes it feel all the more criminal to omit the countless other aesthetics, logistics and memorable moments embedded in Skyrim. One of the key pieces to the Skyrim experience that cannot be ignored is the breathtaking beauty of the game. No matter where you roam or what you’re doing in Skyrim, there’s always that moment when you’ll stop and look off into the distance to admire some of the most stunning sceneries ever seen in a video game. Every single landscape you’ll come across could be a desktop wallpaper; and every interior, town and dungeon you explore feel as real as your own backyard. It’s a constant reminder, and a novelty that never wears off. Although there are copious other video games that push graphical fidelity harder than Skyrim, few, if any video games in existence contain as much artistic grace. Just as you’re taking in the sights of Skyrim, in come the sounds of serene ambience – the peaceful sound of whispering winds, the rustling of the trees, the hasty flaps of a nearby butterfly and the calming sounds of a waterfall off in the distance. Just then, a beautiful musical arrangement trickles in ever so gently as the cherry on top; and in that perfectly aligned moment, you’re no longer home.
Beasts, bandits and other formidable foes are just around the bend; reminding you that there are beings that seek to dirty the world that you’ve fallen in love with. This cues another of Skyrim’s finest qualities: triumphance. The shrilling sound of a pack of bandits reverberates through the environment as they call for your death, alerting you to their pending presence. Your once heightened senses become tunneled, the dreamful music fades out of earshot and in its place comes a swooping bombastic score fit to soundtrack all of your legendary battles in Skyrim. You reach into your bottomless array of weapons, spells and shouts and pick their poison; staining the vividly green grass and beautiful backdrops with blood and the lifeless, looted bodies of the slain. You’ll come to realize that your personal, intimate bond with this awe-inspiring world fuels you to defend and preserve your beloved territory. Most games make saving the world a video gamey mission or objective – Skyrim compels you to make it your honor and will.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim features a much needed improvement to user interface – foregoing the atypical menu-heavy micromanagement in favor of a sleek, minimalistic form. Never before has navigating through a Western RPG’s customarily thick inventories, quest lists, stat sheets or world map been as simplistic and fluid. The same point can be made for skill/level progression, which is admittedly a rigid barrier to entry for onlookers of the genre. Past installments of The Elder Scrolls series forced players to choose their race, class and strong suits virtually from the outset; which was acceptable for seasoned veterans, yet challenging for those who wanted to try before they buy, if you will. This resulted in a large number of players having to start a new game until they found a class and arrangement that suited their taste. Bethesda rendered this problem obsolete with Skyrim; and did so by turning its skill progression and leveling system into a more organic experience. This time, character proficiencies level up based on how often you use that specific component. The more you use swords, the more adept you’ll become at wielding them. The more destructive magic you use, the more skilled you’ll become at using them; and so on. No longer do players have to “place their bets” on proficiencies that they think they’ll use down the line. For example, if you think you want to become a thief in Skyrim and discover soon after that you’d much rather be a mage, you won’t be pigeon-holed for the rest of the game. When it comes to leveling up, Bethesda used a similar ethos by offering you just three options for leveling (and an obligatory skill point) – health, magicka and stamina. This design choice eradicates the daunting amount of options that perplexed players as to what to choose, yet refraining from dumbing down the game so extensively that it loses touch with the genre.
Skyrim took a few notes from Bethesda’s other Game of the Year winner, Fallout 3, by enhancing several key aspects of the central gameplay. Combat has never been done better in The Elder Scrolls series to date; thanks in part to the streamlined interface and the ‘favorites’ features, which serves as the hotkeys akin to PC gaming. Swapping out weapons, spells or shouts is done in an instant, which preserves the flow of combat. Melee combat feels way more impactful in Skyrim as well, which no doubt stems from the lessons learned from Fallout 3. One of the biggest complaints about Oblivion was that it felt like you were slashing at air and not actually striking your enemy; even though you were inflicting damage. While this issue isn’t completely null and void in Skyrim, there’s a much greater sense of weapon impact, and the slow motion finishing blows from Fallout 3 are back to add a little more oomph to bring battles to a more dramatic conclusion.
The main quest and side quests are aplenty, which has always been a calling card of The Elder Scrolls. The tale of your Dragonborn protagonist is significantly more involving and central to the game’s storyline than in past iterations, and the events that unfold along the way are well written and exceedingly entertaining. The side quests in Skyrim are just as supplemental as usual; however, they are much more unique and well thought out than Morrowind or Oblivion. Guild quests are without question the greatest improvement of them all – all of your favorite factions (and one or two new ones) are back, and have a much meatier structure to them. Skyrim always provides you with something interesting on the agenda, which is why Skyrim will consume hundreds of hours of your playtime. You’ll always be compelled.
As I skim through the contents of this review, I get a feeling of incompletion. There are several stones unturned; and despite my best efforts, my words won’t be able to do this game justice. I humbly accept this defeat. I realize that my inability to cover all of Skyrim’s bases is a telltale sign that there is something magnificent about this game; a game that cannot be put into words justly. So much of what makes Skyrim special is that each of our experiences with the game will be different. Each and every one of us will have an immaculate story to tell – images, sounds and moments that will stay with us forever. These moments in gaming are best left within ourselves, instead of on a review as fodder for a score.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim makes the debatable question of if video games can be considered art an undisputable yes. Skyrim is a video game rich with endless interpretation, emotion, attachment and fragile beauty – a masterpiece in the art of video games to be heralded for years to come.