I don't trust the Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim NPC that I've tailed to the outskirts of Riverwood. On the face of it, he looks like any other handsome Nordman – shiny long hair, stubbled chain, pointed features, piercing blue eyes – but there's something off about the way he's been idling around the towns in the area. In his defence, he hasn't said or done, well, much of anything. Which is exactly why I can't take my eyes off him.
I'm playing opusGlass and VictorF's Skinshifters – Forsworn Doppelgangers mod, you see, which transforms random unassuming non-playable characters into shape-shifting beasts said to conceal something monstrous. "If left alone, the beasts will eventually leave town," reads the mod's description. "If you don't follow them, you'll be fine."
I've chosen not to follow this guidance, of course, but am now starting to think the lad I've been tracking isn't a monster at all, but an ordinary, run of the mill NPC with nothing to hide. He's barely given me a second look this entire time and – Holy shit! What the hell is that thing? In a flash, my in-game avatar has been mauled to death, my real-world control pad has been tossed across the room in a fit of panic, my one-year-old son is now very much awake and screaming the house down, and my unhappy girlfriend is giving me a stern telling off.
One look at the hideous beast above, and I think the telling off was worth it. Skyrim is somehow 10 years old now, and yet it can still elicit a response from me like few other games can. In this instance, a player-made mod was the source of an, ahem, emotional reaction, but even wandering the plains, valleys, and mountains of vanilla Skyrim is as enjoyable today as it was way back in 2011 – its enduring popularity reflected in the multitude of platforms it's arrived on since, the latest being Skyrim: Anniversary Edition for PS5, Xbox Series X and PC.
"I heard the TI 81 graphing calculator version will be coming out in a few years," says Mark Lampert, the audio director on Skyrim. "The reason Skyrim is still so popular today is because of its timeless game design. I don't mean to build it up too much, but people still play chess because it is a good, solid, timeless game. Skyrim has that thing about it too. There's something very compelling about it every time you jump in."
Like a good book, film, or television series, Skyrim offers comfort. The pull it has on players, which Lampert alludes to, means that no matter how many times you've scaled the College of Winterhold, travelled to Nap Island, or woken up with a sore head in Markarth, if you fire up a save in any of these area's vicinities – to test out a mod, or to revisit a favourite sidequest – resisting the urge to explore further isn't easy.
This could be said of any open-world game with a similar lineage as Skyrim's, but the fact that its devs fire up the game and get sidetracked too, while also using the fantasy role-player as a yardstick for future projects, speaks volumes for the allure of the game's world and mechanics.
"We might go back to check something, like: 'hey, how did we do the stamina mechanic when sprinting, how did that work? You know, let's say we're working on a new game, sometimes we go back and we check our work through because you forget things," Lampert continues. "Was there a curvature to how that stamina reduced? When did we start playing the heavy breathing and heavier footsteps? At which point did we stop you from sprinting? And so forth. So we might fire up the game, in order to check something."
"To get to that point, you have to roll a new character into the character generation process, and it is very easy to get sidetracked and walk off to Whiterun to hear the arrow to the knee guard, you know? It's easy to go down to Riverwood and pick up a quest and forget what you were going in to check in the first place. It's very thorny, it just catches on you and pulls you back in because there are possibilities in every direction. That's what makes the difference. In Skyrim, you emerge from a cave in the south of the map looking up and around, and you can go in any direction."
The future's bright
Despite the fact the original Doom can be run on literally anything has become a joke into itself in 2021, it does speak to the longevity certain games can have in popular culture. Skyrim is available to play on just about every piece of hardware going today, it's spawned one of the biggest video game memes of all time, and has inspired a generation of fantasy action-RPGs in its wake.
Creative player-made mods, like the domestic dispute-inducing one I'm currently enjoying, breathed yet more life into a game already laden with things to occupy your time – at the time of writing, there are well over 100,000 mods available to download for PC on Nexus Mods alone, with scores also available for console players – and those player-created projects are growing by the dozen every day.
For Lampert, the openness of Skyrim is what keeps players coming back for more. And whatever devices support it in another 10 years time, Lampert is confident players will continue to do so too. "In Skyrim, you can go wherever you like, even into an area you're not ready for – the whole thing is wide open. So it's a case of: let's go see that, let's go see this, those mountain points, let's go find our way up there," he adds.
"All of which gives the game a real sense of longevity. And even though when we're working on a game, and we might have played it, literally, 1,000s of times – I don't know how many 1,000s of times I've heard the main theme – taking a short break and jumping back in, it all becomes so compelling again. I mean, hats off to the game designers in that respect, Skyrim just has that hook.
"10 years from now, if Skyrim is still playable, then people will still be playing it. And of course it will be, it's on everything. By then, we'll be playing on screens, your refrigerator, your Tesla on your commute. And it'll make you late for work."
Need a leg up in Tamriel? Best check out these Skyrim cheats to rule the realm with.