Skyrim Spans 16 Square Miles of RPG Excellence «

Between the two of them, Jeremy Parish and Thierry Nguyen have invested more than 125 hours into The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim — enough to see the two main quest lines to completion, but still not enough to have explored all the game has to offer, by far. Still, their combined experiences (not to mention their wildly different play styles) give them a clear sense of Skyrim’s strengths and weakness.
Jeremy: Why do you play video games? And what do you expect from them? Do you seek challenge? Entertainment? Competition? Escapism? Relief for boredom? A compelling story? Bragging rights? Intellectual stimulation? Put all of these motives and interests into a matrix; few corners would be left untouched by Skyrim. It’s a vast game, as enormous in the physical real estate it occupies as in the breadth of material it provides within those virtual boundaries. About all it doesn’t do is multiplayer.

Click the image above to check out all The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim screens.
This is par for the course in The Elders Scrolls series, to be sure. One might argue that Skyrim is neither as large as Daggerfall nor as deep as Morrowind, and that claim isn’t without merit. Where Skyrim stands above its predecessors is in the way it balances its tremendous scope with accessibility. Admittedly, for many gamers — especially the sort that’s been following The Elder Scrolls for a decade or more — “accessibility” is a dirty word, a hollow euphemism for “dumbed down.” And while super-fans may take issue with some of the minute details of this game, the refinements and improvements it adds far outstrip anything that’s been lost.

Besides, many of Skyrim’s more user-friendly features are optional. Hate the compass system that points your way to the next objective, preferring instead to find your own route? Waypoints are strictly optional. They’re but one of many fine additions Skyrim adds to the Elder Scrolls template in its bid to transform a beloved (but not quite blockbuster) series into a mainstream juggernaut. The game looks far more beautiful than 2006’s Oblivion, dropping players to do as they please in a sprawling, snow-dappled land and leaving them to interact with hundreds of characters who, for once, aren’t hideous. Yet the pleasant graphics and refined controls don’t come at the expense of substance; Skyrim is brimming with quests — hundreds of them, in fact, many of which have been interwoven in an addictive, just-one-more tapestry that should serve as a point of reference for all RPG designers going forward.

Much as we appreciate the simple innovation of Skyrim’s not being painful to look at, the complex interlocking nature of the game’s numerous quests is easily its finest feature. Developer Bethesda refers to it as the “Radiant Story” system, promising a dynamic story packed with quests that adapt to player’s actions and customize the world to their experience. That’s probably reaching a bit into the realm of hyperbole, but Skyrim actually does manage to modify quest goals and dialogue on the fly in reaction to your accomplishments.

This is, after all, a game where players are given full freedom to do as they like, and that means sometimes you’ll go somewhere and complete a task before the game tells you to. Rather than locking players out with invisible walls or other arbitrary barriers, it simply lets you do as you wish and then rolls with it. Clear out a dungeon before someone tells you to, or collect an ancient relic before it comes into play in the story? No problem; you simply get a new dialogue option that says, “Yeah, I already did that,” and your quest giver praises you for being so on-the-ball. Many missions can be initiated in multiple ways, too; I managed to initiate one particular long-term quest by sweet-talking the first relevant person I met. Thierry, on the other hand, managed to offend that guy enough to earn a brushoff, but eventually he figured out an alternate means to get things rolling as well.

Thierry: On your first point, I play different games for a variety of reasons, but Bethesda games — dating back to Daggerfall — are games where I just want to be dropped into a world and explore. Give me a landmass, populate it with people willing to give me a task and reward me for it later, and I’m a-okay. And Skyrim, 75 hours later, is a damn good refinement of that basic Bethesda process formula.

Skyrim’s Radiant Story system works for the most part; in addition to what Jeremy describes, it also presents itself in ways both subtle and obvious. Pick a side in Skyrim’s civil war? Radiant Story makes your allegiance obvious by notifying you that you’ve just failed the quest objectives for the opposing side. Elsewhere, I’m tasked with investigating a local authority figure, but before doing so I had inadvertently caused a transfer in power via some other quest so that said authority figure no longer had his job. Therefore, a side effect: No need to investigate him.

Where Radiant Story could use some significant extra work, though, is in acknowledging the player after finishing the main “slay the dragon” quest. I didn’t join the Companions — Skyrim’s version of the Fighter’s Guild — until after finishing the quest, and one of the characters said, “Well, who’s this guy?” I fully admit to yelling at the TV in response: “I’m the fabled Dragonslayer? Did you not notice that I’ve been killing dragons left and right!?” Other times, characters would threaten me with their extensive contacts within the Dark Brotherhood (the assassin’s guild in the Elder Scrolls universe), and I would simply nod and think, “You’re talking to someone who finished that quest line.”


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