The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Late to the Party: Skyrim (and The Elder Scrolls in General), Levels 1-20

If you know my posts in the Gaming Threads, you know I’m primarily a retro gamer. There’s a reason for that. I was never allowed to have a game system of my own growing up in the 8- and 16-bit eras, so I relied on my friends and their collections. But when my family moved in 1994, what few new friends I had didn’t have new systems. I mean, one of my sweetest memories of the summer of 1996 was playing Sonic 2 and NBA Jam for goodness sake!

I was cut off from the cutting edge just as gaming was experiencing probably its biggest growth spurt ever. And as I got older and finally had my own money, I was still conservative with it and typically only bought a generation or two behind. I was practically left stranded on the side of the road as trends came and went, and American-made games overtook the Japan-centric scene I was used to.

By the turn of the 2010s, I was barely gaming at all anymore, let alone tuned into the scene. Game titles went in one ear and out the other (and, TBH, still kind of do). I was vaguely aware of the ads for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and the memetic status thereof, but that was it. In April 2017, I found a used Xbox 360 at a Goodwill for $20, and later picked up a few games for cheap. I bought Skyrim for $5 after hearing about it from a few friends. That’s right, I’m playing the OG release; no options for mods here.

Proof of purchase

It was a few firsts for me: first time digging my teeth into a sandbox game (not counting Brutal Legend or sinking a few hours total into the PS2 Grand Theft Autos), first time with a Bethesda game and–most importantly–first experience with a Western RPG (the opposite of Chum Jolley). There was a lot of getting accustomed to things, including dual-stick combat and Western fantasy tropes (which, I’ll be honest, I was never a big fan of. I made it maybe 25 pages into Lord of the Rings, was bored by the Fellowship of the Ring film adaptation and never played D&D, despite having an interest in seeing what it’s all about).

As research for this article, I watched Lazy Game Reviews’ um, reviews of the previous Elder Scrolls games and I traced the history of some of the things present here. Thousands of lines of dialogue, micro-adjusting your race, class and body features (something I always hated doing; “I don’t care what I look like, just let me play the game! This is way too much to be asking of me as literally the first thing you do!”), skills represented by constellations, meretriciously-detailed landscapes, the option of doing missions or just start walking in a random direction (with some even becoming “fantasy life sims”)… One thing ES4: Oblivion did that I wish Skyrim did is zoom in on NPC faces as you’re talking to them.

Skyrim character creation.
I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing.

Though I may not like the medieval trappings, I’m very appreciative of the more-equal footing women seem to have in this society. Even the Iverstead sawmill is run by a woman. And Delphine is pretty badass (even if her door-closing policy is inconsistent 😉 ).

Anyway, after that thrilling dragon-assisted escape (why are they helping me when we’re mortal enemies? Do they know that yet?), I slowly made my way through that initial dungeon, trying to find my bearings. Mapping what little I knew about managing inventory and personal stats onto this. The lock-picking minigame is much more interesting than, say, Bioshock‘s. Right from that first mission through the woods to an old house in Riverwood, however, I noted that I wasn’t caring much about these characters or relationships.

That’s probably my biggest peeve with this game. I just can’t be brought to care about most of the people, places or things in this world. Things improved a little as I went on and I met characters with more personality (Sheogorath in particular is a delight), but still most names went in one ear and out the other. To tell you all where I was in my Gaming Thread posts, I kept having to boot up the game to look up the proper nouns.

These spoony Bards.
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times… who are all you people?

I must say though that the voice-acting is top-notch–even the children! I’m surprised they were able to squeeze it all on one DVD. Though the bards singing & playing line by line is a little jarring. Being accustomed to 90s JRPGs, I’m not used to so much “flavor text” and it still bewilders me that they would pay voice actors to recite even the most mundane of lines–though as you know, a lot of it is stock phrases.

Enemy: You should never have come here. [draws weapon. Tense strings begin.]
Me, to myself: It's on!

We all know by now that “taking an arrow to the knee” is slang for getting married, and there are other anti-settling-down phrases that NPCs will say. I guess that’s just the kind of adventuring world this is. Do that and you’ll be lucky to end up in some story in a book that I will skim over because I didn’t come here to read, dammit! Is that a Western-fantasy thing: lore for lore’s sake?

Speaking of speaking, I’m not used to the way these Western RPG (or maybe it’s just Bethesda games) dialogues unfold.  After speaking to Jarl Balgruuf the Greater in Whiterun, for example, you can ask about this place’s history, its district and its name.  And they’re free to ramble on and on about it–even reciting their scripts over each other like it ain’t no thing.  For somebody for whom speaking takes energy (I stutter…), this is very strange. Word economy is low, I guess is what I’m saying. Watching “cutscenes” between NPCs is even more strange, having you just standing there eavesdropping at close range. In Windhelm’s Palace of the Kings, I had to listen to the Jarl and his advisors like 5 times, every time I walked in the door.

My 2nd biggest peeve with the game is the finicky way you interact with the world. I had to get the crosshair on my screen just right in order to pick up or search what I wanted, accidentally picking up the wrong thing way too often. Then struggling to find it in my inventory so I can discard it. When items are stacked closely together it can become quite frustrating.

Skyrim items on a table.
Just looking at something like this is giving me anxiety.

This game is simultaneously so polished and un-polished it’s kind of funny. I can literally run along the side of a cliff down to safety. Or my avatar will get stuck in his falling animation and hover in the air after slipping off a ledge. Walking animations seem to have not progressed much in the decade following GTA III. Yet the the way light throws shadows in caves is still something to behold (at least for me). And I’m still amazed at the minutiae of the geography. The NPCs’ lip-syncing is convincing enough, yet a lot of other things about them are extremely imperfect. Seasons change in the span of 20 feet. You can be locked in combat with somebody for an eternity, but when you defeat them with magic they go flying. Or else their corpses will get stuck on their knees, backs bent backwards. The music seems like an afterthought. There’s so much content that no army of testers could possibly replicate everything. In other words it’s all very un-Japanese.

Yet during my play sessions, I kept thinking back to The Legend of Zelda series (especially the freewheeling first one, when you could do anything and go anywhere your abilities allowed). Like later Zeldas, The Elder Scrolls has a day/night cycle, jawdropping scenery and NPCs going about their lives. Some are helpful, and some just waste your time. And then there are the caves (instead of dungeons). These were definitely reminiscent of Zelda 1 for me, essentially being one jaunt to the end where a ferocious creature sits between you and a big treasure. Then there’s a quick route back outside.

But I gotta admit, there’s a great player feedback loop at work here. The past Friday & Saturday nights before I began writing this article, I stayed up playing until 3:30 and 2:30AM respectively. You never know what’s around the next corner or how your skills will be tested, be they in battle or inventory management! When I had to travel all the way from Riverwood to Solitude and had the option of renting a carriage for 50 Gold, I opted to walk instead. Who knew what I would find?

Full disclosure: I haven’t played Breath of the Wild yet (which seems heavily indebted to this game). I bought it several months go but put it on the backburner in favor of this. I think I’ll switch their places now; I need a colorful vacation…

One of the last things I did before I reached Level 20 on Saturday was to revisit Darkwater Pass and the surrounding waterfalls (complete with that cart still bobbing up and down in the rapids), reflecting on how far I had come during my 34 in-game days. I was making quick work of those Falmers now, even using them to fill soul gems! I can now take down guards with ease, though I try to stay on the straight & narrow if I can help it. I’ve recruited a Follower, Erandur, and he’s been a big help in battle, literally taking the heat off of me when we fight dragons. I know magic & enchanting and am still working on alchemy. I literally just discovered Perks this weekend!

I’ve finally learned to navigate and fight with dual-sticks, though my fine bow aiming still needs work. The menuing too became second nature (almost: I still get the Start and Y buttons mixed up in the heat of combat). Like that moment when you start to think in a new language, It’s all (well, mostly) clicked!

I shall return to the world of Skyrim at a later time, and I’ll probably write another Late to the Party article on my future progress. After all, my Xbox 360 isn’t going anywhere…

Special thanks to all of you who encouraged me to write this, and to The Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages wiki; I wish I had discovered you sooner.