Oh Wabbajack, when did Skyrim become old? I remember buying a copy of the game the day it came out, a pimply-faced teenager excitedly studying the free map on the train back home. It wasn't that long ago, right? Yet I can't deny that it somehow feels like Elder Scrolls 5 has always been there; that arrow-to-the-knee memes were found carved next to cave paintings of mammoths.
It seems like the world agrees, because nine years later there's no shortage of nostalgia toward a game that isn't as old as it should be; one that came out on the same day as Adam Sandler's Jack and Jill (no, really). And though a lot of great games came out in 2011—Dark Souls, Portal 2 and the full release of Minecraft, among others—I don't think we see those in the same nostalgic light as Skyrim, even if we like them more. Dark Souls is an industry darling and it's arguably as popular, maybe more so, but it's not treated like a lovable grandfather. And yet check the online communities, Reddit posts, and articles across the internet, and people talk about Skyrim like it was in arcades next to Space Invaders.
In reality, this was a game that came out a month after the iPhone 4S. Ancient it ain't, so I went trawling back through the game's legacy to see if I could explain this mystery. The place to begin was obvious.
Sky-High Skyrim Hype
I still remember Skyrim's trailer music, as does just about everybody I've ever spoken to about it. Skyrim had a very memorable ad campaign leading up to its release, one that was actually quite coy on details but big on ceremony. Every trailer or teaser was some thunderous declaration, telling the audience that this was a big deal, whatever it was.
It's an old but effective trick. By telling us only a little, we imagined a lot, and by November 2011 crowds were foaming at the mouth to see what worlds of imagination awaited. Now all the game had to do was stick the landing.
And for most people, it did. Replaying Skyrim these days reveals that it hasn't aged as gracefully as you probably remember, but at the time there wasn't anything quite like it. Fallout 3 had done the open world, and Oblivion was still in everybody's memory, but Skyrim took everything open-world gaming had done before and made it more accessible and more grandiose than ever.
Credit where it's due: Once out of the linear tutorial, Skyrim suddenly opens like a flower. Its combination of epic scenery and pure potential makes it really feel free like little else. It almost seems limitless, with the possibility for anything on the horizon. Combine that with the fact that the finicky number-fiddling that's often an RPG staple was replaced by relatively simple systems, and players had a huge world laid out for them; albeit one that was also carved into small, digestible pieces.
Not only that, but the whole experience was uniquely, fascinatingly individual, something that felt like it was for you and you alone. You sided with the Empire, but your friend allied with the Nords. You joined the Dark Brotherhood, your partner led the fight against them. Or maybe you just strode out into the wilderness to see what you could find, an axe in one hand and a sweetroll in the other. Everybody had their own story to tell, something that felt personal, and it also didn't hurt that this was back in the era where we still found bugs in Bethesda games to be charming, rather than annoying.
So that's why the world loved Skyrim, but love is only half of nostalgia. For that feeling to start to percolate, Skyrim would need to feel like it had aged about thirty decades in just a few years. Fortunately, there's mods for that.
Mods be Praised!
Skyrim is so synonymous with mods that playing the vanilla game these days feels a little subversive. Even if you weren't turning the world on its head and putting John Cena's face on all the dragons, you probably had a few quality-of-life mods installed to bring the whole experience up a notch. SkyUI has been considered a mandatory addition for years, and has well over twenty million downloads at time of writing.
But why stop with just one? Beyond that there's texture updates, bug fixes, character enhancements, new equipment, new weather, new enemies, new quests, new everything. Bethesda even tried to monetize the whole process at one point (with disastrous consequences), but mods are the standard for Skyrim now. One of the first options on booting up the game is to go into the official workshop to tinker with it in advance.
So Skyrim mods are as old and ubiquitous as Skyrim itself, but the unforeseen consequence of this is the idea that you have to rework the game before you play it. It's a "fixer-upper" of a game, and modding is a hobby in its own right.
It's tempting to think that fresh mods should stop a game feeling old, but updating something can often feel like a tacit admission of its antiquity. Think about it: a game that's fresh and current probably doesn't need several gigabytes of alterations. And yes, other games have mods and modding communities, but Skyrim feels much more dependent on its mods. Most Bethesda games do, frankly. Look at something like The Witcher 3: mods exist for it, but not many are going to argue that playing it vanilla is somehow wrong.
It's why they can't undo nostalgia or a sense of aging. Mods are a fundamental part of Elder Scrolls 5's legacy, as much as shouting at dragons or wooden dialogue, and have just aged like the rest of it. Not to mention that a game you have to spend time patching up isn't ever going to feel cutting-edge. When a person does go back to the vanilla experience, they practically feel like they've traveled in time. "Jesus, did people really use to live this way?"
Speaking of which, that feeling doesn't just extend to the game's graphics or animation. It's time to talk about the gameplay.
Last of the Ancients
Even if you haven't modded and reconfigured the game into something unrecognisable, there's another, more sobering truth: Skyrim just feels old, mechanically speaking. And before people bridle at that, let me clarify that it doesn't make it bad; but time is kinder to some things than others. Ten years of open-world games, fantasy games, RPGs, and every combination of the three have done a lot to date Elder Scrolls 5 and make it feel like a precursor to so much of modern culture, rather than a part of it.
To go back to those early comparisons, Portal 2, Dark Souls and Minecraft all turned out to be starting new trends in design, hence why we don't think of them with the same nostalgic lens. They set waves in motion that we're still very much riding. Skyrim's moment-to-moment mechanics feel more like they're from the 2000s than the 2010s, and this isn't helped by a thousand other games reworking and building upon this formula. Sure, The Witcher 3 and Breath of the Wild probably wouldn't exist in the same form without Skyrim, but in the wake of such games, it can't help but look like something a little antiquated.
Still, it's not too bad. Games are created in their time and they age like anything else; that's understood by everyone. Skyrim's just a construct of 2011, which isn't even a flaw, just a fact. The only way Bethesda could make it feel old before its time would be by re-releasing it over and over without any real attempt made to update it for increasingly-modern sensibili... Oh.
Skyrim was the last big hurrah for an era of RPG that's evolved more than perhaps any other genre in gaming in the decade since. Playing the vanilla version of Elder Scroll 5 can feel like flying an old biplane: enjoyable, yes, but certainly not the norm. Time will probably be increasingly cruel to the experience of playing Skyrim, but I think our collective memory will only become more and more rosy as the years pass, as we remember those first few months looking down from snow-frosted mountaintops at forests without end. There's certainly worse legacies for a game.