There once was a hero named Ragnar the Red,
who came riding to Whiterun from ole Rorikstead!

And the braggart did swagger and brandish his blade,
as he told of bold battles and gold he had made!

But then he went quiet, did Ragnar the Red,
when he met the shieldmaiden Matilda who said...

Oh, you talk and you lie and you drink all our mead!
Now I think it's high time that you lie down and bleed!

And so then came the clashing and slashing of steel,
as the brave lass Matilda charged in full of zeal!

And the braggart named Ragnar was boastful no moooooree...
when his ugly red head rolled around on the floor!
— from "Songs Of Skyrim: Revised Edition," compiled by Giraud Gemaine, Historian of the Bards College of Solitude

This past weekend I decided to play some Skyrim again. I know, I know.

And as I loaded up a new save file and witnessed once more the destruction of Helgen for the ... 20th? time? it made me wonder why I still love this game so much.

I strongly suspect simple nostalgia might be the biggest reason.

My love for Skyrim starts years before the game was released, because my first introduction to the Elder Scrolls series was Oblivion. I remember the first time I played TESIV: Oblivion in my friend's basement after school on her brother's Xbox back in 2006— hell, I remember the first time that same friend told me about the game in Chemistry class in high school!

After TESV was announced, I was one of those boneheads who happily bought the special edition before Skyrim launched on 2011.11.11 — I don't think there has been a videogame since that I have looked forward to more. I even got the special edition of the game that came with a physical map of Skyrim (which I sadly lost during a move sometime around 2013 when a box full of notebooks and papers was misplaced forever). Within the first week or two after it came out, an old roommate swears that when they came in really late one night to ask me something, I apparently mumbled something about killing dragons in my sleep.

I think, more than any particular quality that either Oblivion or Skyrim have, both games just came out at times were I was most receptive and happy to escape into them.

But beyond nostalgia, I realised when I was thinking about the videogames I love that I've written about (Mass Effect, Stardew Valley, Minecraft) on this blog, that I had never actually written about Skyrim, and I decided to try. So here are some of the reasons Skyrim, 8+ years after it launched, remains my favourite game to escape into.

A screenshot of my Bosmer character that I usually default to when playing Elders Scrolls games, sitting next to a campfire with Faendal next to a tent, and watching the northern lights in the dark night sky.

Skyrim is dangerous, and so are you (mostly).

It's cold, it's snowing, it's dreary. You have 7000 steps to climb to reach the top of a mountain and it's been blizzarding for three days and you're out of health potions when an ice troll decides to attack you out of nowhere.

And I love it! The land is like a jagged edge and you have to respect its might by being prepared. One wrong turn in the forest or mountain and oh look, a bunch of giants have decided to reward you for your nosy clambering about by punching you straight into the stratosphere!

Seriously... don't piss off the giants. They run really fast.

For the vast majority of the game (say, the first few dozens of hours, before you hit a level in the high 20s) Skyrim feels dangerous in a way that doesn't really go away even as you eventually become tough enough to survive a warhammer to the face at least once.

And, as you start becoming one of those dangerous, dragon-soul-eating creatures that stalks its prey under the Skyrim sky, that feeling still doesn't go away. Not for a while, at least. Even at level 35, one missed swing and being dangerously low on potions, health, magicka, and stamina will quickly make you feel like that fresh-faced, rag-wearing prisoner all over again.

When I think back to those days playing Oblivion in my friend's basement, I remember pretty fondly that both of us were too chicken to tackle the main Oblivion quest-line and found most of the dungeon crawling and deadric abominations to be genuinely scary. As a result, I spent the large majority of my time above ground, in the forests, learning to sneak and jump well enough to escape any serious threats. I remember exploring the map thoroughly (and finding the unicorn!) and being utterly enchanted by how charming the scenery was.

Skyrim enchants me in a rather different way. If at the age of 15 I was too freaked out to enter most caves in Cyrodiil, now as a mostly-adult I approach most of Skyrim's landscape with childish bravado, seeking out bears and cave trolls to wrestle with magic or cunning or even brute force. I rarely use the auto-travel feature in-game (unless I'm in a huge hurry to finish a quest) because I actually love running across the landscape and feeling like a hunter or tracker or frolicker. I tend to play Bosmer characters with a penchant for archery (no one who knows me even a little should be even a little bit surprised, lol) and I do often role-play more survivalist characters. (I'll talk about it more a little further below, when I discuss the mods of Skyrim.)

A guard in Whiterun with a bucket over his head which I spent...an embarrassing amount of time trying to place juuuust right. (This is a trick to obstruct the guard's vision, so that you can pickpocket away to your heart's content in the market.) 

I haven't actually "finished" the game.

The map is not infinite, but the amount of care and detail that's been put into the map is extraordinary. This past weekend, as I was replaying Skyrim for the first time in a good long while, I discovered a cave I'd never ever explored before. Inside, a coven of necromancers and spellswords had turned on one of their members, as she had gone to Riften without the coven's permission to try to find her lost daughter, who she had heard rumours was placed in the orphanage. It was this really detailed minor little quest I had never encountered before, hidden away in one of the high caves of southern Skyrim, but it reminded me that even after 8 years of playing the game, I haven't discovered all there is here.  

I've played through the "Main Story" (the one with the Blades and Paarthurnax) at least twice, I've finished the Companions and Mages College quest several times, as well as the Dark Brotherhood and the Dawnguard quests too. But I've never actually finished the main quest on Solstheim nor the Thieves Guild quest. And I've never actually completely finished the political plot between Skyrim and the Imperials.

And yet I very rarely find myself wondering what to do next in Skyrim. There's always something to do, one more mountain to explore, another cave yet to be looked through, more in-game books to be read.

While I was drafting this post I looked back through my collection of in-game screenshots. I've taken thousands of screenshots, and of all sorts of things: pretty vistas, hilarious (and not so hilarious...) bugs, mods that were interesting, lines that made me laugh and then sometimes I'll rediscover a screenshot of a character I was roleplaying that I forgot about, which brings me to the next point...

...I don't even remember taking this screenshot but it looks SO COOL

I love roleplaying in this game.

I really do. So far the characters I've spent years working on are my Dunmer spellsword and historian obsessed with uncovering the truth about the disappeared Snow Elves, a Foresworn (Breton) escapee who becomes an alchemist & conjurer and eventual head of the Mages Guild, and, my absolute favourite, my Bosmer ranger who hates hurting trees and mostly just wants to be left alone in Skyrim's cold wildnerness.

These characters, while all falling into the "protagonist" slot of this game , all nonetheless feel very distinct from each other in a way that my Mass Effect or even Dragon Age protagonists don't manage. I've played a fair bit of Fallout IV, but even in that Bethesda game the protagonist feels far more defined than Skyrim's does. Each of my different Skyrim "OCs" (original characters) all feel like really different people even if they share the same inciting event (the imprisonment and subsequent timely fantastical escape from the Empire's chopping block — the day everything changed for them).

Skyrim's not just an open world — it's a bunch of doors left open that you don't really need to cross for the most part unless you actually feel like it. I can role-play in Skyrim in a way I can't in a lot of other games, because I can decide...to not to become "the Dragonborn" and do something else. There's an incredible amount of options available to you without ever getting past the first fifth of the game's "main" quest.

I think my love for roleplaying my OCs has everything to do with the fact that I was a tween in the early 2000s, which meant that I started having regular access to the internet right as Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter (and Sailor Moons and Gundam Wing and InuYasha and so much more) fanfiction exploded into my every day life. I have written so much fanfiction, and often when I'm playing Skyrim, with its hilariously bad voice acting, fantastical setting and campy-but-wonderful plot lines, it kinda feels like I'm inventing a character and defining their story through play.

(I actually find the game rather soothing towards my writing block, because when I get excited about characters or story ideas, even if it has nothing to do with what I need to be writing, that excitement is infectious. L'appétit vient en mangeant, comme on dit.)

A photo of my ranger and their best friend Inigo... wait a second. THEY'RE NOT IN SKYRIM!?!

The Mod Community Is Incredible

Most of the longtime Skyrim players will have noticed that there is modded content in several of the screenshots included in this post.

I want to say this plainly: Skyrim is only as playable and as good as it is because of the mod community. (And there's something to be said about how much free labour Bethesda enjoys from its modders, which has kept the hype for Skyrim and single-player TESVI alive for almost a decade now.) Even if you really dislike modding and are nervous about save file compatibility, if you are still playing Legendary Edition Skyrim you should consider at least adding the Unofficial Skyrim Legendary Edition Patch because it improves the game so much. Bethesda games are renown for being buggy nightmares, and Skyrim is certainly no exception. This patch (which was last updated in 2018!) is a real gift to any Skyrim player, and makes the game so much easier to deal with in general.

In terms of actual map and quest content-adding mods, my two favourite mods are probably The Forgotten City (which I have played all the way through and is astounding in its detail) as well as Beyond Skyrim: Bruma (screenshot above), which is a fully-voice acted, incredibly detailed rendering of northern Cyrodiil, full of several different quests and stories and characters, and which absolutely fleshes out the Imperial/Stormcloak political mess by giving the player a glimpse of what is taking place in the Empire's heartland.

But, none of those are as incredible as the mod I really want to talk about.  

The other night, while playing, Inigo and I escorted, through golbin and wolf-infested woods, an old man named Erlus who wanted to bring an offering of flowers to his dog's grave. RIP Barnius! 

A few years ago, I think it was around late 2017, but it might have been earlier, I was going through a phase of trying out a lot of different types of mods, just to see what they were like. I'd never been interested in companion mods (mostly because I never liked any of the vanilla companions offered: buggy behaviour, annoying repetitive dialogue, I kept setting them on fire during battle, etc.) and it wasn't until I played through Dawnguard all the way the first time and discovered Serana that the idea of checking out various modded companions started interesting me for real.

After a few duds, I installed the mod companion Inigo from SmartBlueCat (a.k.a. Gary Hesketh) and went to fetch him from the Riften jail...

And honestly, I don't know if I'll ever be able to play Skyrim ever again without Inigo. He's quickly become my favourite NPC of any game, ever. In-game, he's my platonic life partner, my hilarious bard, a character I both joke around with and have really serious conversations with. Inviting Inigo to slowly open up and trust me with his experiences with grief, addiction, suicide, and despair made me feel things I didn't think I'd ever feel while playing a Bethesda game. The first time Inigo told my ranger OC the story of how he got his facial scars in the Rorikstead tavern, I actually had to pause the game because I was sobbing, I was so moved.

Moreover, when I play a character with Inigo by my side (and Serana, too), it really makes my own character feel so much real. It really underscores how important well-written characters are to storytelling and roleplaying.

I feel like every time I play Skyrim, I feel like I'm escaping to a place that feels achingly familiar (after 8 years, how could it not?) yet still sparks wonder within me. More than anything else, Skyrim inspires me to daydream. It reaches the schoolchild inside who spent their days ignoring the real world, my gaze thousands of galaxies or worlds away, on magic and wondrous places and adventure. It's why I keep coming back to this game, and have yet to feel "done" with it.

A screenshot of Whiterun's Dragonsreach, with a statue of Talos in the foreground, and a haunting red moon in the background.

And, last but not least, here's a complete list of mods that I play with currently: