Dispatch From Skyrim: From the Desk of Archmage Snow Lion

Published on Author Eli Fennell

Greetings fellow citizens of Skyrim.  I’ve been playing since its release.  For those who’ve been living in a cave on Pluto, Skyrim is the fifth chapter in the iconic Elder Scrolls video game series by Bethesda Softworks.  Within a month of its recent release it won nearly every Game of the Year Award that can be won, sold over ten million copies, and became the most played video game of 2011.

There have been countless reviews, but I thought it’d be best to immerse myself for a while before sending my own report from the field.  I didn’t want to write some early, salivating review of a game driven by hype.  I wanted to be able to report, with confidence, that the hype was justified.  I can confidently state that if anything the brilliance of the game has been understated, although it isn’t without its blemishes.

I’m now an Archmage and sufficiently qualified for a review.  Let’s start with the destined-to-become-iconic opening sequence… slight spoiler alert.  You find yourself in the back of a horse-drawn carriage, a prisoner captured while crossing the border into Skyrim, apparently.  You are given no back story.  Elder Scrolls games invite you to imagine your own back story.  Who was I and how did I come to this place?

There is a dialogue with other prisoners (you have no voice, but can turn your head) as you are driven by soldiers into a village replete with gawking villagers and fine points of detail, such as a brief but memorable exchange between a father and son.  Skyrim is the first game in the Elder Scrolls series with child characters, but you can’t be one or kill one, wisely enough.

The carriage stops and the prisoners are offloaded and cataloged by Imperial troops.  They ask your name and you create your character, defining your gender, race, and appearance, among other things.  The most time-consuming part is defining your appearance.  In Oblivion the character creation engine seemed to be designed for professionals, allowing the user to specify dozens of features down to degrees.

This made it theoretically possible to build a character of virtually any appearance, even to reproduce real people in minute detail; I once made a character that looked exactly like me, so much so it could have been an articulated sculpture of me. It was also a pain in the backside, making it virtually necessary to spend hours building your appearance.

The new character creation engine is more intuitive without being less creative.  Instead of defining everything to minute degrees, Skyrim offers dozens of predefined options for each feature.  One need merely scroll through the options, such as the shape or height of the nose, shape or width of the eyes, color of the skin, etc…, and see how it looks on the screen.

These thousands of preset options mean character-building nerds can be as creative as with Oblivion, yet the novice player can build a good, custom character in just a few minutes.  I spent about twenty minutes building my own, and achieved results that would have taken twice or three times as long in Oblivion.

The sequence that follows can be summed up: You’re led to a group or prisoners and watch one of them get beheaded (not as gruesome as it sounds), while a distant roaring sound draws nearer and spooks the Imperial forces, led by General Tullius, voiced by Michael Hogan, best known as Colonel Saul Tigh of the Battlestar Galactica reboot.  You are led to the chopping board, but before the executioner strikes, a dragon reveals itself and attacks the village.  This is when you take control.

The first time you play this sequence you may be confused, but once mastered, it should be a piece of cake the next time around.  Just follow anyone who tells you to follow them and go where they tell you to go.  Even stumbling around blindly I managed to make it through on my first go, though I’m experienced at Elder Scrolls games.  I should add that it is the finest dragon I’ve seen outside of blockbuster films.

Once you escape you find yourself in Skyrim proper, the Nord region of Tamriel, and a reluctant part of the Empire.  You define your birth sign by activating one of many standing stones scattered across Skyrim, although somewhat maddeningly they’re not all together and you have to go looking for some of them.  Despite making it more difficult, this makes it more immersive.  It allows you to change signs as you evolve.  I haven’t found this necessary, but could I see the value.

Factions are radically reimagined in the latest Elder Scrolls chapter.  The iconic Mages Guild and the Fighters Guild are gone, replaced by the College of Winterhold and Companions.  The Thieves Guild and the Imperial Legion remain.  The College is more-or-less the Mages Guild with an edge; the Companions are nothing like the mercenery-for-hire Fighters Guild.  The Companions are an honor-bound brotherhood with no hierarchy, whose members share a deep secret, a blood bond like no other.

Every faction is fleshed out and made into a unique story line worthy of its own attention, rather than mere accessories to the Main Quest, as they too often seemed to be in earlier chapters of the Elder Scrolls series.  Each faction, to put it another way, has a quest line that is as immersive and engaging as the main story line.  The main story is no longer the goal, compared to which everything else is a means to an end.  You could eschew the main quest and it would still be the best game of all time.

The combat engine is not only improved, but adds amazing kill sequences.  Sometimes your character will do something amazing like grab an enemy and drive a sword through them, or tackle them and slash them repeatedly, etc..  You can also be killed in spectacular ways.  Spell casting has evolved to allow each hand to cast separate spells, or to combine their powers for power-attack destruction spells.  Leveling in Skyrim isn’t perfect but is a major step forward, and I think the modding community influenced this.

The menu system sucks, and this is my biggest criticism apart from the inevitable bugs.  The menu system switches between mouse and keyboard control so seamlessly that the user is not easily sure which one they’re supposed to be using, at least on a PC.  This is one of the few things marring this epic game.

The killer features of Skyrim are the world of Tamriel and its inhabitants.  Their world is breathtakingly beautiful, from its diverse forests, to its rugged snowy mountains, fish-filled rivers, starry night skies, dank caves, cyclopean Dwemer ruins, Mammoth inhabited Tundras, ruined castles, verdant farmlands, bustling cities, sleepy villages, regional weather patterns, and more.

The characters are driven by Dynamic Radiant AI, making each one autonomous and capable of interacting dynamically with the game world, and virtually eliminating scripted character behavior.  Combined with advances in animation, and improvements to the dialogue scripting, the characters really seem to come alive.  The entire virtual world of Skyrim feels as spontaneous, unpredictable, and immersive as the real world or any virtual world like World of Warcraft, and so do its people.

Let me give an example:  I entered a village and spoke to a young boy, who asked me to play hide and seek with him.  I died a minute later (not from hide and seek, of course), and reloaded back in the village.  I approached the same boy, but this time he didn’t ask me to play with him.  I’m the same character; he’s the same boy; I restarted at the same point; nothing was different.  Yet he didn’t ask me to play.  Something changed… a mood, perhaps?  The caprice of a young child?

I spend hours listening to characters, whether speaking to them or just overhearing them.  In Oblivion the dialogue was repetitive, there were too few voice actors, and too many inconsistencies (i.e.one moment the beggar sounded haggard and the next moment spoke with perfect diction), but in Skyrim I could listen nearly forever and hear little repetition and few inconsistencies.  Some voices are repeated, but seem largely reserved to throwaway-roles like gate-guarding legionnaires and children.

Many characters simply stop responding if they have nothing new to say, and will only grunt or repeat a question if you press them, while others won’t engage in dialogue at all.  This is realistic.  In real life not everyone wants to chat, and conversations don’t repeat in infinite loops.  Skyrim makes you spend time paying attention to dialogue, but makes it more rewarding.  Characters sound realistic and are fleshed out with mannerisms, quirks, back stories, and other intangibles.

Animals and other creatures are astounding and form an amazingly complete ecosystem.  There are wolves, dogs, deer, mammoths, chickens, birds, insects, fish, trees, flowers… a complete biosphere so fully realized that you can almost smell it and taste it.  Fantasy creatures like Atronachs, Dragons, Giants, Spriggans, and more, some new and others iconic, spring to life, becoming palpable and organic.

With incredible advances in Artificial Intelligence, an ambitious and highly realized open fantasy world, an epic story line, and attention even to the small details like how characters move when standing still (leaning, putting their hands on their hips, gesturing with their hands, etc…), how shadows change with the angle of sun, and more, Skyrim has achieved what no other offline role playing game ever has: making the character feel like they’re interacting with a fully realized and populated world.

World of Warcraft and other MMORPG’s achieve this by allowing countless real players to interact with each other in a common game world.  Because the players are real and the world is highly developed, the world and its people feel real.  Even Oblivion fell short of truly bringing its characters to life despite Radiant AI, voice dialogue, and incredibly realistic graphics.  The world came alive in Oblivion, but not the characters, although modders made a lot of progress in this area.

Skyrim characters feel like real people with personalities, life stories, careers, loved ones, likes and dislikes, even temperaments.  Some are unapproachable, some overeager; some become friends or underlings; some become lovers (it’s possible, although I’ve yet to find one).  Some are honorable, some scoundrels, some heroes, some rulers, some commoners.  Some are savvy urbanites and some rural peasants.  Some run businesses, some work farms; some are mages, some warriors, some thieves, some bards, some brawlers, some peacemakers.

Each is fleshed out, as the whole of Skryim is fleshed out, in a way that sets it apart, and earns it a place as the greatest role playing video game, indeed the greatest video game, of all time.  It’s such a joy to play that I find myself deliberately avoiding the major quests to focus on other quests, both because these are incredibly rewarding in themselves, and because I’m in no hurry to finish.

I could spend thousands of hours on just my first character.  I’m making friends, climbing the ranks, dealing death to my enemies left and right, helping poor souls who need a hero, swimming in gold, feared and respected, pimping out my Archmage’s Chambers with hard won bling from my quests… and I’m only just getting started.

Now back to Skyrim for this Elder Scrolls fanatic, to find Fire Salts for the forge in Riften.  If you’re a citizen of Tamriel, or want to be one, drop me a comment below.

From the Desk of Archmage Snow Lion
College of Winterhold, Skyrim
12th of Sun’s Dusk, 4E 201

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