“Skyrim” Might Take Over Your Life
Issue   |   Tue, 11/29/2011 - 23:53
Image courtesy of giantbomb.com
In “Skyrim,” the majestic scenery is just as impressive as the core gameplay mechanics.

Dovahkiin. Dovahkiin. For the past month and a half, this word has been haunting my mind. When I go to class and when I go to sleep it races through my thoughts, and pops into my head at times when it has no right. In my residence hall I see it scrawled on dry-erase boards and bathroom mirrors. And on the calendar in my common room under November 11, there it is written: Dovahkiin. Dovahkiin.

Nov. 11 was the release date of “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim,” one of the many hotly-anticipated releases of the fourth quarter of 2011. Even before release, the game’s soundtrack was leaked on the Internet, and the hypnotizing main theme followed me wherever I went. Anticipation for the game on my floor was such that I thought it couldn’t possibly live up to expectations.

It did. “Skyrim,” playable on the Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and Microsoft Windows, represents the perfection of a genre that Bethesda Softworks, a company famous for the Elder Scrolls and Fallout franchises, has been improving upon for over a decade. That genre is the open-world RPG, or for the newbies, role-playing game. Such a game puts the player in the shoes of a central character or group of characters and leaves him/her to determine their fate. RPGs give the player a great deal of freedom in character customization and usually leave the player free to explore multiple styles of play. The addition of the open-world element means that the player is given an unprecedented degree of freedom, allowing them to do what they want, when they want in a gigantic, interactive world. Sorry, “Call of Duty” fans; this isn’t the point-and-shoot game you’re used to.

The big problem with this format is keeping things interesting. There’s no point in having a large world to explore if there’s nothing fun to do in it. This was the major fault of the prequel to “Skyrim,” “Oblivion.” There was plenty to do, but only a select number of quests or adventures were entertaining. And if you couldn’t find those quests, simply wandering off into the wilderness didn’t yield any excitement. Skyrim fixes that problem. The (supposedly) over 300 hours of unique gameplay rarely feel dry or tired, and tromping off into the wilds is just as likely to lead to a unique adventure as walking into a city and asking around for work.

In “Skyrim,” you are the dragon-born — Dovahkiin, in the language of the dragons. After years of extinction, dragons have mysteriously returned to “Skyrim,” the northernmost region of the continent of Tamriel. “Skyrim” is a rich fantasy world, wrought with fascinating history and conflict. Torn in two by a civil war and soiled by racial tensions between the indigenous Nords and the foreign Dark Elves and High Elves, Skyrim has plenty of problems into which you can butt your horned head. This game is rated Mature for a reason; it may be fantasy, but it’s dark and gritty. It may sound silly to describe a game about dragons as realistic, but you will be able to relate to many of Skyrim’s residents. The way you resolve their troubles is up to you.

As the dragon-born, a blood descendant of the legendary dragon-slayers of yore, it is up to you to figure out why the dragons are returning and eventually to stop them. Or not. In fact, that too is completely up to you. While the main quest line is intriguing and enjoyable, nothing forces you to complete it. The game starts you off with a place to go and a path to follow if you’d like, but you can just as easily opt to beeline for a nearby city or simply wander around for a while until something catches your fancy. The game also never explicitly tells you how to play. Starting you off with a one-handed weapon and a few magical spells, you are free to develop your character as you play. The leveling system, which improves certain skills as you use them, is combined with a perk system that allows you to specialize more specifically in certain paths. You never feel locked into any one play-style. Your play style is something that evolves with you, and it’s always possible to make a switch.

Another tremendous improvement in “Skyrim” is a sense of immersion. As I entered the game, I pushed my analog stick up and my character looked to the sky. Temporary blindness blurred my vision, only to be replaced by a photorealistic, beautiful skyscape. Small details like this make Skyrim feel like a real world. As a result, climbing to the top of a tall mountain to view a beautiful aurora above and a vast spotted tundra below is immensely satisfying, even when no experience is rewarded and no foes are vanquished. Things like this make me recast the way I think about games; it’s no longer about constantly stimulating the pleasure center of my brain. There’s something artful about the majestic scenes in “Skyrim,” and the fact that they aren’t just handed to me on a silver platter. It is not simply what I am seeing that feels like art, but the experience; video games like these provide the potential for the most interactive art form yet.

That said, I wouldn’t exactly recommend “Skyrim” to the average college student. It is hard to appreciate the immersive experience when countless deadlines hang over my shoulder. I’m lucky to squeeze in an hour of this 300+ hour saga every other day, and even then I constantly eye the clock to see how much time I have left to explore before I meet my self-imposed limit. College students have lives to worry about, and I wouldn’t suggest sacrificing them for a video game, no matter how epic. We have papers, exams, assignments, professors, friends, boyfriends and girlfriends to worry about. We are busy building the foundations for the rest of our lives. Dragon-slaying adventures can wait until winter break.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to play some more Skyrim.