Life is unpredictable. One minute, you’re walking through a quaint little river town, the next you’re about to get stabbed by a cat man on a mountain the middle of the woods. But isn’t that what makes a things interesting… what makes Skyrim interesting.
For all its odd glitches and the frustrating inventory limit, Skyrim has existed for the better part of a decade as an extremely strong open world game. Maybe it’s my love of role play and fantasy, but the wealth of choices this game provides and the way you affect the world is absolutely fascinating.
Despite being a greenhorn Dragonborn, experiencing a game loooong after its initial release (on what is its fifth platform,) I find almost no current open world game has given me the same impression. Random encounters are no stranger these days — Red Dead Redemption 2 and Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild are two successful titles that cover that ground. But perhaps what gets me is just how massive AND unique Skyrim’s world is.
If the next Dragon Age title is realized, (I’m not holding my breath, given the meager teaser and vague post from Bioware’s official blog) I would love to experience the former empire of Tevinter and the islands/settlements of the Qunari the same way you explore Skyrim and the island of Solstheim. Aforementioned Breath of the Wild tackled exploration similarly; you begin your journey with a wide, obscured map and the only way to expand is to roam. While I appreciated the towers in said game, it felt like the discovery of towers (which unlocked entire chunks of the map for viewing) eliminated all of the intrigue of finding new areas on my own. By contrast, my curiosity was frequently teased by Skyrim’s sole option of nose to the ground adventure.
The forced intimacy with every corner of the continent creates opportunity- foraging for unseen resources, fighting or avoiding all manner of beasts from docile giants to headstrong trolls to ice wraiths to your average bear- to say nothing of random encounters from various assassins. Once I discovered this was a recurring thing, I expected to find it tedious. Surprisingly, despite what I’d assume is a procedural generation style event with various alternating characteristics, it’s become a little extra spice in the whole mix. The various assailants may have unique motives and orders from previously unknown enemies, various items of use to you for improving armor and weapons or just some stuff to sell. As pictured, my first dark brotherhood assassin made an amusing first impression, along with some confusion for why I was targeted.
But enemies aren’t the only encounter in Skyrim, which makes things even more fun. Breath of the Wild has plenty of Hylians in distress scattered about the landscape, but Skyrim has human hunters and nomadic feline merchants. It’s the latter I’ve truly come to love, though they are basically furries that may or may not sell drugs. Still, their dialogue has a unique flavor, as does their story. Instead of simple travelers, the Khajit carry with them a foreign culture and stigma.
I’m reminded of the elves from Dragon Age, who were a similar folk and a small highlight of the world to me in Inquisition, however minimal the encounter was. And though convenient that this particular nomadic tribe remained in one place on the map, I do wish they traveled like the Khajit. Is it annoying to search for your persons of interest when they constantly move camp or travel for large swaths of game time? Perhaps, but to that I’d say this: in Dragon Age: Inquisition, you have spies and soldiers everywhere by that point in the game.
To me, a map indicator with a revolving set of NPCs (for a game several years after Skyrim’s initial launch) isn’t inconceivable; even just having an inquisition scout programmed to answer “where was the Dalish clan last spotted?” could work.
The sprawling landscape of Skyrim itself isn’t all that I praise it for as an open world. Besides the random encounters and sprinkled points of interest, it’s the various towns and kingdoms that beef up the whole setting and civilization for me.
Every major city has its own politics and personal struggles. the jarl of Whiterun is loyal to the Imperials, but still worships an outlawed god and deals with troubled children; in Morthal a mysterious fire killed a man’s wife and child, yet he is suspiciously well-adjusted; Riften is unofficially governed by thieves and a ruthless, wealthy mead-making family.
The list goes on, but each environment is unique. As of late the Far Cry series has garnered criticism for copy and paste camp captures, Assassin’s Creed has been harped on for multiple similar missions being scattered about its map for time padding. Those criticisms do hold water as repetitive experiences become increasingly tedious. Get me to the point, I’ve seen the same thing, different skin, everywhere. The most repetition I find in Skyrim is the guards in every city or village, but they don’t make or break the situation. It’s every environment’s own flavors and faces.
My copy of the game is the remastered version for Nintendo Switch, so it includes every expansion (Heartfire, Dawnguard, and Dragonborn.) The latter additional content caught me off guard, which not many games do these days, as I was suddenly sailed off to a whole new map.
The island of Solstheim may not be nearly as large as the landmass of Skyrim, but it’s enough to explore for many, many hours. Breath of the Wild has its occasional island with an interesting challenge, but the terrain was smaller. Not to mention BoTW has more condensed little villages as opposed to any bustling high volume cities, but don’t fault it for this. Bigger is not always better and an open world sandbox should be filled with content that’s been polished and individualized.
One thing I can say for sure is that I value a painstakingly detailed open world, especially on a platform like the Nintendo Switch. Exploration on the go seems appropriate after all. And all of this said I won’t fault more recent titles for not having as much freedom and variety as Skyrim — I just hope to see that kind of ingenuity more often. (And admittedly, so far, Red Dead Redemption 2 comes the closest.)
Freelance cartoonist, illustrator, & writer
School of Visual Arts Alumna