Like its fearsome dragons, Skyrim has once again appeared from the ether to dominate our lives. In 2018, I find it a strange thing to write about. It checks all the boxes we’ve come to expect from a remaster – faster load times, sharper graphics – but I’m still playing a game that is now approaching seven years old. So much has changed in the space of the open world. We’ve outgrown our worship for a volume of content. Yes, there is just as much stuff to do as you remember, but I struggle to find value in it all. For those experiencing Bethesda’s seminal work for the first time, this may not be an obstacle towards enjoyment. But I’ve already played Skyrim. I actually gave up on it – I was so distraught by the PS3 copy’s instability that I threw up my hands in resignation. So, for me, this is a repeat playthrough of a game I’d long put to bed – of a design mentality I’d long ago decided I can’t enjoy in its fullness.
Where is my value?
Oddly enough, it’s in those same instabilities I decried as a senior in high school. Skyrim: Remastered is best at its most absurd. Once, at the shrine of Merida, I emerged to see an elder dragon flying overhead. Hoo boy, another one of these, I thought. But then it refused to land, or even attack. Above me it flew, in its undeniably goofy flight animation, like a stiffly puppeteered marionette. And then, a miracle – a second dragon popped into the sky (literally, appeared in the empty space) and now two dragons circled in flight, screaming and roaring, but never touching land. This went on for some time, until one finally broke whatever spell of code had trapped it in flight. Its feet touched down – and then, another miracle. Instantly – instantly! – upon grounding, it died. Its partner vanished from the sky, and I sucked up that dragon’s soul.
Can you explain that? I can’t. Maybe Todd can. More likely, maybe one of Bethesda’s many devs can. This bizarre spectacle wasn’t the product of a singular vision realized to the highest fidelity. It was the happy accident of AAA dev. The dance of those two strange dragons wasn’t planned – not by systems or setpiece. This was something that could have only happened in a massive game with a massive team with a massive amount of concepts to juggle. It was a moment almost totally devoid of design, but I loved it. I don’t use the term ‘miracle’ lightly. What happened was the convalescence of a hundred different unseen variables, interacting just so to provide a moment that has probably only ever happened to me.
Some would likely view this anecdote as evidence of a bad or busted game. I won’t deny that Skyrim remains…. unstable. But I also won’t deny that I’m almost entirely disinterested in engaging with it on its terms. I do not like the act of playing Skyrim. The combat manages to strike the ugly balance of clunk and weightlessness. The delay between input and action is like heaving rocks, but when steel meets flesh it has the impact of a limp noodle. The first, I can somewhat understand – we are meant to engage in the role-play on a visceral level, feel like we are inside of a heavy suit of armor – but nothing that happens on the screen even remotely approaches achieving this theoretical approach to game feel. Kill animations are comical at best. Moving within the space is plagued by hitches of geometry that defy the ‘immersion’ Skyrim is so clearly beholden to. Even beyond the realm of ‘play,’ Skyrim’s systems act as gatekeeper to its enjoyably absurd potential.
I struggle to justify why a game, best when busted, insists on slowing the progression that enhances its strengths. Let’s be clear – most of the powers in Skyrim’s leveling trees fully break the game. Why make me wait to enjoy them? Why devalue experienced content by relegating it to the boring LARP of low-level play? Let me be the dragonborn. Let me be the chosen one. Let me more quickly realize my potential so that I may release it unto the world. Skyrim is a power fantasy, not an acquiring-power fantasy. Lord Todd, give me strength, so that I may wreak your terrible will. Let me slow time with my wildly overpowered bow. Let me – in the full sun of the midday – sneak within spitting distance of a mark staring right at me, seeing nothing. Let me do these things in short order, so that I may unweave the frayed edges of your fantasy universe.
I’d posit that even the story is improved by achieving a heightened absurdity. It was always strange to occupy a world where seemingly everyone is obsessed with some criminal nobody, even if they were the dragonborn. Skyrim’s serfs and rulers would approach me with awe, and then I’d get killed by a skeever. I bet, if they really put their minds to it, they could slay me with ease. So much for the dragonborn. But a slick-talking master thief – oh, and you say he can regenerate magika 50% faster than normal? Who is he? – is a character much more deserving of the people’s reverence. Again – in a world where double dragons die glitch deaths and I have a superhuman ability to YELL SO LOUD IT KILLS PEOPLE, why flatten the equally goofy story by forcing it to interact with a milquetoast weakling of a character?
Those who played the game on PC will scoff at my frustration. They had mods; they could relish in an entire world of experience us console gamers simply did not have access to. I had to chase Skyrim’s ludicrous apex, PC gamers could craft it to their liking. We’re all aware of the Skryim mod phenom – Thomas the Tank Engine, Randy Savage, Hand-Trees. These things unequivocally improve the Skyrim experience. They are one of its most everlasting memetic properties – even more so than the infamous arrow–>knee. But in 2011, all I could do – sitting there, PS3 controller in hand, like a fool (a fool!) – was live in the vanilla.
Now, it’s 2018, and bless Bethesda – they’ve opened the door to console mods, even if only a little bit. The console remaster’s mod scene doesn’t even come close to the breadth of the PC edition, but there is still just enough for me to massage my playtime into something worthwhile. A few aesthetic fixes, faster leveling, and a wicked high jump are really all I need to test the boundaries. As many would argue, mods are an incredible service that elevate the games they change. I can think of no better supporting case for this argument than Skyrim remastered: despite my whinging, I’ve sunk the canonical tens/dozens/hundreds of hours into this game once again, which simply would not have happened without these mods improving Skyrim’s quality of life. Mods are the saving grace of Skyrim – they render all my above problems with the vanilla moot. For that reason alone, you should consider giving the console remaster a shot; just one change – and a comparatively limited one at that – took Skyrim and made me enjoy it, despite my deep-seeded issues. Remasters are all about making alterations, but – sometimes – they only need one.