'The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim' Brings the Thunder Back to Tamriel

On Nov. 11, 2011, at approximately 11:11 p.m. (give or take 11 seconds), I made my first dragon kill in The Elder Scrolls IV: Skyrim. To my dismay (and despite Skyrim's heavy "11/11/11" marketing push), nothing happened.

Well, I actually absorbed the dragon's soul, distilled the mystical energies contained therein into the words of an ancient language powerful enough to crack open the sky, and harvested its bones and scales to be later processed into a nice dragon-bone armor set, but that would have happened anyway. What I mean is, nothing special happened.

If you'll permit me a Seinfeld moment, what is the deal with Bethesda Game Studios' fixation on prisoners as protagonists in the Elder Scrolls series? Morrowind tossed players off the penal ship to Vvardenfell, Oblivion gave us a Cyrodillian dungeon-dweller turned dungeon-crawler, and now Skyrim (Bethesda's latest jaunt into the fantasy world of Tamriel) drops players into its northernmost snowfields via a prologue, just a hair's breadth away from the executioner's axe.

It's hard to tell whether Bethesda is just making a traditional opening sequence for themselves or if they're deliberately calling into question the more typically squeaky-clean version of the heroic myth. It nonetheless says something about Tamriellian civilization when every couple of hundred years some cataclysmic event comes along that can only be stopped by someone who got the job as a happy accident on the way to the chopping block.

In traditional Elder Scrolls fashion, Skyrim does little to explicitly push players back onto the straight-and-narrow once their asses are pulled from the figurative fire and dropped into the more literal flames of its deus ex draconia. Heroism is defined liberally here, and if a few dozen townspeople have to get a little robbed or a little killed on the way to the greater victory, who is Skyrim to judge?

To make matters even less scrupulous, Skyrim's eponymous province is home to Tamriel's Viking-analogue Nords. Bethesda usually opts for the grim yet honor-bound barbarian over his pillage-happy reality-based cousin, but Skyrim's constant undercurrent of aggression provides ample excuses to at least imagine (when not outright instigating) a twitchy sword arm or a furtive southward glance toward greener provinces from the occasional NPC every now and then.

I'm not pining for the fjords here. As a matter of fact, Skyrim's penchant for sticking to the source material is where it shines compared to its predecessors. The Elder Scrolls has always been about delivering massive doses of low fantasy, and while Oblivion never went wrong, it certainly did underperform from time to time on that whole "low" half of the equation.

Skyrim, on the other hand, has a yawp button.

Not only that, but Skyrim also claims that said yawping is pretty much the be-all and end-all of martial prowess. I don't know about you, but I would have to find a way to inject a few Conan the Barbarian novellas directly into my bloodstream before I could come up with something more low fantasy than standing in the snow and screaming my enemies to death.

This theme permeates Skyrim from stem to stern. It's a vast, glacial thing, gray and craggy and inhospitable. The world of Skyrim cries out against itself with the voice of icebergs colliding, sending claws of tundral granite skyward against a firmament that strikes at it with sturm und drang.

It's a world of wars, wars of natives and insurgents, earth and sky, gods and dragons. There's a richness to it, an Elder Scrolls-level depth that will keep players so inclined exploring its reaches for days on end (though none will come again with the sprawl of Daggerfall and it's 15,000-plus locations).

Maybe the whole prisoner thing is just the natural result of all this. In previous Elder Scrolls, it always felt tacked on, a self-referential nod to nothing in particular. In Skyrim, however, only the hardened survive at all. Perhaps here it takes hardest of the hard to claim heroism.