I have, once again, taken the bait. Along with the launch of Skyrim Anniversary Edition, Skyrim Special Edition received an update recently to celebrate the game's 10th birthday, and it introduced something rather important: Skyrim's first official fishing minigame. It's a Creation Club add-on complete with fishing mechanics, quests and special rewards. And so, with the promise of fantastical fish in mind, last weekend I found myself trundling down a mountain in the back of a familiar cart.
The reason I was so excited for this addition - beyond the mere appeal of something new being added to Skyrim - is that I'm an amateur angler myself. Ever since I was a tiddler I've been float fishing for pollock and bass: I've tried my hand at coarse fishing, spinning for trout in Scottish lochs, and even fly fishing (with varying degrees of success). Over the past year I had great success as a mackerel angler in Brighton, bringing in table fare for my extremely appreciative flatmates. All of which meant I was eager to see what Skyrim's mystical waters had to offer.
A vast number of games boast fishing minigames, of course, and there are equally myriad ways to implement the act of fishing. Some games opt for a more "arcadey", intense version of fishing - Animal Crossing: New Horizons makes little attempt to emulate real fishing techniques, but provides challenge through float placement and tricky timing windows for bites. Other games take a more peaceful approach, encouraging anglers to admire their surroundings. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a great example of this, as while its fishing minigame provides a fair bit of depth (including bait selection and reeling techniques), it's also not afraid to make the player wait and soak up the game's atmosphere.
Skyrim's fishing minigame, unfortunately, doesn't provide mechanical depth, intensity, or a calm mood. It's stuck in something of a watery limbo.
Now, I don't want to be too harsh on poor Skyrim here: this is a retrofitted feature for a ten-year-old game. It was never going to provide the mechanics of a specialist fishing title, or the staggering attention to detail of something like Red Dead Redemption 2. Yet I still think more could have been done to highlight Skyrim's scenery and atmosphere.
To explain how Skyrim's fishing minigame works, players can only fish from specific designated fishing spots around Skyrim's world. Once you've found (or forged) a rod, you simply pop your line in the water, wait until the rod bends, then press E at the right time to receive a fish. The weather, location and fishing rod will impact your chances of catching specific fish, but any in-the-moment tactics (like bait selection, casting or fishing techniques) are conspicuously absent. You also - much to my disappointment - cannot look around while fishing. The game forces you into a fixed first-person viewpoint, where you can only stare down your rod as you partake in a fish tombola.
If Skyrim's fishing minigame wasn't designed with high-octane action or in-depth mechanics in mind, then I wish it could have at least nailed the feel of fishing. One of the key problems is pacing. Bait fishing is characterised by long stretches of waiting, followed by frantic moments of adrenaline as you scramble to bring in a fish. But in Skyrim's minigame, fish continuously splash and nibble on the line, constantly demanding your attention. The minigame then skips the most exciting part of fishing - reeling in and actually landing the fish - to immediately place the fish in your pocket. This stage should be the climax of the minigame: instead, it's pretty much non-existent. Even holding down a button, or being required to button mash, would have helped replicate this feeling.
The mechanics aren't challenging enough to keep the player mentally stimulated, but neither does the minigame encourage you to relax and appreciate your surroundings. Half the appeal of fishing (particularly when the fish aren't biting) is to get out into nature. Skyrim's splashing fish are often distracting, and can prevent the scene from feeling truly calm. Worse still, you can't turn your head to look at the scenery. If I were to miss a fish because I was distracted by gazing at the northern lights, so what? All I really wanted from Skyrim's fishing was a thinly-veiled excuse to watch the world go by.
It's worth noting that fishing in Skyrim has technically been possible for years - thanks, as ever, to the modding community. And in many ways, I prefer the approach taken by Arodicus in the Fishing in Skyrim mod. The player chooses where to set the rod, then selects bait from their ingredients to put on the hook, and simply waits for a bite. There are no animations or rod mechanics involved, but it does a far better job of evoking the feeling of fishing. The pace is more relaxed and faithful to bait fishing, giving players moments of peace (and freedom to look around) before demanding their attention. It also successfully recreates the exhilarating scramble to pick up a rod.
On top of that, the mod gives you opportunities to experiment with your bait, and you can choose your own fishing spot. If you're feeling more adventurous, you can even try alternative fishing methods... including a high-fantasy take on dynamite fishing. It's all a bit more imaginative, and made me feel more directly involved in the fishing process.
Still, Skyrim's fishing update isn't a complete lost cause. It has amusing quirks, and many of its strengths stem from the mechanics surrounding the minigame: in other words, roleplaying and emergent gameplay. I tested the fishing minigame on a new character in Survival mode, and found myself roleplaying an irritated Orc fisherwoman. "Gael" just wanted to fish for a living, but would instead find herself clearing castles of archers to access a fishing spot, or being dragged into local disputes when walking between fishing locations. It created an absurd, brilliant story arc for my character.
Skyrim's fishing minigame also has an unexpectedly eco-friendly message. To encourage players to try different fishing spots, a location will gradually run out of fish (indicated by less splashing), and the player will instead dredge up junk. If your inventory is already full, you might be forced to drop these items on the floor in order to move. So, in essence, overfishing an area results in loss of wildlife and a pile of rubbish on the floor, making the spot extremely ugly for the next time you use it. Unfortunately I've seen my fair share of polluted fishing spots in the real world, so remember: always pick up your fishing waste.
The fishing update also introduces several quests to accompany the fishing minigame: most are simple fetch quests, but the bounties do evolve into steadily more strange (and violent) missions. The quests are entertaining enough, if a little shallow - and I wouldn't advise players to attempt to complete them all in Survival mode. Unless you're prepared to walk between fishing locations for dozens of hours.
And on the truly silly side of things, the Skyrim update categorizes the fishing rod as a "weapon", producing some ludicrous results. I frequently found myself forgetting to swap weapons after a fishing session, and whipping out my fishing rod to slap a wolf.
All in all, Skyrim's fishing update is a bit of light fun, and worth a quick dabble. But with such bare-bones mechanics, pacing issues and an insistence on limiting the player from properly admiring Skyrim's landscapes, I can't help but feel this was a missed opportunity for something greater. Truly, this is the one that got away.