Once upon a time, there was a game called The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Based upon some fantasy books I'd never heard of, Morrowind offered my younger self hours of exploration, surprise, and entertainment. It's hard to overstate how much I look back fondly on that game. Morrowind offered a unique world full of things I've never seen before. Gigantic mushroom trees, flowing volcanoes, flora and fauna beyond count... This game was a mixture of weird and absolutely real. What impressed me most of all, though, were all of the things you could do. You didn't have to explore the myriad caves, dungeons, temples, and forgotten ruins of the world; you could choose whether you wanted to help the Mage's Guild, the thieves, the different noble Houses of the land, random strangers needing help, or more. What's more, the game was steeped with an immense history that added weight and wonder to everything you did. Hundreds of books, rare and common, were scattered throughout the land for you to read and collect as you desired. The primary quest involved a foe whose story was steeped in the mythology of the world itself. You, yourself, were the central part of a prophecy referenced by important characters, lore, and architecture within the game. Everything in the game contributed powerfully to the sense that the entirety of the world was yours to explore, control, and experience.
After countless hours with Morrowind, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion came along. And, sadly, Oblivion was more disappointing. While it continued the trend of giving you a massive landscape to play around with, its tone was more bland. Where Morrowind had such bizarre structures as buildings made out of the backs of giant crabs, Oblivion took a more stereotypical tack with the goal of reaching a broader audience. We were introduced to a more generic fantasy setting with horses, stone houses, elven armor, forests, and more. It didn't feel as original and, what's more, the dialogue, background story, and quests were dumbed down. Our character, instead of being involved in some dense epic where the good and bad sides aren't exactly clear, goes through a painfully simple save-the-world quest without ambiguity. Everything felt less. Oblivion still was a serviceable game; it just didn't feel all that special.
Then The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim arrived.
Sojourn to the Icy North
Do you remember that first moment reading about the Wall in A Game of Thrones? Do you remember seeing the immensity of it for the very first time in the TV series, manned by tiny Night's Watch figures small as ants, looming over a frozen wilderness? Now imagine that first moment as a child when you discovered the wonder of snow. Remember it falling on your open palm? Remember feeling the small surge of cold water against your tongue as you opened your mouth to the whiteness of the sky?
Skyrim seizes on these feelings and holds you spellbound. On one side, you have the forbidding awe that comes from traveling and exploring a land that you have never truly seen and do not fully understand. On the other, you have that sense of fascination and glee that is both new and familiar. You get the sense that this game, vast and dangerous as it is, is full of such surprising things that you can (and probably will) spend days inside of it. You'll keep on searching every nook and cranny. You'll see the top of a mountain and dare yourself to look out over the world from the peak of it. It's hard to capture into words precisely what it is about Skyrim that keeps you thinking about and coming back to it.
From Barrow to Ruin
In terms of the setting, Skyrim brings to the plate a world worthy of Morrowind. It's funny; I look at them as equals, yet Morrowind offered something that Skyrim did not. See, as I mentioned earlier, Morrowind's world was wholly unique. Mushroom forests surrounded a spectral fence enclosing the ruins of an ancient civilization within a dormant volcano. It's hard to make that shit up, and it has next to no bearing on anything I've seen before in a fictional world. By contrast, the setting of Skyrim, while definitely interesting, is clearly based on our idealized notions of ancient Scandinavian tribes and clans. The Nords are a thinly veiled pastiche of the Vikings of the real world. They worship pagan gods. They believe that, upon dying, their spirits will go to a warrior's rest (much like the Valhalla of our Norse mythology). Their weapons, their architecture, their combative spirit... Everything about Skyrim and the people that live within it usher in a memory of Earth's north European medieval past, from the ribald songs of warrior poets to the sharpened iron axes of raids and wars to come.
However, what makes this so engrossing is that, even though Skyrim provides an environment that we have some familiarity with, it is also a fantasy setting and era of history that not many games, movies, books, or TV shows have put much focus on. Even though it isn't unique, we still feel like we have a great deal to discover about it. Thus, even as you can logically predict that the most powerful warrior chieftain will be buried in the back by all of the loot within a Nord barrow, you still feel wonderment and caution when poking around the place.
One aspect of these games that is important to me (that might not be important to anyone else) is the existence of a strong and deep backstory. The reason why Morrowind was so incredible to me and maintained such lasting power was the fact that, due to the referencing of past events and the expansive histories behind factions and powers, I felt like there was always something more to discover behind it all. Tolkien knew the power of this when he wrote Lord of the Rings; you don't even have to explain precisely what has happened or could happen with events tertiary to the story, you just have to hint that they're there. The easiest way to conceptualize this is to picture a glacier. You get to see and experience the tip of the iceberg. But everything below the surface is what really fires the imagination and makes you yearn for more.
Skyrim does this admirably. With every city you visit, multitudes of quests have you investigate this or that ancient tomb or longstanding disturbance. When exploring the countryside and the mountains, you are able to find crypts and ruins that speak to events that happened there in ages past. Hundreds of books are littered throughout the game and, whether you read them or no, they contribute to the construction of a powerfully thick mythology that makes you feel like you're in a living, breathing, and evolving world.
Plots in Parallel
One odd thing about Skyrim, though, is its plot. It isn't bad, by any means; in it you are the prophesied Dragonborn destined to save the world from an armageddon of resurgent dragons. It is the predictable mix of epic tale and power fantasy perfect for a sweeping video game. My confusion arose from the other plot going on.
You begin the game as a man or woman being sent to the executioner's block. On the way, you discover that Skyrim is in the thick of a civil war. On one side, we have the Empire: the ruling administration over the Nords of the land. On the other hand, we have the revolutionaries of Ulfric Stormcloak: a charismatic rebel who thinks that the Nords would do better as an independent nation. You are about to be executed because the Empire thinks that you're associated with the rebels and doesn't know what else to do with you. Yet suddenly, by the powers of deus ex machina, you are inadvertently saved by the attack of the first dragon the world has seen for hundreds of years. You are then set off on your quest of discovering what your relationship is with the dragons of the world.
This pretty much sums up the problem. For whatever reason, Skyrim decided to go with two major story arcs and then sideline one without warning. I get the feeling that this wasn't originally the plan. The Civil War plot permeates every city and most every conversation in the world of Skyrim. Though it could have been simplistic and two-dimensional, it is actually fleshed out to the point where it is genuinely difficult to choose between which side to support. The Empire believes that it must bide its time in the short term and concede to the excesses of an outside power, only so that it may wait and muster arms until it can realistically oppose said power. By contrast, the Stormcloaks believe that surrender, even feigned, is a betrayal of the Nordic morality system and way of life. They view the Imperials as interlopers and stand behind their desire to defend their home, even to the death. It's a tricky balance. It boils down to compromises vs absolutes. Secularism vs faith. There is no right answer and, no matter who you side with, you're destined to make some decisions along the way that make you realize that maybe the other side was the better choice.
Yet I have to point out that this dilemma, prevalent as it is, has next to nothing to do with the 'main' plot. It's like the developers looked it over, at a plot spanning the entirety of the game's geography, and was like, “Screw this. We need some dragons!” Granted, dragons are pretty damn awesome, but it's interesting to note that the Dragon plot isn't nearly as multifaceted as the Civil War plot. Your enemy is pretty clear and stereotypically evil in the Dragon plot. The lines are nowhere near as defined in the Civil War. Altogether, the confusing and mixed importance set to the two different plots added a discordant note to an otherwise flawlessly decorated masterpiece. It was akin to reading a fantastic book and then getting dragged out of it because you noticed a particularly nonsensical and glaring typo.
I could talk about the gameplay, but I don't get quite so much out of talking about such factors. In brief, Skyrim's gameplay improves upon the excellent examples set by its fellow Elder Scrolls predecessors. My only complaint is that your followers still act retarded and the melee weapon system still makes it feel like you're flailing about wildly most of the time. These are small complaints and nowhere near enough to detract from playing the game, but they are definitely worth noting as areas to improve upon in the inevitable Elder Scrolls VI.
All in all, this is one of the best games I've ever played. Given that this game has received its fair share of love and praise over the past year or so of being out, this probably comes as no surprise. It offers a playing experience with an astonishing amount of depth. It boasts a world that never ceases to amaze. And it offers so much to do within it that it truly boggles the mind.