"Hey, you. You're finally awake."
Those five simple words, so synonymous with The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim, have been used as the basis for body pillows, magic mugs, and more memes than the internet can count. It's the first line of dialogue you hear as you take control of your avatar in Bethesda's fantasy RPG, and the catalyst for an opening act that proves exactly why the studio remains the jarl of its field.
Skyrim's first hour is a masterclass in the art of onboarding and critical pathing in an open world environment; setting up the story and telling players everything they need to know about how to play the game, before gently guiding them in a recommended direction while also making it clear that they're free to do whatever they please once they've escaped imprisonment.
Skyrim is brilliant at making you feel like someone who's been truly liberated from the chains you woke up in. Dig a little deeper, however, and you'll find Bethesda's fingerprints exercising quiet control over every one of those first steps of your adventure, right up to the moment you slay your first dragon.
Playing the role
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Skyrim opens up its world to you once you've made it out of the dragon attack at Helgen, a set piece which has already proven to be a great primer for the events ahead. In less than half a hour (depending on how long you spend customising your character, of course), your escape from Helgen has explained how Skyrim's combat, looting, character progression, and choice-driven storytelling works, all tutorialized holistically through an all-playable narrative that gets you up to speed on the region's ongoing political strife, its key players, and the mysterious arrival of dragons to Tamriel.
Once you're out of Helgen, then, Bethesda is more than happy to let you do your own thing, comfortable with having equipped you with the basic know-how you need to take on whatever challenge you so choose. Of course, your new best friend Ralof/Hadvar does have a sister/uncle in the nearby town of Riverwood, and I'm sure they'd be willing to help you out if you just make the short journey along the footpath to its gates…
This is just one of the prompts that keeps players journeying along Bethesda's critical path, which will continue to offer lessons on Skyrim's more advanced features, such as blacksmithing, dungeons, and – yes – dragons. Make the short pilgrimage to Riverwood, and you'll be met with a small handful of quests which present a microcosm of the kind of mission variety that you can expect from your ongoing adventures; there's a character-focused piece that revolves purely around dialogue and choice, some manual labour to show the occupational opportunities available throughout the region, and a trip to Bleak Falls Barrow to receive a precious heirloom for the local shopkeeper.
Within Bleak Falls Barrow, you'll find your first Word of Power in Unrelenting Force – the "Fus Ro Dah" shout now iconic to games culture – alongside Arvel the Swift, a wily character who betrays you the moment you set him free; Bethesda's way of telling you that not all of Skyrim's characters are to be trusted.
After your advanced training in Riverwood, you'll be nudged towards Whiterun – Skyrim's capital city – which, lo and behold, is only a short hike to the north. This is where you'll meet your first Faction, the Companions, who just so happen to be fighting a giant outside the city walls as you arrive. Within those walls are yet more beginner-focused quests, alongside an audience with the Jarl, who will send you off on your first real battle with a dragon, though not without some help from his local guards – this is all new to you, after all.
The fight takes place around a large stone watchtower perfect for closing the distance against the dragon with your bow, another example of Bethesda's environmental design subtly assisting players during this crucial early stage of the game. Once you've killed it, the dragon's soul will ebb out of its body, and right into yours, as Whiterun's elite guards watch in awe. The game will explain what this means for your character's progression, and the characters around you will explain what this means for the story. And like that, you have become Dovahkiin, Dragonborn; your training is complete, and now you can finally go and climb that mountain.
Roll for illusion
The genius of Skyrim's opening hour is its ability to make what is a bespoke tour through Elder Scrolls 101 feel like your own determined steps within a world that never feels like it's forcing you in any one direction.
By cleverly balancing its quests, dialogue, and environments to all sing the same tune, Bethesda's mastery of game design encourages players towards a defined goal within a vast open world. All of this is done in a way that avoids the forced longueurs of its contemporaries, which so often feel like they begin with constraints in a game that promised precisely the opposite on the back of the box.
Not all will follow this critical path, of course. Many will wander in the complete opposite direction to Riverwood as soon as they've made it out of Helgen, while others will get distracted by something in the distance on the way, never to return until they're laughably overleveled, and that's okay.
Bethesda will make sure those players will always find something worth their time and effort, no matter where they choose to venture. But stick with Skyrim's opening act, and you'll discover exactly why the studio is renowned for some of the best open worlds the medium has ever seen.