When Skyrim was first released at the tail end of 2011, it was praised for many things — its beautifully rugged landscape, its thunderous orchestral score, its meticulous attention to detail and architecture, its do-what-you-want freedom, the delivery of its three or four voice actors, and the list goes on.
Rarely, however, was #Skyrim’s story ranked among its successes. It was seen as the context for being an armored cat man who punches dragons, or a lizard lady who steals everything that isn’t nailed down, and little else. But I’d argue that if the story wasn’t what it was, Skyrim would be half the game that it is.
To make a good open-world game, it isn't enough to populate the sandbox with things to do alone (like in a #Ubisoft game). Rather, you need to give the player an incentive to do those things. In games like Borderlands 2 or Fallout 4, for example, the incentive is by and large loot.
But the constant hunt for better gear is a closed loop, an ouroboros. Level one gear unlocks level two gear, level two gear unlocks level three gear, and round it goes. However strong your character becomes, they never escape the cyclicality of chasing better but ultimately ephemeral loot. Inevitably, the player loses interest.
Because when what is in the next chest, what item the next boss will drop is the driving force of the experience, the game world feels artificial, like it was created to facilitate a power fantasy. What sets Skyrim apart from games of its ilk is that it rewards the player with experiences rather than materials.
The culmination of a quest might be a battle with a dragon atop a snowcapped mountain, the very sight of a vast and scintillating Dwemer cavern, a trip into some unknowable cosmic dimension where the baleful Dremora reign supreme.
In unburdening itself with the loot chase, Skyrim creates an insatiable desire to turn the next corner, to see what is over the next hill, to uncover what sensory secrets the next dungeon might hold. Such design affords the player a much deeper connection to and investment in the lands they are exploring, places that feel lustrously tactile as a result.
#NoMansSky recently illustrated how that tenuous connection owes its existence to being grounded within a concrete story, giving definition to the player’s exploration. In NMS, a game concerned more so with drowning the player in ever larger quantities of stuff than anything else, you don't have that connection to the world, and your time there feels shallow and, ironically, immaterial by comparison.
All the loot and collectible doodads in the world(s) mean nothing without a solid background to give them purpose. And with there never being a risk to the player’s accumulated wealth, it is difficult for them to feel invested in, or to even have a desire to play NMS. Especially once the novelty of its scale wears thin.
Sure, in Skyrim you’re never in danger of losing your precious Nightingale armor or your illustrious dragonbone sword, but unless you stop dragons from very literally eating the world, you stand to lose something more vital than any one piece of loot could ever be — the very province you have invested days of your life to exploring.
In order to save it, you must consequently spend more time in Skyrim’s beautifully nordic world, being drawn ever deeper and caring ever more about its well-being and continued existence. In some strange, analogous way, the region of Skyrim is itself a piece of loot. The quintessential piece. One that keeps on giving, that isn’t so easily forgotten or frequently replaced.
Exploring Skyrim’s gothic dungeons and capricious climate is its own reward, one that you get more out of the more you put into it. A thing that is due in no uncertain terms to the story that surrounds it. For without it, all the adventures Skyrim has to offer would be contextless, the world a collectible without a reason to be collected.
Are you playing the Skyrim Special Edition this weekend? Well done you! Take one more look at the promo and tell me all about your experience playing the game in the comments below.