a review of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
a videogame developed by Bethesda Game Studios
and published by Bethesda Softworks
for Microsoft Windows, Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
text by Veles Svitlychny

1 star

Bottom line: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is “an empty illusion.”

Let’s talk about Skyrim, since apparently everyone under the sun is playing it. All of the quests are FedEx stuff, as if the secret fantasy of everyone who plays video games is to be ordered around and make deliveries. There are no meaningful choices or consequences, since I can do everything in a single playthrough. Even when presenting me with some small quest that contains a branching path, it doesn’t matter to me. Either choice I make has no effect.

The game began terribly. I was trapped in a cutscene, listening to terrible voice actors line read context-free fantasy politics. Eventually, a dragon began destroying the surrounding area. I hoped I could play a game at this point. In trying to see if I could do anything besides follow orders, I waited for the dragon to land and attack me. Its attack threw me clear across the town, yet I was unharmed. It breathed fire a few moments later. Even though I was engulfed in flames, I was again unharmed. The entire opening was full of action and violence, but it was an empty illusion. This was the first time I was unable to engage with the game.

After the introduction, I wandered. Every character I met was irritating. They would all tell me their life stories after a single hello, and they would entrust me with their deepest secrets; yet I was a complete stranger. This was discomfiting, but at least some of them told me lies. This was a mild improvement over Oblivion.

Besides wandering, most of my time was spent fighting. Over two thirds of the mechanics describing my character were combat oriented. It would not be unnatural to assume that this would be an area Bethesda would have improved since the series began. It has always been a criticism of the series — that fighting felt like nothing of the sort. Despite this, it has remained relatively unchanged. The plenitude of choices of earlier titles have eroded to just three types of weapons in Skyrim. If engaging in melee, I can use an axe, a sword, or a mace. There are four maneuvers I can perform given all combinations. I can block with a shield, bash with it, attack with a weapon, or perform a “power attack.” A power attack is a slightly different animation that does slightly more damage and (depending on how I’ve built my character) can have a special effect on an enemy. This should be enough to build a good combat system. From Software’s Souls games have more varieties of weapons, but about the same number of possible maneuvers. In practice, it is the same combat as found in Morrowind, but with my variety of choices sacrificed for prettier animations. There are no “beats” to the action. It is always a flurry of button mashing until I or my opponent dies. Underneath the visuals, it is just the computer rolling dice to see who wins. Magic and Archery follow the mechanics outlined above, but work at different ranges and have different special effects. The end result is the same.

The crafting in Skyrim is a method of slowing the game down. It is busy work so that I have something to do when I don’t feel like having the game try to dazzle me. Despite the intention, the crafting is the most exploitable portion of the game. It is the single reason Skyrim has no resource management. With a few quick menu manipulations, I have given myself the means to limitless wealth and the best equipment in the game. With these things, the motivations to explore the game’s world have disappeared. All that is left is admiring the visuals.



The game world is beautiful, but shallow. Even when I tried to sincerely engage with the fiction, the game undermined my efforts. In Skyrim’s constant attempts to impress me, it made me wish for a slower, better paced game. All of the big quest lines expected me to care about how over the top they were. There was no attempt to let me soak in the setting before I was thrown into the deep end of the fiction. Often, I felt like I was playing through the last two acts of a play without the first three to make me care. The quests associated with the magic school, and how it compared to the equivalent from an earlier Bethesda game, Morrowind, is a good example. The Mage’s Guild in Morrowind had explicit ranks that I was required to progress through and it expected me to learn about my surroundings and about the nature of magic before I could be involved in anything important. The first guild building I was likely to see was just an unassuming converted store front. The Mage School in Skyrim (a region ostensibly suspicious of magic) is a giant stone castle only accessible by a magically guarded crumbling bridge over a giant chasm. Before I even walk in, it’s trying to be Epic. I went through half of the first quest and the game already expected me to buy that a notoriously reclusive order of secret super mages from a thousand miles away would have taken interest in my character, a fledgling that could barely cast a basic spell. What’s worse, all their talk is encoded in references to things I wouldn’t understand without reading the in-game literature. I didn’t even have time to pick any up between the start of the first quest and having this Epic plot happen around me. I ended up feeling like a fly on the wall in a bad fantasy novel. In Morrowind, I had the opportunity to learn about the setting while I was doing more mundane tasks. I had a chance to read some of the thirty-six sermons of Vivec before I killed Vivec. It meant something that the Psijic Order coming out of hiding to contact me and a political conflict with the Thalmor doesn’t. The former was informed by my earlier experiences in the game.

This is what gets to me. The diegetic literature in Skyrim is well written. They’re much more interesting and subdued than all the things I’m actually playing. I want to play the game described by the setting material, not the game they made. The setting lore is filled with interesting dilemmas, but the region of Skyrim itself is dull. I’ve had more fun “playing” Skyrim by just reading the lore on a website than actually running the game.

–Veles Svitlychny



    • I was hoping someone would respond to your statement because it is an intriguing one (at least to me.) Would you like to clarify about why Skyrim is a (at least) decent toy?

      • Skyrim’s loading screens let you rotate an in game object and look at it at with some of the game’s highest graphical settings. I find this hilarious.

        Toys are what you make of them and on a site like action button i’m fairly sure a box of action figures should score no points.

        Skyrim is like visiting a rich friends house, you may just have one guy but your friend has everything, the castle play set, the dragons and all the other guys! The stuff he adds to the adventure is never quite as good as story in your head but you don’t mind that much, you still get to play with these great toys!

        Toys are just things that help you play, kids don’t need much help, a few action figures and a few episodes of a matching cartoon, bam they are off having adventure. Adults however need a bunch of help and I think Skyrim does enough to help. It’s good enough to let some adults play like they did as kids, make up stories, have adventures.

        Also play with some noise cancelling headphones, the audio does a whole lot for this game. (though the magic sound effects are mixed a little high)

        The funny thing is I never knew the dragon at the start could not hurt you, i avoided it’s attacks because it was a huge loud dragon and it scared the crap out of me.

        • You’ve just helped me understand how people could ever enjoy a game that has such crippling flaws as Skyrim. Even though the game is terribly designed in it’s best moments it’s a world that facilliates options for play; the fantasy setting makes playing easier (I suppose anyway fantasy isn’t my favorite genre.)

          • Across all media is the potential for the audience to suspend their disbelief and enjoy fiction as some sort of small reality. The more believable the experience the less it takes to suspend disbelief. The elder scrolls series never captured me before skyrim largely because previous elder scrolls games were not doing enough for me.

            If it was not able to suspend your disbelief then it’s still not doing enough.

  1. Problem is that interacting with nearly anything in Skyrim besides the landscape is bound to shatter your belief, provided you can think critically beyond, “This game lets me level up a lot of stuff. Also the world is HUGE. And there are dragons. And lots of sidequests for me to check off on a checkbox. 9.75/10.” As this review notes, conversations are absurd; the people, by extension, are absurd. Bears are more powerful than dragons. Chickens can psychically report any crimes you commit. If you jump on top of a table and knock all of the plates and goblets off, none of the people sitting at the table will acknowledge it. Etc., etc. If you’re analyzing Skyrim as a toy that expands through imagination, it actually fails, because the more you poke at it and ask of it, the more absurdities and banal elements emerge. Skyrim pretty much only works if you’re there to admire the environments (which the game is not for, since it is not just environments), or if you are there for the atmosphere-shattering ridiculousness (which the game is not for, either, because Bethesda is advertising it as a rich world with a “realistic” society). To put it another way: Skyrim only supports intensely compartmentalized playthroughs that ignore all the unmissable stupidity, or hole-poking irreverence that has interactive irony as its goal.

    The music is extremely good, though.

    • When I was playing around with it I saw a headless ghost horseman appear in the middle of the night out of nowhere and thought “That would be so cool if I saw it in a video game.”

      The thought didn’t even cross my mind that there might be a fun way to interact with it. I knew it would only lead me to some chores to do.


    Bethesda failed to make Skyrim what they’re advertising, but if you take an approach like this guy you can have some fun with it – “interactive irony” as ario put it. It’s similar to the Assassin’s Creed review on this site – it becomes a lot better once you actively alter your understanding of the universe, but the experience the developers wanted to give you is lost. Skyrim makes an effort to include some of those nice touches that make you say ‘wow, most games would let me get away with that” – they do react when you start running on a table kicking stuff (sometimes) , or blow it across the room, and if you drop a bunch of weapons in a village a guard will warn you not to leave dangerous stuff lying around because a child could get hurt. But, it just stretches the “if i can do this, why can’t I do that?” issue mentioned countless times before even further. They still have all the dumb stuff in there. You can have a secret conversation about spying on someone while that target is standing right between you. The absurd moments aren’t erased by any thoughtful moments, they both sit there.

    It’s too bad people keep apologizing for it, as if the good moments make up for the moments that shatter the suspension of disbelief. Bethesda best makes games for the interactive irreverance approach, and acknowledge as much when they decide to keep the “fun” bugs, like buckets over heads.

  3. Although all the points in this review are true, I could probably find it in myself to forgive them if Skyrim’s exploration actually WORKED. It boggles my mind how Bethesda can put so many thousands of hours into designing these environments, only to have your character movement feel like little more than a camera floating five feet off the ground.

    Give me a Bethesda game, warts and all, with the movement of Mirror’s Edge or Prince of Persia and I may never stop playing it.

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  6. I was skeptical when I saw that ABDN did a review of Skyrim and rewarded it with a dismal 1/4 (is that the lowest score possible?) because frankly, the game just isn’t that bad. I mean, it functions, right? The plot of the game admittedly doesn’t live up to the series’ excellent lore, but it’s still *there*, isn’t it? That’s more that can apparently be said for FF XIII, and yet you guys felt that game was better…hm. Anyway, the plot was sensible and decent, there’s nothing to really criticize there imo. Certainly nothing that would detract from the game in a big way.

    It’s true that the melee combat in the game still sucks, and that’s a problem. But dismissing all of the fighting mechanics as equally bad just makes it seem like you didn’t take the time to try them out in earnest. There’s a huge catalogue of spells for mage-builds, and the archer/stealth build (my favorite) is a good way to eschew any hand to hand fighting completely by just plugging away at your enemies with arrows – which is actually way more fun that it sounds, in my experience at least. The standard tank/slasher guy build is the most boring way to go about playing the game, so you should try another build sometime.

    You make a lot of fair points about the quest stories and progression outside of the main story being kinda bad; that was something that I felt let down a lot by as well. But I feel like you and some of the people who made comments about some of the realistic moments with the NPCs ruining your sense of immersion and suspension of disbelief are being unduly harsh. I mean it’s a game, there’s only so much time that devs are going to spend programming; do you expect to have to worm you way inside of everyone’s heart over the same course of time that you’d have to spend irl before getting a quest out of them? Skyrim is such a massive game that there are going to have to be limitations on how realistic NPC interaction is going to be insofar as that goes.

    The more I read reviews on here, the more I get the impression that ABDN likes doing the contrarian thing just because it’s edgy <_< it's refreshing to have a site that isn't obsequious when it comes to the big releases, but to slap a one-star rating on a game makes me recall things like Shaq-Fu or Superman 64, and it's just obvious that Skyrim deserves better than that. Even though it did fail to live up to it's potential and it's lore, at the very worst I would call it mediocre.

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