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'The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim:' A 10-Year Retrospective

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“The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” and its steady stream of re-releases has been such a prominent subject of memes that its developer itself joked about a “very special” edition on Amazon Alexa, pagers and smart fridges in a video featuring Keegan-Michael Key. But with last week’s new edition, it’s worth putting the memes aside, and taking a look back at the game as it celebrates its 10th anniversary.

The fifth Elder Scrolls game is set in the imperial province of Skyrim, 200 years after the events of the last installment, “Oblivion.” The Empire has been in a continuous decline for the past two centuries, and the discontent caused a local noble to revolt, prompting a civil war.

The player character is mistaken for a rebel and destined for execution. As they are about to be beheaded, a dragon appears, marking the return of the legendary creatures. The protagonist — revealed to be the last in the long line of “Dragonborns,” heroes with a mortal body, but dragon soul — is the only one who can save the world.

The clichéd story of yet another “Chosen One,” while decent, was certainly not the selling point when the game came out, but it didn’t need to be. Back in 2011, the flashy premieres such as “Dragon Age II,” “Star Wars: The Old Republic,” or “The Witcher 2” had one thing in common: a more or less linear story. But Bethesda, the game’s developer, was a trendsetting pioneer of open-world role-playing games, and Skyrim was its tour de force.

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Nonlinearity seems like the standard nowadays. But even though the past decade has seen a proliferation of sandboxes, Skyrim’s world continues to stand out.

The game is not a new “Assassin’s Creed.” It’s not an empty — if visually impressive — world. “Skyrim” is lively, and it continues to impress with the sheer number and variety of mysteries, lore and carefully designed locations at every step. From dwarven ruins and ancient tombs, to ice caves and vampire lairs, the dungeons offer hours of meaningful adventures with their standalone quests. The environment aboveground is just as diverse, with rugged mountaintops, tundra and taiga hiding over 600 locations ranging from towns, forts, and watermills to dragon lairs, shrines, and necromancer hideouts.

But should the Dragonborn become bored with accidentally stopping a revenge-bent necromancer from unleashing a horde of undead against the Empire or solving the mystery of an abandoned lighthouse-turned house whose residents mysteriously vanished when aimlessly wandering, there’s plenty more to explore. Skyrim offers a surprising amount of structure in an open world with more than half a dozen side quest lines and two major expansions. The game’s factions and their plotlines are as extensive as the main story. Be it through crafting a plot to assassinate the emperor with the Dark Brotherhood, joining a pack of werewolves or a clan of vampires or endangering — and saving — the world with a college of mages, Skyrim offers hours of engrossing stories and chances to explore different styles of gameplay.

It would be disingenuous to say that a decade-old game looks as good as it has at its release. The graphics are by no means antiquated or off-putting, but the quality of textures and the length of rendering is not up to par anymore. The game’s physics leave much to be desired. The interactions with water look dated, and those with the environment are limited. While somewhat redeemed by its variety, the game’s fighting system is underwhelming, essentially constrained to attacks with the right mouse button and occasional blocks, if the protagonist uses a melee weapon or a shield. It seems simplistic even by 2011 standards, when compared to contemporary games like “The Witcher 2.”

The mechanical inadequacies can be blamed on the engine, but the game’s Creation Engine is also what has ensured Skyrim’s longevity. Unlike the previous two installments, which used the 1997 Gamebryo, the Creation Engine was brand new at the time of the game’s release, designed specifically with Bethesda’s future RPGs in mind. In an updated version, the Creation Engine is still used for the studio’s upcoming titles. Perhaps more importantly, it’s easy to work with even for an amateur. Thanks to that fact, Skyrim is one of the most frequently modded games, with over 60,000 mod submissions. More importantly, the engine’s simplicity has allowed the community to fix the notoriously buggy game.

Skyrim has clearly aged both in terms of its visuals and its mechanics. But the richness of the world and its story ensure Skyrim’s longevity and continued appeal.

—Staff writer Zachary J. Lech can be reached at zachary.lech@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @zacharylech.

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