This article was written by both Lizz Grimsley and Will Nelson, let the Skyrim battle commence!
Skyrim is undoubtedly a game that dominates the industry zeitgeist. Launching all the way back in 2011, it was a total smash hit. Over the years though, the public view on this game and its developers Bethesda, has shifted. Nobody can deny that the game was influential, but looking back, with the benefit of hindsight, how well deserved is that influence?
That’s why today Will and Lizz are going to argue as to whether Skyrim actually deserves the recognition it got at the time. Or has the games age allowed us to see some major issues more clearly? They’ll be judging it based on the games quests, combat, world design, customisation, and polish. Asking whether or not the game actually revolutionised RPG’s is very difficult to answer, so don’t hesitate to help!
You can get involved in the comments below or on Twitter @thecognetwork. We’d love to hear from you!
Skyrim has a lot of quests, but is enough done over the games play-time to keep them feeling fresh?
Will – No there isn’t
I can’t deny that Skyrim is brimming with content. You can go off in any direction and odds are you’ll find someone who wants you to do something. However, it has a problem that plagues a lot of open-world games – too many of the quests and objectives are the same.
The loop of finding a quest, it sitting in your menu, and you then go to a location to either talk to people or fight them. Now not all the quests are like this, but so many of them are boring filler that just requires you to go to one of Skyrim’s many locations.
When you’ve done that what feels thousands of times it becomes noticeably monotonous. Some of the quests are written well, but that just masks how the actual objectives don’t really do much. There are plenty of locations sure, but when they all only offer the same loop of talking, fighting, and talking again, what is there to keep it fresh? There is some exploration and item finding, but unless it’s a special piece of attire or weapon it doesn’t mean much.
This HeyPoorPlayer article does an excellent job of reiterating my point. I do really enjoy a lot of the Daedric quests, but so many of the others are just about moving locations and fighting. Which only leaves the writing to be the quests saving grace. Which isn’t always great either.
It’s a shame because on the surface Skyrim has variety in it’s quest design with all the major locations, but underneath that you’re met with the same events over and over again.
Lizz – There’s variety if you look for it
I think one of the best things Skyrim has to offer are its quests. Everywhere you go, you can be sure to find quests in the game. I think it really contributes to the game’s re-playability. The biggest mistake people make with this game is expecting to do every single mission in one play-through. There is just too much this game has to offer.
Each playthrough offers a new and unique experience for players. Though, you could try and complete all the questlines in a single playthrough, it’s nice to develop a new character with their own specialties and backgrounds. Skyrim offers a unique player experience with every playthrough.
Perhaps you want to become leader of the Thieves Guild and bring back its once lost glory? Or maybe you’d like to join the Stormcloaks and take Skyrim back for the Nords? Join the Dark Brotherhood and become an assassin or destroy the Dark Brotherhood all together. Every single playthrough can be unique based on the decisions you make and quests you complete.
Even the DLCs add more to the story. If you joined the Thieves Guild, you will encounter a character in the Dragonborn DLC that is associated with the Thieves Guild and has a few quests you can go on for him.
Beyond guild questlines, there are also plenty of quests that offer no membership to a group but are still exciting and different. One of my favorite questlines in the whole game takes place in Markarth. The Dragonborn is framed for a crime and gets sent to Cidhna Mine, where you must figure out how to escape the mine on your own or join forces with Madanach, leader of the Forsworn. The questline is interesting and exciting and offers the Dragonborn a chance to learn about the Forsworn’s place in Skyrim.
There are more quests similar to this one, if you’re willing to spend the time searching for them. Some quests may seem repetitive, such as the ones you receive from innkeepers or Jarls, but even then, you always have the chance of coming across something really interesting.
Combat is a massive part of Skyrim’s gameplay loop, but does it provide enough depth and weight?
Will – Combat leaves a lot to be desired
Again, I’m going to be hitting on this idea that Skyrim has the illusion of depth, but fails to deliver on its promise. The game offers the player many different close range weapons, long range weapons, and spells. This is a good sense of variety. But when every single one (minus stealthing with a bow) boils down to spamming attacks and healing, any sort of strategy goes out the window. The back-and-forth the game provides is that you’ll keep on attacking and buffing yourself.
There’s no strategy, you can be using flame magic, a two handed greatsword, or a shortsword and shield. But each of those is just changing the visuals of a combat that is always the same. The input and strategy doesn’t change.
Enemies in Skyrim don’t have many strengths and weaknesses either. There are some enemies that have weaknesses and resistances to spells, but that’s it. The game boasts plenty of magic, blunt and sharp, single handed and two-handed and ranged weapons. This could’ve been incorporated into how you tackle the enemies in the game after you study them (I know, this sounds like The Witcher 3).
When combat is the main gameplay mechanic you’re going to be properly engaging with (it’s the one that requires ‘on the fly’ critical thinking), why is it treated with so little mechanical depth?
True to any RPG, Skyrim offers its players a chance to pick from a wide range of combat styles. In fact, combat style is a central part of a character’s identity. Players have the ability to select and specialize in specific abilities throughout their gameplay.
Developers ensured combat in Skyrim was something that would evolve with the character by having an enormous skill tree. As you reach higher levels, you can choose to improve specific skills for your character. Eurogramer does a great job at explaining how the skill tree works.
I think having so many skills available for your player to unlock adds a lot of depth to the game. Players will find themselves working hard to reach new levels and improve combat abilities. It makes combat in the game feel personalized, dynamic, and really enjoyable.
Enemies also have a whole host of unique combat styles. You aren’t constantly fighting one or two enemy types. Players will find themselves going up against mages, assassins, archers, necromancers, and many more. Because of this, it’s important for the player to strategize how they approach combat. If you want to take out enemies quietly, you can improve your stealth abilities and kill enemies from afar with your bow and arrow or by sneaking up on them. If you want to run straight into combat, you can figure out which enemies to attack first (I personally tend to kill archers first).
Overall, the combat in the game is something I really love. Skyrim does an excellent job at giving players the opportunity to personalize their combat style. It feels unique and helps the player feel like they really are the Dragonborn.
Skyrim is an open-world RPG, so you can explore that world, but is it a rewarding and wonder-filled experience?
Will – The games core design holds it back from greatness
Despite boasting some unique moments, visual marvels, and plenty to explore Skyrim doesn’t offer much depth. That shouldn’t be surprising at this point. To the games credit though, there are dynamic Dragon encounters and characters who wander the world that offer some variety.
Although the problem arises when you realise what wandering the world actually entails. For the most part it means dungeons. These can be caves, hideouts, or crypts. This mechanic isn’t just part of exploration, it heavily invades quest-lines and combat. On top of that the world feels almost lifeless outside of these locations. The open world itself houses plenty of experiences but getting between them isn’t exactly riveting. And those experiences themselves get repetitive real quick.
If you look at other Bethesda games like Fallout 3 & 4, you see how the team uses visual and environmental storytelling to make you believe the world you’re in. Skyrim and its fantasy setting don’t do that, at least nearly as well. The game doesn’t function like you’d expect an open world game to, it’s repetitive and somewhat lifeless.
I’m not saying Skyrim doesn’t do anything with the open world – but the moment-to-moment exploration doesn’t consist of much that’s unique or interesting. You go to a location, loot it, and move onto the next. You might find some quests whilst you’re there, but they’ll just throw you into the same loop.
Also, what’s the incentive to explore? The more you play the game the more locations you unlock to fast-travel between. Couple that with the fact that quests tell you exactly where you need to go and Skyrim becomes a linear game dressed up as an open-world one.
Why make a game that’s open world when all the design does is funnel players to locations and provide mechanics and features that make getting to them incredibly easy?
Lizz – The world of Skyrim is visually interesting
World exploration is a central component to Skyrim. And, for those looking hard enough, there are plenty of secrets hiding within this massive world.
At first the world seems intimidating, and after a while it may seem dull, but there’s so much more to Skyrim than dungeons and abandoned castles. The game has several locations that have a unique story attached to it that doesn’t involve a questline. I have stumbled across many deceased NPCs near waterfalls, at campsites, and other isolated places. They often have with them a set of letters or a diary explaining who they are and what they were doing prior to their death. Even though these NPCs aren’t attached to the quest, I feel like these random encounters offer a sense of reality to the game.
Skyrim is also ecologically diverse. From the icy hold of Eastmarch to the lush landscape of Riften, players have plenty to see and explore. Diversity in the landscape and culture make Skyrim feel more immersive and give players a reason to be interested in the game’s lore.
One example of this is the Dwemer and Dwemer ruins. The ruins are filled the ancient technology, weaponry, armor, and lore that don’t exist anywhere else in Skyrim. Exploring these ruins add a layer of depth to The Elder Scrolls lore. Including an ancient race (whose technology is far more impressive than the present Skyrim races) in the world encourages players to learn more about its history through exploration.
Skyrim offers the player a plethora of customisation options in appearance and how they play – are they any good?
Will – The character system is interesting, but misses the mark
When you start Skyrim you’re met with plenty of races to choose from – each offering both visual and gameplay variety. The game even allows the player to level up how they want. They aren’t locked into a certain class or skill.
Todd Howard explained to Eurogamer that this was because they didn’t want the player to feel they’d made the wrong decision and start over. On the surface the idea behind this system is good. He says it was about questioning the class system established in Oblivion:
“And sort of our thought process was, what if that guy [at the start of Oblivion] never asked that? [what class you wanted to be]. I was perfectly happy right before then, ya know, I was just playing the game and skills were going up, so we just got rid of that. You just play, and your skills go up as you play and the higher your skill, the more it affects your leveling. So it’s a really, really nice elegant system that kind of self-balances itself.”
Again, the idea is good, but in execution it fell flat. Because if you focused on a set of skills and played through most of the game upgrading them, why would you then move over to something weaker? Let’s say you were using a two handed greatsword, and maxed it out in both levels and abilities. When you then switch to fire spells they’re weak, and you have no skills related to them, but the enemies are stronger. The player would then struggle through with them for no reason.
Players who stick to a style still can’t really get out of it, I appreciate the freedom at the beginning, but Bethesda needed to commit to it. They needed to have balanced it so that you can switch whenever you wanted to.
Lizz – The variety makes for interesting play
The player customization in Skyrim is another example of how the game allows players to design a Dragonborn that is perfect for them. Players can choose between a variety of races, each coming with their own perks (Argonians, for example, can breathe underwater).
And, even though I discussed it in length earlier, skill building is a crucial part in creating a specialized character. Improving your skillset to fit your combat style is as much a part of character customization as it is combat. I won’t spend much time on this again, but I think it is a valuable component of the game.
Both visual customization and skill building really help the Dragonborn’s story feel personal. They’re good because they make every playthrough feel unique. Every player has a personal experience with their Dragonborn, and I think that’s really fantastic.
Bethesda is known for glitches, and a lack of care put into general design, does that massively impact Skyrim on the whole?
Will – It did, and everyone let it slide
If you asked me this question about a recent Bethesda game, I’d show you this Joseph Anderson video. That would be more than enough to illustrate how Bethesda doesn’t care to polish their games enough. But we’re talking about Skyrim, so I’ll need to show how that game isn’t too different.
The long and short of it is “Skyrim is not a very polished game”. Glitches and flaws can range from purely visual to completion based, and all the way to game braking. Over the years what was Bethesda’s solution to this? To make the water look nicer. Why? Because they knew they could get away with it. When the game came out it was being heralded (mostly) as the greatest thing since sliced bread. Bethesda capitalised on this by constantly re-releasing the game on newer consoles, without the necessary quality of life improvements.
Despite getting a rating of 92/100 on Metacritic it’s widely known that the PS3 version of the game, at launch, had a save file problem. If they got too big the game became essentially unplayable. This Kotaku article shows how Todd Howard and Bethesda tried and failed to do anything about the PS3 launch. These weren’t ‘funny cosmetic glitches’ – the game was unplayable. But what did sites like IGN have to say?:
“As tends to be the case with games as large and complex as Skyrim, there are bugs. Some are minor […]. More serious glitches exist as well, such as those that prevent you from completing quests. How widespread these issues are is tough to say[…]. Along with the occasional game crash, these issues can be periodically irritating, but given the overwhelming number of things Skyrim gets right, putting up with them is a small price to pay.”
Why did Skyrim get a pass? You can’t have the issues present in the game (especially the PS3 version) and just shrug them off because of the rest of the game. This wasn’t just review sites though, it was most players too.
The mindblowing part is that the glitches and lacking general design became a joke, one that the internet gladly laughed off. For the most part people see it as part of the game’s charm. That was until Bethesda launched Fallout 76 and did the same thing but worse. For some reason people were finally sick of it.
Over time this perception has changed, but it still doesn’t excuse the fact that Skyrim launched in a sorry state.
Lizz – Glitches haven’t always been a problem
It’s impossible to play Skyrim without experiencing glitches. However, even though your journey will be affected by glitches, I don’t believe it ruins the game.
The community of gamers who love Skyrim have found ways to get around these glitches. One example of this is modding. Mods have been apart of Skyrim since it was originally released and many of them were designed specifically to correct glitches. PC Gamer has created a list of several mods that will improve Skyrim’s playability, including patches, optimization, and UI mods. Of course, mods are not limited to glitch and game improvements, but it is one way the community has attempted to address the issues.
Bethesda has encouraged the use of mods, though it comes with guidelines and expectations. The release of Skyrim’s special edition on Xbox One and PS4 includes a feature that allows players to download mods directly on to their device. Even though Bethesda should have fixed the errors in Skyrim when they rereleased the game, encouraging modding and helping the modding community flourish.
Ultimately, glitches don’t ruin the game. Fans of the game have made these glitches into a bit of a running joke, as Will mentioned, and have found solutions to address it. If anything, the glitches have helped the community around The Elder Scrolls grow.
What’s the Verdict?
So there you have it, Will and Lizz have fought for both sides of Skyrim. Everyone has an opinion about the game, and that’s okay. It might not be the masterpiece it was held up to be in 2011, but it clearly still has some charm to it. But did it revolutionise RPG games? That’s hard to say, other titles like Breath of the Wild and The Witcher 3 have done so much different to Skyrim. Although one thing is certainly clear, Skyrim renewed a mainstream interest in fantasy RPG games.
How do you feel about Skyrim? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter @thecognetwork. You can also check out other vs articles about Overwatch (click here) and Assassin’s Creed (click here). As always, thanks for reading COG!