I have easily logged over 1,000 hours in Skyrim over the last nine years. I still distinctly remember trying to manage save files for three or four characters when I returned to the game a few years ago, and accidentally deleting my entire save data for a level 67 battlemage – hundreds of hours, gone in an instant. I don’t remember this with gritted teeth, though – oddly enough, saying goodbye to one character in Skyrim is the perfect grounds for creating a new one.
I usually go back to Skyrim at around this time every year. We often see people praise seasonal aesthetics like autumnal browns or summery shimmers of green – and yet we regularly pay no heed to snowscapes, the most brilliantly wintery settings in video games. I touched on this a while back when I wrote about how Pokemon Diamond & Pearl are some of my favourite winter games, but Skyrim is on a whole other level. When you walk through the streets of Windhelm, you feel cold. Not physically, sure, but the communication and articulation of the bitter and unforgiving atmosphere is astonishing. There’s still nothing quite like it.
I’m going to reinstall Skyrim this evening, I think, but before I do that I wanted to write about why you should too – especially given that it’s available for free if you’ve got a Game Pass subscription.
I’m not sure about you, but over the holidays I like to slam the brakes for a bit. No work, lots of beer, laughs with mates, and so on. I also like to think that I’m going to catch up on video games I missed during the year – I’ve been dying to check out Paradise Killer for months. But realistically, I usually end up lazing around and enjoying the games equivalent of comfort food. I want something I know, something I’m familiar with. I want to trigger that dormant nostalgia that feels incredibly Christmassy to me – it’s why I, a 25-year-old supposed-to-be-grown-up, still watch Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory every Christmas morning. Two years ago I actually watched it twice, the second time with about seven too many Irish coffees in the tank. I digress.
Skyrim is an important one for me, because it hits every high I could possibly want at Christmas. As I mentioned earlier on, the atmosphere is stunning in context. It’s cold outside and the ground is smothered in mucky, sleety shite that comes from hail and snow that too many cars have driven over. I want to feel the cold air and trudge through white-tipped grass towards a cozy pub, but come on – it’s an ordeal, most of the time.
But you can get that experience in Skyrim, which I reckon is particularly apt and special this year, where socializing and messing around like a knobhead isn’t really possible. You can be all tucked up in your pyjamas with a nice cold beer beside you and trek through the blisteringly cold mountains of Skyrim – or glitch your way up them by repeatedly spamming jump on horseback. You can scale the Throat of the World and fill the bitter air with the wrath of your Thu’um, screaming fire into the night sky. And you can go to a pub after with a great big fire in a great big hearth and ask the bard to sing one of those tunes where he takes the piss out of people. It’s great.
But it’s more than great, actually, because it’s not just a case of, “It’s winter and Skyrim has loads of snow.” Skyrim is tailor-made for a solid block of days in which you have nothing else to do. If you’ve managed to snag yourself three or four consecutive days off around the holidays – or a week if you’re lucky, you jammy bastard – then this is the game for you, because it is breathtakingly immersive. This world is ginormous, but it’s not bloated. Everywhere is somewhere, but not because it’s a quest location. What I mean is, there’s a genuine beauty to this world that you can only truly appreciate when you go exploring without paying any attention to Alduin, or the Thieves Guild, or Mehrunes Dagon. And I think that’s something that is perfectly designed for when you don’t have to Whirlwind Sprint your way through a game. It’s not an hour after work, or a grind to get as much done as possible in a three-hour window on a Sunday. It’s a much more relaxed and genuine mode of playing.
This is true of lots of different games – The Witcher 3 is my favourite game ever made and I definitely reckon it’s one that also rewards slow play. You’ll appreciate RPGs like Mass Effect and Dragon Age if you take your time with them as well, because you’ll learn lots of interesting tidbits about their worlds and notice things that would be invisible during a speedrun. But Skyrim is the best game for what I’m banging on about, because it doesn’t ask anything of you, other than to play it in whatever way you want. I think you could do nothing in Skyrim for 50 hours and still have a good time. No story, no boss fights, no faction quests – it doesn’t really matter, because most of Skyrim’s good stuff is in the esoterica anyway. My favourite area in the whole game – Ancestor Glade – is important during one quest for about four seconds. And yet, it’s often the first place I want to visit when I boot up a new playthrough, because I just love being there.
Skyrim’s harsh, wintery landscapes are brilliantly resonant with our own, which is obviously nice given that you can enjoy knocking about in three-foot-deep snow without having to actually get your socks wet. But Skyrim is perfect for Christmas for so many other reasons, too, the most prominent of which – in my opinion – is that you can play for hours without feeling tired, or pressured, or anything else.
And, once again, Skyrim is on Game Pass now. Go on. Install it for the 50th time. You know you want to.
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Cian Maher is the Lead Features Editor at TheGamer. He’s also had work published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Verge, Vice, Wired, and more. You can find him on Twitter @cianmaher0.
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