If choices were dollars, your average videogame would be occupying Wall Street right now, and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim would be the 1%.
In this open-world role-playing game, which Bethesda will release on Friday for PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 (reviewed), everything is a choice. Almost every aspect of the game can be altered and tailored based on your decisions, from the amount of dirt on your hero’s face to the outcome of the civil war that threatens to tear the land of Skyrim apart. You’ll feel the effects of your actions, too. Dead shopkeepers will stay dead. Generic guards will make idle comments about news they’ve heard about your adventures across the globe.
And oh, what a globe it is. Unlike its 2006 predecessor The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, which at times felt like a carbon copy of Generic Fantasy Map #40192, the world of Skyrim is a Viking-inspired treasure trove of flavor and charm. Every city has its own personality. Many have their own cultures, each fraught with racial conflicts and frightening adversaries. Gone are Oblivion’s bland medieval cities and repetitive demonic gates.
Speaking with Skyrim director Todd Howard earlier this week, I asked him if there was any one element of the game he thought the team had really knocked out of the park. His answer was quick and to the point: “The world.”
I have to agree. Plenty of games have set out to create open, lively worlds that feel just as human as the one we inhabit. Perhaps none has come as close as Skyrim.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to pin down exactly what makes this world feel so truly alive. Maybe it’s the way a court wizard will hire mercenaries to hunt you down for stealing his potions. Maybe it’s the endless platters of food (and boy is there a lot of food).
To list all of the things you can do in Skyrim would take longer than a Neal Stephenson novel. You can attune observatories in ancient dwarven ruins. You can play hide-and-seek with ghosts. You can get married in an anti-climactic ceremony that may or may not be a cynical commentary on the realities of actual marriage.
You can climb frost-covered mountains and fight off frost-breathing dragons. You can discover the terrible secret behind an eccentric museum. You can enter a drinking contest, black out and attempt to retrace your drunken steps in what must be a tribute to The Hangover. You can join the Dark Brotherhood, a group of assassins who made me yell “holy shit” more times than I’d like to admit (thanks to a beefy quest line packed with death contracts, cold-blooded betrayal and all sorts of gory surprises).
Or you can just steal a horse and gallop across the map, killing everyone and everything in your way.
This sheer amount of content may seem overwhelming to many gamers, particularly in light of the fact that the game has an infinite number of procedurally generated quests. If you’re worried about losing sleep, you should be. I have spent 62 hours with Skyrim over the past two weeks and I still can’t stop thinking about all the things I have left to do.
The game’s greatest accomplishment is that it is a paradise of escapism, a lavish love letter to immersion. Diving into Skyrim’s world feels both thrilling and comforting, like riding a rollercoaster or swimming in the ocean. There is very little padding. There are very few scripted quests that aren’t worth experiencing.
Bethesda has developed something of a reputation for releasing buggy games, and Skyrim is no exception. My game locked up five or six times, though I didn’t lose any progress thanks to the game’s frequent automatic saves. I also experienced a handful of weird animation glitches and conversation errors — nothing major or game-breaking, but worth noting. Bethesda has promised a day-one patch that will hopefully fix some of these issues.
In a recent blog post, LucasArts designer Clint Hocking wrote that the real beauty of a videogame is determined by its player, not its creator.
“I don’t want to be your hero,” he wrote. “I want you to be your hero.”
Perhaps this is why Skyrim’s world is such a triumphant accomplishment. It gives you a large blank canvas and tells you to do what you’d like with it. You guide your own narrative, control your own fate, choose your own adventure. You are your hero.
Longtime gamers may remember the era in which every game’s credits ended with a note saying “SPECIAL THANKS: YOU.” Skyrim doesn’t need to say it; it’s thanking you every step of the way.
WIRED Meticulous attention to detail, fantastic world to explore and experience.
TIRED Occasional bugs and glitches; will suck up your entire life for at least a month.