If there’s one genre of games that seemed to take of the last generation of consoles, it was the role-playing game. The RPG genre has been around for almost as long as video games thanks to the popularity of the pen-and-paper RPGs, like Dungeons and Dragons. It was really this generation that saw the proliferation of RPGs and the incorporation of RPG elements into a number of games in other genres.
At the top of the class in this generation is The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The fifth entry into Bethesda’s hit action RPG series re-set the bar for Western RPGs thanks to gorgeous graphics, a spectacular soundtrack and seemingly limitless gameplay throughout the open world of Skyrim.
Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls series is a critically acclaimed and fan loved series of RPGs dating back to the mid-90s. The first two Elder Scrolls games, Arena and Daggerfall, were cult hits but not critical darlings due to being a bit buggy (something Bethesda never really got over) and having high system demands on the PC.
It wasn’t until The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind that The Elder Scrolls series was able to get massive critical acclaim and pick up scads of awards. 1Up credited the breadth of the game’s open-world and open-ended gameplay for the popularity of that similar style of open MMORPGs which also featured numerous quests and nearly endless gameplay. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was also a critically acclaimed game which set the bar very, very high for Skyrim.
As is the norm for The Elder Scrolls series, you start the game as a prisoner who is destined for greater things. In this instance, you play a prisoner in the land of Skyrim who escapes thanks to a dragon attack just before your head gets taken off. After your escape, you discover that you’re no ordinary citizen of Skyrim but a Dragonborn, a person with the soul of a dragon.
And being a Dragonborn is sort of important because an ancient prophesy about the end of man is coming true with the reemergence of dragons. You are tasked with saving everyone from destruction at the hands (Claws? Wings? Fire breath?) of Alduin, the Dragon-god of destruction.
While the main story is pretty standard for an RPG (you know, the classic “you’re the only one who can save us all” story), it’s everything that’s happening in the world that made Skyrim such a fantastic game. In addition to the main story quest, there was a seemingly limitless number of things for you to do. Bethesda boasted of the game having over 240 side quests, 150 dungeons and over 300 points of interest for the player to explore. With all those in addition to the story, you can understand how this $60 game would occupy people’s lives for weeks and months as they poured hundreds of hours into Skyrim.
In addition to all of the breadth of gameplay to keep you in the land of Skyrim for hours upon hours, Bethesda loaded the game with all sorts of lore and history to add depth to the Elder Scrolls universe. The result is a game that many critics considered to have the best story in the Elder Scrolls franchise.
While most of the gameplay elements of Skyrim are pretty standard for the RPG genre (real-time battles rather than turn-based, equipment affecting player stats, limited inventories, random encounters with hostile characters, dialogue selections, questing, so on and so forth), it’s the leveling up of characters that I found the most interesting aspect of the gameplay in Skyrim.
I believe I’ve mentioned before that my introduction to RPGs was with the Final Fantasy series before later moving onto various BioWare RPGs. As such, I was used to a typical setup where a character’s race or class was set ahead of time and limited the abilities a character could learn. In Skyrim, your character’s race set attributes that your character was more predisposed to but didn’t really lock you out from being a melee fighter, a mage, a rogue or any combination thereof.
Skyrim basically allowed you to venture out into the world and familiarize yourself with the various aspects of combat before honing you in on a particular set of skills and abilities. This was combined with a skill enhancing system that didn’t rely on spending XP (or an equivalent skill-increasing purchase system) but on using the skills and abilities to level up. Basically, the more you did something, the better you became at it. Naturally, the first thing I did was level up my armour because I was getting beaten up… A lot.
And I suppose that I should mention the dragon shouts. I’m sure most people who have heard of Skyrim have heard “Fus Ro Dah,” the first of the dragon shouts learned in the game and therefore the one that became a meme. These are the sort of signature moves of your character in the game. There are 20 dragon shouts with varying effects that you can unlock by finding “word walls” throughout Skyrim. As if there wasn’t enough for you to sink your teeth into with the main story and 200+ quests…
In addition to the main game, Bethesda kept Skyrimmers (which sounds dirty now that I write that out) busy with three DLCs. The Dawnguard and Hearthfire DLCs received mixed reviews from critics. Dawnguard added some new side quests, powers and characters but didn’t stand up to the main game unless you were a huge Twilight fan (or just a vampire fan). Hearthfire’s addition of a big home and child adoption was a change of pace but nothing particularly noteworthy.
The Dragonborn DLC was far and away considered the best add-on for Skyrim. Adding on a new area, new quests and new abilities, including the ability to tame dragons, critics and fans loved Dragonborn and felt that it stood up to the rest of the game in terms of quality.
Having played Skyrim, I don’t think it looked as good as some of the other games released in the same year or a few years earlier, Skyrim was at a massive disadvantage because it was a massive open-world game. Like many expansive games, graphics tend to take a bit of a back seat to making sure that the game is actually put together properly. Still, the game looked good, even if it wasn’t photorealistic.
That being said, to the benefit of Skyrim players, the game had an extensive modding community thanks to Bethesda releasing the “Creation Kit” modding software. I’m not sure that there wasn’t a thing in the game that wasn’t touched at one point by modders. In addition to a series of graphics mods that would likely fry even the highest-end of computers if all run at the same time, there were fan favourites that made Skyrim into Super Mario Bros. and my favourite that turned all the dragons into Macho Man Randy Savage!
As was the norm for modern RPGs, all of the dialogue in Skyrim was full-voiced. When you throw in all the NPCs and their dialogue, Skyrim had over 60,000 lines of dialogue that was voiced by over 70 voice actors. And like many of today’s triple-A games, a number of superstar actors were brought on board for the game including Canadian and Klingon hero Christopher Plummer, the legendary Max von Sydow and Wonder Woman herself, Lynda Carter, among many others.
The real highlight of the audio was the epic score by Jeremy Soule. The man called the John Williams of video games (who conveniently has Star Wars and Harry Potter games on his resume) is considered one of the best in the business and proved that again with the orchestral soundtrack to Skyrim, his third Elder Scrolls game. The highlight was the Dragonborn, the game’s signature theme, that included a 30-man choir signing in Dragonic, a language created for this game. Chances are that you’ve heard Dragonborn at some point if you’ve watched anything about Skyrim at any point in time.
Not surprisingly, the critics absolutely loved Skyrim. Even with the various bugs and a number of issues in the PS3 release, all three consoles’ versions of Skyrim scored over 90% on both Metacritic with the lowest GameRankings aggregate score being an 88% for the PS3 version. Just about every aspect of the game was praised but the character progression and setup systems, the art style and the sheer overwhelming amount of questing to be done in the game drew the most praise from reviewers.
Given the high review scores, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this was one of the big winners in 2011’s year-end awards lists. In addition to picking up a number of RPG and PC game of the year awards, Skyrim also won over 10 Game of the Year awards, including those of GameSpot, IGN, Joystiq, X-Play and those damned Spike TV VGAs.
And, of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one of the hottest memes of 2011 and 2012 came from Skyrim. If you’ve ever wondered where the “arrow to the knee” meme came from, it’s from Skyrim. A number of NPCs around the world said lines to the effect of “I used to be an adventurer like you, but then I took an arrow to the knee.” Not only did “arrow to the knee” make the rounds on the internet and in gaming but it was even quoted on top TV drama NCIS. You know something has gone a bit viral when it’s getting namechecked on the most watched scripted drama on US network television.
When putting together the list of the seven best games of the 7th generation of consoles, I put out the call to the readers of et geekera for nomination. The most nominated game, by far, was The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Who am I to argue with so many and such well deserved nominations for Skyrim. It certainly earned its spot as one of the best games of the last generation.