To any savvy gamer, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim might not present the recipe for success. Most games sell because of their graphics, and Skyrim’s graphics have always looked dated, even when it launched in 2011. Ask any gamer why they buy an RPG, and they’re likely to tell you that they buy RPGs for the story and characters. Skyrim's generic "chosen one" story and its bland, bored-sounding characters are a far cry from role-playing masterpieces like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Despite this, Skyrim has sold over 30 million copies worldwide. How can a game with so many flaws become one of the most successful video games of all time?
Some gamers aren't too wild about Skyrim. On its release, I remember a friend ranting to me about how the game was so much more casual than its predecessor Morrowind because it no longer had a skill tree dedicated entirely to daggers. In the years since, I've read critics who have argued about its bland voice direction, seen gamers talk about how other RPGs have better quest design, and listened to countless players who felt frustrated that the game simplified so many systems.
Yet Skyrim is, by most metrics, a massive success. It would be easy to document Skyrim's shortcomings, and many have, but I feel that some of Skyrim’s greatest achievements have been overlooked. There's some brilliant design choices at play here, things which many gamers and developers have overlooked.
More Than Just Climbing a Mountain
Traditionally, games are marketed by their bullet points. Developers build features like wingsuits or grappling hooks, and marketing sells these bullet points as the reason players should buy the game. Bethesda's approach is a bit different than that. Todd Howard, game director at Bethesda Studios, believes that games should be designed around the intended experience, as he said at the DICE Summit keynote in 2012. "Don't define your game by a list of features," Howard told the crowd of his design principle. "Be who you want, and go do what you want." For Skyrim, the game's mechanics all work in service to the overall experience. Looking at Bethesda's popularity and success, this feeling-first approach to game design seems to resonate with a lot of people.
Skyrim's trailers, both in-game and live-action, focus on the fantasy of being someone who can fight dragons. It's a simple, easy-to-understand goal, and it's everywhere in the game's design and marketing. This clarity makes it an easy sell to even the most skeptical of consumers, and it's part of the reason Skyrim has such a broad appeal. Bethesda worked hard to make everything stem from a singular fantasy; every mechanic and artistic choice is about trying to make you live the Skyrim experience.
Making effective game trailers is an art form, and very few publishers are good at it. Most just rely on a mix of "epic" trailer music, generic statements like "SEIZE YOUR DESTINY," and a sizzle reel of some of the game’s most exciting scripted moments and brutal kills. Better trailers and teasers will sometimes do their best to convey game mechanics. With Skyrim, Bethesda just said, "hey, you fight dragons." If someone says "seize your destiny," it's hard to know what they mean. When someone says "you can fight dragons," it's easier to understand.
Bethesda's previous two RPGs had struggled with their introductions. Fallout 3 and Oblivion both take ages to get going, but Skyrim, thankfully, trimmed the fat. It begins on a wagon; you are a prisoner, on your way to be executed. Just as you get comfortable on the chopping block, ready for your beheading, a dragon drops from the sky and begins raining fire everywhere, providing you with an opportunity to escape. Skyrim brings up the dragons immediately, rather than waiting hours to get to the good stuff.
You are then presented with a choice: join the representative of the Empire who was going to kill you before all the dragon business, or escape alongside one of the Rebels. For me, the choice was easy. I escaped with the guy who hadn't been trying to murder me. After a few quick tutorials about things like lockpicking and sneaking, you're pretty much on your own. The game tells you where it wants you to go—to a nearby village for some quests—but from that point onward, you are free to do whatever you'd like.
Bethesda's designers are smart enough to know that a huge, open map where you can do whatever you want is somewhat intimidating, so they provide you with a simple goal: go to the nearest town to get help. Most RPGs would turn this into an extended combat experience where you fight your way to the safety of the nearest town. Bethesda chooses to make this path one of the safest places in the game. Sure, if you wander too far off the beaten path, you might find a mine full of bandits or a pack of wolves, but by and large, the journey is safe. You are free to pick butterflies and berries at your leisure, which is a nice change of pace after fleeing from a dragon and angry prison guards.
Skyrim wants you to relax in this moment by wandering around, getting your bearings, and feeling like you're becoming a part of the world. Where most RPGs are played in a third person perspective, Skyrim goes first person. And as consequence, many RPGs like The Witcher 3 put as much information on screen as possible, like this:
Skyrim, in contrast, keeps things nice and clean.
You'll notice that the only interface elements on screen are the reticle, which helps with aiming, and the compass, which helps with navigation and decision-making. Skyrim is trying to disarm you, to make you forget the stereotypical checklists-driven gameplay of other RPGs. Most game compasses exist to give you a sense of direction and point you to the nearest objective, but Skyrim's compass serves a third purpose: distraction.
Most of the time when you’re playing Skyrim, if you stand in one spot and look around, you will find a minimum of three points of interest on the compass. These points of interest can include dungeons, forts, and villages, and their purpose is to distract you from the task at hand. On my way to the town of Ivarstead, for instance, I spotted a ruin on my compass and trekked over to it, where I was attacked by necromancers. Had I ignored the compass point, my trip to Ivarstead would have been less eventful.
Fans often claim, with some small amount of pride, that they just ignore Bethesda’s main questline to pursue their own goals, but this is all part of the plan. Skyrim may present its players with an epic adventure about fighting dragons, but it really wants to provide you with distraction. The statement, "See that mountain? You can climb it," from any other developer would just be another bullet point, but for Skyrim, it's not so much about being able to climb the mountain as the fact that the mountain is a goal you can set for yourself. You can ignore the critical path and choose to climb it instead.
This emphasis on distraction transforms Skyrim into a playground, a place of constant wonder. You prepare to shoot an elk, but it runs off and you chase it. Then you stumble across a set of ruins, which you explore, only to find a clue that leads you on a quest across the world. Maybe you get there, or maybe you spot some ore you need in the distance, and while you're mining a dragon lands, and the two of you fight.
Where other games focus on concrete tasks about going somewhere, getting an object, and returning, Skyrim intentionally sabotages its objectives. When playing Dragon Age: Inquisition, I routinely find myself wandering across the world, occasionally killing mobs of generic enemies, only to complete an objective and wander back to the quest giver. There's a lot of downtime where you aren't making decisions, just walking between two points. Part of this is because Inquisition's distractions are simplistic, like planting a flag or picking up a glowing crystal, and part of it is because nothing in Inquisition feels dynamic.
A Dynamic World
While distraction is a powerful element of Bethesda's design philosophy, it isn’t the whole shebang. Another core component is Bethesda’s emphasis on making its worlds feel natural. All video games, unless they're completely accurate simulations, feature some degree of simplification. When you visit a town in Skyrim, it's not a completely accurate representation of a town, it's an abstraction of a town. Six houses are described as a bustling metropolis; objectively it isn't, but we pretend it is for the sake of the overall experience.
RPGs are built on abstractions. In real life, to get better at sword fighting, you practice until you develop the muscle memory and tactical know-how to become a master. In a traditional RPG, this process is abstracted: fight an enemy, gain 50 XP. Fight enough enemies, and you level up, which means your ability to do damage with a sword is increased. It’s easy to understand and feels like real, tangible progress because you get an alert telling you "you practiced, so you’re good at this now."
Skyrim blurs the lines. Rather than giving players discrete XP rewards for completing tasks, you rank up for performing a skill an unspecified amount of times. Stab enough enemies with a one-handed weapon, get better at using one-handed weapons. Craft enough items, get better at crafting. The progression feels more naturalistic. It can irritate old-school players who want granular abstraction, but for most people, it helps the game experience feel much more believable.
Making open world games in general can be difficult, and developers often resort to repeating content in order to save time. It’s great for the developers, but for players, it can feel unnatural. Booting up exactly three towers with a space-sudoku puzzle on every planet in Mass Effect Andromeda before entering a reactor, pressing a button, and escaping every single time was boring because it was predictable. It felt like such a video gamey thing to do.
Bethesda repeats content all the time too, but does its best to ensure that every location feels lived-in, even when it recycles assets or tiles. When you find ruins, you're likely to discover a crafting station, some treasure chests, and some people to fight. Often, Bethesda includes some environmental storytelling; I once found a necromancer performing some kind of ritual near a standing stone that granted a necromancy buff. After I defeated him, I discovered that the stones gave people necromantic powers. This setup sparked my imagination. I wondered how he had discovered this place and what ritual he intended to perform before I interrupted him. It feels a lot more natural than "this is the generic, repeated game objective, please press the interact prompt, receive your XP, and move on."
In Dragon Age: Inquisition, when you fight a dragon, you'll fight it in a specific dragon arena. In Skyrim, dragons can show up at any time, leading to moments of surprise and delight. It can be fun to sneak into a giant's camp hoping to steal some mammoth cheese, only to watch in horror as a dragon swoops down from above, engaging in an epic fight with the giants. These moments are completely dynamic, which makes the world feel so much more alive than it ever could in an RPG where every interaction is fully planned by the designers.
This dynamic gameplay is further enhanced by Bethesda's unique approach to physics. In most RPGs, items aren’t physical objects. In The Witcher 3's Blood and Wine expansion, you can place swords around your house, but only on pre-defined weapon racks. In Skyrim, because everything is a physical object, you can fill your house full of, say, cheese wheels, or paralyze a troll and use a dragon shout to send it flying off a cliff. This mechanical freedom lets you treat the world like a real space, which further enhances the sense of presence that Skyrim excels at. Tracking so many physics interactions is no easy task, and it often causes the game to break, but it's something no one else in the industry does. Without those physics interactions, Skyrim becomes so much less natural.
Of course, this approach to naturalism isn't perfect, and it can't work for everyone. It can be challenging to feel like you're there when the voice actors sound so bored, or you start to recognize assets from elsewhere in the game, or a bug ruins your game. Nothing works for absolutely everyone.
Feels Like Home
Skyrim's success begins with its focus on a single fantasy. Rather than breaking its gameplay out into segmented chunks of back-of-the-box bullet points, it directs everything towards the singular purpose of creating a specific experience. The world itself is built on the idea of distraction, and while everything in Skyrim might be about portraying a single fantasy, the map and quests are designed to help you get lost in the world.
To help sell the world, Skyrim invites players to think about it naturally. We treat objects as if they're real, physical things, rather than gaming abstractions. Even mechanics like leveling up are approached with a naturalistic direction. We solve puzzles like we might in real life.
In other words, Skyrim is about preparing us to accept its world as a place we can go to, a place we can exist in. It tears down our defenses, encourages us to treat it like it's real. Skyrim is a place you can get lost in because Bethesda made it feel like a real place, rather than a game to be played. Most RPGs are content to keep you at arm’s length, to remind you that they’re games. Skyrim wants you to forget everything and lose yourself in its wintry bliss.