Art has had its periods of depicting reality as plainly as possible, an emphasis on painting or writing exactly the actual object or scene. At those times, gone were hyperbole, mythic interventions, and patchy brushstrokes. One such moment was the advent of Naturalism, whose practitioners usually told stories of characters faring harsh environmental situations and struggling with the uncaring figure of nature. Sound a little familiar? Skyrim is a revitalization of Naturalism as its graphic achievements added a new layer to The Elder Scrolls series.
But it isn’t just being pretty that makes Skyrim feel like a Jack London story but instead its philosophy of striving for a photorealistic depiction of a reality. Bethesda didn’t choose to go with a static cut-scene or interface-heavy opening, they had the player observe the world as that world “happened” around them. This is a set-up for the rest of the game, in which you’ll do a lot of pausing, looking around, and feeling, oh, so very small.
The minutiae that Skyrim keeps and throws away in respect to its predecessors aims to pull down as much of the barrier that exists between the player and the world of Skyrim. The player will quickly unlearn their habit of picking up everything that they can touch and that stealing and killing have consequences. There is a logical consistency to the world’s physicality and social norms; there isn’t magic or dragons in reality, but Skyrim presents a good guess at how so things might look. The ability to look out at the picturesque landscape and know that you could also see it up close in fine detail adds to the feeling of being in another world.
Skyrim benefits from its many mountains and plains, which give the scene a depth lacking in past games. The sheer amount of things in Skyrim are equal parts boring and exciting—and random. The player expects to find many dull items in caves and houses because, well, that’s most likely how it is in reality. The distribution of random events that frustrate or help the player feel brutally honest within an uncaring system.
Bethesda’s changes to the interface of The Elder Scrolls and having its character creation communicated during gameplay suggests an ideal situation for the player to participate more in the world and not in the meta-game of menus. It serves a utilitarian role, mostly to update your character’s skills and assign favorites, a contrast to the information-heavy and cluttered feel of past games. This is, in part, due to a character creation system that moves the non-superficial choices out of the beginning of the game and allows for a more long term, active role in how a player molds their character. Instead of ordaining a strict role from the beginning through numbers and attributes, there is a strong focus on the skills that the player uses determining character development.
The skills and roles themselves aren’t innovative at all, in fact, the player will most likely be choosing to do the same exact things done in Morrowind in Skyrim. The active development of character skills allows the player to react to the world instead of being constrained to the choices that they made in the beginning, involving the player more with the world than the “game.”
Photorealism sets a high bar for graphical fidelity, as it’s easy to see imperfections and slip into the uncanny valley when you miss the bullseye. Characters are vapid and openly show their artifice with stock lines and a small cast of voice actors. Your companions, especially Lydia, remind you that they are a traveling AI inventory instead of characters with their own thoughts and interests. In a world meant to be explored, the character population that makes the locale interesting in the first place should also be worth investigation. Skyrim shows that nature and society are inescapable, but actual people are easy to ignore. The large amount of critical bugs in the game break Skyrim’s illusion of another world, as frustration builds from starting the game over so often.
I restarted over five times on the PS3 version, not counting the bugs that I just rolled with. The attempt to provide such a real world is undermined by the technical consequences involved with making it. While Bethesda’s fanbase excuses glitches based on its other merits, its reliance on mods and post-release patches force the player to be aware of the actual game itself when Skyrim’s design philosophy seems to imply otherwise.
Skyrim is a natural progression of the series, fine tuning mechanics that reach for an ideal Naturalism. Players still write about losing hours of their time to navigating its landscapes and describe the surprise, chance events that they encounter. The system, acting as nature, demonstrates the harsh reality of an adventurer’s time spent traveling across tundra and valleys but also causes the player to be made aware of their own body with the reminder that they are playing a flawed game. Nevertheless, its differences from the rest of the series show a welcome effort at further involving the player completely in a world, and Skyrim’s success shows that Bethesda is on the right path to do so.