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RPS GOTY Revisited: 2011's Skyrim is the face that launched a thousand memes

The Dragonborn comes, but was distracted by mead espionage

When The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim came out I was a student, and I worked in Gamestation (RIP) to help pay for chicken noodles. I remember the hype around it very clearly because Gamestation had a deal where you could buy it for like £22, and I had a sideline going when the stock was low to keep some back for my friends. Apols if you were caught in the crossfire for that, but dragon fever was running high off the back of a still very cool trailer, and shouting Fus Ro Dah was the only cure.

In the years since, Skyrim has been released and re-released many times, on every conceivable platform. "Arrow to the knee" jokes became de rigueur and hacky almost overnight, and at this point might have horse-shoed back around to being funny again. There are many examples of unrelated games or videos that cut to black fading back up into the opening of Skyrim, in a kind of sub-genre of rickroll. Does it hold up now? Kind of. It's a really fun, ambitious RPG, with faults - but if the faults didn't exist maybe it wouldn't have been as popular as it was.

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I should say that I played the Special Edition version of Skyrim, which is on Game Pass and came out in 2021. Even with all the volumentric God rays you can stuff in your tote bag, some of the textures and models look a bit dated, especially compared to the kind of balls-to-the-wall graphical powerhousery that allows for sights as diversely unsettling as the mutant fleshlumps in Elden Ring and weirdly horny robots in Atomic Heart to be rendered in astonishing fidelity.

What Skyrim still has, and that I don't think can really be diminished with time, is that call to adventure. You're like Bilbo Baggins running out of his hobbit hole, except you're probably a hench cat with a sword and a smoking bum, having been recently set on fire by a dragon. What struck me most, playing it again, is how well curated that adventure is, while successfully disguising it as you, y'know, following your nose. The now-traditional start to an Elder Scrolls game, as a prisoner, is given extra stakes as you're taken to your own execution. Then: escape! The two major factions you'll encounter later on! Dragons! Dungeons! A hamlet where you run into a man who's pining for a girl. You go to visit that girl and she's in her dad's shop - and, shocker, he has a quest that leads you to a mysterious barrow on a snow dusted mountain. Like any good open-world RPG, Skyrim knows to pack a few good vistas in at the start.

Shooting magic lightning at an enemy in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

You're lead to breadcrumbs that lead you further, giving you enough to be going on with at the start until you're really confident enough in the world to actually set out on your own. And when you do, you can spend a lot of time just going for a walk. The main story is, of course, that you're the chosen one, able to shout magical dragon words that are so powerful they have a magical effect, and you're sent to fight a dragon prophesied to end the world. But you can put that off for quite a while by getting involved in the politics - the Stormcloaks vs the Imperials, and something to do with elves in there as well. Whenever I play Skyrim I spend a lot of time riding around at a trot, RPing as an actual traveller making her way through the snowy forests around Winterhold.

The skill screen in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, where different abilities are represented as constellations
I'm still a fan of the TES method of skill levelling, where you get better at what you actually do. I remember being enchanted out of all proportion by this skill screen.

The jank is still there too, of course. The first time I sat down at a table in a new game the action hurled a plate at the fireplace. The way you (and everyone else) loll your limbs around like a crash test dummy whenever the game does physics upon you, the repeating canned lines, and the dead-eyed way NPCs will turn and look at you, were and are all an inescapable part of Skyrim's charm, and without the jank it would have just been ordinary.

There's enough ordinary in there. The combat is only fun if you double hand with magic (in my opinion), because the alternative is melee, which is like hitting enemies with a pool noodle until they go limp, as if they were struck by a sudden and coincidental fit of narcolepsy in the middle of your fight. For as many quest lines that stick in your head - the perennial favourite gang of ne'er-do-wells the Dark Brotherhood, a murder mystery in an icy graveyard, a straight up drinking competition - there are boring fillers, and I'm one of those people who isn't that impressed by the main storyline, depressed elderly dragons aside.

An evening vista in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, at golden hour, showing the plains town of Whiterun, surrounded by windmills
A vista in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim showing a blue cloudy sky, pine forest in the foreground, and a snowy mountain in the distance
Image credit: Bethesda Softworks

The one thing you can't deny about Skryim is its impact. Todd's "see that mountain? you can climb it" line was impressive at the time, but it really kick-started an ongoing arms race in open world games; for years afterwards new world maps were measured in units of Skyrim (as in: "it's twelfty times the size of Skyrim), and we're now at the point that I want most RPGs to be reduced in size by at least 25%. At least. Ubisoft and Bethesda open worlds are the industry standard template now, but Elder Scrolls and Fallout games in particular are very much a place where the whole world has shat itself, and you're the only one wearing a nappy. You are the hero to literally everyone, from delivering notes accross town to slaying giant lizards and absorbing their fucking souls. I don't know, but I feel like that properly started with Skyrim.

Still, being a hero who can change the weather by doing magic shouting is pretty bloody Charlie big potato, and for the possible ills Skryim also has a lot of good attached to it. The NPCs all voiced by the same half dozen people. The arrows to knees. The deep dungeons and the climbable mountains. The mods! And a large part of the reason so many people remember all this stuff is because we were all playing it! And we all played it because it really is a fun time. Swamps. Singing plants. Giants who make cheese. People saying the world "jarl" a lot. We came for the dragons in the trailer, but we stayed for the everything else.

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