Skip to main content

Games of 2011: Skyrim

Wonderful but broken.

Did you know that there's a new Mission: Impossible film out this Christmas? I had no idea until the other day. I assume they must have masses of advertising running for that on TV, in cinemas, online and "outdoors" (I eventually spotted it on a train station poster), but despite spending most of my life hanging off the digital world like a conjoined foetus, somehow its existence had passed me by.

So that's something to say for video games in 2011, because if nothing else they have been very noticeable. Professional footballers spend their Saturday afternoons sprinting across pitches ring-fenced by ubiquitous adverts for FIFA 12, and we stare at them through screens adorned with ball possession statistics brought to us by EA Sports.

Meanwhile, every other ad break during the X Factor - you'd cry if you knew how much they charged for 30 seconds - is a succession of Wii and Kinect adverts, occasionally interspersed by Saints Row: The Third or Modern Warfare. Battlefield 3 was one of Google's fastest-rising search terms of 2011, and every bus shelter on my way to work shouts at me about Uncharted 3's "gripping" gameplay, and has done for the past four weeks.

In the UK at least, games - and a surprising range of them - have become an inescapable backdrop to mainstream life. Meanwhile, I didn't even know there was a new Mission: Impossible film.

Skyrim's 'live action' trailer helped raise its already lofty profile even higher.

I certainly knew about The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. And not just because it towered over Los Angeles during E3 or because Bethesda hired out the top of a snow-capped mountain in Utah to show it to the world's press. There was a trailer for it ahead of X-Men First Class when I went to see that at the cinema in June, five months before it came out, and it's on the front or back or pretty much everything I've picked up since.

This is a hardcore role-playing game, but it's one of the most heavily publicised games of 2011 - at times, it's felt as though Bethesda was trying to match Tamriel's epic scale inch for inch, billboard by billboard - and the result is that it's Christmas number one and has sold around a million copies in the UK alone.

"One of the best pieces of advice I can give anyone who receives it for Christmas and is starting out playing it is to avoid using fast-travel."

One of the best pieces of advice I can give anyone who receives it for Christmas and is starting out playing it is to avoid using fast-travel - the ability to transport yourself to a previously visited location unaccosted. Instead, just walk everywhere. Most of my enjoyment has come from exploring and discovering things while I was on the way to do something else.

You'll pick up oblique fragments of past civilisations that lead you on treasure hunts through scattered tombs filled with intrigue, you'll find yourself chasing across the countryside picking up the pieces after the forgotten events of a night out, and you'll encounter the most bizarre incidental details, like a mage chasing a rabbit down a hill throwing fireballs at it.

Before long you'll find yourself overflowing with anecdotes about obscure amulets and epic swords that you've enchanted with bizarre relics, and you'll be able to kill a bear from behind with a single blow, or steal the clothes off people's backs without them noticing.

What you end up doing will probably be different every time you load up the game, and because you can do things in any order and there are so many things to do, it all feels very personal. Then you go online and tweet or post on forums about it and you discover that it is quite the opposite - everyone has done something like what you're doing - but somehow that unexpected inclusiveness enhances the game's personality rather than diminishing it.

One of the reasons that I love Skyrim is that it's easy to forget yourself. When you play a lot of video games - whether you're a critic, a gamer or a developer - you tend to know your way around them too quickly. You start to see the underlying systems that define what you can do now and, often dishearteningly, what you'll be doing for the next 10 hours. Good games get around this by hiding their working to keep things mystical, or by making the systems themselves part of the fun, or by constantly distracting you in entertaining ways. Great games, like Skyrim, do all of the above.

Skyrim's world in motion, courtesy of our patient observers at Digital Foundry.

And yet Skyrim's success - both critically and commercially - is also sort of scandalous.

This is a game where I almost ruined a 30-hour save-game file recently when I returned to the main quest line - the fairway down which all players are eventually driven - and discovered I'd broken the underlying game logic by having previously visited a key location and completed a puzzle. Upon being called into action, the non-player characters involved in the quest did not understand what to do in these altered surroundings, and it was only by reloading from a previous position and following strict guidance from an online wiki entry that I managed to coax them into playing along again.

I haven't updated my Xbox 360 copy to 1.3 yet, but last time I loaded the game there was also a dragon flying backwards in circles near Mistwatch, which was impossible to kill because every time you approached it would jerk around in the sky and zoom off into the distance. It's been doing that for the last 15 hours I've been playing. (Nearby was where I saw my first mammoth, incidentally, which proceeded to levitate steadily 200 feet into the air.)

This is even a game that, for a lot of PlayStation 3 owners, basically doesn't work past a certain point, or at least didn't until recently.

We laugh about some of this. We tut and moan about some of it. But we are the lucky ones, because we generally know what to do. We can wait for a patch, or go on the Elder Scrolls wiki, or if we're playing the PC version we can clip through the scenery or do other stuff using console commands. We save often. We prepare ourselves mentally to roll multiple characters to experience the breadth of the game and offset any problems.

But what about the other people who saw the advert in front of X-Men First Class and don't read NeoGAF or know about GameFAQs or know that - let's be honest - Bethesda Game Studios games are broken out of the box and need months of patching? What about the people who don't have their consoles hooked up to the internet? What are they meant to do?

"I think it's a real shame that a lot of people's first experience of the amazing work that the games industry is doing these days will be that it is broken."

This year's video games marketing blitzkrieg has probably sold Skyrim and a lot of other games to people who have never owned a PlayStation or Xbox before, or whose interest lapsed somewhere between WipEout and This Is Living. I think it's a real shame that a lot of people's first experience of the amazing work that the games industry is doing these days will be that it is broken, and that this is normal even among the very biggest games.

I may not have known that there's a new Mission: Impossible out this year until recently, but I imagine one day I will watch it, because the first one was pretty good and I'm curious to see how it's getting on. And because I'm confident that it won't have a backwards-flying Tom Cruise in it that will be fixed for certain viewers a month after launch and for others by Easter. Anyone's basic expectation of entertainment products should be that they can actually be consumed.

Skyrim is my favourite game of the year, and I'm glad it's popular because it means they'll keep making stuff like this. But I also hope it prompts a few people in high places to have a long, hard think about whether enough is being done to make our games work properly out of the box. It is much easier to lose a consumer than to attract one, and a core games industry threatened by so many cultural, economic and technological competitors surely cannot afford to be so complacent about making a strong first impression.

Read this next