Game of The Generation - The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
The greatest art makes you look within.
Even though the transition into the newest generation of gaming consoles has been a gradual, whimpering affair so far, it’s pretty clear that the previous generation is wrapping up its final encore. To look back at how the PlayStation 3, Wii, Xbox 360, and Nintendo DS thrilled us for years, PixlBit brings you our Game of the Generation series. Our staff has picked their personal favorite, most influential, most impactful games to highlight as we bid adieu to what was.
You might see the same game show up more than once, or the same staff member posting multiple entries in this series, but we didn’t think it was appropriate to create an artificially limited structure to praise the games that we hold dear. Join us as we embark on this journey with Graphic Designer, Justin Matkowski.
The choice of Game of the Generation is a complex matter. Far more than a culmination of art direction, immersive mechanics, and a satisfying sensory experience, a favorite title strikes a particular resonance with the gamer as an individual. A favorite work contains an X-factor that makes it more than the sum of its parts. The reason that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is my choice for game of the generation is a multi-faceted one. While it would be a crime not to address the lush visuals, incredibly immersive open-world, and achingly beautiful soundtrack, my primary focus is on that X-factor -- what Skyrim's lead designer Todd Howard has mentioned as the crucial factor in a game’s developmental process: how it makes you feel.
Video Games are art (we’re not having this argument), and particular works find a way to meet us in our lives in a way that creates a complimentary experience: art imitating life, or perhaps, the other way around. When I received Skyrim in the mail, I was in a place of peaceful self-reflection. I had found my best friend and love of my life, and she was enriching my life in ways I never thought possible. My few-months-old niece was giving me a newfound sense of responsibility and excitement for watching new life come into the world. "Winter was coming," but it held no ominous connotations; it is a favorite time of year for me, and I was looking forward to digging into an immersive gaming experience while I did some soul-searching, pondering where these wonderful changes in my life would lead me personally and creatively. Little did I know that Skyrim would be my perfect companion in such an experience, and since then, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim would go on to become not only my favorite game of its console generation, but one of my favorite works of art, period.
In Skyrim, YOU are the protagonist, and your created character is your avatar for this world.
Skyrim was my first foray into the world of The Elder Scrolls, and when my black Mohawk-adorned Wood Elf looked out at the horizon after narrowly escaping a dragon attack on Helgen, I was instantly enamored. Those of you who are familiar with my gaming tastes know that I am a steadfast supporter of player-authored narrative. At the core of player authorship is choice and individuality, and while the influence of Bethesda’s open-world epics is apparent in everything from the latest Assassin’s Creed to the upcoming Witcher 3, player authorship in much of contemporary top-tier gaming more or less equates to a level of choice that Castlevania III championed a quarter of a century ago. The notion of choice and player self-expression has sadly taken a back seat to heavy-handed (and often poorly written) storytelling that is on the level of the latest hackneyed Michael Bay blockbuster.
Thankfully, Skyrim eschews modern gaming’s obession with Hollywood screenwriting and cookie cutter set pieces in favor of giving players a digital canvas to weave their own epic. There are no immersion-shattering imaginary walls preventing a player from exploring the world, and no obtrusive, directorial cut scenes that wrench control away from the gamer; just your map in your satchel, your sword (or spells) in your hands, and the horizon calling to you. Perhaps after spending so much time with Skyrim I took its open form and freedom for granted. It led me to consider if Bethesda had instead adopted the “cinematic”, directorial, narrative-driven approach of much of modern gaming, and I gained a whole new appreciation for the bravery of Bethesda, their incredible team of artists and coders, and their confidence in the player to traverse this beautiful Nordic realm of Skyrim at their own pace.
Of course, all of this emphasis on exploration would not be so gratifying had Bethesda not created a thriving, lore-rich world for the player to lose themselves in. Skryim’s aesthetics and themes marry The Elder Scrolls universe with Scandinavian lore and legend. Spending a snowy night in the beautifully ancient city of Windhelm, wandering the open plains and dense forests beneath the aurora borealis, and traveling to the other-worldly realms of the Soul Cairn and The Forgotten Vale are all fulfilling, enchanting experiences with a scale and grandeur that most titles could only hope to attain a percentage of. This is a fleshed-out world, with detailed provinces that are home to different climates, races, political and religious beliefs, factions to discover and join, and of course, dragons. As another reviewer put it, Skyrim feels like a world that has existed long before you arrived, and will continue to exist long after your journey comes to a close. Bethesda broke up the world visually in a way to keep things interesting; from autumnal forests and snowy mountainscapes, to foreboding underground caverns and long-forgotten dwarven ruins, there is literally a ton of sights to behold and I wanted to see them all.
Usually simply sword fodder in other games, in Skyrim, even the Dragons have a purpose, emotions, and intentions.
The physical realm of Skyrim completely embodies the spirit of adventure, and I felt that at any moment I could stumble upon a long-forgotten tome, an incredible set of armor, or a new character and quest that would change the course of my journey altogether. The stark, cold climate of the continent is also a great companion to the gray morality of this world; don’t waste your time waiting for a cohesive explanation for who’s the “good guy” and “bad guy”, because you won’t get one. This is a complex and divisive world, filled with characters willing to commit atrocities in the name of the “greater good”, nationalists who will justify their bigotry under the guise of patriotism, and even a wise dragon who would prefer the genocide of his kind over their tyranny once again befalling the realms of men.
That is only one piece of the experience however, and the other, equally important aspect is “who do you want to be?" As I was asking myself the same question at the time, Skryim stood as an incredible opportunity to craft a character that served as my avatar in this world while I contemplated my own personal growth and re-evaluated my ambitions and priorities. The amount of options in customizing your character is staggering, and they offer fantastic possibilities in terms of player authorship. While I honed my knowledge of magic at the College Winterhold and found honor among outlaws in the Thieves' Guild, ever present in my mind was the question of “what type of person do I want to be”, and that transcended my Skyrim experience. I have long held the philosophy that you do not “find” yourself in life, but rather you build yourself. The person that you are is a culmination of choices, ideals, preferences, and knowledge, and hopefully the individual you become is someone that you can stand by, call a friend, and be proud of. By allowing the gamer to build a nuanced and individualized protagonist, Bethesda exemplifies the individuality of interaction that is championed by video games, unable to be replicated by any other artistic medium.
By releasing Skyrim's Development Kit, Bethesda gave every willing fan the ability to improve, alter, and participate in the creative process that makes Skyrim so special.
As immersive and enchanting as Betheda's open-world epic is, modders have made it even better. Skyrim's Nexus Community is a shining example of the bright future of video games as both an interactive art form and a culture. By embracing the modding community (which we feature here at Pixlbit on The Elder Scrolls Forge), Bethesda has taken the next step in terms of player authorship and encouraging the creative nature of gaming and community camaraderie. When they released the Skyrim development kit on Steam, they gave the keys of the kingdom to the gamers. What has transpired since then is the creation of an astounding amount of incredible content that both enriches the Skyrim experience and reinforces the passionate and inquisitive nature of gamers around the world. In my opinion, this is a glimpse into gaming’s future: When the fiscal bubble of Hollywood screenwriters, CG cut scenes, and bloated marketing budgets finally bursts, the creativity and ingenuity in the gaming community and culture will be the torch to the light the way to the future of this art form.
So, to address Todd Howard’s perspective, how does Skyrim make you feel? It makes you feel that the world is a massive, beautiful place that beckons you to discover and tempts you to chase the horizon. It reminds us that there is always knowledge to be learned, a tale to share, and an adventure to be had. It tells us that we write our own legend, and dares us to branch out in an effort to better know ourselves and to leave our mark in the world. Most importantly, it informs us that the answers we seek in life can often be found by simply doing what we love and immersing ourselves in a great work of art. For these reasons, and so many more, The Elder Scrolls V Skyrim stands as my undisputed Game of The Generation.