It feels like Skyrim – Bethesda’s 2011 fantasy epic – has become the yardstick by which we measure every role-playing game since. Its popularity upon release was explosive and unprecedented, and its re-release in HD remastered form last November was accompanied by a wave of nostalgia for its snow-capped fantasy.
I can’t recall another live-action trailer in the years since that original release that has gotten so many people talking – not in the middle of somebody’s D&D campaign, but in line at the grocery store – about their sudden interest in a video game involving dragons, elves, and wizards.
Looking back at Tom Bissell’s 2010 book, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, it seems almost quaint to see how Bissell discusses his relationship with Oblivion, the previous entry in Bethesda’s beloved Elder Scrolls series.
“It is difficult to describe Oblivion,” he writes, “without atavistic fears of being savaged by the same jean-jacketed dullards who in 1985 threw my Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual II into Lake Michigan.”
Today, it’s even harder to imagine anyone sounding half as apologetic about their love for an open-world fantasy RPG. So what’s changed? For one thing, we know that any such “jean-jacketed dullards” today are almost certainly gamers themselves, given that some 2.1 billion people worldwide are now playing games.
If the receptionist at your local dentist’s office is a Pokémon master, it stands to reason that the bully who beat you up during middle-school recess has declared himself Dragonborn – or faced down Calamity Ganon – at some point or another.
When Legend of Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma gave us our first glimpse of Breath of the Wild in 2014, the comparisons began immediately: “It’s Zelda meets Skyrim!” Similarly, at the 2012 Gamescom event in Germany, Machinima‘s Adam Kovic described Ubisoft’s modern-day adventure Far Cry 3 as “Skyrim with guns,” which spawned a fun meme about the various ways other games were, or were not, like Skyrim. The fact is that despite a host of games attempting to ape its paradigmatic open world in the years since its release, few have actually come close to achieving it. Bethesda’s own Fallout 4, CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher 3, and Nintendo’s Breath of the Wild are the standout exceptions.
But there’s a reason why Skyrim continues to mean “an open-world fantasy RPG done spectacularly well” in video game parlance: it’s accessible, it’s a comfortable virtual space to inhabit, and it’s still the best.
That’s not to say I don’t prefer Fallout 4 or The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind in other, more specific ways. I think that Fallout 4 offers greater replay value, a better dialogue system, and more interesting combat, while Morrowind exemplifies Bethesda at their most creative in terms of things like worldbuilding. Skyrim, however, occupies a sort of refined goldilocks zone at the center of Bethesda’s legacy.
Like Breath of the Wild, its heir presumptive, the game lets players set the pace of their adventure, but it also provides no end of worthwhile distractions along the way.
We’re not talking about cooking and climbing trees and sailing downriver; Skyrim contains at least several novels’ worth of storytelling – from the voluminous library of in-game texts to the seemingly endless supply of spoken dialogue.
Whether or not its vast, uneven narrative becomes a part of the story being told by the player on a given play through is left entirely up to them. You could even choose to ignore the main quest altogether and instead complete the various faction-based side quests, and you’d still have a fulfilling game experience.
But what separates Skyrim from its imitators, above all else, is just how wildly intuitive it can be. Its formula is one Bethesda’s been honing for decades, and even the masterful Fallout 4 couldn’t overtake it as the most eminently playable RPG so far this century.
It’s hard to overstate how much of Skyrim‘s world draws from the utterly familiar. Even a cursory glance reveals this to be a realm borrowed from Norse mythology – European dragons, godlike warriors, the Hall of Valor in Sovngarde that’s an obvious Valhalla analogue.
The game’s ending is even, in broad strokes, a kind of Ragnarok. No doubt people who’d never before been drawn to an RPG like Oblivion – a journey through Hell, essentially – found Skyrim to be a much more welcoming world than past Elder Scrolls games. In a word, timeless.
In the introduction to his book Norse Mythology, best-selling fantasy author Neil Gaiman writes that it’s “the fact that the world and the story ends, and the way that it ends and is reborn, that made the gods and the frost giants and the rest of them tragic heroes, tragic villains.
Ragnarok made the Norse world linger for me, seem strangely present and current, while other, better-documented systems of belief felt as if they were part of the past, old things.”
I’d be first in line to defend the merits of a game like Fallout 4 or Morrowind, but the truth is that those games simply don’t carry the same mythic weight that drew so many eager new players to the world of Skyrim.
Regardless of how you feel about the post-apocalyptic Falloutuniverse, it, too, is an artifact of the past – a distinctly 20th-century future that never was and (hopefully), never will be.
And Morrowind –thanks to its dark, alien landscapes and complex story – is the kind of capital-w Weird that casual audiences so often avoid on an almost gut-instinct basis.
Contrast that to the Song of Ice and Fire novels by George R. R. Martin, the basis for the Game of Thrones television series on HBO which blew up in April of 2011 and no doubt helped the Skyrim cause. Like Skyrim, Martin’s Westeros is grounded in the familiarity of both European folklore and medieval history, and it’s perhaps the single most talked-about work of Western fantasy our culture has right now. (Hey, people love dragons.)
There’s also the sticky issue of what actually makes for a good game and what does not. Some of the criticisms leveled at the writing in Skyrim and other Bethesda games (dialogue is verbose, sometimes lifeless and stories generic) are valid – if exaggerated and more recent games RPGs like Breath of the Wild and The Witcher 3 have gone to exhaustive lengths to avoid the pitfalls of large-scale storytelling in an open-world setting.
On one side of the coin, you have linear versus a more open-ended, exploratory experience. And, on the other, the question remains as to whether or not this sort of game – with its dragon slaying and torchlit dungeons – ought to let you create, customize, and name your own character.
I don’t claim to have an easy answer, but I do know that, despite its countless other rewards, Breath of the Wild‘s story lacks a sufficient reason to care about Link as a character if you don’t already.
The Witcher 3, meanwhile, seems to let its (admittedly great) narrative get in the way a little too often to facilitate the kind of favorite-old-jacket replayability you get with a classic Bethesda title.
“I don’t know yet if it’s a blessing or a curse that some things we do have become cemented in the gaming vernacular,” says Todd Howard, director and executive producer at Bethesda Game Studios.
“I’ll see games that seem to borrow from it, but it’s surface stuff. I like to design for flow. Skyrim has a certain flow – it’s almost relaxing, comforting, when you zone in. [Breath of the Wild] has that. Actually,” he adds, “Zelda does it so much better. That’s a brilliant game.”
Howard remembers Skyrim‘s impact feeling more or less immediate. The game launched on Friday, November 11, 2011 – Veterans Day in the United States – to universal acclaim. “It was beyond anything we’d ever seen,” he says.
Howard knew the game had struck a cultural nerve when it was referenced by a character on NCIS, the most-watched U.S. television show from 2012 to ’14. “They did the arrow-in-the-knee joke.”
The massive online culture of fan art, memes, and music surrounding Skyrim (and mainstream tips of the hat like the one on NCIS) goes a long way toward explaining the shift from fantasy RPGs being seen as the territory of basement-dwelling geeky males to that of all kinds of people, everywhere – as they’ve always been.
After all, the advent of social media – the world’s greatest meme-dissemination engine – as we know it today occurred roughly between the release of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion in 2006 and Skyrim‘s launch in 2011. Facebook had only 12 million active users in ’06; by the time of the dragons’ return to Tamriel, it had 845 million.