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