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“What Skyrim is, is a huge open world with no predetermined rules about how you approach any of it.” Leon Hurley from Official Playstation Magazine illustrated what it was that made the fifth instalment of Bethesda Softworks’ The Elder Scrolls franchise completely unique. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is defined by one word: survival. Dropping characters into the harsh icy landscape of Tamriel’s northern territories, the designers of Skyrim ask little of players other than to simply survive. It is in this request that a perplexing paradox is created and the challenges of this quite exceptional production begin.
Christmas 2011: Die-hard Playstation gamers were spoilt rotten by the simultaneous releases of Batman: Arkham City, Mass Effect 3 and gaming royalty Uncharted 3, but The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was immediately recognised as being quite out of the ordinary. Skyrim arrived onto the gaming scene in a storm of lavish praise, as critics literally queued up to offer their superlatives. In fact, had it not been for some rather unfortunate glitches, Skyrim may well have been crowned the king of video games. Charles Onyett of IGN granted it an overall score of 9.5/10, quoting, “Skyrim’s land mass is absolutely stuffed with content and curiosities, making every step you take, even if it’s through what seems like a total wilderness, an exciting one, as something unexpected often lies just over the next ridge.” As Onyett recognised, the real star of the show was the beautiful landscape of Skyrim, rolling from waterfalls, through grassy plains to jagged, icy ravines. At 300 hours long, the fifth instalment of the Elder Scrolls left gamers plenty of time to lose themselves in the stunning scenery.
And so we come to Skyrim’s paradoxical nature. The northern lands of Tamriel are quite stunning; there is an overwhelming rawness about them, untouched by the industry of man. There is however, an underlying violence in Skyrim that is weaved into the very fabric of the frozen world. Players are immediately greeted by the brutality of the world as they wake up dazed and confused rattling along a frozen pathway with other prisoners. What transpires is a display of the vicious, clinical nature of Skyrim; sentenced to death, gamers watch as a graphic beheading takes place in front of their eyes, in what is admittedly Skyrim’s most grisly scene. The option to turn away from this bloody sequence tests gamers, daring them to watch, it is quite an introduction to the world of The Elder Scrolls, one that makes it quite clear that survival in Skyrim will not be a simple stroll through the picturesque landscape.
The brutality of Skyrim’s human hosts is a given. Decades of pop culture has positioned man as a catalyst for violence and The Elder Scrolls readily conforms to this view. What is more surprising for gamers is the barrage of brutality that comes from Skyrim’s more wild inhabitants. Wolves jump onto the track and assault travellers who stumble into their hunting zone, Frost Trolls chase unwitting explorers through snowy ravines, the dead rise again in the dark crypts and caves under the surface and just to really top it off, winged Dragons attack from the skies at random intervals, only finishing their hunt when either they or their prey lay dead. Skyrim’s harsh landscape seems to breed creatures of endurance, learning to survive through their own vicious, defensive natures. Bloodshed seems to be a trait of Skyrim that is inescapable, the land itself offers just as much danger as its inhabitants, one wrong step on one of Skyrim’s imposing glaciers will see even the most surefooted trailblazer plummet to their untimely death. The landscape of Skyrim is truly a mousetrap, enticing gamers with its enticing splendour before SNAP! The trap closes and the fight for survival is over.
The struggle for survival depends upon a player’s ability to thrive on the violence of the game. Whether with a mighty two-handed greatsword or a hunting bow or even a powerful magical artefact, players learn their trade, making violence a familiar ally. Skyrim’s character progression system encourages players to hone their skills of butchery in whatever way they prefer; the combination of skills is irrelevant...as long as you’re alive. It seems a strange notion that one would have to become so comfortable with such ferocity to merely survive in a world as beautiful as Skyrim, but The Elder Scrolls V is not a game of simple morality. There is no expectation on players to be the ‘hero’; instead they must do whatever they can to thrive in this brutal world, including resorting to the wild fury of the landscape surrounding them. In essence, Skyrim asks players to become the very thing that they must survive. There is an overwhelming sense of fighting fire with fire from the very moment gamers take control of their characters.
Freedom has always been the major quality that The Elder Scrolls franchise has preached and Skyrim offers it in abundance. Players take on paid assassinations, join thieves’ guilds and overthrow empires, but only if they choose. Perhaps one of the most joyful experiences of the fifth instalment of The Elder Scrolls is simply exploring. Because for all of Skyrim’s in-your-face brutality and sheer, ferocious intensity, there is much beauty to be found in the wild, untamed land, asking gamers if a life of unflinching hardship is truly that high a price to pay for such unadulterated natural beauty. If survival must be the ultimate goal, it is hard to think of a more impressive arena.
With the recent release of Bethesda’s new DLC pack, Dragonborn, revisiting The Elder Scrolls V is truly a joy. There is beauty to be found in this beast, and you don’t have to look hard to find it.