Many of us stood in line on a brisk November night, waiting to get our hands on the game that would enslave us to our PC’s and consoles for days to come. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim went on to be named the 2011 Game of the Year, and countless players lost themselves within this fantasy world.
While most players were swept away by the gameplay, the fantasy writer in me was constantly analyzing every aspect of Skyrim, from the storyline to the world and the creatures within it. Such is the nature of the fantasy enthusiast.
I also had very high expectations for this game, after being wowed by Oblivion for years. This is my view on what I saw, and what I would have liked to have seen, in the world of Skyrim.
You emerge atop a ridge, and at first you are greeted by a blast of wintry wind. High above you, snow drifts from mountain peaks into the chilly night sky, which is illuminated by endless stars and spectacular streaks of light that mirror the Northern Lights. The land before you opens up into a rugged but beautiful landscape of endless pine trees, and moonlight shimmers from a river that roars on through the night.
The first thing that you notice about Skyrim is the astounding beauty that Bethesda has created within its virtual world. From the snowcapped mountains to the open valleys, Skyrim doesn’t disappoint with its visual power. I’ve found it to be a great source of inspiration for fantasy writing.
The creatures of Skyrim all seem to have a place in the land, unlike other fantasy universes that tend to plop random creatures about. Even more surprising is that the creatures aren’t all fangs and claws and bloodthirsty mandibles – there are plenty of game animals roaming and grazing in the pristine lands; the fact that you can stalk and hunt them gives Skyrim even more to offer.
Civilization in Skyrim
Landscapes and creatures aside, there are some things that irk me, primarily the major cities – most of which are no more than mere villages. Whiterun is the most impressive city by far when you get into the game, and that is odd, considering it is the ‘beginning city,’ as far as typical RPGs go. One plus I will give, however, is that I enjoyed the change of architecture and the layout of each hold or city. Each one feels unique from the other, and appears to compliment the areas in which they are situated.
I enjoyed the Holds in Skyrim, such as Morthal and Falkreath, but more could have been done with them besides offering meaningless sidequests. The lesser Holds barely give reason for one to venture in their direction, which, as a gamer and a writer, leaves me wondering what the purpose of their existence is. I half expected to come to the rescue of one being besieged by dragons at some point, something like the teaser commercial for the game. But sadly, that would not happen. Even becoming Jarl of a hold or two would have been interesting. I mean, hell, you became an honorary Daedric Prince that ruled an entire realm in The Shivering Isles expansion to Oblivion, and all you get to become in Skyrim is a practically useless Thane?
I do have to admit that Bethesda did a fantastic job of making the citizens of Skyrim believable. Instead of wandering around, day in and day out, the NPCs of Skyrim actually perform jobs like forging weaponry and running lumber mills. They also interact with one another in a more realistic way than they had in previous Elder Scrolls games, which even further draws you into the world. Aspects like these accentuate the believable side of a fantasy universe, and if Bethesda can fully master this, they can further improve the realism of their games.
On another note, it seems that the populations of the holds and towns are shrinking more and more as the Elder Scrolls series continues on. Whiterun, not including the surrounding mills and farms, might have a population of less than forty. While typical towns and cities of the Middle Ages didn’t have high populations, the towns in Skyrim are far too unpopulated. Bethesda would have been safe throwing in more generic, stock NPCs (non-playable characters) into the populace, to create a more realistic environment.
It just doesn’t make sense that some bandit camps have populations equal to or larger than nearby towns. Many of the more serious bandit encampments could have easily overrun a town or two. I suppose bandits don’t like to go far from camp, but then again, nor do most of the other threats in Skyrim – something that really irked me about the game.
…Which brings us to the next point.
Giants: A missed Opportunity?
Bethesda dropped the ball with regard to the giants of Skyrim. I expected them to figure into the grand scheme of things in some meaningful way. Sadly, all that they do is walk their mammoths and guard their precious cheese. No, really, that’s all that they do. Giants should have gotten a bit more attention from Bethesda.
From the first few pictures in the Skyrim issue of Game Informer, I thought that the mammoths were going to be a mode of travel, like the silt-striders of Morrowind. It would have made the giant “camps” serve a purpose, and trading supplies with the giants to acquire rare items would have even furthered their purpose in the realm.
How incredible would it have been to lead a charge with giants at your side? I know that they would have been helpful, especially since I watched one single-handedly obliterate a dragon. Defending a hold or village from a marauding band of giants would have been intense, as would confronting a giant-lord in battle, or asking his aid against the dragon incursion.
Their lack of purpose bothers me as a writer. If you’re going to include a race of beings in your world, they should have some impact on the events that happen within it. Sure, you get random bounties to slay one or two here and there, but what thrill is that?
Dragons: Expectations vs. Reality
As you ride your horse across the valley, your ears pick up a fell noise in the cold wind: a roar. You scan the horizon and find one of the great winged leviathans high above. The only nearby cover is a rocky outcrop amidst the open, rolling valley floor. It spots you, and soon it circles you and your steed. You quickly rise from the rocks and fire an arrow towards the dragon – only to narrowly escape a bath of flame.
Your horse is probably going to be snacked on, by the way.
Out of all my adventures in Skyrim, nothing compares to the first dragon fight at the tower near Whiterun. The dragon was ferocious and deadly, slaughtering the majority of the brave men who fought alongside me. When the last swing of my greatsword killed the beast, I couldn’t help but feel like a badass.
I wasn’t at the top of the food chain – and I knew it. Waiting for a dragon to inevitably swoop down and attack reminded me of Jurassic Park, and how, at any moment, a dinosaur could emerge from the jungle and start eating everyone. It was a thrill having the sense that I was being hunted, not the other way around. At the beginning of the game I was constantly watching the skies, fearful of the flying terrors.
But that was at the beginning of the game.
Not only did the dragons become less of a danger, they became almost like pests as the game progressed. Somewhere along the line, the dragons, and the fear associated with them, dissipated into the wind. They didn’t feel dangerous anymore, nor did I as the Dragonborn feel important. The intensity level of the game quickly drops off as the story unfolds.
If I am not mistaken, aren’t dragons supposed to attack and raze villages to the ground? I half-expected towns and the lesser Holds to be destroyed at one point by the dragons, but as I ventured around, I found out that they only cared about perching atop their altars and attacking whatever creatures were in their way.
The Storyline through the Dragonborn’s Eyes
Oh, hey, you’re the Dragonborn! Go kill dragons!
The story delves into the history of Skyrim and the dragons, but more importantly, uncovers the history of the main character – you. Unfortunately, I couldn’t help but shake an awkward feeling that I, as the Dragonborn, didn’t feel as important as I should have. No one, save the Greybeards, really seems to care that you’re the Dragonborn, or make the assumption that there is a connection between you and the dragons.
Furthermore, as the Dragonborn, I felt there was little character building for myself as the player during the game, except for making some choices within the war. Everything felt like it happened too fast; player becomes hero, hero discovers power, hero defeats bad guy with power, game over. I think that the Dragonborn’s rise to the top of the food chain came too swiftly.
And how do the citizens of Skyrim know you’re the Dragonborn? Why don’t they respect or fear you? Everyone is so nonchalant about it! At least in Oblivion the people recognized you for your actions in Kvatch, and then called you a hero for it. While this wasn’t game shattering, it did bother me enough to prevent me from being fully immersed within the fantasy.
To be honest, Oblivion had a more intense main quest line than Skyrim. Only in the beginning of Skyrim did there seem to be a sense of urgency, and most of it was spawned from the aforementioned dragon encounter. In Oblivion, the Daedra completely and utterly destroyed an entire city, right off the bat. In Skyrim, the main baddie, Alduin, an evil first child of a God, destroyed a fort… and then hid for the rest of the game. While the dragons remained a threat, they paled in comparison to how the Daedra nearly destroyed Cyrodiil in Oblivion.
I was unimpressed with Alduin as a character. For wanting to take Skyrim back, he and his dragons did a terrible job. How hard would it have been to destroy, much less attack, the holds of Skyrim? Alduin nearly leveled Helgen in a few minutes, but where was his power and ferocity after that? All but spent? Couldn’t he have raised an army of Draugr to assault the cities?
Alduin failed as a villain, which really hampered the story’s ability to stir up intensity or suspense. One thing, though, that I found satisfying was that there seemed to be a rivalry between the Dragonborn and Alduin towards the end of the game; one of the few moments where the character seemed important.
On the War
I was surprised that the war wasn’t woven throughout the main storyline – that would have made for some chaotic situations. They should have made the struggle between the Stormcloaks and the Imperials more apparent throughout the world.
Regardless, I enjoyed the war far more than the main storyline, even though it was quite short. Assaulting Whiterun with an army of Stormcloaks at my back was one of the most remarkable moments in all of my gaming experience, and one quite inspiring to my writing. While the scale of the battles were not large by any means, this was a step forward into epic storytelling for video gaming. I felt a sense of importance throughout the war, the feeling that I was writing history as I took each fortress and city from my enemy – something I’d like to see more from these types of RPGs.
While I have pointed out elements that were lacking, Skyrim remains, nonetheless, one of the most enjoyable games – and stories – that I have had the pleasure of experiencing. There was a lot about the game I desired to address, but I felt these subjects to be the most important. If I were to sum up my criticisms of the game, I would say that it lacked intensity and a bit of innovation, but brought so much to the table.
This article focused mainly on the world building and storytelling aspects of the game, rather than on the actual gameplay. If developers such as Bethesda spent more time on the fantasy end of the package, including the world building, it might just usher in a new era of gaming that focuses on the exploration of the fantasy, rather than just playing within it.
So what do you other Dovahkiins think? What kind of impression did your trip to Skyrim leave on you?
Codey Amprim is a creative writing undergrad at the California University of Pennsylvania. He hopes to finish a multi-book series that he is planning, and to one day write for a living.