If one were so inclined to visit the right internet forums, watch the right YouTube videos, or even listen to the right opinions, one could be excused for thinking—truly believing, even—that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011) is a bad game. Current occurrences of revisionism certainly would have you believe so. Far from being good or even serviceable for its time, Skyrim was never really all that good to begin with. And why anyone could ever spend 10 hours playing it, let alone 300 (as most of us did), is both beyond them and evidence of poor taste. But not to worry, I’m here to provide the defense of Skyrim it so desperately needs.
As I don’t want to be accused of pulling popular opinions from my B-hind
, I’ll start off by referencing the very video that motivated me to write this article. It’s true that I caught wind of this revisionism a little while before watching this video, but hearing the same lunacy repeated by a YouTuber of no insignificant viewer base did leave me somewhat concerned. Is everyone now going to throw Skyrim to the wolves after having enjoyed it for countless hours all those years ago? What kind of precedent are we setting by doing this and allowing it to happen?
Anyway, the video in question is “Skyrim VR is An Absolute Nightmare – This Is Why” by YouTuber UpIsNotJump. Now, the contents of the video don’t accurately reflect the video title. UpIsNotJump is generally positive about Skyrim VR (2018), citing the ease of immersion and breathtaking views (so many vistas!). But then in the second part of the video, Up makes a weird turn and begins comparing Skyrim to The Witcher 3 (2015). Worse, still, he actually begins apologizing for Skyrim and liking the game.
Now, I certainly don’t mind whether UpIsNotJump likes The Witcher 3 over Skyrim, or even that he would dislike Skyrim or anything in Skyrim. Let’s be clear: I hear people disagree with me every single day. If I were to respond to every single person I disagreed with, I’d never get the time to brush my teeth in the morning. What struck me as especially strange in this instance, however, was just the lengths Up would go to to apologize for a good game. Somehow compared to The Witcher 3, Skyrim was barely even a good game at all anymore, despite being one of the biggest, most successful games of the last 10 years. Hints of shame and regret are audible in Up’s voice as he continues to downplay the fact that he enjoys Skyrim VR and enjoyed Skyrim a lot when it came out, evident by the hundreds of hours of playtime he put into the PC version.
This behavior stood out as really bizarre and even absurd. Why should anyone be ashamed for liking a good game? Why would anyone apologize for liking a game one now considers inferior to a more recent title? And surely, the success and acclaim of that recent title, large and deserved as it is, doesn’t minimize, negate, or otherwise stifle the success and acclaim of previous industry favorites? Yet that is precisely what one is expected to believe any time Skyrim comes up in news articles or general discussions. All of a sudden everyone who’s played The Witcher 3 needs to compare it to Skyrim. Everyone needs to explain in what ways they liked Skyrim and how they would only see the light four years later when The Witcher 3 was released and it became their new Skyrim. And now Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017) has released and people are doing the same to it as they’re doing to Skyrim.
People are comparing The Witcher 3 to the new Zelda incessantly and commenting on the “lacking story and weapon durability” in it. People are making pointless video comparisons between the two in which they defend extreme and dumb viewpoints that no one really holds. As if liking both is a crime; as if liking both is wrong; as if liking both somehow means the games are the same, functionally or identically so. To complete levels of absurdity, people are entirely preoccupied with finding out which is the better game, as if that’s a question that either can be answered or even needs to be answered. You may enjoy both games, equally or to varying degrees, or neither of both. You have my permission.
But it gets weirder still. As if endlessly comparing good games to each other wasn’t nauseating enough—like arguing over which novel by your favorite author you like best compared to his other great ones—people are again turning to the manipulation of language to win their arguments. UpIsNotJump can serve as a good example of this, but don’t think I haven’t seen plenty of others do this. In his video, he remarks that Skyrim is a game you enjoy playing after you come home and you just want to turn your brain off. “Skyrim is a good game”, brief pause, “right?” Absolutely, it is. But isn’t it odd that we absolutely need to find an excuse for it, of all things? Skyrim offers an enormous and immersive world, something you even say in your video, yet playing it either requires I turn my brain off or has that indirect effect on me?
I’m not here to argue that Skyrim is a “thinking man’s game”, but surely getting immersed in a world where dragons fly around and you can shoot lightning out of your hands requires one’s brain to be fully turned on? And wouldn’t it be much more appropriate to sell a game by emphasizing the immersive world instead of calling it a turn-your-brain-off experience? You get my point, dear reader.
I return to the comparisons for a moment and raise you this point. Not a single person before all of this would have ever argued that Skyrim is a game that requires you to turn your brain off; that Skyrim is a game where you don’t think anything through and just press the forward and attack buttons. It may very well be untrue, but that’s besides the point. The temporal aspect is really what’s important here. Now people are comparing it to The Witcher 3 which they consider to be a deeper game, a game with heavy themes that explores human psychology. Again, this doesn’t have to be true. But what happens is the brain contorts by some backwards logic and produces the following syllogism: The Witcher 3 is a deep game; Skyrim is not The Witcher 3; therefore Skyrim is not a deep game. The same thing occurs with the adjective “great.” The Witcher 3 is a great game; Skyrim is not The Witcher 3; therefore Skyrim is not a great game.
You’ll notice that every time it’s brought up, people never talk about Skyrim as an internally consistent, coherent game. It is never argued now that Skyrim is shallow because of specific quests, or specific emotions conveyed, or specific experiences lived. Rather, Skyrim is shallower than The Witcher 3. Skyrim’s quests are less rewarding than The Witcher 3’s. Etc etc. The comparative is always used when talking of Skyrim; the comparison is always forced. And the superlative is always used when talking of The Witcher 3. It’s the best game ever made; it’s the greatest game ever to be made, I hear people say. When, really, calling it great is all you have to do.
The Witcher 3 is a great game. Skyrim is a great game. We judge these games not in comparison to each other, but by their own intentions and effects. Skyrim wants to make you feel lost in a dreamlike, expansive world and its success in doing so is why people love it. The Witcher 3 wants to make you care about its narrative and interpersonal relationship, and its success in doing so is why people love it. There are more reasons why these games are great and why people love them. And even if one were able to judge these two games completely objectively, even if one were to somehow determine that one is factually, objectively, measurable inferior to the other, that still wouldn’t reduce the status of one game to that of a bad game, or even merely a good game. Being great at something is judged by its own metric, not by the success of another piece of art, which then also requires judging by its own metric.
And a good thing, too. Otherwise—who knows?—The Witcher 3 may stop being the greatest game ever made in a few years and instead become merely good, or even—gasp—terrible, like Skyrim has now become.