Months Later, We're All Still Playing 'Skyrim.' But Why?

Last night I read a couple of books, cooked a passable meal, did some light housework, and tricked a colossal brass automaton into killing off a dozen or so pesky goblinoids who were ruining the ambience of the latest in a series of newly-discovered dwarven ruins.

It was Skyrim. Again. Always Skyrim, never ceasing. Bethesda never did this before, not with Fallout 3, not even with the Elder Scrolls games before Skyrim. The rabbit hole just keeps going deeper, and like Alice falling into Wonderland, gravity eventually loses its death grip, and you feel content to simply fall.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is no longer a name on a list of games I once reviewed. For me as well as for the vast majority of my Xbox friends list, Skyrim is now the default setting, the game we perennially go back to after brief dalliances with other games. There is always somewhere to go, something to do, some obscure wrong remaining to right (or, if you choose, to wrong even further).

It doesn't matter when I look. It could be day or night, weekday or weekend—a good half of my friends list will be stuck in their own personal versions of The Shining, trapped in a frozen world and chased by ghosts and madmen.

And we all seem to be fine with it. I feel like a proud papa sometimes, watching them rise through the ranks via the tiny blurbs next to their names. Twenties, 30s, even a 40 or two. How quickly they grow! (Poor Coury is still stuck at level 14, but we love him all the same.)

But this isn't just some World of Warcraft-ian level grind that has us in its grip. A few months back, you couldn't throw a cat on the Web without hitting a Skyrim review that used synonyms for "vast" and "complex" in the game's description. And that's true—Skyrim today is the same big, beautiful monster of a game that it was at release—but in retrospect, simple descriptions don't really capture the vastness of its vastness.

It's only now, after months of peeling away layer after layer only to see the size and scope of Skyrim never diminish, can we really only begin to appreciate this everlasting gobstopper for what it is. This is the stuff that hundred-hour playthroughs are made of.

Case in point: that previously mentioned dwarven ruin. There was a perfectly rational reason for me to be there in the first place, something that if one were to strip the game's trappings away would involve retrieving Skyrim MacGuffin A from Well-Guarded Sanctum B.

But Skyrim doesn't stop at B, or even C, D, E or F. That ruin, itself no minor feat of virtual architecture, ended up being merely the capstone atop a series of further ruins, which themselves in turn sat upon a series of underground caverns and rivers massive and varied enough to be considered a small biome in its own right.

No major quest lines here, no damsels in distress, just swords and sorcery the way it ought to be. A lesser game would have blocked up an entrance, left a note describing an ancient cataclysm on a half-buried skeleton, and called it a day. Such practices are apparently not good enough for the designers at Bethesda, and consequently, Skyrim gets dwarven ruins that act like dwarven ruins.

Walk around long enough (and it shouldn't take that long at all) and you'll find ample evidence of Bethesda's living world. Factions of men and elves wander the roads, slaughtering all who resist, making prisoners of the rest, and looting by right of the sword. Lairs, ruins, temples, catacombs, towns and villages and cities and fortresses all dot the landscape in numbers that are frankly a little galling.

Even the nominal boss of the main questline that doesn't define Skyrim as much as it holds onto it for dear life randomly makes his draconian presence felt at the least opportune times, all fire and flames and hatred for the world. A far cry indeed from the nemeses of yore who were content to hole up in obsidian towers and wait for a plucky band of adventurers to show up for tea.

And so we remain explorers, strangers in a strange land that relentlessly refuses to stop telling its story. It's a feedback loop of interest and reward, an endless trail of breadcrumbs leading to a goal that never seems to get nearer. We can't get out, and I don't think we want to.