“We give the player a lot of credit, we trust him. We give him all these tools and we teach him this stuff and he’s an excellent player-director. He wants downtime, he goes to town and talks to people. Says he wants some challenge – ‘I’m gonna fight that dragon I heard about’. It becomes much harder to put the game down. He is the director of his experience.”
– Todd Howard,
Skyrim’s lead producer
There is a time early in a child’s life upon which they discover a special power that children have: the theatre of the mind. It is during this time that common objects acquire the most delightful properties. A broomstick flies. A trashcan is a shield, a twig becomes a sword, and that shrubbery over yonder is a forest begging to be explored in search of treasure to gather and fiends to banish.
Yet it is the oddest thing, that as children grow into adults they lose this special power. This happens in such a quiet, demure way, that most of us never realise it’s gone, or even that we ever had it in the first place. Skyrim is the kind of game that makes us remember.
The uncanny valley is in full effect in this grandiose epic: the vastness of its open world and the density of its vegetation brings into full focus the fact that there’s something off about that guy’s face. Or that, given enough skill and darkness, a mischievous player may very well steal the clothes a character is wearing – without her noticing.
But Bethesda’s grand epic shrugs the uncanny valley away with an eye for playfulness and a knack for re-awakening that repressed power of imagination dwelling somewhere within its players’ skulls.
This is first-person action role-playing by the numbers, then. Press left to strike, right to block, both for a shield bash, or hold for a charge attack. Ranged combat is simpler even, while magic simply lets you assign a spell to each button. There is a nice heft to the clash of sword (or fang!) on shield, and an audible tautness to the bowstring, but there is little more to combat than sloppy timing.
Character development, too, feels slightly underwhelming. Skyrim uses classic “skill up by using” system, and it is well-implemented, but in many areas improvement doesn’t seem to translate to the screen well enough. On the other hand, there are the powerful Dragon Shout spells to acquire by exploring the world, and even several talent trees on which to invest points. These are hit-and-miss, with some very worthwhile and fun abilities to be found, and several underwhelming ones.
It’s all about the world, really. Criticism can fairly be levelled at nearly every other aspect of the game – the swordplay feels floaty, magic is different flavours of projectile combat, crafting is grindy and uninspired, the enemies are mostly damage sponges rushing you, and those ancient ruins all look strangely alike.
And yet, these negatives seem small, pitiful even, when standing at the edge of the Throat of the World and looking down, past the fog and into the green fields west of Whiterun, recognising that small outcrop of rocks where you once stumbled into a cadre of Redguard assassins.
The negatives float away when, low on health and provisions, you find yourself running for your life from a high-level dragon (and asking yourself: “why did I install the mod that makes dragons deadlier?!”) – and all of a sudden, into the legs of a mountain giant. You then make your escape into a nearby cave while the two behemoths clash outside – and venture into whatever new discovery awaits inside. And there’s always something to be discovered.
Skyrim is a game of moments, of small random occurrences, of carefully orchestrated plans going to hell because of stupid NPCs, of moments posing in front of breathtaking views, of sitting by the fire, an action with no gameplay benefits whatsoever, done simply because you feel like hearing that bard sing again about how Ulfric is the High King – and in his great honour we shall drink and sing. It is this tapestry of micro-experiences that breathes life into a player’s sojourn onto the icy lands of northern Tamriel.
Skyrim is not meant to be a simulation, or a twitch experience. It is, quite frankly, not even much of a role-playing experience – unless you use your rediscovered imagination to fill in the blanks. Then, it shines like few others. Luis Magalhães