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The Games Of Christmas ’11: Day 24

Shout it from a mountain top

The final game of Chistmas had been chosen. It is the game you should play with your family before you are devoured by Horace The Endless Bear later today. Good luck everyone, we'll see you at the other end.

It's... The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim!

Jim: So here we are! Another year, another Game Of The Year that basically won't surprise anyone. (Last year was the year of Minecraft, of course.) We've chosen Skyrim, the game we, as a collective of Old Men, have had the most fun with in 2011. You only have to browse through the archives over the past couple of months to see how much we've enjoyed ourselves, and that sort of speaks to me as a gamer and as a writer. One of the founding principles of RPS has always been that we should write as much as we can, or as much as we like, about the games we are enjoying. That principle soon expanded to have more of a "let's try and be a broad church and post all the news, too" but the fundamentals of the site remain about writing lots of guff about arsing about in games. Skyrim is one of those games that, by virture of what it is and what it does, generates anecdotes, ideas, and pleasurable frothings of writerly inspiration. So we wrote. And wrote. And this phenomenon wasn't confined to RPS: the entire gaming sphere is bubbling with it.

It's not all positive, of course, and I myself was bug-eyed with indignation over Skyrim's awful UI and colourful rainbow of unfinished features, glitches, and errors. But this is one of those games in which shoddy QA and bad finishing, while unacceptable and exasperating, has not defeated the game, or even significantly damaged our enjoyment of it, and for that we are all thankful. We are thankful too that it seems to have clawed back our attention to Bethesda games, through a wonderful world and some entertaining writing, from the ambivalence we had toward Oblivion and Fallout 3. Both those were competent games in their own right, but they had something missing. Fallout 3's personality and mechanics were such that I could not stomach more than an afternoon of it. I enjoyed Oblivion far more, but the days I spent playing it were nagged at by the bland fantasy world, and the weakness of the challenge. Skyrim's nagging has been far less insistent, and have wandered through autumnal forests and snowy wastes in a dreamy haze. Here is a game I have been glad to be able to lose myself in.

There have been a couple of other games whose RPGish sentiments have had me glad to be gaming in 2011 - The Witcher 2 and Deus Ex to be specific - but it's the open world, open game systems, and open arms of Skyrim which have ended up commanding the majority of my escapism. While I rushed through the core "defeat the dragons" plot and found it to be "okay", it was always the diversions and stumbling side-quests that really kept my attention. And I know that's been the same for most people playing it. The game has so much to it than even after a couple of hundred hours it is still throwing up little tricks and idiosyncrasies.

Of course what is perhaps even more exciting for those of us who dabble in modding is the base that this game represents. The vanilla game is a feast of ideas and materials, but it will no doubt be the next two or three years of modding that will genuinely set it up to the heights it could achieve. Coming back to this in 2013 is going to be a delight. It's a big game, but it's an even bigger space of possibility. And that fills me with a special kind of glee.

John: I love Skyrim. I love it enough to continue writing positively about it even after sodding Wordpress ate my first draft of this entry, in which I was astonishingly hilarious, erudite, and would finally have won an award for my journalistic wonder. I love it to bits.

As it happens, I didn't get on with Oblivion. It never grabbed me, beyond its role as a horsey-riding simulator with nice sunsets. But Skyrim, I was instantly hooked, swept into a story about being the dragonborn, and then being enormously distracted by the appearance of about a dozen other equally interesting and detailed entire storylines. I've loved and lost, fought and gained, robbed and given, and killed a really terrible number of bears. And like being in real life love with a real actual person thing, I love it with all its faults, not despite them. Even that sodding skill screen.

I'm constantly astonished by the extraordinary scale of everything, and yet the miniscule detail of every moment. For a world this massive, usually you'd expect to see a great detail of repitition, but rather every tiny nook is stuffed with a unique story, or justification for its dungeoneering. Deliberately trying to climb a seemingly impassable mountain, instead of breaking the game of falling out of the skybox (which I admit I have done once) I usually discover a hidden castle tower, which reveals a trapdoor entrance to an abandoned haunted prison, a dead body with a brief note, and a mystery to solve. That is ludicrously rewarding.

My time of late is recently spent randomly wandering the map clearing up any of the fifty or so quests I've somehow gathered along my way. This has led to my rather awkward habit of doing really terrible things for terrible people. I'll have been given a quest long ago by some nefarious type, asking me to a dastardly task, and then forgotten about it. But now there's a tempting arrow pointing to a cave nearby, so I may as well pop in, follow it to its ends, and then realise I've given some huge help to a terrible god who is hell-bent on killing us all. Er, oopsie. One such error saw me realising I was about to murder some priest because a daedra wasn't a fan of his. I couldn't remember what it was he'd done wrong, and I'd lied to him to lead him to his demise, and I realised as amoral as my game had become, I really wasn't okay with this. So I reloaded (shut up, you've done it too) to just outside the building and instead walked straight by.

Which means for the last week or so I've been accompanied on my adventures by a friendly priest, who absolutely cannot be gotten rid of. And why would I, when he provides fragile but useful help? His ranged magic ensures he doesn't get in the way as he helps bring down the enemies. Which also means I'm now in a party of three, joined as I am by a new housecarl by the name of Not Lydia.

And Not Lydia is great too! Sure, she's not Lydia, but here's a thing you might want to know. After I became Thane of Solitude, and bought my amazing mansion, I was awarded the servitude of Not Lydia, who instantly won my heart the first time I "traded items" with her. Despite her having been given the same line as Lydia in this instance, she enunciates it so differently, intoning the words with deference and generosity. "I'm sworn to carry your burdens." And I yours, Not Lydia, I reply.

Alec: Skyrim takes me back less to Morrowind and Oblivion than it does to the glory days of World of Warcraft, to a time before I knew all the rules and limitations of that then-amazing virtual world, when there was constant awe and confusion, when each new skill and town was an unexpected wonder rather than a matter of incrementally-improved course. The first sight of Ironforge, the first time I sewed my own pair of trousers, the first fight with something four times my size…

The first time I levelled up. The first time I levelled up my crafting. The first time I donned armour with a stat boost. Skyrim, honestly, can be an awful lot like what have become the worst aspects of MMOs: the hunger for numbers, the preparedness to grind to make those numbers bigger. When I play it til 3am, I am often conscious that I am doing so perhaps more to improve some stats than to soak up some new environment or engage in epic combat.

Thing is, it's taking those MMOy futilities and giving them purpose. I'm not trying to level up or max out crafting because I want to keep up with other players or become suddenly able to access a new zone or quest or piece or magic hat. I'm doing it because I want to shape the world of Skyrim, and the adventure I have in it, to my own greedy little desires. It's all about me. Mememememememememememememememememememememememememememememememememememememe. I want to make all the armour, I want to steal all the things, I want to cast all the spells, I want to enchant all the things in my inventory, I want EVERYTHING AND NOTHING CAN STOP ME.

Only I can stop me, and I'm not going to stop me. A rush and a push and the land of Skyrim is mine, all mine. There are no other players cluttering up my adventure, stealing the ore I had my eye on or trying to loot the masks off the Dragon Priests before I can get to them. Skyrim is perfect indulgence, a choose your own adventure in which you can disappear into the murky depths of your needy little soul, but unlike an MMO you come out of it bristling with anecdotes about what you saw, what you fought, what you found and the inadvertently hilarious bugs you discovered in the process. Yes, it comes up short on characters and overarching purpose for quests both big and small and logic and interface and all the rest, but Skyrim Is Videogame. It is so many of the introverted things we want from our electronic entertainments, presented without rancour or obstacle in a fantastic Scandi-landscape that I would happily spend months of my life rambling around.

Also dragons, but whatever. I can steal the clothes off people's backs now; what would I care about dragons?

Adam: A lot of people have a Skyrim that’s all about collecting the toughest armour and the sharpest sword, finding the best combination of perks and killing the most dragons. My Skyrim isn’t like that at all. Mine mostly involves being a tourist in a cold and terrifying world. Dragonborn or not, I’m inclined to keep my head down as I set out to explore the world, collecting bits and pieces as I go.

I’ve not put in the hours that the others have because I’m still waiting for the perfect time to shut myself away for a weekend and lose myself as completely as possible. It’s the first RPG for ages that has made me want to ignore the save game function, except when the world outside pulls me away, and just exist for as long as possible. I’ll be the shabbily dressed hunter in the corner of the tavern; the one who avoids roaming monsters and packs of beasts and backs out of dungeons when the threat of death becomes too real. I may seem a coward compared to most but actually I’m just a sensible man in a dangerous world. The kind of person who would rather track a fox than a dragon.

And what a world it is. There are plenty of things that displease me in Skyrim the game, but very few in Skyrim the place. There are dragons and giants, sure, but the Nordic climate, bringing about the storms from which I’ve sheltered on lonely mountainsides, makes this an ideal world for a survivalist to find himself trapped in. It’s a harsh place, yet still extraordinarily beautiful. A large part of my role involves discovering the best of it, finding the vantage points and spots of outstanding natural beauty that seem to exist for no other reason than to be wandered to and wondered at. That may make me sound like a sort of flâneur of the mountain ridges but mine is not a life if idle leisure.

If somebody offers me a task both rewarding and in keeping with my inquisitive nature, I’ll gladly accept. I’m saving up for my first home so I could always use a bit of extra income and there are plenty of compelling mysteries in the world. The occasional delve into both the personal and the esoteric can be a great pleasure and an education for a traveller in a distant land.

So that’s been my Skyrim so far. One day I’ll decide I need to kill an infinite number of dragons and I look forward to that as well, but for now I’m more than happy just to be an explorer in a new realm. There are plenty of aspects that irritate me but this is my favourite Elder Scrolls game since Daggerfall, which I shower with praise at every opportunity despite its glaring problems, particularly back at launch. Patches were an issue then as well.

I think our frustrations have been as clear as our excitement over the past months, although the latter has far outweighed the former. That doesn’t mean the problems are insignificant, but it does say a lot about how fantastic the scope of the game is. What’s more, the expected release of the development tools and arrival of integrated mod support in January mean Skyrim’s players will be generating new stories for years to come.

Those are stories that none of us can predict yet and despite the fact that I feared it might turn out to be a rather banal case of more dungeons and more dragons, it’s been a pleasure to realise that there’s enough personality and detail in Skyrim to keep me adventuring there for a long time to come.

Happy Christmas, one and all. You've been fantastic this year. Back soon!

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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

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