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Stories in a toybox, or how I learned to worry less and play Skyrim forever

Don’t panic, but they’ve released Skyrim again. With the 10th anniversary of The Elder Scrolls V’s initial release, Todd Howard, that little scamp, has graced gaming enthusiasts everywhere with the aptly named Anniversary Edition. We’ve seen all of this before in one form or another (although now there’s fishing, apparently? I promise not to make this about the fishing), and Skyrim itself has rightly become a memetic representation of the industry’s laughable slide toward endless remakes and remasters. The Anniversary Edition was preceded by the Special Edition, which came after the Legendary Edition; you can play the game on PC, 14 flavours of Xbox, Amazon Alexa, select refrigerators, and simply by closing your eyes at night and allowing Bethesda to jack into your dreams. I fully expect to be greeted at the gates of hell upon my death with a copy of Skyrim’s Inferno.

And yet, here I am, lined up to have one more adventure across the frozen wastes of Tamriel, prepared to finally be awake, saved by circumstance, ready to choose no sides in a war between bad people and bad people from slightly further away. Why? What is it that compels me—and thousands of others—to return, over and over, to this world? Ten years on, it’s abundantly clear the primary target audience for Skyrim isn’t fresh faced youngsters, it’s people who have already played the game multiple times. It’s practically a guilty pleasure by now, friends sheepishly noting that they were playing Skyrim again, trying not to make direct eye contact with the dozens of untouched new games that have come out in the interim.

Skyrim is not a masterpiece of narrative, nor is some mythic pinnacle of game design. It is, however, a near-perfect expression of player agency. Many, many jokes have already been made about Todd Howard’s infamous pseudo-quote “See that mountain? You can climb it,” referring to the supposed limitless possibilities and grandiose scale of the RPG. While there are certainly mountains you cannot climb in the game, because a game simply cannot code toward infinity, the core message in the quote does ring true. Do whatever you want, have fun. Skyrim’s central theme is not the discovery of new and exciting story beats, the overcoming of challenges, the chance to meet compelling characters; its guiding principle is to be interactive, to encourage play. In that light, many of the game’s limitations actually begin to look more like boons.

Players interacting with the world of The Elder Scrolls V are essentially akin to children given unfettered access to a full toybox. Inside, there are brightly-coloured figurines, spooky cave sets, plastic animals, dragons, shopfronts, even a CD player. Like a box full of toys, there’s minimal value to knowing the contextual importance of particular characters or locations. Ulfric Stormcloak has as much narrative value to me as decades of Batman comic history has to my 8-year-old. He acts as a gateway to my own exciting adventures, more than a fully-formed character.

Near the beginning of the game, if you’re playing without any time and space-bending modifications, you quickly end up in the town of Riverwood. Inside the Riverwood Trader—the town’s only shop—you can quickly pick up one of your first irrelevant quests, as the proprietor wants you to help return a golden dragon claw that was stolen from his shop. If I do go to Riverwood, I always pick up this quest, even though it’s been completed a thousand times. There’s a warm and familiar comfort to meeting Lucan Valeruis and his sister Camilla, hearing their argument about the theft, offering to be the hero who saves the day. The content of their discussion isn’t vital, they’re archetypal characters: a shop owner in distress and his attractive (and available) sister. You can almost picture a dozen variations of this scene playing out while I hold my Lucan, Camilla and Dragonborn action figures, doing all the voices myself and smashing them together if this is the one time I decide to rob them instead of helping.

Characters and situations in Skyrim are paper thin, largely pointless affairs, which certainly isn’t a compliment to the game. And yet, it’s hard to imagine a more rich universe like ones crafted in titles like The Last of Us or Horizon Zero Dawn ever supporting similar levels of engagement. Context is demanded in these games, where the why matters as much as the how, and your enjoyment is linked to how much you connect with the narrative. In Skyrim you’re dumped into a world made of LEGO blocks and objects designed to help you have fun at the expense of everything else. It inspires a kind of admiration to recognise how deeply the game cares about entertaining you by leveraging methods largely unique to games as a medium.

This inherent malleability means players can interact with the Skyrim box on any number of levels without having to experience significant cognitive dissonance. A wolf glitching out and flying 200 feet into the sky, or an NPC trying to arrest you after they already died, isn’t breaking any immersion, because we were only ever immersed in the play itself. If all the world’s a stage, and we merely players, then everything is part of the show.

Similarly, this blasé attitude to the complexities of worldbuilding and storytelling explains why Skyrim is so heavily and gleefully modded by almost everyone who plays the game. Plugging in new mods to change the way people look, add new adventures, change the genre of the combat, yank out vital parts, or turn all the chickens into kaiju is just throwing more toys into the toybox and encouraging more imaginative play in a world where it was already all about your own imagination. Where discussion might swing toward artistic intent with more narratively and mechanically meaty games, here it seems to practically beg for experimental button-pressing—even before Bethesda’s Creation Club codified and commodified the whole idea. You can’t play Skyrim wrong, any more than you can eat a delicious pie wrong. Stick your fingers in the middle and shove it straight in your mouth if that makes you happy. It goes some way to elucidating why nobody ever really goes out of their way to finish what counts for the main plot in game; you simply take what you need from the story until you’re full, then you leave the table.

Viewed through the lens of play, rather than a deliberately coherent experience, the constant replaying and rereleasing of Skyrim becomes much less puzzling. Nobody begrudges a kid for returning to their favourite toys, and it’s actually a healthy part of developmental psychology for them to exercise their brain in coming up with new versions of familiar scenarios. In a similar vein, there’s no shame associated with owning a train set or some other kind of endlessly tweaked hobby. So, as I head into Whiterun, again, to be told that I need to climb the 700 steps and learn to do magical screams, again, I’m doing so with a clear conscience and a new appreciation for a game that has consumed hundreds of hours of my life. Because it’s okay to just play for the sake of play, sometimes.