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An editorial on Glixel talks about the significance of the fifth installment in The Elder Scrolls series – Skyrim. It tries to answer the question why exactly when talking about open world RPGs we can't help but refer to them as "Skyrim-with-blank". Check it out:
It's hard to overstate how much of Skyrim's world draws from the utterly familiar. Even a cursory glance reveals this to be a realm borrowed from Norse mythology – European dragons, godlike warriors, the Hall of Valor in Sovngarde that's an obvious Valhalla analogue. The game's ending is even, in broad strokes, a kind of Ragnarok. No doubt people who'd never before been drawn to an RPG like Oblivion – a journey through Hell, essentially – found Skyrim to be a much more welcoming world than past Elder Scrolls games. In a word, timeless. In the introduction to his book Norse Mythology, best-selling fantasy author Neil Gaiman writes that it's "the fact that the world and the story ends, and the way that it ends and is reborn, that made the gods and the frost giants and the rest of them tragic heroes, tragic villains. Ragnarok made the Norse world linger for me, seem strangely present and current, while other, better-documented systems of belief felt as if they were part of the past, old things."
I'd be first in line to defend the merits of a game like Fallout 4 or Morrowind, but the truth is that those games simply don't carry the same mythic weight that drew so many eager new players to the world of Skyrim. Regardless of how you feel about the post-apocalyptic Fallout universe, it, too, is an artifact of the past – a distinctly 20th-century future that never was and (hopefully), never will be. And Morrowind – thanks to its dark, alien landscapes and complex story – is the kind of capital-w Weird that casual audiences so often avoid on an almost gut-instinct basis.
Contrast that to the Song of Ice and Fire novels by George R. R. Martin, the basis for the Game of Thrones television series on HBO which blew up in April of 2011 and no doubt helped the Skyrim cause. Like Skyrim, Martin's Westeros is grounded in the familiarity of both European folklore and medieval history, and it's perhaps the single most talked-about work of Western fantasy our culture has right now. (Hey, people love dragons.)
There's also the sticky issue of what actually makes for a good game and what does not. Some of the criticisms leveled at the writing in Skyrim and other Bethesda games (dialogue is verbose, sometimes lifeless and stories generic) are valid – if exaggerated and more recent games RPGs like Breath of the Wild and The Witcher 3 have gone to exhaustive lengths to avoid the pitfalls of large-scale storytelling in an open-world setting. On one side of the coin, you have linear versus a more open-ended, exploratory experience. And, on the other, the question remains as to whether or not this sort of game – with its dragon slaying and torchlit dungeons – ought to let you create, customize, and name your own character. I don't claim to have an easy answer, but I do know that, despite its countless other rewards, Breath of the Wild's story lacks a sufficient reason to care about Link as a character if you don't already. The Witcher 3, meanwhile, seems to let its (admittedly great) narrative get in the way a little too often to facilitate the kind of favorite-old-jacket replayability you get with a classic Bethesda title.