On the day of its release – the 11th of November 2011, I went straight out and bought a copy of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Few game releases have gotten me so excited, and they certainly hadn’t for a while. The sense of anticipation with Skyrim was palpable across the net and it was also widely advertised off the net. In a sign of how computer games are increasingly coming to dominate the entertainment industry, there were even advertisements on buses and stencils spray-painted on pavements around town. Fortunately, the game more than lived up to the high expectations.
I plunged into Skyrim with all the enthusiasm I could muster, and it was not misplaced. As I made clear in the review I wrote at the time, this is a very special game that offers hundreds if not thousands of hours of totally immersive enjoyment. As with all previous Elder Scrolls games, Skyrim’s key strength is the size of the world created and the complexity and skill with which it has been done. Few games ever give a player so much freedom to customise their character and direct their own playing experience. I quote again a passage from a review in PC Gamer UK, which makes this point so well:
“The games we normally call open worlds – the locked off cities and level-restricted grinding grounds – don’t compare to this. While everyone else is faffing around with how to control and restrict the player, Bethesda just put a fucking country in a box. It’s the best open world game I’ve ever played, the most liberating RPG I’ve ever played, and one of my favourite places in this or any other world.”
The Elder Scrolls games have always offered a welcome alternative to the more common RPG experience of being railroaded through a core storyline with a limited number of cookie-cutter sidequests . Even with the games that have come from Bioware’s incredible stable, there has been relatively little freedom to shun the main quest and explore the world freely. Baldur’s Gate I set an early precedent for this, but few games have followed up as successfully and impressively.
In Skyrim, as with Oblivion and Morrowind, it is easy enough to forget that there even is a main quest. After the initial introduction, it remains entirely up to the player whether or not they wish to engage with this storyline. It’s simply a matter of ignoring the quest and going wherever one pleases in this seamless, open world. There are hundreds of other, often extremely detailed, long and complex quest lines to engage with, some of which can span many locations and characters. One could even play the game without engaging in any questing at all. It is possible to spend all of one’s time hunting, crafting, exploring, fighting bandits and looting old forts and ruins. Skyrim allows you to role-play very freely, and, in a sense, to set your own limitations, goals and conventions for your character. Not only does this make for a very satisfying experience initially, it also hugely increases the replayability of the game.
I don’t wish to go into too much detail about Skyrim here, having done so elsewhere, suffice to say that after an initial period of hardcore indulgence, I stepped away from Skyrim and took a long break. Skyrim wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry and I wanted to give the community time to come up with the inevitable thousands of mods to improve textures, models, interface, game-play etc, or just to add extra detail to the world. Sure enough, as any quick look at the Skyrim Nexus website will prove, there are thousands of amazing mods out there to download.
The range of mods is truly mindboggling: ones that alter the entire look of the game, introduce richly drawn quest lines and characters, add or significantly modify entire towns and regions, and the more purely whimsical – some of which are so outlandish, brilliant and, indeed obscure, that any attempt to provide examples is doomed to inadequacy. Great coverage of these can be found on MMOxReview, whose many Skyrim Mods videos review and highlight some of the best and most peculiar. The variety of mods caters for the variety of players – from sexing-up the game to increasing depth and immersion, from greater realism to the more fantastical, from those rooted firmly in lore to those which indulge in amusing postmodern intertextuality and pastiche. The process is made extremely easy now with the Nexus Mod Manager, which manages the downloading and installation of the mods and provides an easy interface through which to keep track of the changes and updates to the many mods one can layer on top of the vanilla.
I’ve always been a fan of high fantasy and the epic beauty conjured in books of the genre – Lord of the Rings being the most obvious example. It is the paradigm on which most modern fantasy has been constructed and Skyrim’s foundations just as surely rest there, as they do on the shoulders of Dungeons & Dragons, to which every modern role-playing game owes an incalculable debt. Visually, Skyrim continually conjures scenes of astonishing beauty and potent atmosphere and it is the beauty of the game and its immersive qualities that kept me going back. Few games inspire players to walk long distances across a vast world when there is a fast-travel option available, yet in Skyrim, I would frequently forego fast-travel and an entire play session might revolve around travelling from once place to the next, rather than just teleporting there to do the quest.
It is so beautiful to watch and listen to the environment and slow-travel is frequently rewarded with interesting random encounters, survival situations, hunting opportunities and the beauty of watching the day’s cycle moving from light to night. It can feel wholly rewarding just to find a nice, sheltered place to pitch a tent, build a fire and settle in for the evening.
I especially enjoyed the official Hearthfire expansion, which introduced the purchasing of land and the ability to construct a house on these plots. There could have been a wider variety of options so far as construction style was concerned, yet it was still satisfying to go through the stages. No doubt more options are now possible courtesy of the modding community, though I haven’t looked. This expansion also allowed one to adopt children, which provided a nice chance to help some of the poor orphans in the towns and villages of Skyrim. Another beautiful example of just how many different ways there are in which to play this game.
Having said that, I’m no longer playing Skyrim – having seen and done enough on various characters. I do, however, occasionally fire it up and go for a walk through the beautiful environments. I still feel nostalgic about Skyrim, as I do about Oblivion, and miss the sound of the wind whistling across the snow, the beautiful landscapes, the lulling, transportive soundtrack and, of course, the exciting and visceral action of the game. I certainly miss the sense of wow and wonder that struck me at times upon discovering new areas or being surprised by an element of plot. Sometimes it was the simplest things in the game which provided the greatest joy – like casting Magelight – a spell which sends a brightly glowing magic ball towards wherever one aimed it. As it flies over the terrain, down passages and tunnels or across vast caverns, it lights everything it passes and, upon coming into contact with something, be it a wall, tree, gate, or even a living creature, sticks fast and continues to pour out light. This was a beautiful way to see what lay ahead in the dark, or to provide a light source in the many dim places in the game. It never once lost its appeal throughout the many castings.
The following collection of screenshots is just a taste of the game’s variety and hardly representative of the crazy, diversity of mods such as Tropical Skyrim, which speaks for itself. When modding, I was mostly interested in improving the quality of textures rather than changing things completely, and so my Skyrim, for the most part, retains its classic appearance. Not all the textures have been upgraded to the highest standard to avoid reducing frame-rates – a seamlessly flowing game is not only far nicer, it has the added advantage of not inducing nausea. My principle focus therefore was on upgrading characters, clothing and equipment, along with clutter and vegetation.
Without a doubt the most outstanding mod I came across was Vilja in Skyrim. This mod is a remarkable piece of work – a companion character with over 9000 lines of subtly voiced dialogue. Vilja not only engages in conversation, but responds to innumerable locations and encounters, offering her opinions on people, places and quests the player comes across. Not only are there a great volume of dialogue and interactions, but they are cleverly written, droll, amusing and touching.
An equally impressive mod is Interesting NPCs which adds more than 250 fully-voiced characters to the game. Some of these have quests, can be romanced, and can join the player as companions. Again, the quality and intelligence of the voice-work and characterisation is outstanding, adding many hours of interesting, entertaining and intriguing conversations. This particularly enlivens visits to taverns, to almost all of which (possibly all, I didn’t check) new characters have been added.
I am, of course, like the next man, a fan of sexy characters – be they male or female – which has become a requisite staple of the fantasy genre. Many of the mods revolve around enhancing the female and male body, often to rather ludicrous proportions, along with providing all manner of sexy clothing and armour. However one feels about the message underlying all this, the work is, in some cases, incredibly impressive. The Sweet and Sexy Lingerie Shop which can be added to the city of Solitude is a true masterpiece.
The costumes are highly detailed and, as a space, the shop itself is very cleverly designed. It was hard to resist indulging in some titillation whilst playing. My fantasy gaming motto has always been look good (or, at least, striking) and play gritty, and that certainly describes the story arc of those who appear below. After all, it is fantasy. The skill and detail of the costumes designed by modders across the board, sexy or otherwise, is astonishing and well worth a look. At present there are no less than 1027 clothing mods.
As I cautioned in my original review, these shots are all static, which rather diminishes their immersive capacity and allows one to see through some of the virtual illusions. The leaf textures, for example, often look alarmingly jagged in stills, an aspect that is disguised by their subtle motion during play. I spend a lot of time lining up and taking screenshots in games and see it as an extension of my travel photography. In essence, these are not merely captures from a game I played – these are photographs from a fantastical world in which I had the pleasure of spending many delightful hours. Skyrim will forever remain in my heart as one of my favourite holiday destinations.