Monday, November 14, 2011

Two Roads Diverged in a Wood: A Rough Guide to Skyrim

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a game about travel. At first glance it might appear to be a game about claiming your mytho-genetic heritage, or slaying dragons, or playing errand boy to a staggeringly diverse range of characters who can't be bothered to shift themselves 50 feet from the pub to drop off a satchel of supplies.

There's a strong argument to be made that Skyrim is really about progression: about using and reusing your skills, from cooking to conjuring, until you become a Michelin-star worthy sorcerer-chef who wields fireballs and cookpots with equal dexterity. Indeed, you'll spend a lot of time in Skyrim - most of it, I'd wager - leveling up your character, chopping up bandits and skeletons and packs of walruses (yes, really), and then dutifully returning to town with your spoils. These might take the form of battered and rusted helms, great slabs of meat and ivory or enchanted staves and dragon scales.

A game about traveling...without Goretex.
 All very true.

More than anything, though, what you'll find yourself doing is traveling. All those dungeons, hunting grounds and markets are separated by one of the most vast, changeable and treacherous environments ever created for a videogame.

Skyrim is just the latest in the Elder Scrolls series of games. These have always taken openness and player choice within a vast landscape as their core design directives. In fact, the worlds of the latter three games - Morrowind, Oblivion and now Skyrim - are exponentially smaller than those of the early Daggerfall game, which boasted 487,000 (procedurally-generated) kilometers of terrain with 3/4 of a million characters and 15,000 locations.
Sure, it's ugly...but there's a lot of it.
Skyrim, by contrast, boasts just 41 square kilometers of terrain. But what a terrain it is...
We'll no longer burn to be brothers in arms.
Loping through these fog-shrouded forests and clambering over the rocky cliffs, I was tempted to play Dire Straits Brothers in Arms (these mist-covered mountains...) but the dynamic music that cues changing weather, nightfall, the presence of enemies and the passage of time remained too engrossing.

This is becoming a sloppy paen to the merits of Skyrim's world, but there's a decent reason for that. It's a deeply flawed piece in a few key ways, but it's one of a small handful of games that actually caused me to stop, gasp and stare at...nothing. Well, not nothing, but something that wasn't a pre-rendered action sequence or bad-ass triple kill.

In this particular case, I emerged from the ruins of an ancient temple, having battled a handful of bandits, a few reanimated corpses, an ancient, axe-wielding lich king and some highly unpleasant spiders. I'd learned a new epic Shout (a kind of primeval draconic magic spell) and found myself laden down with goods for sale. When I stepped out of the cave (waiting the requisite 15-30 seconds for the game to re-render the world (you can walk from coast to coast without a single pause but for some reason, the smallest hovel requires a loading screen)) and stopped dead. I actually called my wife over to see the screen.

Night had fallen on the alpine mountainside that I stood on, along with a light dusting of snow. The pine trees creaked in an eerie wind, lit by a massive, pale moon. From horizon to horizon, an aurora (may as well call it the Aurora Borealis) blazed across the starry sky, in sheets of curving, shifting color.

Look upon Bethesda's works, Sir Edmund Hilary, and despair.
 I knew that computers can easily render an aurora (there's even a screensaver). I also knew I was staring at a cheap virtual representation of a real-world wonder. But in that exact moment of gaming, I recalled why I love the damn things so much. At their best, they transport us to another world and suck us in so deeply we dream of them.

As worlds go, Skyrim is one of the very finest.

One more anecdote. Last night, I set out (on the advice of several townsfolk and a sneering castle mage) to find the magical College of Winterhold, set in the far, far north of this icy land. I'd only explored a small area around the central province, but I set off north, following the stony road.

Moments before a dragon landed on her head.
Immediately, I encountered an obstacle. While hunting an elk that wandered across my path, I stumbled into a nest of bandits working an old mine. My compatriot (a temperamental warrior-maid who consented to follow me after a brief bar brawl) and I made short work of the compound's guards, but in the depths of the mine she fell in battle while I barely held on to my life.

Though I regretted her fall, as she'd helped me slay my first dragon, I gathered up as much iron and treasure as I could and immediately hiked back to Whiterun to sell and buy supplies. Because there was too much to carry, I was forced to make a second trip to the mine...where I was immediately set upon by a wandering dragon. Again I had to retreat after mounting a brief and futile defence. Forced back down the hills in the dark of night, my archer-mage dodged blasts of ice and cast spells over her shoulder. Luring the beast towards the city guards, I turned and fought, slaying that dragon too and retiring afterwards to rest until (virtual) morning.

Pro-tip - you will never, ever, ever catch that deer.
Slightly richer but worse for the wear, I set out again for Winterhold (on a regular day's commute, the greatest setback is usually forgetting my keys). I made it further this time, before another ill-advised chase after wild deer put me off the trail. Trying to get my bearings, I hiked to the top of the highest mountain I could find, where I came across a stony shrine to some unnamed, long-dead Nord warrior, ringed about with valuable artifacts and golden offerings. 

Well, a little grave-robbing never hurt anyone...

I got away with that, then took my bearings from the peak and set off for the nearest city. The trip down the mountain was relatively uneventful - which is to say, I discovered an ancient locked cliffside temple, killed a pack of wolves, fought and defeated some kind of archaeologist-bandit and read her notes for later investigation, and got ambushed by a pack of horrible, venom-spitting spiders.

When I finally arrived at the city I'd set out for, I found that it wasn't Winterhold, but Dawnstar, another Northern city with a small port and an active mine. There's plenty to do in Dawnstar, but the journey was taking longer than expected, so after some quick trading and a night's sleep, I set off north and east. 

Following the shoreline, my aspiring mage was once again sidetracked. First I had to fight off a pack of Ice Wolves, bigger and nastier than their southern cousins.

I also had to detour around some giants, who didn't attack immediately but looked more than a match for me with their giant clubs and herds of mammoths.

Objects in the mirror may be larger than they appear.
When I made it past the wolves and the giants, I saw a vast temple rising out of the ice on the very northern shore of the content. This, I thought, must surely be the College of Winterhold (Skyrim has a map but its sense of distances is, as befits a faux-medieval parchment, somewhat distorted).

I made my way across the ice floes only to find another wind-wracked ruin. I'd gone too far north, and had to follow the rocky cliffs, hopping between ice, sea and little outcroppings of beach. I was nearly back onto a road before a pack of slow-moving but nasty walruses lumbered up on me, forcing me to spend two dozen arrows against their leathery hides.

The map told me I was close, but I wasn't sure how to get to Winterhold. A guiding enchantment took me along the rugged coast, looking for a way up the sheer cliffs. A blizzard blew in, obscuring the sky in great sheets of white snow. 

When I finally saw the damn place, Skyrim stunned me all over again. A massive castle perched on a spindly rock spire, with a filament-like bridge arcing between the mainland and the College. It was literally hundreds of feet above me, partially obscured by snow. As it turned out, I had to hike around the rest of the point, climb another mountain and follow another road to reach the town - and I won't spoil what happens next.

What I realized then is that I'd raided a mine, fought a dragon, hunted elk and wolves, battled giant spiders, mined, traded, cooked, slept and smithed across perhaps 10 miles of virtual terrain - and I hadn't even done it for a game-assigned quest. I was quite literally just trying to get from point A to point B, a journey that took my character across one small sliver of the country's north-eastern quadrant.

In spirit, Skyrim is perhaps most similar to Rockstar's last open-world opus, Red Dead Redemption.

Literally the saddest thing in RDR: the first time your horse died.
 That game, too, won many of its best moments not through heavy scripting or fetch quests or canned dialogue, but through the sense of wonder inspired by the scale and richness of its game world. Yes, you do eventually realize you're walking through a series of random-yet-not encounters, whether it's a pack of wolves hunting a deer or an assassin's ambush. But if the world feels right enough, and the ambience is polished enough, you don't really care. 

Getting places isn't really an adventure for most of us in the video-game-playing first world anymore. The triumph of Skyrim is that it makes you feel brave and adventurous and skilled...just for walking around.

I'm a rolling stone...
More later.

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