by Randy Kalista

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Release: November 11, 2011
Price: $59.99

Score: 10/10

The brilliance of The Elder Scrolls role-playing games isn’t in the freedom it gives to tell your own story, but in the  freedom to discover the stories happening around you. Because when it all boils down, Skyrim’s is a simple story that’s been told a thousand times: You’re a stranger in a strange land, and you will save the world.

I’m not far into Skyrim when I’m walked into a stronghold basement where emaciated prisoners lean against cage bars. There are sharp utensils on a nearby table and blood on the floor. There’s also a single book with a black cover sitting on the table. I have a look at it. The book is about some god-touched individuals known as the “Dragonborn,” and how their presence is foretold in documents known as the Elder Scrolls. I realize then that the Imperials, the Roman-like soldiers running this Abu Ghraib of an operation, are using enhanced interrogation techniques to root out information regarding these so-called Dragonborn.

In a fit of dramatic irony--that’s when the audience knows something the characters in a play don’t--I keep my head down and mouth shut, knowing that the poor sods in this prison are being tortured in order to extract information about me, a Dragonborn. Unfortunately they haven’t got any information as to who or what I am. I make a point not to loiter.

I cross the countryside where the environment rocks and rolls with hardscrabble topography. My alchemist eyes gravitate to the hard, bright flowers clinging between the rocks and the pine trees. I pick them and seek out tables topped with scientific equipment where I can grind and combine components into potions and poisons.

Water explodes in streams and waterfalls, clinging and curving around the mountains’ bones like muscle and tendon. As the water carves its story from the landscape, details emerge of a civil war in Skyrim predicated on religious intolerance.

I feel pangs of apprehension when I roam through residences, picking up conversational tidbits of wars and rumors of wars, further picking up food, gold, and weaponry, anything that won't set off the guards. I keep out of reach of the long arm of the law. Even moving about at night, as guards patrol the streets of this town or that, I stop at a blacksmith shop and stare as smoke lifts from fire pits into a pinpricked night sky.

I try my hand at chopping wood, even shoving a log through a saw mill a time or two, but I fail to see the point. Chopping, hauling, and stacking firewood may be one of the few things I do to re-up my man card in real life, but in Skyrim their presence is strangely domestic. If this idea filtered in from video game developer Peter Molyneux and his Fable games, Skyrim should give it back.

You can settle down in Skyrim: buy a home, find a wife, have a kid. But romance is first introduced to me by a standoffish woman saying, unprompted, that she’s taken so I’d better not "get any ideas." I’m also involved in some small-town pass-the-note love triangle that turns into a quadrangle since the woman in question asks me in a demure voice to “keep her in mind.”

One of the men in this romantic comedy I ask to join me as a companion seeking fame and fortune. The first thing I do is order him to kill a chicken. Without question he stabs a passing hen. There would be a five-gold fine accompanying such senseless slaughter of another man’s fowl, but there are no other witnesses to rat me and my new adventuring buddy out to the authorities. I bend down, carve out a chicken breast from the kill, wander into the back of an inn with a kitchen, grill the chicken breast, then eat it. I offer none to my companion.

Books. So many books around Skyrim. The Nords of Skyrim are better known for their oral traditions, but their respect for the written word is immense. This time, as compared to past Elder Scrolls games, the books are more readable. Dry historical treatises are replaced by clever anecdotes and, at times, unreliable narrators. Across several written documents are passive aggressive squabbles penned by various authors using myriad voices across scattered time periods. Some books are quotable. Some are downright Twilight Zone in the tales they tell. Some dip into creation myths. Others anthropomorphize the star-filled night.

Your perks are mapped in the stars, and amidst those gaseous clouds are constellations’ worth of ways to strengthen your sword arm, nimble up your five-finger discounts, and use magic missiles to attack the darkness. There are ways to improve more social and negotiation skills as well, but I think Ria, a dirty warrior wearing studded leather armor, said it best when she told me, “This is life, brother. The struggle is what reminds us to draw breath.” I simply had to decide if I’d struggle hardest by taking hits to my breastplate--or to my wallet. There was a time or two when I whinced more in front of a savvy merchant than beneath a dragon's beating wings.

All of this in the name of defeating Alduin, the World-Eater, a nasty dragon god with a tendency to awaken other dragons vying for airspace over Skyrim. “Watch the skies,” is the watchword among every town’s guardsmen. And you should listen, even if you chuckle, when a weaponsmith bids you goodbye by saying, “Stay sharp,” because it’s a dangerous place. The previous entry in the series, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, may have opened up a fiery hell, but Skyrim opens up a deceptively beautiful and icy hell in response. Director Todd Howard revealed that Skyrim is indeed an endless hell with infinite missions.

Who you start as in Skyrim matters little, because who you’ll become means everything. So it doesn’t matter if you’re a native-skinned Nord, a lizard-skinned Argonian, or a thick-skinned Orc. It doesn’t matter if you’re partial to axes, arrows, or great balls of fire. What does matter is if you’re driven by your storyline destiny, or driven to incessant exploration, because when Skyrim opens up the four corners of its map, that’s when you’ll find that every path drives you to distraction--and we mean that in the best way possible.

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