While Morrowind will always have its fans (I still need to give it a fair attempt), Oblivion took the Elder Scrolls series in a more accessible direction which resulted in some serious mainstream attention. Unfortunately, Oblivion had a rather bland presentation. It laid the foundation for something great but failed to do much with it. Five years later, Skyrim fulfilled all of Oblivion’s promises, capturing a mass appeal which has resulted in an almost excessive presence.
What Elder Scrolls does better than most open world games is a legitimate feeling of freedom. Games like the Grand Theft Auto series require a certain amount of progress before parts of the map open up, while something like Breath of the Wild still feels centralized around eventually heading to confront Ganon. For Skyrim, the central quest feels like just another set of side quests. Instead, there are loads of guilds with their own massive storylines, and even random exploration can lead to tons of minor quests. A lot of open world games simply don’t offer enough of a reward to encourage straying from the main roads. These games treat exploration as an option; Skyrim treats exploration as its core foundation.
A surprisingly unique feature of Elder Scrolls is the first-person presentation; most of the other classic open world games tend to be from a third-person perspective. This helps lend to the sense of immersion, which would otherwise be shattered by the distinctly blank protagonist. I truly think this simple point is key to Skyrim’s resonance. There’s a different atmosphere between guiding someone like Geralt through the wilderness and exploring a cave with no avatar acting as a middleman.
The sheer volume of content beats out most comparable franchises. If you really want to see everything Skyrim has to offer, it will take a few dozen hours more than any of Bethesda’s Fallout games. Importantly, most of these quests are strong, and the level designs actually have distinct atmospheres (which was the biggest blow against Oblivion). With so many options for character builds, it can also be fun to start up a new game.
Like the Super Mario series, discussing Skyrim feels strangely nebulous. Open world games feel as inescapable in the modern era as 2D platformers had been back then, and The Elder Scrolls has a rather basic feeling compared to those which followed. It’s easy to discuss the great open world games in relation to this series, but what does Skyrim offer alone?
When I think of Skyrim, my mind leaps to Minecraft, a sandbox game which has become comparably inescapable. If Skyrim solely represented the freedom to explore, then Minecraft would be the indisputably better experience. Instead, Skyrim fills a niche between freeform games like Minecraft and the more structured WRPG experience. Each of these individual areas is a guided experience, but it’s the freedom to tackle them in any order or not tackle them at all which separates Skyrim from other open world games. Without pressuring the player to continue down the main path, we are free to play however much we want. The volume of content is necessary for that experience – while Skyrim offers hundreds of hours of content, not everyone will explore every inch of the map. Our individual experiences with this game can be very different.
The greatness of Skyrim lies in its masterful take on a necessary form. Like most WRPGs, The Elder Scrolls draws heavily from the tabletop gaming experience. Systems like Dungeons and Dragons offer near infinite variability, but that is limited by the need for a Dungeon Master. A successful experience requires a balance between the DM’s designs and the player’s freedoms. Skyrim captures the experience of the rare DM who not only accepts but fully encourages going off the rails. Other games might offer meatier narratives by forcing our attention, but Skyrim is a rare game which feels like a personal journey.