This week, Bethesda releases The Elder Scrolls Skyrim: Special Edition. Skyrim: Special Edition is actually a remaster of the 2011 blockbuster hit for Xbox One and PlayStation 4 (PC owners get the remaster, too- what’s more, if they already owned Skyrim and its DLC, they get it for free). Skyrim‘s remaster is a momentous occasion, one being treated with far more gusto by just about everybody than the release of the average remaster. Indeed, its release is getting about as much attention as the release of a Zelda remaster usually does, and that’s for a reason- Skyrim, you see, was a very special game.
In 2011, Skyrim took the world by storm. Not just the gaming world- the world. The game, its main theme, its main character, his signature move, its premise, everything became iconic and embedded in pop culture. Skyrim fever gripped the world, as even those who otherwise stayed as far away from fantasy, RPGs, and fantasy RPGs, found themselves fervently playing Skyrim. Skyrim won top scores everywhere (to this day, it is one of the highest rated games of all time), won Game of the Year awards from just about every outlet imaginable, and is today considered to be one of the greatest games ever made. 20 million copies of the game were sold, and Skyrim became to the previous generation what Grand Theft Auto had been to the one before it.
There is a reason that Skyrim managed to take the world by storm, where no other RPG before or since has managed to do it. Even Bethesda failed to replicate the act with Fallout 4, which was their next game, and which released last year- Fallout 4 sales were massive, but fell short of Skyrim‘s, the modding scene faltered as people went right back to Skyrim, and Skyrim is played by more players on Steam than Fallout 4 is on a routine basis.
"Skyrim represents just about the best distillation of Bethesda’s ultimate vision- that of making an RPG that is simultaneously deep and accessible, appealing to the core and the mainstream gamer."
But yes, there’s a reason that all this happened. You see, Skyrim represents just about the best distillation of Bethesda’s ultimate vision- that of making an RPG that is simultaneously deep and accessible, appealing to the core and the mainstream gamer. Skyrim made a number of concessions to mainstream and casual gamers, from its combat to its leveling, to its removal of player classes. But its deft mix of skill based leveling, perks, loot, and specialization meant that it was exactly as extensive or as simple as you wanted it to be. Dedicated players could make highly specialized builds for themselves, replicating the classes found in older RPGs. Casual players could just focus on getting better at the skills they used most, simply by using them often, and focus on picking the perks that they wanted.
This kind of intersection of depth and accessibility is not present in any other game before or since- the RPGs before Skyrim are universally far more obtuse than it, but even the ones since haven’t managed the balancing act this deftly. The Witcher 3 is far more complex than Skyrim, in everything- from its combat, inventory management, skills, leveling, quests, dungeons, and more. Fallout 4, meanwhile, goes in the other direction, and simplifies everything so much that it is barely an RPG- leveling is dumbed down, dialog choices are dumbed down, combat is dumbed down, until it just becomes a shallow loot shooter.
But Skyrim‘s true impact on the gaming landscape was something else entirely, something that reverberates to this day- you see, Skyrim basically revived the open world for gaming again, bringing forth a new rush to capitalize on its success. Yes, Grand Theft Auto III had popularized open worlds in mainstream gaming originally, in the PS2 era, ten years before Skyrim– but it never prompted a shift in the entire industry’s game design philosophy like Skyrim did. True, there were some who tried to make GTA clones, but most did not, and those who did soon stopped trying after their attempts fell flat.
"The modern open world game craze owes itself to Skyrim."
Skyrim, though- the modern open world game craze owes itself to Skyrim. Almost every major AAA game released these days is open world, and that blatantly owes itself to Skyrim and Skyrim‘s success. Skyrim‘s success spawned a vast swathe of imitators trying to do what it had done. Bioware with Dragon Age: Inquisition, CD Projekt RED with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Square Enix with Final Fantasy 15, Hideo Kojima with Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, Monolith Soft with Xenoblade Chronicles X, and even a company as staunchly opposed to following trends as Nintendo, with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, have all openly cited Skyrim as an inspiration for their games. The reason that games these days actually give you the choice to step out of a narrowly defined path is because Skyrim shifted the industry away from the linear game focus that Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare‘s success had caused. Skyrim is the reason that games tried to become something more, they tried to become worlds.
And with the release of Skyrim‘s remaster this week, we come full circle. No game that has followed Skyrim has been as successful- not critically, not commercially, and certainly not in terms of influence. No game has managed to mix accessibility and depth as well as Skyrim, falling either too much to one side or the other. Most games released since, at least most AAA ones, meanwhile, have continued to try and chase, to try and recreate, Skyrim‘s success.
Skyrim‘s remaster’s release is, then, revelatory. It is a chance for us to celebrate this great game, which was a success on a scale very few games manage to reach, and the legacy of which endures to this day. But it is also a sobering reminder that, five years since its release, no other game managed to strike the same chords that Skyrim itself did. Five years later, we’re still not as good as this 11/11/11 game was. Five years later, Skyrim‘s remaster proves that this generation’s game design is stuck trying to chase and recreate the game design of the previous generation of gaming.
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