I hate that phrase, “where the game really starts.”
Oh, you’ll love this game…it gets really good after about ten hours.
This game is great…once you get past a certain point.
You just have to get past the slow part, then…
No, I say.
Games should start as soon as the player starts interacting with them.
Skyrim is not too bad about this. But its last big mechanic isn’t introduced until you carry the main quest through to Whiterun. So if you’re going to run around and do random non-story stuff, you might at least want do the quests through Whiterun first.
That doesn’t mean I didn’t do a ton of other random stuff on the way here, of course. I fought some bandits that I found out about at the inn in Riverwood.
I ran into a thief on the road.
He asked me for all of my money. I tried to intimidate him, which failed. But then instead of attacking me, he just said “Have a good day,” put his knife away, and started to wander off. I’m not sure if my speech was bad but my gear intimidated him, or what. But I wasn’t having any of that.
So I quickly dispatched him, took all of his things, and threw his body into the river.
I will always love being able to pick up objects in the game world.
I explored the area around the bandit camp, and came across a campfire insignia on my compass. I didn’t remember at first that this meant some giants were likely camped in the area.
Some folks like to complain about the scaling in Bethesda’s games…but what you might not know is that there’s also plenty of challenge out there that can catch you off guard, if you’re not cautious. In Skyrim, this comes in the form of dungeons full of powerful trolls, mammoths…and also giants.
I got killed by the giants and flung into the air as a result. This always seems like a bug, but I’m happy it has stayed in the game all these years.
After all of this dawdling, I finally made my way inside the town. The walk up to Whiterun is this elaborate path which forces you to make your way around the outside of the town. This winding path helps to build up scope, and it increases your anticipation of what wonders might wait inside.
The town lives up to this promise…kind of.
I enter the town. As I always do, I ponder why the first huge building you see is “The Drunken Huntsman,” a massive store that sells hunting supplies. It seems like this should be a big inn, or a shrine, or something more important. But alas.
I start to listen to the scripted argument in front of the blacksmith shop, and in the middle of that Ysolda, the struggling merchant, wanders right up and starts talking in my face. So I decide to converse with her and accept her quest to get a mammoth tusk.
The depth of field effects went kind of crazy here…but I don’t mind at all. I always love depth of field in games. I know that it’s not realistic for your eyes to have such extreme depth of field; that this sort of graphical effect would make more sense if my head was a movie camera and not that of a digital person.
But I still love this. It adds to the sense that I’m existing in a fantastical world, here. I don’t want game graphics to look completely realistic. I want them to lean into the sorts of stylized touches that only fake digital worlds can give me.
I want to have a little fantasy with my reality.
I offer to take the blacksmith’s new sword to her father. I always ponder keeping this sword for myself…but I hardly ever use Greatswords in this game.
I walked inside to sell off some of my junk to the dude inside…and the blacksmith lady came in, sat down, and started eating some bread.
I talked at length about how I love Bethesda’s Radiant AI system in my most recent Fallout 4 Fridays piece. I don’t care that it leads to sometimes silly and random behaviors, it’s so cool that characters in their games are governed by such an elaborate and sometimes unpredictable system.
The blacksmith coming in and sitting down, and then pulling out a huge hunk of bread made me smile and laugh in a way that a designed moment would have a tough time managing.
I finally remembered to pray at a shrine and heal the ataxia that’s plagued me for the last hour or so of playtime. Finally, I can pick locks with ease once more!
The religious rift that’s opened up throughout the land of Skyrim after the whole empire has been oppressed by dark elves is a fascinating thing, and it has many good payoffs if you decide to engage in that side of the plot.
I go up to the fortress and talk to the Jarl (the leader). His name is Balgruuf and he has a penchant for sitting lazily in a chair and talking with you from slightly too far away. I’ve never understood the way this character is framed. He’s a very important man and character in the overall game, yet he’s always slumped in the chair and on first meeting him you’re not allowed to get very close, so you can’t see his face all that well.
Maybe this is all deliberate, but it always seemed a little bit curious to me.
To reward me for completing the next leg of the quest ahead of time (he tries to send you to Bleak Falls Barrow for a tablet, but if you’ve already got it the dialog changes, which is nice) Balgruuf gives me a nice set of armor.
I decide to put it on and switch to an armored hood I stole from the newly-inhabiting-the-river thief, to prepare for what’s ahead.
It’s here that Skyrim finally introduces Dragons and Shouts.
Not content to merely steal the whole dual-handed combat thing from Bioshock, Skyrim also has roving boss fights against dragons.
Okay, maybe steal is still too strong of a word, but the dragon fights feel an awful lot like the Big Daddy encounters in Bioshock. This first one happens in a scripted time and place, but the rest of them can sort of occur without warning. You’ll be running along and BAM, a dragon swoops in and is ready to fight you.
It’s pretty thrilling, actually, and since dragons can fly, they’re even more terrifying than Big Daddies.
Like the other regular bosses in the game, many of the dragons are somewhat randomly-generated in order to challenge your current skills and abilities. You’ll need to make deft use of your skills…
And you’ll also need to run up and just hack them a lot.
This is what a lot of the dragon encounters look like, including those later in the game. You might criticize how effective the “wait for it to land then run up and attack” strategy is…but I still think they’re often quite fun and dynamic to face.
I beat the dragon, and get my first “shout.” Shouts are basically magical spells on a cooldown. The designers talked near the launch of the game about wanting even non-magic characters to have access to magic spells, since they put so much work into the magic system.
So shouts were born. I think they’re fun, and some of them are quite handy for overcoming challenges later in the game. But if you wanted to play the game without ever touching magic, you might think shouts feel like a weird thing forced on the player.
The shouts also often feel like Bioshock plasmids.
But hey, there are no new ideas, only new executions.
I get the shout by absorbing the soul of the dragon.
Almost immediately, a guard runs up to explain that I must be a Dragonborn, a person who can absorb the soul of a dragon.
I always get a kick out of this immediate bit of exposition.
“People are going to wonder how they did that…let’s just have a guy run up and tell them hey you can do that!”
At this point, a couple of hours into the game, I’ve finally been introduced to all of the mechanics that Skyrim has to offer, and now the main story/random endless wandering can begin in earnest!
I continue to be impressed at how well the audiovisual presentation of this game holds up, in spite of it being a slightly-enhanced version of a six year old game. It’s no wonder that this was Bethesda’s first mainstream success.
It’s still just as fun to watch, listen to, and control as it was on first release. I wasn’t really expecting that.
Tune in next week where I go meet the dudes on the mountain and fight some more stuff or whatever!