Time Ex­tend

How Skyrim’s stag­ger­ing den­sity and di­ver­sity made role­play­ers of us all


How the frozen North re­heated role­play­ing in Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Os­ten­si­bly, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was about the type of tale that’s been told thou­sands of times be­fore, a story of a hero by birthright bound by fate on a jour­ney from lowly ori­gins to world’s saviour. Play­ers be­came the Do­vahkiin, last of the Dragonborn, the fi­nal rem­nant of a peo­ple with the blood and soul of a dragon but mor­tal bod­ies, and prophecy had it that they would save all Tam­riel by de­feat­ing Al­duin, Nordic god of de­struc­tion.

While a suit­ably lofty premise for any RPG, it has noth­ing to do with why Skyrim con­tin­ues to hover in the top 20 of the Steam charts a lit­tle over three years after its re­lease. No, Skyrim en­dures pre­cisely be­cause its cen­tral quest and character are dis­pos­able, fad­ing away while its de­tailed world cre­ates a frame­work for role­play.

Richly lay­ered with tiny tales, almost ev­ery­thing in Skyrim feels like it has a story, or hides a se­cret: the roar­ing fire of a gi­ant’s camp, the stone tower of a ban­dit hide­out beck­on­ing you to un­cover more. Many stu­dios fill their worlds to burst­ing with col­lectibles hop­ing to make them live; Bethesda in­stead filled Skyrim with cul­ture and quests. The weight of the game’s his­tory, lore and ac­tiv­ity is so over­whelm­ing that the player can only make sense of it through se­lec­tion. And as such role­play – not nec­es­sar­ily in the sense of character sheets, though Skyrim’s blank-slate hero never re­jects your back­sto­ries – feels nat­u­ral, a re­fresh­ing change to RPGs that cram moral choice down your throat.

That’s why play­ers have spent hun­dreds of hours play­ing Skyrim with­out even touch­ing the main quest, avoid­ing the drab prophecy en­tirely and in­stead get­ting lost in the world. And what a world it is. Sit­u­ated to the north of Cy­rodil, Skyrim is a harsh, chilly land full of harsh, chilly peo­ple. It’s vast – almost un­be­liev­ably so when you first load the game, sharp moun­tain peaks pierc­ing the hori­zon in ev­ery di­rec­tion. But by dot­ting ci­ties through­out the land, which serve as mini hubs to break up the re­gion and let you fo­cus on the sur­round­ing ar­eas, Bethesda makes it less im­pen­e­tra­ble.

Each of th­ese ci­ties has its own in­stantly recog­nis­able at­mos­phere. Jarl Elisif sits in the Blue Palace, a col­lec­tion of im­pos­ing square tow­ers and stone domes, all tinged with azure. Ar­riv­ing at Soli­tude from the marshes in the south, you’ll see it perched high above you on a pil­lar of rock, at­tached to the main­land by a sweep­ing arc of black, the sea sparkling through the chasm be­neath. It’s as if an an­cient gi­ant has taken a crude carv­ing knife to the land­scape.

Th­ese places bus­tle, too. NPCs will stop in the streets to gossip about the lat­est mis­step the lo­cal gov­er­nor (Jarl) has made in court, or how ex­tor­tion­ate the lo­cal tai­lor’s prices are. But cru­cially, you can be more than just a pas­sive spec­ta­tor of th­ese snip­pets of life. Take Talen-Jei, who helps tend the Bee And Barb in Riften. After telling play­ers about the “ver­min” plagu­ing the city, the Thieves’ Guild, he ad­mits his de­sire to marry the inn’s owner, Keereva, and his lack of money for an en­gage­ment ring. To get one made, he wants three flaw­less amethysts. Buy them and you’ll make a loss on the deal. The pay­off isn’t a po­tion or coin, but the sim­ple plea­sure of imag­in­ing a bet­ter life for the cou­ple.

Skyrim dumps an avalanche of sim­i­lar quests on you when you en­ter its ci­ties’ streets. NPCs clam­our for your at­ten­tion, and the sheer vol­ume of re­quests means you have to pick and choose who to ap­pease. It could have come off as shal­low, with quests of­ten me­chan­i­cally noth­ing more means to an end – the end be­ing a weighty coin purse swing­ing on your belt to un­load for shinier equip­ment. But Bethesda of­fers other mo­ti­va­tions to help some and give oth­ers the cold shoul­der: a par­tic­u­larly un­usual character, say, an in­volv­ing back­story, or a strange task. Taarie – one of the own­ers of the Ra­di­ant Rai­ment in Soli­tude – tasks you with mod­el­ling some gar­ments for the Elisif The Fair, the city’s Jarl and widow of High King To­rygg. So you, the world’s hero, end up pranc­ing around in front of court in a sparkly out­fit, ask­ing one of the most pow­er­ful women in Skyrim if she likes what you’re wear­ing. It’s bizarre, but bril­liant.

In mak­ing th­ese choices, you start to build your character, de­ci­sions snow­balling un­til you be­gin to have sense of what your Do­vahkiin would do in each sit­u­a­tion. Sure, some play­ers’ takes on the hero are

Pub­lisher/de­vel­oper Bethesda (Game Stu­dios) For­mat 360, PC, PS3 Re­lease 2011

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