The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011) Review

skyrimAn Experiential Paean To the Virtues of Not Killing Everyone In the World

by Casey Moriarty

There is a character in Skyrim by the name of Nazeem who wanders around the city of Whiterun condescending to people. Resplendent in the autumnal colors of a snotty pretentious fop, he haughtily mocks you for not being him and vainly boasts of his supposed indispensability to the local government. He’ll repeatedly ask you if yonazeemu “Get to the Cloud District very often,” before scoffing at the very notion and adding, “What am I saying? Of course you don’t.” He’s a highborn elitist who is terribly annoying.

Recently in my playthrough, Nazeem sadly passed away. I didn’t get many details on the tragedy, but am informed that he died as a result of complications from an illness that medical professionals term “Snooty Douchepox,” the symptoms of which include facial lesions that look suspiciously similar to the blunt force trauma injuries a large warhammer might inflict. The condition also causes the body to appear as if it tumbled down a flight of stairs, losing its clothes and valuables in the process. The body then stands up, as if reanimated by magic, and shuffles around as a clumsy zombie until it trips and falls onto Dawnbreaker, an enchanted sword that causes the undead to detonate in a hail of otherworldly flames. Filthy business, that. Oh, well. Accidents happen. People get sick. People explode.

Such is the nature of the fifth game in the Elder Scrolls series; it’s a sprawling and brutally beautiful world filled to the brim with civilized settlements, cavernous mines and unforgiving mountains. It’s also full of people, who will sometimes be a friend to you as you prance across the continent slaying dragons, catching butterflies and trying to avoid being swatted into the mesosphere by mighty giants whose toes you tried to steal. The citizens of Skyrim who won’t be your friend can often be downright nasty for no good reason, belittling you even after you’ve become a rich regicidal dragonslayer who is in charge of every warrior, assassin, thief and wizard in the entire world. If you like, the characters who vex you can be sent to meet their makers at Bethesda Softworks with a deft thrust of a daedric dagger.  The characters you decide not to eliminate will be the ones that send you on quest after quest, sometimes with lucrative rewards and sometimes not: expect to be frustrated when some grinning NPC hands you just 80 coins for clearing out a coven of those aforementioned powerful giants and their escape-velocity defying clubs. Advice if you’re a NPC in Skyrim reading this: treat the adventurers who help you out generously, lest you trip and fall onto a magic sword like ol’ Nazeem, whose supercilious soul was removed and used to enchant a fancy hat.

Skyrim is a game that in addition to being huge offers limitless freedom to customize who you’ll become; it’s because of this I learned all sorts of lessons about myself and the depraved monster that emerges when I, like Django before me, am unchained. It’s a game set in a mythical, medieval land full of dragons, elves, trolls, orcs and all sorts of other creatures people write about when they’re inspired by King Arthur, Beowulf and especially Tolkien, but not quite inspired enough to create their own concepts.

You start the game by choosing your species, race and gender. I chose the extraordinary and fantastical persona of a skinny blonde white human named “Casey,” but you can be anything you want to be. Maybe a buxom she-elf named Bootilicia. Perhaps a human that resembles Billy Ray Cyrus or Wayne Gretzky or the RZA, or even a muscular water-breathing frog monster that is the love child of all three of those great men. You could name him “Billy ZAyne.” (I will be here all week.) You can also choose to walk the path of the warrior, thief, assassin or mage and build up the necessary skill set for that path. I chose warrior, because I consider sneaking around to be boring and murdering people by carefully creeping into their homes to poison them to be both inelegant and way too much work; and magic in games represents the intellectual path, a path I will gleefully ignore when smashing, shooting and stabbing things is the available alternative.

With that kind of choice, you can also decide where you stand on the scale of good vs. evil; be Mohandas Gandhi, or conversely be George Lucas. Playing Hitman is violent in its very nature; you can’t decide not to be a hitman. There is no option to hug it out with Ares in God of War. Skyrim allows you to progress through much of the game relatively peacefully, talking it out with some people instead of fighting, and harming few. There are obvious exceptions like the dragons that have to have their scaly butts shanked as part of the main quest, but largely you can avoid conflict if you want. Theoretically, you could play almost the whole main story without killing any humanoids at all. I, of course, do not play this way, preferring instead to wander the vast universe roughing up old ladies and Bruce-Wayneing young children.

maxresdefaultI actually originally intended to walk the line as a Lawful-Good hero type; my somewhat Shakespearean slide into sociopathy was swift and inevitable. I graduated from relatively-nice-guy-who-almost-never-punches-women to ruthless warcriminal a few minutes after discovering you can turn into a werewolf at will once per in-game day if you do a certain quest. This will terrify anyone who sees you in that form to the point of uncontrollable defecation; instead of running, they usually attack and you will be forced to defend yourself by eating their faces till they die. Also, the shouts; Odin’s beard, the shouts! Your character has the ability to use his voice to achieve a variety of effects, just like the dragons he or she shares blood with. Dragons can do that stuff, right? Anyway, the most useful and hilarious of these vocal abilities is a burst of force that will blast people straight back to The Elder Scrolls III. For maximum schadenfreude, it can be used to hurl hapless guards off of cliffs to deal a death that the game counts as having been administered by gravity and sharp rocks, not by you, so it only carries the relatively minor monetary amercement for assault instead of the hefty one for homicide.

By far the most satisfying indulgence of one’s inner Dahmer is objectively the death of raging tool and all-around squishy meatbag Nazeem. I should add that I am far from the only player to thirst for Nazeem’s death; his murder is almost as cathartic as being able to walk into the Star Wars prequels to give Jar Jar Binks a chemically induced stroke. For me, the magnificent murder of the man who dared deride the Dovahkiin occurred as I walked up a flight of stairs after a particularly tough mission left me with a particularly powerful hammer that sufferers of Snooty Douchepox are particularly sensitive to. Nazeem’s arrogant rambling had earned the digital d-bag a one-way trip to teeth gnashing with the infernal zeros and chthonian ones of a pixelated Tartarus. When his body crumpled, stained in its own douchey blood, it was so beautiful that every star shown more brightly; the Dead Sea turned into Dr. Pepper; every spider became a songbird and every sane man went mad. That might be an exaggeration but the point is the game peaked right at the exact moment Nazeem’s face turned into pudding. Delicious, chocolate pudding.

Speaking of delicious chocolate pudding: One of the main themes of this game’s story is racism against imaginary creatures. Lots of people hate and mistrust Elves, for example. This comes off strangely because in this world gay marriage is perfectly allowed and bothers no one, and gender equality is nearly absolute. But racial tension still exists, maybe because part of the plot is Elves working their way into the government, probably to take jobs and women away from hard working Orcs. Now, Nazeem was an African-Skyrimian… Or whatever-Tamriel’s-fantasy-equivalent-of-Africa-is-Skyrimian… anyway the man I so delighted in terminating was black. Fearing greatly that the simulated citizens of this intolerance soaked world would think me a racist (I have a few problems), I knew that I’d have to put a similar end to an equally obnoxious white fellow to balance the scales. I decided to rid myself of the troublesome priest, Heimskr, and with a jerk of my thumb and a twitch of my index finger he was martyred for his faith. He now lies in repose in Whiterun’s Hall Of The Dead; I know because I robbed his coffin. Skyrim allows you to build up your sneaking and pickpocketing for the sake of both quests and recreational wetwork; feel free to sneak into the homes of characters that have irked you to discreetly destroy them while they sleep. I rarely do this myself; not being interested in sneaking, I tend to utilize the Tony Montana method of brazenly charging at people, sword swinging, in broad daylight.  I simply surrender to the guards and pay the bounty after my target is dead. The game provides more than enough easy access to money to do so.

I found that you can recruit followers to help you, and equip them with upgraded armor in the game. Just be careful if you do; the AI’s not great, they can’t equip certain things, and they’re too easy to accidentally kill with an errant swing of the Mace of Molag Bal. Also, they might all be irredeemable maniacs. Case in point: I tried pickpocketing some gold off of the late Nazeem’s wife, because she always thought I was hitting on her and she was angry about the hit on her husband. She noticed me and became irate, so as I turned to run my follower Lydia took it upon herself to beat Mrs. Nazeem to death in front of everyone. Due to this unsanctioned killing, what had been petty theft quickly escalated into a war with the town guards that left four people dead, myself a fugitive, and Nazeem’s wife a mystically revived revenant that was destroyed by the very guards avenging her murder.

And so my journey toward the dark side was complete; I’d broken every law I’d sworn to uphold, I’d become what I beheld and I was content that I’d had fun. It didn’t haunt me every day; I still played through the main quest, trying to save the universe from the evil dragon Alduin, who seeks to consume it (a fitting villain for a game that eats up so much real-world time.) I discovered that it was possible to get married in the game, so I bought a house in the city of Solitude and settled down with fellow werewolf Aela the Huntress (I chose her, but you can marry almost anyone, regardless of gender or species). But the corruption in my soul would never go away; I soon found myself building up my fighting skills on, and stealing the souls of, innocent villagers just because they were there.

My power increased exponentially along with my cruelty, until I had too much of both for my own good. I’d had to turn the difficulty up to the maximum setting to maintain the challenge, but even at that level it didn’t take more than a hit or two to put down the giants that used to knock me into orbit. I managed to kill the main boss in about twenty seconds, without ever fearing I might lose and without ever needing a single one of the dozens of healing potions I’d stockpiled to prepare for him. Again, this was on the highest difficulty, and I am what you’d call the opposite of a skilled gamer. Long story short: Skyrim’s combat system became boring as hell long before I was done with the game. Don’t expect the credits to roll when the main story ends, either; I found myself allowed to continue wandering Skyrim doing whatever quests I didn’t do before. And now, in addition to my ridiculously powerful weapons and armor, I could summon dragons myself and control the weather.

I only used my atmokinetic powers once. I’d wandered into a town with my follower and wife Aela at my side when I decided to test it out. The world darkened as black clouds filled the sky and it began to rain. Then came the most glorious thunderstorm since Thor accidentally ran over Zeus with his 1993 Ford SVT Lightning after having consumed a few too many shots of AfterShock. I cackled madly, startling my mother,  as I watched the supernatural electricity cascade downward to lay waste to the panicked citizens who scurried about futilely seeking shelter. The storm lasted a few minutes. When the skies cleared, I turned over to my wife to begin the next adventure. Aela was lying limp at my feet, a look of betrayal frozen in her dead eyes. Even with all the upgraded, magical armor I’d given her, she could not withstand “Casey” flexing his might in her general vicinity even once, and now I stood in an empty village, totally alone. Alone, that is, except for the charred remains of a bunch of electrocuted villagers. And a single chicken, who had somehow dodged the atmospheric manifestation of my inner conflict. I considered the hundred different ways there were to kill that chicken, but ended up letting it go in my last, sad act of mercy. I had become death, the destroyer of worlds, which wasn’t nearly as awesome as it sounded. In fact it was a totally hollow victory.

And that’s where I stopped playing the game. It’s within the game’s greatest strength that you find its biggest flaw. In a huge, open world that allows you limitless options, it’s your own damn fault if you play yourself into a corner the way I did, but also the game’s fault for letting you. If I hadn’t had so much fun early on amassing a higher body count than James Bond and Jason Voorhees would when broing out at a Communist Mardi Gras, I may never have grown too strong to enjoy the latter parts of the game. Skyrim allows you to give free reign to your inner megalomaniac; but (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) a megalomaniac should be controlled, at least a little bit. With no reasonable power caps, and no one strong enough to challenge us, we’ll do more damage than the dragon Alduin himself did in his failed attempt to annihilate the universe. This utter lack of limitations on the power available to you is great in theory, but it leaves the game a dull chore after every weapon and every skill is so incredibly overpowered that not even the almighty final boss, supposedly a Unicron-like cosmic force of destruction, can put up a token fight. How much fun you can really have will depend on your personality, what your goals are and what you will do to achieve those goals. As for myself I discovered that the promise of power is intoxicating as well as corrupting, and the questing for it hugely entertaining, but that once achieved ultimate power will leave you totally cold.

At least I killed Nazeem, though.killnazeem

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