This post contains spoilers for the main quest of Skyrim in the very first paragraph.
After playing Skyrim for 90 hours, I saw something that changed my view of the world (the virtual world, that is). I saw one dragon bring another dragon back to life. The latter began as bones, but skin formed and stretched over its wings and skull until it looked alive, reversing the death animation that I’d seen a dozen times before. Then they started talking to each other, then to me. Since when did dragons talk? According to what Skyrim lore I know, the shouts that I had learned that can kill people and beasts are based on words from the dragon’s language; their conversations are battles. But here were two flying lizards, right in front of me, speaking in English and not killing each other. It blew my mind.
In the back of my head, I wondered if this was a lore related oversight or if this was Bethesda commenting on the role of myth and lore in history. Basically, I wondered if this simple, casual dragon language was always real, and it was the people who through their stories of them had mistakenly built them up into grand figures. But that might be giving Bethesda too much credit, or in the case of the lore oversight, too little credit. The point is that this moment blew my mind, and I suspect that I only had this reaction because it took me 90 hours to get there.
You could probably reach this point in the main storyline in just a couple of hours if you focused solely on those main story quests. I didn’t do that. Instead I explored, discovered, smithed, and enchanted. I learned new dragon words, new skills, new back story. I grew as a character, both mechanically (through those new skills) and in terms of teh game’s story, becoming the leader of multiple guilds. In those 90 hours, I came to understand how the world of Skyrim works, how its fantasy is grounded in a specific kind of reality. It avoids the overtly gamey aspects arbitrary experience points and loot increases alongside your increasing level. An iron sword always does the same amount of base damage and that damage only increases if you improve the sword yourself. Oh, and it only improves if you’re good at smithing. This kind of system is symptomatic of all of Skyrim. It’s a very grounded fantasy world.
That carries over into its treatment of dragons and other mythical beasts. The dragons are just another animal: Sometimes they’ll appear and ignore me, while other times they’ll attack on sight. They get distracted by other animals, and they can be killed like any other animal. In those 90 hours, I learned that dragons are dangerous, but they’re also nothing special.
But then I heard the dragons talk, and suddenly, they were special.
The advantage to playing Skyrim at my slow pace is that doing so allows me to get immersed in a world that’s not what it seems to be. I get lulled into that complacency that naturally stems from learning all of a game’s mechanics and myths. This is the point when surprising twists become shocking twists, when the predictability of the past 90 hours is turned on its head. I imagine if I had just gone through the story missions from the beginning, I wouldn’t have had this kind of reaction to what is probably a pretty minor plot point. It would have been surprising but not shocking and that would have been disappointing.
I now have a renewed interest in the land of Skyrim. I’m no longer just discovering caves, I’m discovering hidden truths about the world, and it feels like a slightly different game as a result. I’m still playing Skyrim, but the rules have changed.