Skyrim: 10 Years of Limitless Possibilities

Skyrim is an open-world Western Action RPG developed and published by Bethesda. It originally was released for the PC, Xbox 360, and PS3 on November 11, 2011. Later it was remastered for the PC, Xbox One, and PS4 in October 2016, and was ported to the Nintendo Switch in November 2017. VR versions for all VR platforms are also available. Skyrim: Anniversary Edition with more added content and additional visual upgrades was released for the PC, Xbox One/Series X/S, and PlayStation 4/5 in November of 2021. I played the Nintendo Switch version.

Prologue: Who Am I?

At first, all I felt was a relentless pounding and jostling from all around me. When I woke up, I found myself in a prisoner wagon. The others spoke to me, but I couldn’t hear what they said. The panic in my chest was too loud. After a few minutes, I caught someone mentioning a rebellion. Stormcloaks? Imperials? 

I tried moving my arms but the bindings were too strong. Fresh snow covered the ground. Eventually we arrived at the Imperial city of Helgen, where we were all scheduled for execution. I thought of the snow turning red. We arrived in the middle of town and disembarked one by one into the square. One of the prisoners tried to run. An archer took out his bow and shot him dead. The Imperials looked away and continued down their list, as if the prisoner had only taken a nap. The guard looked at me and asked, “Who are you?”

Who am I?

I blinked. Was I an Argonian, one of the “lizard people?” I felt my hands; no scales. Was I a Khajit, one of the “cat people?” I pushed my arms together; no fur. Was I a Dark Elf? I pressed my left ear to my shoulder; no pointed ears. Was I an Orc? I pushed my tongue against my cheeks and around my teeth; no pointed fangs.

I’m a Nord. That’s right, I’m a Nord. I have long, blond hair and a wide jawline. 

But what was my name? Bilbo… Jimbo…?

No, Frodo. Frodo Bagpipes. That’s right, my name is Frodo Bagpipes.

The guard frowned. He looked down at his scroll, then at the captain. “He’s not on the list.” 

The captain shrugged. “Forget the list, he goes to the block.” They made me line up with the others. A chopping block lay in the middle of the square. A basket was under it. 

An Imperial general walked up to one of the prisoners and started chiding him. I heard something about how the prisoner started a civil war and now he was going to pay for the crimes he had committed. Before I could hear any more, they pulled me up to the chopping block and rested my head on the wood.

And that’s when the dragon attacked.

The city erupted into flame and chaos. I barely made it out alive by finding a cave. Another prisoner made it with me and together we traveled through its depths. Better a cave than a dragon. By the time we made it to the other side, the sun had begun setting. This fellow suggested I travel to Riverwood if I needed a place to stay, and then he walked off.

I was on my own, in a very big world. I couldn’t remember who I was… but I could decide who I would become.

Chapter 1: Skyrim’s Origin Story

The video game industry has always been in love with open world games. Initially, creating these types of games required compromises. If you played the first Final Fantasy on the NES, you understood that your character wasn’t actually as large as a town, and they didn’t magically shrink when they entered it. That was just a symbolic representation of your character freely exploring a world. The game communicated to you using abstractions. These symbolic workarounds were how games tried to fulfill their ambition with only 8 or 16 bits to work with. With every hardware advancement came new chapters for the open world video game. In the 5th Console Generation, 3D polygons arrived, and Super Mario 64 showed players and developers how to move around a 3D space. After him marched a parade of open world Platformers, nicknamed “Collectathons.” The 6th Console Generation after that saw Grand Theft Auto 3, where the player could walk around a realistically proportional city with pedestrians, vehicles, and buildings. If the player committed crimes, the police began chasing you. You saw not only your player acting realistically, but also the world reacting realistically.

At the very end of the 7th Console Generation, in 2011, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim became another turning point for the genre; it marked a new direction for the entire video game industry for the next decade. Few role-playing games (RPGs) share Skyrim’s level of renown.

The video game industry has always been in love with role-playing as well. Many early programmers were familiar with Dungeons & Dragons, and from the very beginning these people tried to translate the limitless possibilities of pen and paper into a computer simulation. From the progenitor “Adam and Eve” of RPGs, Ultima and Wizardry (both released in 1981), came two genres – one developed by Japanese studios for consoles, aptly named JRPGs; and another developed by Western developers for PCs, eventually called Western RPGs.

As a child, Todd Howard played Ultima (technically its sequel Ultima III) and Wizardry, and they left a profound effect upon him. After graduating high school and college Howard decided to pursue a career developing video games. He frequently passed by the studio for Bethesda Softworks during his commute to school, and while the studio rejected his initial job applications, they eventually hired him and he soon began working on The Elder Scrolls series, which was the studio’s own attempt at creating a Western RPG set in an open world. He worked on The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall (1996), and was promoted to game director for The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. In 2002, while Grand Theft Auto 3 wowed PlayStation 2 players, Morrowind was making impressive leaps of its own on the Xbox and PC. The port to Xbox was a much bigger deal back then. Most Western RPGs were made on PC and few of their games were ported to home consoles. However, that trend changed when Microsoft introduced the Xbox and bridged the two markets together.

Access to the Xbox player base opened up a new audience for Western RPGs, and Morrowind quickly became a keystone game for the genre. People still adore its open world discovery, player customization, and textbook-length lore. According to Todd Howard, The Elder Scrolls seeks to provide players with a virtual life set in an immersive world. To do that, the world needed a convincing setting, a convincing history, and convincing player choices. While there were a limited number of quests and a limited amount of options, you the player still created your own story. He continued to aim for those ideals when working on his follow-up games, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (2006), and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

I know that nowadays Todd Howard is not very popular, and that’s for a very good reason — he has made some awfully manipulative business decisions with the release of Fallout 76. However, back in the 2000s, Howard was a respected game developer — and that was also for a very good reason. I don’t want to spend too much time on the man, but I couldn’t talk about the history of Skyrim without mentioning the role he played as director and producer. I know the internet isn’t exactly a place for nuance or shades of grey, but I want to do that here. We can praise a person’s good decisions and criticize their bad decisions.

Chapter 2: The Decade of Open Worlds

In one sense, Skyrim is simply an 2011 iteration of Morrowind’s 2002 immersive world. But in another, Skyrim opens the doors wide to player possibility. You can level up any attribute you wish, free from restrictions of class or race, though certain attributes synergize for specific “builds” or “archetypes.” Its map was one of the biggest open worlds at the time. Its size was so impressive that Skyrim remains a measuring stick for other open world square footage. The game had so much content that someone could play the game for over 100 hours and still not see everything. The player could decide which faction they could join — the rebellious Stormcloaks or the formidable Imperials. They could choose any number of side quests, each with their own story, and some with different endings. And once modders got their hands on the game, its potential multiplied. Skyrim Grandma made a name for herself by role-playing as a character — when that person died, she would start over and draw up a new character. None of her several playthroughs end up exactly the same. 

It appears that Skyrim caused a parade of open world games with RPG mechanics to release in the following decade, much like Super Mario 64 did with Collectathons. Maybe this was just a correlation, and as my Statistics 202 professor always taught me, “Correlation does not equal causation.” Open world games had been on the rise during the 7th Console Generation as hardware improved — Assassin’s Creed, Borderlands, Just Cause, and Far Cry had already been established series. But still, Skyrim makes for a clean bookmark for assessing the games that came after it, especially as the industry moved to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. It seemed like every AAA series wanted to become an open world in the 2010s. Metal Gear Solid V was an open world. Final Fantasy XV was an open world. Even racing series like Forza Motorsport got an open world spinoff. 

Not only that, but open world games in the 2010s seemed to have the highest prestige in the gaming community, and I’m sure many still hold to that opinion. Even if it was never said outright, I think many people began to assume that open world design was naturally the most advanced, or the “most evolved” form of video games, as if Super Mario Bros. 3 was a primitive ape, Banjo Kazooie was a Neanderthal, and Horizon: Zero Dawn was an upright Homo Sapien. From a technical standpoint, there’s no question that these three games got more complex and expensive to create. But I’m not so sure about one kind being “better” than the other. I think the conversation has something to do with people wanting the best dollar value for a game. The line of thinking goes something like this: “Look how it takes hundreds of hours to finish this open world video game. Surely this is worth my $60. This well-designed 2D Metroidvania is obviously not worth the same amount.” I hope people don’t fully believe this, but I fear they do.

All the same, it’s plain to see that open world games sell, especially open world Western RPGs. They sell a lot. They create a lot of hype. Fallout 4 was one of the most anticipated games of 2015 and it made Bethesda a lot of money, despite its many criticisms. The Witcher III — a fantasy, open world, Western RPG — was a resounding critical success that same year. One of the most anticipated games of 2020, and consequently one of its biggest disappointments, was Cyberpunk 2077 — a SciFi, open world, Western RPG. Even the already open world Assassin’s Creed series, once known for its stealth and Action/Adventure mechanics, picked up its belongings and moved into the RPG territory instead. The Nintendo Switch owes its early success to Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey. While neither game is a Western RPG, they’re still open world games. They sold millions of copies and millions of Switches. The Switch’s biggest talking point was, and still is, “I can’t believe I can play this massive open world game on the go!” The subtext to this exclamation reads, “I can’t believe that open world games, the best and most advanced form of home console gaming, are now playable in handheld form!” With only 2 months before the release of Pokemon Legends: Arceus, I can’t help but remember the Pokemon Subreddit posts of 2017 and 2018 speculating what an open world Pokemon RPG would look like on the Switch, with many people imagining a Pokemon trainer surviving in Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule. It’s no wonder that 2019’s Pokemon Sword and Shield were huge disappointments. We love open world games. We love them to death.

Don’t get me wrong, I too enjoy open world games. This year alone I played about 10 of them, including Bowser’s Fury, Immortals: Fenyx Rising, Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition, Death Stranding, Sable, and many others. I still love playing open world games on my Nintendo Switch, despite the console’s relatively inferior graphical performance. I love discovering things. I love filling out a world map. I love all of the secrets I have yet to find. There’s potential treasure behind every mountain, and hidden challenges inside every dungeon.

However, I think it’s dangerous to believe that open world games are somehow the new “standard” for video game design. We may have grown accustomed to them over the past decade, but having an open world by no means guarantees that it’ll be free of flaws, or fun to play, or even worth your $60. In fact, I’m worried that the AAA game industry doesn’t know what to do with itself now that technology can finally render a fully-realized open world. I’m worried they think all of their games need to be open worlds now. If even the developers think that, then we’re in trouble. Every type of game comes with its own strengths and weaknesses, and open world games are no different.

Chapter 3: My Impressions of Skyrim

I guess it’s time I talk about Skyrim itself. I was pitched that Skyrim is basically “Dungeons and Dragons as a single-player video game.” I think that, as a shorthand elevator pitch, that description works. It’s a fantasy world with multiple different stories to participate in, and a character avatar that you can mold to your liking. In practice, though, I feel like that’s a woefully inadequate description. 

I love playing D&D. I’ve been through several different campaigns with different DMs. From my experience, there are way too many possibilities in D&D for any game developer to ever realistically put into a video game. At least, not without killing the studio with crunch or taking 20 years to develop. As a player, I love to interact with NPCs. I love to goof off with them. I love coming up with odd solutions to the problems presented to me. One time, my fellow players and I created magical cheese that allowed us to mind-control hordes of rats so that they would eat the zombified pumpkins that had taken over an unlucky town. The DM had planned on making us fight each pumpkin in traditional combat, but upon hearing our plans, she shrugged her shoulders and let us roll with it.

No video game could ever let me create mind-controlling rat cheese, much less crack an innocent joke of my own making with a city guard.

I spent the first 5 hours of Skyrim disappointed with all of the things that I couldn’t do. Whenever I arrived at an inn, I watched enviously as the bards strummed their lutes and sang. I wanted to play an instrument and earn a few coins, too. I stared at a muscular NPC strutting around town, wishing I could challenge him to a friendly duel without accidentally murdering him. The NPC dialogue options, and consequently your options during a quest, are frustratingly binary — either you become a trusted friend, or a hated enemy. I was intrigued by the scenarios I was put in, but I struggled to respond in a way that didn’t frustrate me. At one point some key NPCs tasked me with killing another NPC, and I simply couldn’t pursue the rest of that quest line without killing him. Those were my options: kill or don’t kill. There was no room for a middle option, no way to persuade the murderous NPCs otherwise. Their reasons for killing him were interesting, as were my reasons for keeping him alive, but the most interesting outcome, I believe, would’ve been something different. I ended up not completing that questline; I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Once I stopped comparing Skyrim to Dungeons & Dragons, I began to enjoy my experience a lot more. Frodo Bagpipes felt like a character I had molded out of raw clay. Initially I started out as a warrior with a one-handed weapon and a shield, but then transitioned into a shadowy thief who wielded arrows and specialized in Illusion magic. The reason I changed into the stealth skill tree was because normal combat was… rather boring. By sneaking I created a bit of tension as I lined up the right shot. 

Skyrim’s best asset is its quest system. The most immersed I felt in this virtual life was when I would enter a town, see some of its problems, chat with some NPCs, and they would point me in the direction of a mysterious new location to explore. Upon entering Winterhold I learned about the magical college, and after learning the right spell to gain acceptance into the college, I became a novice mage. I began a series of quests where I first went on a field trip and discovered a large, mysterious orb. The headmage didn’t know what to do with it, so it remained in the Hall of Elements for the professors to study. I genuinely enjoyed the plotline that followed.

There was so much content in this one school that it could’ve been its own standalone video game. I helped the librarian, a gruff yet endearing orc, retrieve stolen and lost books. He ended up helping me with my main quest. Speaking to any of the professors allowed me to level up any school of magic for a nominal fee. I helped my fellow classmates by fetching items for them and letting them practice their spells on me. Unfortunately, one novice mage made my vision turn green for about 10 minutes. Did she apologize? Nope!

Similarly, I entered Riften and quickly discovered there was a thieves guild working underneath the city. As an amateur stealthy boy myself, I wandered around town, asking if anyone knew about the guild. Eventually I found one of its members in the marketplace, and he tasked me with stealing an item from one merchant’s stall and planting it in another merchant’s lockbox. I deftly met his challenge. The second merchant was subsequently framed for the theft and was hauled off to jail. The thief offered me an invitation to the guild, provided I could find it in the labyrinthine sewers of Riften, aptly named the Ratway. I eventually found them, and they accepted me into their society. I found a secret entrance from their hideout that leads right into the Riften church, and I could even use it later to quickly get back into the hideout.

The world of Skyrim is rather bleak. There’s a civil war going on, and to make matters worse, dragons have started appearing and ravaging the countryside, like the dragon that attacked the starting area, Helgen. There’s political intrigue, serial murderers, vampires, and occult phenomena. The main quest involves you learning about the dragons and how to deal with them. The side quests can provide fun distractions, but the truly refreshing moments are the ones where you can build genuine friendships with people. Perhaps my favorite mini side quest was acquiring gemstones for an Argonian (lizard man) so that he could craft a proposal ring for his girlfriend. I wish there were more quests like that. I wish I could attend their wedding.

Skyrim is a great walking simulator. I especially loved taking hikes through The Rift, where the trees glowed yellow and orange with their autumn colors. The pine trees and mountains near the alpine town of Falkreath were also relaxing to look at. That being said, I wished that there was a more interesting way of exploring the world, and riding a horse didn’t quite cut it. The game is masterful with environmental storytelling – I remember finding a ruined house by the side of the road, a burned corpse, a candle circle, and a scroll discussing how to summon a Flame Atronach (aka a Fire Elemental). Yikes. And then, of course, I encountered said Atronach later down the road.

Every so often the game will startle you with a chance encounter. You may run into an assassin, or perhaps a wandering bear stumbles across your path. I found these chance encounters a clever way to jostle the player awake. However, sometimes these random encounters overlapped on each other. I once had a necromancer, a group of giant spiders, and a dragon all fight each other in the middle of a forest crossroad. It was a goofy yet immersion-shattering experience.

You’ve all heard about the bugs. The version of Skyrim I have on the Switch is rather stable, so I didn’t have anything break or crash on me, but I still found plenty of giants clipping through the earth and horses galloping across the sky. I have a bit more patience when I encounter bugs in indie games like Sable, but less so with a AAA game. At the same time, this game is so big, how can you fix all of the bugs?

I spent way too much time looking at this inventory menu.

That brings me to the double-edged sword that is an open world game. It’s true that open world games are exciting, especially in the first 10 hours. However, how well can that game retain its excitement? No matter how beautiful the world is, eventually the world turns from unknown to known. The map fills in. The quests begin checking off. These open world games can feel indulgent and bloated. For example, I like the idea of Skyrim’s over-encumbered mechanic, but all it does is just make me sift through a clunky inventory menu for much longer than I would like. It’s cool that you can read dozens of books (I actually acquired a library of my favorites), but do we really need the ability to pick up wooden bowls? I mean, I clocked 90+ hours into this game, so Skyrim must’ve done a few things right. But surely there’s some fat that could’ve been trimmed somewhere. I haven’t even seen half of the content in this game. One delicious hamburger is better than a hundred mediocre hamburgers. 

It took some adjusting, but I eventually found a comfortable way to role-play given the confines of Skyrim’s mechanics and systems. I didn’t exactly make every choice I wish I could’ve made, but I’m still happy with the story I ended up telling about Frodo Bagpipes.

Epilogue: Who I Was

I woke up with a start. I felt a blanket on my side, a pillow under my head, and beads of cold sweat on my brow. I was in my bed. I looked up; the moons were shining through the window. Gingerly I sat up and muttered to myself under my breath to get my bearings. “I’m… I’m home, in Whiterun.” I looked over at my partner, still asleep.

I had been dreaming about my adventuring days. I’d dreamed about escaping Helgen, about fighting the dragon in the Western Watchtower, about meeting the Greybeards at the tallest mountain in Skyrim. I’d dreamed about joining the College of Winterhold, of how I learned to cast Invisibility, and how I used that to become a master thief. I’d dreamed about joining the thieves’ guild, setting a beefarm on fire at the request of a guild client. I’d dreamed about journeying to the land of the dead, defeating Alduin, the Dragon King, and returning without an idea of what to do next. 

Those days are long gone, thank Talos. As I nestled back under the sheets, I sighed deeply, and sought to ease my mind. I congratulated myself on retiring. I’m proud that I never picked a side in the war; both Imperials and Stormcloaks alike were insufferable. Let them ruin each other. I’m proud that I became headmage of the College of Winterhold. I’m proud that I saw every major city in Skyrim, that I gazed at dozens of starry skies under snow-capped peaks. I’m proud…

Sources / Further Reading:

  1. https://www.gameinformer.com/b/news/archive/2011/01/13/road-to-skyrim-the-todd-howard-interview.aspx
  2. https://web.archive.org/web/20100124180227/http://www.elderscrolls.com/codex/team_rpgnextgen.htm
  3. https://www.ign.com/articles/the-elder-scrolls-v-skyrim-anniversary-edition-and-new-creations-detailed
  4. https://www.metacritic.com/game/xbox/the-elder-scrolls-iii-morrowind
  5. https://www.metacritic.com/game/pc/the-elder-scrolls-v-skyrim
  6. https://www.interactive.org/news/todd_howard_2017_hof.asp
  7. https://www.ign.com/lists/top-100-game-creators/70

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