Skyrim Is Only A Great Game Because Of Mods
Few role-playing games have made an impact on the gaming industry quite like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Since its 2011 release, the game has become a cultural phenomenon; it’s one of the top-selling games of all time, and a title many consider to be one of the best ever made. Thanks to prior entries like Morrowind and Oblivion, the hype for Skyrim ballooned, all the way from its hair-raising announcement trailer to its release on 11/11/11 (11/11/11 for our American audience).
Perhaps the key to its huge success is how streamlined Bethesda made the experience, with design elements clearly geared toward the lowest-common denominator and a more mainstream console audience. These served to make Skyrim the most popular entry of The Elder Scrolls and a behemoth success, but also alienated long-time fans of the series and the more hardcore RPG faithful. This has earned it a somewhat divisive reputation amongst these groups, with some swearing it off as the worst RPG ever, and others accepting its place as a solid introduction to the genre.
I personally first tried Skyrim as one of those RPG newbies on release and loved it dearly, but now ten years later after cutting my teeth on games like Planescape: Torment and Knights of the Old Republic II, and experiencing what RPGs are really capable of, my thoughts on the game have evolved. With over 400 hours across the Xbox 360 version, and the PC version with a litany of mods, I have played enough Skyrim to comfortably declare that it’s only a great game when modded.
The modding scenes for Bethesda games are massive, with six of the top ten modded games on nexusmods.com going to Elder Scrolls and Fallout titles. This is largely thanks to their engine, Gamebryo, which has been in use since the early 2000s specifically because of how easy it is to mod in comparison to other modern game engines. Bethesda also make their robust modding tools available to the players very quickly after launch as a means of fostering a community as quick as possible.
Bethesda even get criticised for pre-empting the wave of mods and purposely not fixing elements of their games that they know fans will in their stead. It’s a bit conspiratorial, but it’s about time Bethesda get more flak for the unfinished state of some of their games. However, Bethesda know just how much modding adds to their experience, after all, there are many games that get the acclaim of Skyrim but lack the longevity.
The truth is, mods have extended Skyrim’s life tenfold and made it possible to transform the bland vanilla experience into a whole new game. You can even play entire other games, such as The Forgotten City, which was an original story mod that recently got its own standalone release as a separate game. The point is, Skyrim wouldn’t be what it is today without the advent of easily accessible modding tools and places to find those mods. Which brings me to the 'why.' As in, why is Skyrim only great with mods?
One of the most pointed criticisms of Skyrim is that it’s as wide as an ocean, but as deep as a puddle. This is readily apparent after putting more than a dozen hours into the game; when your heroic deeds as the Dragonborn have no major reverberations around the world; when you’re knee-deep into your 10th dungeon with the same layout and draugr enemies; when you get accepted into the College of Winterhold, with only a rudimentary knowledge of the arcane; and when most of the quests reveal themselves as vapid fetch or murder missions.
Mods don’t even approach fixing all these issues, though they can alleviate some of them. But mods really shine at enhancing already existing systems, improving graphics and gameplay, fixing bugs, and adding all manner of new content to try. A glance at the top mods on the Skyrim page for Nexus Mods reveals this too, with the highest spot occupied by a simple UI mod that makes the heavily ‘consolised’ user interface more appropriate for PC users.
A common thread, amongst many of the top mods, is the purpose of increasing immersion in the experience. It’s one of the core aspects of video game RPGs, after all, drawing the player into the world so much they forget they’re even in a digital world to begin with. I personally favoured these mods the most too. Sure ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage dragons, Zoidberg crab reskins, and adding the Wilhelm Scream are all fun as hell, but it’s fleeting compared to the draw of being sucked into a fully realised environment for hours, living as the character you inhabit.
Many would considered the vanilla Skyrim experience almost unplayable at this point, especially after spending so much time playing with mods that make it infinitely better. I certainly fall in with that crowd. Maybe we’re elitist, pretentious, or even spoilt by our ability to partake in modding - something the majority of Skyrim’s 30 million players will have never had the chance to do. But the chance to transform Skyrim into something no game can replicate is a tantalising prospect, that makes for one of the most engrossing gaming experiences available.
Skyrim is by no means a terrible game, it’s pretty good all things considered. The vanilla experience has struck a chord with so many people, with whole communities of gamers brought together by their shared experience as Dovakhiin - and there is something there worth celebrating. It manages to ride a unique line of playing it too safe sometimes, while also being audacious and attempting to push the medium forward. And while it doesn’t always achieve its lofty goals, it’s a foundation that’s helped it dominate the past decade of the popular gaming discourse.
However, with mods, Skyrim is one of the best games on the planet. It’s an endlessly modular Lego set where anything is possible, it’s the sandbox where all the fantastical dreams of our childhood are replicable, and it’s a living document of the creative spirit of modders across gaming. Looking back on the ten years of Skyrim so far, what should it be remembered for? I say the modders themselves. Perhaps it’s death of the author at its most extreme, but it’s their game now, they claimed it for themselves a long time ago.