I didn’t pay any attention to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim at really any point in the time leading up to its release. I saw a few pictures of dragons, skimmed a few quotes on its massive scope and otherwise just ignored it. Now, despite having had no enthusiasm whatsoever for Skyrim during its hype cycle, it just may be one of my favourite games of this year.
My antipathy for Skyrim had a lot to do with my only experience with The Elder Scrolls prior to the series’ most recent entry: Oblivion. I played Oblivion after being convinced by Bethesda’s open-world RPG model with Fallout 3, a game that I had a blast thoroughly exploring. Oblivion, on the other hand, did nothing for me. The logical conclusion of this, I thought, was that the fantasy setting simply didn’t appeal to me. Because of this I ignored Skyrim until, hearing over and over again how much fun others were getting out of it, I was enticed enough to pick it up. Pessimistic but hopeful, I became The Prisoner, escaped from a dragon and became completely invested in a similar world to the one I had previously dismissed.
So, for the last week I’ve been trying to puzzle out exactly what Skyrim does that Oblivion didn’t?
Aside from the mechanical improvements (Skyrim uses a new engine, an interesting levelling system and just plain looks really nice) there isn’t much that I can actually point to as vastly improved. Sure, I prefer the rougher, tougher aesthetic of Skyrim’s pseudo-Scandinavian north (there’s something about a dark, snowy night in the woods I find intrinsically fascinating) to the blander dungeons and rolling hills of Oblivion’s Cyrodiil, but cosmetics alone aren’t enough to sell me on a game. I think the charm, for me, lies in something further outside of Bethesda’s control. Namely, the fact that I went into Skyrim with almost no expectations — or information on what I was getting into.
Pre-release hype is de-rigueur in the videogame industry and, while it’s always nice to check out the new titles coming down the pipeline, overexposure can be anathema to fun. Take, for example, the furor that accompanies an unmarked spoiler. When games blog Kotaku revealed a plot point from this fall’s Arkham City as part of its press coverage, the backlash was immense. Nearly everyone agrees that something like this is worth getting upset over — people enjoy experiencing the twists and turns of a story without prior knowledge — but no one seems particularly bothered by reading about the new gadgets, setting or villains Batman will face throughout the months leading up to AC’s release. Sure, most audiences are more concerned with the unfolding of a narrative than any other game feature, but knowing what to expect (in any form) still takes away from the joy of discovery that so much of entertainment is based on.
But what can we do about this? It’s in the best interest of game developers and publishers to advertise their work in order to drum up mainstream coverage and, ultimately, pre-release excitement.
On the other hand, the more that is shown of a game, the less of an impact it’s likely to have on its audience when it actually makes it to market. If too much information will lessen our enjoyment of a game, it’s ultimately up to us to self-censor the massive amounts of coverage that hit industry news sites. Some people go on self-imposed “media blackouts” in the months before an anticipated release to avoid this problem. While doing so leaves them open to ignoring preview-based criticisms and making somewhat blinder purchases, that’s a risk some are willing to take, and it may also be the only realistic way to truly experience a game for the first time. Recommendations from friends go a long way and, for those who want to avoid even the most inoffensive spoiler, may be the best alternative to doting on every scrap of news about an upcoming title.
All I know is that Skyrim is one of the best games I’ve played in a long time — and that much of what makes the experience so appealing is the sense of total mystery its world offers to me as someone who dodged the hype.
Reid McCarter is a writer, editor and musician living and working in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen, The Escapist and C&G Magazine. He maintains literature and music blog, sasquatchradio.com and is Twitter-ready @reidmccarter.