Skyrim: a true dance with dragons

by Jeff

This blog is generally not for reviewing videogames, but I must indulge with a one-time exception for the sake of Skyrim, the fifth game in the The Elder Scrolls series developed by Bethesda. A one-time exception for a single topic: dragons.

Fantasy in the entertainment industry is popular because it strives to give shape and form to some of our wildest products of the imagination. As consumers, we evaluate entertainment offerings on the basis of their capability to deliver coherent, lasting and believable experiences. Sadly, movies most often suck terribly at this, while animated films and videogames have raised the bar on a regular basis in the past decade or two.

I remember when I saw the first Dragonheart at the theater sixteen years ago. As stories go, the movie is no more than a par for the course, but I remember being genuinely moved by the fact that the big screen was now graced with a living dragon for the first time ever, thanks to the computer-generated graphics frenzy that quickly swept Hollywood after Jurassic Park (from dinosaurs to dragons, this step was certainly to be expected).

To my mind, Skyrim is without a doubt the Dragonheart of videogaming.

Total immersion works particularly well with such beautiful scenery.

Skyrim is both an open world game, featuring a large, Scandinavian-inspired land of which you can explore every nook and corner, and a sandbox game, where you can do practically everything you want, from fighting monsters and bandits to seeking treasures in abandoned ruins, hunting game, pick-pocketing the unwary, going to jail, seeking bounties, brewing potions, cooking desserts, marrying someone, crafting swords and armors, collecting books or just simply walking around for hours without end. For sure, there is a main questline, but once it is complete, the game is not over. You may continue to play as long as you want. It is therefore wonderfully immersive.

Skyrim is one of those rare games featuring true horizons. We could call this WYSIWYCG: what you see is where you can go. Indeed, you can walk as far as (and further than) the ruins atop that mountain on the other side of the valley.

The openness I mentioned is interesting for two different reasons. On the one hand, you can simply consider and enjoy the fact that such a game features a dynamic horizon, a real one so to speak, toward which you can always walk, run or ride, and then reach (until you get to the limit of the predefined worldmap, of course). On the other hand, it may relate to the use of dragons for purely technical reasons: the game is a large three-dimensional space.

Dragons have always fascinated us players of fantasy videogames. Their appearances have generally been treated as rewards. Your first encounter, if not your only one, should always occur after a certain amount of time and effort. It is an event to remember. To that end, game development houses have sometimes kept their best artwork and the most impressive animations for dragons. Unfortunately, technical limitations have always dampened our hopes for true realism and the success of your “dragon experience” had to be evaluated only relative to the previous generation of games.

King’s Quest III (1986) was one of the best adventure games of its kind at the time.

The three-headed dragon at the end of King’s Quest III looked awesome when we were kids, but of course it was not even truly animated. Many years later, flying creatures are still often models simply hovering above the ground, as they are bound to a 2D grid (stationary birds in Neverwinter Nights have always deserved a good laugh). Therefore, dragons will either appear through pre-rendered cutscenes or with one-time custom animations. Yet the appeal of these techniques remains limited as your interaction with the creatures only starts once they hit the ground. Dragon Age: Origins falls into this category. The Witcher 2, which is not an old game by any standards, uses successfully a bit of both strategies, with an adeptly orchestrated experience of true cinematic qualities. In fact, as recently as last month, I thought this game had the best and most climatic dragon fight in a videogame.

At long last, dragons fly for real in Skyrim. At first, you will hear their distant roar. Shortly after, a winged silhouette appears along the horizon. If it sees you, prepare to fight sooner than you might wish for.

And then I played Skyrim. This game changes everything. No more two-dimensional grids, no more pre-rendered animations or cutscenes. Dragons look good and proper, at all times. They do not just breathe fire and cold. They go where they want to go. They fly just about anywhere and at any height. They land on rooftops, they fly down upon you because they want to bite you to your death. They can rise again and evade your arrows, they can burn you as they fly by. You will see them from afar, you will hear them from behind that hill. You may hide from them with luck, or you may dare face them with the proper equipment and capabilities. Sideshow characters or static creatures, they are no more: the dragons are alive.

You can play this game using a third person perspective, just as the second screenshot shows above, but I prefer the immersion of the first person view by far. This dragon coming down at us feels more realistic.

Indeed, after the sounds, the models, the textures and the animations, the right physics has now been achieved. The level of attained realism is absolutely staggering. The dragons feel complete at last and you will interact with them accordingly. I have no idea what I could ask more of a videogame. Skyrim redefines the dragon experience by which every other has to be judged afterward. Forget the usual dragon-as-a-reward: you see one at the very beginning of the game and the magic never withers away for the rest of the dragon-related questline. This game is that good.

It must also be said that Skyrim is a very beautiful game in itself, more so than its predecessor, Oblivion, which had less coherent aesthetics. For some, this trait might end up being the former’s perennial weakness, after too much play on the same and repetitive snowy mountainsides. Who cares? Accompanied by the superb incidental music composed by Jeremy Soule, this game is certainly the true dance with dragons. This is all that matters.

Listening to this elder dragon’s wisdom is important to the main questline of Skyrim.