Has it really been three years since Bethesda launched the fifth chapter of Elder Scrolls, Skyrim? Have we really been living beneath the threat of arrow-to-the-knee jokes for so long?
Indeed we have. And in all this time, Skyrim remains one of those games I can keep going back to again and again... even though I'll probably never finish it. It has become one of my go-to comfort food games. I even tried giving away my copy a while back, only to buy a replacement a few weeks later. I can't quit you, baby.
At my last reckoning, I'd sunk about 160 hours into Skyrim. Judging by guides and summaries, it looks like I've seen about... mmm... a fifth of the main story. I've spent a week of real-life time into Skyrim, and I still have no idea who Paarthurnax is. (Based on the footage our video guys spliced into the video below, I now know he's a dragon.)
And hey, that's totally fine. The Elder Scrolls is one of the original open-world franchises, predating Grand Theft Auto by a good several years, and as such it's completely designed to let you goof around however you like. You can be boring and just travel the critical path through the land of Skyrim, if you prefer. Or you can ignore the plot and quests and play your own way. You can double down on leveling your character, mastering as many skills as you can stomach. You can pursue dumb NPC side quests, including the endless string of procedurally generated missions that the game will regurgitate ad infinitum.
You can focus on Skyrim's civil war. You can dabble in the DLC quests. If you want, you can let yourself become afflicted with vampirism or lycanthropy and maraud the countryside as a demi-human. You can invent your own goals, too. Or say the hell with goals and simply enjoy the scenery; I spent a couple of days just wandering around Skyrim sitting on people's porches and watching the sunset. They didn't seem to mind.
Skyrim, of course, takes place in the eponymous land of Skyrim, the northernmost region of Tamriel. It's a much smaller land than, say, Daggerfall, but that's because there's less auto-generated content and much more designed, instanced scenery, and it's all spaced more densely. In fact, that's a big part of Skyrim's appeal. You can go wandering throughout the land and everywhere you go you're practically guaranteed to stumble across some new detail, some never-before-seen cavern or town or outpost.
You can turn off the heads-up display icons and markers and travel blind, but personally I find it more compelling to have a constant sense of my surroundings - and, more to the point, the parts of the world around me I've yet to discover - hovering at the periphery of my vision. Even though the ocean of icons hovering over the Skyrim map can be as overwhelming as in something like Assassin's Creed, it feels more immersive; the tasks before you are things you need to uncover, whether through exploration or through dialogue. Elder Scrolls never resorts to presenting a series of disconnected missions as a to-do list, and you're almost always free to nip off and ignore whatever goals you're currently pursuing.
Of course, that's also why I've seen so little of the core story; I start meandering through the countryside en route to some planned objective when I see something interesting off to the side and start to investigate. Five hours later, I realize I'm half the country away from where I needed to be. It's kind of like the video gaming equivalent of getting sucked into a series of increasingly arcane links at Wikipedia while you're supposed to be doing legitimate research. Except unlike stumbling through Wikipedia, you level up in the process.
As a game, there's no denying Skyrim has a ton of problems. Bethesda cleaned up the interface considerably from previous games in the series. But at the same time, this made things overly simple without really fixing some of the underlying mechanical issues the series has long faced. There's a lot of grinding, a lot of dull bits. Companions can be dumb as rocks. Animals will continue to attack you in the wilderness even after you can blast them off a cliff with a single shout.
Combat can be excessively difficult or completely trivial, depending on how you go about it. You can abuse summonses and escort missions to create an effectively game-destroying party of companions where you roll deep with a huge posse. Stealth is hilariously broken, and I've spent most of my time in Skyrim crawling around shooting people with arrows from outside the range of their vision - which, thanks to my stealth perks, can actually be about three feet in front of their faces.
I've actually taken down the powerful Draugr lords, almost godlike beings of undead fury, in a couple of shots from my bow and arrow. Of course, it helps that I've spent so much time with archery and crafting and enchanting that my weapons are essentially mythic tools of the kind they normally only sing about in forgotten songs passed down through the ages.
One of these days I'll go back to Skyrim and finish the quest lines for the various guilds. I'll find all the Stones of Berenziah, too. Maybe I'll even finish the main storyline, who knows! I'll never complete the game 100% - even if I wanted to, I've encountered a few glitches that make quests impossible to complete. But that, too, is OK.
There's a certain comfort in knowing that any time I want to return to Skyrim, my dark elf heroine is there waiting for me, ready to snipe dragons with the hunting prowess of Artemis. It's a game I can return to endlessly without fear that I'll ever see the end, because there's always one more quest to complete, one more hidden grotto where a secret story waits to be discovered.
And who knows, maybe some day I'll find that jerk who stole my sweet roll.