I have been disappearing a lot lately, slipping off by myself for hours. My wife has definitely noticed, and I know that some of my friends have taken note. It’s hard to reach me when I disappear, and ever harder to drag me back to the rest of my life and my roles and responsibilities. The place I’ve been disappearing to? It’s the northern-most province of the continent of Tamriel a land a mountains ,mist, snow, and stone. Its rivers run clear and fast; its weather is frightful and harsh, surpassed only by its ever-present predatory fauna. It’s a place called Skyrim, and it is entirely fake. Like many others in the past several months, I have flung away untold hours—hundreds and hundreds of hours—to Bethesda Softworks’ The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. A single-player role-playing game (RPG) set in the above-described land during a period of political strife and apocalyptic tidings, Skyrim is in many ways an archetypical American fantasy RPG.
I’ve always enjoyed video games and in my first few years in high school, I was an enormous fan of high fantasy of this sort, but things change. I left behind fantasy at some point, enjoying The Lord of the Rings when it came on TV, but devoting more of my interest to the generic pleasures of art cinema and Westerns in recent years. Video games have remained a constant, but in the past few years my gaming time had been more or less exclusively devoted to three product types: NCAA Football from EA Sports, Sid Meier’s Civilization, and Rockstar Games’ open-world action games like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption.Why I wanted to try out Skyrim I cannot precisely say. The TV ads were well made, but so are those of many other video games, and this material did not intrinsically speak to me. There I was on a random evening in December though, walking a few blocks to rent Skyrim from a Redbox stand. I have been missing real life on and off ever since that night.
What makes Skyrim so deeply appealing is the completeness of the world into which the player is thrust. Firing up the game gives you the ability to be whatever you want to be, go wherever you want to go, and do whatever you want to do. You are within a specific setting (medieval high fantasy, so dragons and longswords abound) and there is a main plotline to battle your way through. The main plotline is a very typical fantasy narrative, a unknown prisoner discovers that he has mystical powers, and must choose whether to take up arms against a dragon demi-god that is preparing to destroy the world. Beyond that subplots and minor quests abound, most notably the province of Skyrim is in the throes of a bloody civil war between a band of brutal nativists and the collapsing empire that still lays claim to the land. Players can also choose to join a band of mystical warriors, become a merciless assassin, steal from the thieves’ guild, or earn a degree in the arts of magic or singing (yes, you can go to the Bard’s College). Underneath all of these factions and quests is the realm of Skyrim’s startlingly complete backstory of myth, history, and culture. Countless books litter the game, each detailing some aspect of the game world that is inessential to succeeding in the game, but adds to the sense of immersion. Even beyond that, the game world is large and detailed enough that a player can quickly tell where they are just by looking at the architectural styles that are encountered.
Of course Skyrim would not be a very fun game if all it engaged in was made up history and architecture lessons. It excels in making the endless minor quests, bountiful character interactions, and seemingly limitless new spaces to explore an engaging and often surprising experience. t is not at all unusual for this Skrim player to walk out the front gates of one of the cities that dot the snow-flecked landscapes and just wander. There are beasts to evade, giants to kill, dragons to cower from, as one might expect, but the best moments are the ones of tranquility or awe that can sweep in as quickly as any mortal danger. Those are the moments when you discover a startling vista that sweeps across miles of landscape and shows all the province laid out at your feet, or when you look up and see jaw-droppingly realistic mist drift across a mountainside. It is in these moments that Skyrim sings, rising above its generic tale and timeworn gameplay tropes with moments of transcendent beauty and immersion.
In video games, such immersive worlds can work the other way as well, acting as a medium through which the player subsumes himself into the character he is controlling on screen. My favorite example of this is the Western action epic Red Dead Redemption which came out two years ago. Despite a similar open-world set-up and action-oriented gameplay, this game’s appeal is different than the carpe diem appeal of Skyrim. Instead the game acts as a reinforcing environment in which the player is encouraged to play the wide-open game as closely as possible to the ethos and style of its main character. This protagonist, John Marston, is a former outlaw who is forced back into the saddle when he is compelled to hunt down his former friends and colleagues to atone for his sins and escape prosecution. It’s not the most original story (when have Westerns been known for that?), and its execution can be clumsy, but the traditional narrative is often beside the point anyway. Instead, what makes the characters and narrative compelling is that way that the player is guided towards inhabiting the role of John Marston as Marston might play himself. You’re punished with a negative reputation for crimes like inflicting violence upon innocents or animals and rewarded for acts of benevolence of generosity.
This isn’t a shocking concept, certainly, but what makes it effective is the totality of its execution in this virtual Old West. Players are welcome to play this as Grand Theft Pony and run through each town or farm trying to mete out as much chaos as possible before the cavalry arrives, but it will make it that much harder to try and win those people over in your search for the redemption that may await down the road. Many of the game’s side-missions and bits of spare dialogue underline the game’s intention to see players use John Marston as a force for good by doing things like bringing a stranded woman water and medicine or coaxing a businessman to free his indentured Chinese worker.
In addition, the game is rife with the kind of observed moments that all but eliminate the distance between gamer and character. My favorite example of this is a random encounter I had where I (as Marston) heard the sound of a man crying. I rounded a bend and discovered a stranger weeping over his horse, which had apparently broken its leg. In despair at this unfortunate turn the man apparently saw no hope, pulled out a pistol, and proceeded to shoot his horse in the head before turning the weapon on himself. This was a random, non-plot-driven event that I never saw repeated. Just a moment that the developers inserted to complete the illusion of this virtual world’s reality. When I saw this scene I was aghast, taken aback by the savage desperation on display, and put my controller down to re-evaluatemy priorities. Or something like that. It was a sensational moment, and one that was seared into my memory as a perfect example of how much our virtual worlds mean to us.