I spent most of my extended winter break playing The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim Anniversary Edition. There are so many new games I could have played with that time, but the fact that I chose to spend it with Skyrim is a testament to how good the game is a decade after its release, and how different it is from modern RPGs.
It's been about ten years since I last played Skyrim and last lost hundreds of hours wandering its mountain ranges and exploring its network of dank caves. But as soon as I boot up the anniversary edition on my PS5 I can feel the pull of its allure, made even more appealing by lightning-fast loading screens and higher quality visuals.
In Skyrim, aimlessness is encouraged. Most modern RPGs seem hesitant to give players free time, choosing instead to offer up a barrage of side-quests straight out of the gate or crowd the world map with POIs. But Skyrim is very content to leave you alone, choosing to show most waypoints on just the compass in your UI instead of littering the map with them. This manner of teasing out interesting locations fosters a desire to explore and promotes a gameplay style that can best be described as "meandering."
That almost all of Skyrim's landscapes are traversable is a testament to its explorability - even if you have to sorta glitch-jump your way up a particularly steep rock face, you'll be able to get to the top of nearly every peak. After getting past the opening sequence and going through the few initial quests, I begin to wander off at almost every opportunity. Midway through a side-quest, I drift off a stone path and doggedly attempt to scale the side of a cliff in search of a distant waypoint on my compass. But I'm distracted from this distraction faster than you can say "fus", as there's a cave mouth midway up the mountain.
It's nearly impossible to recreate such wonderful aimlessness in modern RPG games. Assassin's Creed Valhalla assails you with waypoints, offering little to no room for you to accidentally stumble upon something secret. Borderlands 3 is almost perpetually noisy, both visually and sonically, so there's never a sense of quiet exploration or a chance to take contemplative pauses while admiring your surroundings. The closest thing I can get to Skyrim is Red Dead Redemption, but even that feels finite, whereas Skyrim seems endless.
That feeling of endlessness is why I easily sink six hours into gameplay the first night I boot up Skyrim, and the inherent gentleness of Skyrim's gameplay is why I find myself returning to it nearly every night during my break. Sure, I frequently stumble upon skeevers and bandits and bears looking to take a chunk out of me during my traversal of Skyrim's lands, but it's very easy to either run away from conflict or FusRoDah them off of a cliff before the 'Caught off Guard' song can properly get started.
Despite taking place in a world in the midst of war, where a dragon can swoop down and burn entire cities with impunity, Skyrim is bizarrely peaceful.
It wasn't until I wandered into a random cave that I remembered how beautifully bespoke each Skyrim side quest is. This isn't a game full of copied and pasted interactions, but one that has an impressive array of diverse side stories, whether it's helping a family of ghosts find peace on a random farm outside of Rorikstead, or accepting a dinner invitation just to get attacked by vampires.
Because of the sheer size and scope of RPGs, it's not uncommon for them to include a few types of side quests that are slightly tweaked and reworked multiple times within the game. You'll find side quests like these in the original Mass Effect trilogy or the Assassin's Creed games - repurposed fetch quests or mini horde challenges that exist to fill out games, presumably without draining dev time and/or money. These aren't necessarily bad, especially if you can get into a rhythm with them, but they certainly aren't going to surprise you. You know what you're getting, and that's that.
But Skyrim's side quests are almost all bespoke encounters that feel like they were workshopped for days in Bethesda breakout groups. Following a ghost through a maze of sewers results in me fighting some magical ghost beyond various jewel-toned doors, with a lovely sword offered up as a prize for his defeat.
My jaw is on the floor during the Frostflow Abyss sidequest, where I stumble upon something truly Lovecraftian after wandering into a lighthouse. There, what looks like a bandit-led attack on an unfortunate family quickly transforms into a story that makes my skin crawl - and I happened upon it by accident. How can I focus on the main quest when there are so many hidden treasures tucked away in Skyrim's nooks and crannies?
There are so many side quests like this that have engaging stories or challenging mini-bosses or incredible adventures baked into them. With so many at my disposal, it's easy to see why what was initially meant to be a brief return to Skyrim turned into my entire winter break. I just had to see what was in that cave, or up those steps, or down that alley.
There's a level of jankiness that is only acceptable in a game like Skyrim. Perhaps because it's a decade old or because it's just so damn big, we expect the game to break often and in hilarious ways. However, it's impossible for Skyrim to break enough that it breaks me - and that's saying something, as I have all the patience of a toddler waiting in line at the toy store and have abandoned games for being too glitchy before. But Skyrim is simply built differently.
The Skyrim Anniversary Edition includes all of the DLC, none of which I had during my original playthrough ten years ago. I decide to pursue the main quest of the Dawnguard DLC, which allows you to choose sides between the vampires and the people who hunt them. Naturally, I chose the vampires, but as soon as I make this decision I'm met with an incredibly irritating bug that persists despite several attempts to save and reload the game.
After agreeing to become a vampire, I'm taken by the vampire leader to learn all about my cool new vampire powers. As soon as my lessons end, the vampire leader immediately attacks me. Running away from him and deeper into his castle just means the entire gang of vampires comes after me, except for my new sidekick Serana. I need to talk to one of these vampires to continue along the quest line, but the dude keeps trying to kill me. Over and over again I try to go through the quest steps without getting attacked by the vampires, to no avail.
Eventually, I realized that I could run out of the castle full of hostile vampires and swim out into the ocean far enough that they lost interest in me. Then, I could fast travel someplace else, travel back to Castle Volikhar, and meet the vampires without any sort of bloodshed. As soon as I figure this out and fast travel to an area near the next quest waypoint, I'm distracted by a shiny, new cave. After taking several steps into the cave, my game crashes. I reload and walk back into the cave - boom, crash. If this were any other game, I'd quit, but Skyrim gets a pass. It's jankiness is part of its personality, like your neighbor's old jalopy that's all form over function. After several attempts, I turn around and leave the cave. But I refuse to leave Skyrim.
I'm back at work now and my weeks are back to their somewhat normal routine of coffee, cats, and collaborating. But the one holdover from my winter break is Skyrim - I'm still playing it every night.
I'm not the only one who recently got back into Skyrim. Our Heather Wald returned to Skyrim for the fishing and stayed for wild adventures.