For me - or rather the High Elf equivalent of me, Vixen Bass-Clef - Bethesda’s latest gem is special. It’s the game that I’ve played for 160 joy-filled hours. That’s more time spent on one game than every other game I’ve reviewed this year, combined.
And yet, despite still having tonnes more to do, see and accomplish, the looming doom of ‘completion’ is ever apparent. It’s not the kind of game that lets you loose lightly, it drills its icy tendrils deep into the very heart of what defines exploration and discovery. It’s also not a game that tells you when you’re done, leaving you wondering whether it has anymore to offer, consequently making the departure that little bit more difficult.
That said, I’m pretty confident that even if I stopped playing now, I’ve left my own Vixen shaped imprint on the snowy hillside. I saved the College of Winterhold from almost certain destruction and married a strong Nord wife. She supplies me with a useless supply of gold, but I pretend to love her anyway.
I became a werewolf and went on a brief feral rampage. That was before realising shopkeepers didn’t respawn, leaving me feeling incredibly guilty and never returning, in case I ran into one of my victim’s relatives. Due to my terrible actions I usually sit around my palatial mansion, getting fat by eating my home made stews, wondering what I should do with the tonne of priceless armour I’ve created with my smith-handy mitts.
That unique persona is what makes the prospect of leaving so hard. Where a game like Uncharted 3 tells a gorgeous interactive tale, or an epic like Final Fantasy weaves a phenomenal narrative through hours of thematic beauty, Skyrim does things differently. You choose the pace. You set the compass. What you’ve done and whom you’ve affected are all recorded down in the fictional history books for whatever this world has become in 200 years, glitches and all. It’s not just ‘open world’ in the throwaway definition of the term, it’s pure freedom to have a second life.
In this life, there’s no constant strive for the emotional grasp that Mass Effect or even Fable achieves, but by giving you your own playground the game subconsciously creates real care about what happens there. I had never spoken to the merchants I brutally murdered under the full moon’s light but I felt awful all the same. I regretted that decision the moment I swung those final bloody blows, especially once I realised that the autosave had overwritten itself and there was no turning back.
It also manages to create the most social experience despite being, by design, incredibly anti social. There hasn’t been a game in recent memory that has aroused the same amount of talk across social networks or Xbox Live. It’s not just a personal adventure for you as an individual, but an escapade for all your friends to experience separately but simultaneously, swapping stories about when you first ventured to the Throat of the World, or your first encounter with a Daedric prince. Even my girlfriend – my real one – has succumbed to the hype, only to realise why I’ve been accidentally calling her ‘housecarl’ for the last month…
Amongst the strengths the most saddening thing is that, while restarting as Vixen Bass-Clef Jr will give me a wonderful second dose, it will always feel like an incomparable recreation of the story that I wrote first time around. That first glimpse of the land in which I was a complete stranger lost in the misty hills without a clue where to go. Every decision I made then was made on the back of my own curiosity, relying on the deep-rooted need to turn a little icon on my in-game compass from black to white.
That ‘honeymoon period’ will never be repeated. Curiosity is exchanged with expectation, magical disbelief with a steady flow of not-so-stunning discoveries that I knew were coming. Such is the same with any game, but with Skyrim it’s a horrible fact I haven’t yet accepted as I still tiptoe around a main quest I wish I never had to finish.