I have a question for you.
Skyrim is one of the most revered games of the 2010's. It's significance on gaming culture cannot be ignored; its name alone is recognized by more people than any other open world RPG. It has been ported to nearly every conceivable platform, each release garnering more weekly press coverage than most AAA games in a month. Cited by countless journalists not just as a game of the year, but a game of the decade. Even reviewing it has weight, for challenging the legacy of a modern classic brings upon a comment defense team louder than a thousand angry alarm clocks. This game is both literally and figuratively huge.
My question to you is "Why?"
Let's be perfectly clear: I do not think Skyrim is a bad game. I see the appeal in exploring a massive world with the freedom to attack, take, and talk to who or whatever you want. Getting lost for hours, gazing at the view, optimizing your stats until you are the best. It's that all important sense of accomplishment that makes a game like this worth playing. But why specifically is Skyrim the game of choice to represent this? What about this specific game inspires awe and wonder? I have spun hours into days trying to answer that question, entirely for myself. I can't answer it on my own. So I turn to you, dear readers. Why is Skyrim THE fantasy open world game? Because my personal experience with Skyrim hasn't exactly done a lot to inspire me.
I believe that is in part because the world I am asked to get immersed in is about the least immersive a game can get. No one on the entire continent of Tamriel acts like a living thing, animating and emoting like a puppet with tight strings. People stare like you are invading their dream in Inception, with bright eyes that gleam from behind a concoction of dirt and Playdoh that's supposed to be a face. When they die, they ragdollize, which is hilarious for a comedy, but not for a dark fantasy game where everyone looks like they need to shower. It's hard to get lost in the games world when I am constantly being reminded that I am in my living room playing a game. That's hard to pull of particularly in VR. In most VR games, when I take off the headset after a gaming binge, I take a second to re-adjust to the fact I'm not in the world of Tetris Effect or Blood & Truth or what have you. In Skyrim, I have not problem adjusting because it never felt like I left.
This has been about the metaphorical immersion so far. I have yet to include the times the game flat out glitched or crashed. All of the bug fixes in the world couldn't save this kind of inherent jank, but it would still be appreciated. This game has been out for nearly a decade. Why on earth are my hands morphing into one? Why is the audio mxing off sometimes? Why did the game crash when I was just standing there? Even if we take into account that the VR version is a newer release, it's still close three years old. We would have completely buried No Man's Sky next to Mighty No. 9 if it was still this broken three years in. It's already unforgivable that a game is released in this state to begin with, but to never address prominent, game breaking bugs shows utter contempt for the player.
A lot of this could be forgiven if the game had some sort of energy to it, but sadly, it does not. I blame the open ended nature of the game itself for that. Bethesda RPG’s have a tendency to lightly suggest things to do, but fear actually pressuring you to do them. Skyrim doesn't have the grapes to pull something like Eventide Island or The Trial Of The Sword in Breath Of The Wild. Almost every game needs some kind of central element to focus on, and open world games quickly fall apart without it. The thread of logic behind everything you do needs to have the exact same ending. For example, in Assassin’s Creed, that ending is “kill you assassination target”. You tail this guy to learn information about your target so you can kill your assassination target. You buy better equipment so you can more effectively kill your assassination target. You climb towers to survey the land to find better hiding spots so you don’t alert the guards when you try to kill your assassination target. You get my point, yeah? From what I discern, Skyrim has an end goal, but doesn’t really seem to care about if you do it or not. The important thing in Skyrim isn’t the main plot it suggests you do, but rather the adventures you make up wandering around. And this seems to be the thing people like about Skyrim: the endless adventure of wandering around as your OC. That’s alright, I get that. But there is a slight problem: Skyrim’s world is just not very fun to explore.
Perhaps this is where the discrepancy between Skyrim fans and I lie. The fans see a beautiful fantasy world filled with adventures to go on; I see a colorless empty wasteland with icons sprayed across the land like spilt coffee. There is nothing that surprised or excited me. The combat strategy that I developed was “swing a sword with one hand and heal myself with the other”, and almost every encounter I came across ended 15 seconds in. This is even easier in the VR version, as hands move independently from each other. At least the original you can sort of strafe around the enemy, but now it’s as easy as twiddling the motion controller in your hand and jumping behind them with the teleport. Even the dragon fights, VR or not, go down easier than the trolls. And the dragons are supposed to be the big threat that the story revolves around. It might have been more surprising if I just encountered them hanging out somewhere, or if there were special shrines to locate the dragons. Make it into a sort of collectable so I can feel like I’m progressing towards something besides “go to place on map”. Instead, they circle you at random points on the map, the music swells to let you know that you’re coming up on a climatic battle, and then the dragon drops after about 20 twiddles of my sword, never once coming close to dying. A lot of Skyrim feels like that to me. Vastly bloated walks to my next destination topped off with some generic combat, in a world that has a loose understanding of physics that occasionally gives up altogether.
I’ve been hurling stones for a long time now, but I stress again that none of them ever break Skyrim. I’m not advocating that it’s bad. There was effort put in when you consider all of the world building and the variety of mechanics. But I’m saying it is standard. Average. Typical. There is fun to be had, but you can probably get more fun playing something else. That doesn’t mean that any love for Skyrim you may have is invalidated. Is it fair for a critic to challenge what you like because they have way too much time and resources to find games that do the same thing but better, when in all likelihood, you are just trying to find a quick and easy way to have fun? Probably not. Does that mean my complaints about Skyrim are inconsequential to the average person? Well, I don’t believe that either. I think if critics don’t point out the flaws from a players perspective, then developers will be held accountable by no one. If everyone ignores Skyrims shortcomings and act as though it is divine, then the shortcomings grow. It came as a shock when Fallout 76 was a little too unpolished and broken, but we’ve been giving Bethesda an inch every time a new game comes out. Of course they were going to take a mile at some point. And after years of tuning out the critics, they find themselves doing the same thing for that disaster. They’ve been taught it works when someone complains their game is busted. But now, it's not. Like letting a child do what they want for too long, then imposing rules on them.
I ask not that you renounce Skyrim for its flaws, but be aware that they are there. Anything I didn’t mention specifically, assume that I think they are fine. Nothing that lit my eyes up, but nothing that I doused the fire either. In fact, I want to end this by recommending Skyrim in VR. Kind of a strange way to end a beating session, like I decided to give the lunch money back to the third grader I stole it from. But there just isn’t a VR game out there that lets you play a full scale adventure for dozens of hours like this. It’s simple and forgiving enough that you can play it comfortably in a VR space, which tends to lend itself to uncomplicated controls. It’s gotten to the point where I only want to play Skyrim in VR. But consider it an acting chairman rather than a king of VR. Once someone comes along with an open world made specifically for VR, then it will steal the crown away from Skyrim in an instant. I never get the urge to specifically play Skyrim. Rather, I get the urge to play something longform in VR, so I boot up Skyrim as the sole candidate with a run time of a typical game. That’s a backhanded way to put it, but an honest one. Skyrim exists. It’s generic, unpolished, and completely forgettable in my eyes. But perhaps I don’t have the right perspective for this. Feel free to lend me your glasses.
FINAL VERDICT: Okay.
ONE SENTENCE REASONING: Skyrim is pretty novel in VR, but the RPG itself is a bloated fantasy.
(Nick Miller is a video game historian and collector based in Cincinnati. You can reach him at [email protected])
This review is dedicated to my friend, Elliot. Thank you for the words of encouragement.