Just What Is “Skyrim” Anyway? Because of Versions and Mods, We All Play a Different Game

by in General | Dec, 8th 2021

So, now that Bethesda have chosen to release versions of Skyrim on everything from the PC, Xbox 360, Xbox “One,” Xbox Series X and S, PS3, PS4, PS5, Nintendo Switch, the literal Amazon Alexa, and I assume several smart refrigerators and at least three toasters… now that they’ve released it AGAIN as the Anniversary Super Saiyan God Super Saiyan Edition or whatever, I think it’s high time we admit that vanilla Skyrim, released all the way back on 11/11/11…

was a buggy, unfinished mess. Framerate issues on consoles, glitches (both charming and game-breaking) out the wazoo, dumbed-down combat, gutted perk system, and dozens of RPG features removed in favor of pale imitations of action game mechanics.

Bethesda… shall we say, “pulled a DICE,” way before that company had released a broken Battlefield title six times in a row. That repetitious November day, Bethesda released a game that would eventually become good through fan passion and the bare minimum from the publisher. Years passing in-between, they occasionally made it marginally better. For example, they added more realistic water or stole the idea of a mod that let you build a house, and re-released the same game a million times. Now that they only cash in on Skyrim every once in a while, and occasionally release disasters or still images they try to pass off as “trailers” for supposed “video games,” I’m taking this opportunity to verbally dunk on them for just a bit.

I mean, even the most diehard fans probably won’t defend the vanilla version of Skyrim. The foundation was there, the setting, the music, many hidden details… but that combat! Combat a dog could literally play. How hard could it be to teach a smart one to hold down mouse buttons? Dual-cast destruction magic was even more boring than melee combat, which boiled down to occasionally blocking and watching the enemy stagger for about the time one does at the end of a Mortal Kombat game, before then wailing on them with your sword until they were all dead, at which point you would admittedly see a pretty cool little animation… that got old after you saw it about three or four times. Archery was fun, at least. No complaints there, other than that most of my characters ended up being stealthy archers eventually.

There were, admittedly, some awesome little details scattered throughout the environments (like Juniper Berry Mead if you go back to Helgen and find the right building) and several great quests, but it was hard to not feel underwhelmed as a gamer way back when. Slogging through Draugr cave after Draugr cave comes to mind as another egregious grievance.

And the main questline wasn’t much to write home about either, in my opinion. It started off cool and Sovngarde was awesome, but the Blades’ part in it really rubbed me the wrong way (especially after how much I loved being one in Oblivion) and many Skyrim sidequests had major “You have to save the world but that can wait until you’ve finished your chores” vibes, even moreso than many other open-world games. In Rockstar’s entries in the genre, for example, you’re a gangster a lot of the time. Your messin’ around is completely reasonably immersive, at least until you run over six grandmas in a row and get away with it.

Nintendo tackled this problem in Breath of the Wild with Link’s re-emergence from the Shrine of Awakening and his resultant need to train up, to free the Divine Beasts and eventually fight Calamity Ganon. All the shrines contributed to this goal and the world was big enough, Ganon chained by Zelda long enough, that I only rarely felt my immersion threatened by the fact that Link was “wasting time.” Oblivion had just the right scale to avoid the same problem, with Oblivion Gates being a crisis the whole of Tamriel had to face. Skyrim just… didn’t try to avoid it at all, and ran headfirst into Alduin being about to literally eat the world but first here’s this quest for getting a dude’s sword from a cave where he lost it for no given reason. I guess it says something about how people will still go about their daily lives even in precarious times… but I digress.

Way back in the now-ancient days of the Xbox 360, after pre-ordering it and getting it on that easy-to-remember launch day, I just couldn’t sink my teeth into Skyrim and feel satisfied. I never did much besides a few questlines, stayed relatively low level with the few characters I made. A fine time-waster, vanilla Skyrim, but not a great role-playing game to sink too much time into. It was far from the most immersive RPG I had played, even back then.

I put in probably hundreds of hours in Oblivion on the 360, embarrassingly. I did a full-good and a full-evil playthrough, and my dudes were high level. So was my super-secret… gasp! female illusionist pirate assassin.  ** < Link to my novella-essay-article-thing on gamer “girls” if by some miracle that goes up before this, please. > **

Great RPGs ignite the imagination when it needs some help (mine certainly did, as a repressed Catholic kid), an acceptable outlet to indulge. Oblivion also lacked quite a bit in its teen-rated first version, don’t get me wrong; player choices were exceptionally limited beyond which piece dialogue you heard first and whether or not you’d murder people, and vanilla Oblivion was also hot trash compared to the masterpiece you can make with mods nowadays too. It’s just that I felt Oblivion more impressive at the time, its magic system and combat more fun, its story more engaging, and Skyrim’s unfinished nature is so much more egregious that I want to focus on it here. The vanilla versions’ writing, the combat mechanics, the progression system, the main story, the Dark Brotherhood and other guild questlines… these are all just worse, at least from my point of view.

So much more work was left to be done to make Skyrim a good game after it first came out that it feels disingenuous to rate it as highly as I would if I was rating a heavily-modded playthrough. Bethesda knew they didn’t have to fix much. They could just wait for fans to do it for them and then re-release the game on everything with fixes and enough editions to warrant trailers. Fans did indeed fix away, for most of their games since Morrowind.

But the main story of Skyrim is set in stone. Only small fixes, like this one that allows you to “put your foot down” and make the Blades see reason when it comes to Paarthurnax the dragon, are possible for that questline. Mage University’s involvement of yet more Draugr caves and a big unexplained orb make it in my opinion much worse than Oblivion’s Mages’ Guild, which I thought was the weakest of all the guild questlines in that game. Skyrim still captures the imagination, however, and with mods can become a magical RPG that would knock the socks off any commercially-released competitor.

For now, let’s return our focus to the fact that one needs mods for Skyrim to be a functional, let alone good, video game, why this makes Skyrim a hard game to review, and I’ll ruminate mods generally at the end. I promise I’m (at least mostly) done roasting Bethesda, also. I have no ill will for any developer making games for a living. Note that I left publishers out of that last sentence, though.

The Different Versions of Skyrim on PC

We’re going to focus on PC here, because the fact that vanilla Skyrim was so broken it necessitated bringing mods to consoles is funny enough that it can stand alone in this sentence, and I haven’t played Skyrim on a console since moving all of my first-person and most of my other gaming to PC.

The Skyrim Nexus is a necessary first step of any journey in the Nord homeland, before you ever hear that “You’re finally awake.” That’s especially true for you if, like me, on your PC, the iconic opening of Skyrim (so iconic because you probably saw it a hundred times before you settled on a character you liked, if you’re like me) just does not function at all. Often, my game is either frozen staring at the side of an unmoving wagon or the thing goes way off the road, doing barrel rolls and eventually leaving us unable to get anywhere near Helgen. So, an Alternate Start mod for me. Just pick one, whatever. We’ve already altered the DNA of the game to such an extent that it’s already hard to judge as a piece of art, already an alteration of what exactly we’re talking about when one sets out to talk about, write about, make videos about, etc. about such a game.

If you cut out the beginning of The Hobbit and wrote your own opening, it’s far from the same story. Video games are perhaps less sacred a medium than books, but I think the point stands. We’re not necessarily a prisoner of the Imperials anymore. And I don’t want to be misinterpreted to appear like I’m saying mods are in any way “bad.” Far from it. They’re just… weird. They make everyone’s Skyrim journeys even more different than they would be otherwise. They make you able to better roleplay, with the risk that the game can eventually become unrecognizable and/or bloated. And like I mentioned, it’s hard to just “trim the fat” because Skyrim needs a lot of work in a lot of its systems.

One of my must-have recommended mods is Frostfall. It just makes sense that Skyrim would be one of your main adversaries in TESV: Skyrim. Basically all we knew about Skyrim before TESV: Skyrim was that Nords could shout people to death but only in a lore book or two, and that it was pretty cold up there. Frostfall lets you give yourself an added survival challenge, which highly increases immersion when compared to the vanilla game, where you can swim in under-ice water for an unlimited amount of time while wearing steel armor. Oh, but Frostfall is now a Creation Club… thing that costs five whole dollars. Nice.

The setting of Skyrim, I will enthusiastically admit, is pretty amazing. Even the Anniversary version doesn’t look fantastic until you mod it, of course, and I’d recommend just searching for ENBs until you find one of your liking, but the game world is the one aspect I’ll tip my hat off to Bethesda for. Even the Holds, some of which are pretty bare, are good enough for what they are – homages to Viking holds, down to the longhouses. I did genuinely enjoy becoming Thane of multiple Holds.

Speaking of “hold”ing … things together, this game’s code seems to be constructed of string and duct tape. Vanilla Skyrim crashes, burns, explodes, corrupts, and bricks like nobody’s business. So, the community had to fix these bugs. Enter the “Unofficial” patches, which all must be searched for according to your game version and build. Even the latest version inevitably has many bugs.

And with that, I’ll get back on track: Skyrim has been re-released many, many times. Even before this recent Anniversary edition, and ignoring the console ports, we saw both the “Legendary” and “Special” editions of Skyrim.

The legendary Legendary version was a DLC bundle with a few other improvements, and remained at 32-bit, maintaining compatibility with older, base-game mods. The Special Edition, on the other hand, released at 64 bits, breaking many older mods (many of which were never updated), which unfortunately was rather necessary for the evolution of Skyrim that we’ve seen to this day. Today, (thanks in part to Special Edition’s capabilities to handle more RAM-intensive mods) everybody has a truly different adventure, down to the very code of the game. Other than that, the updated versions were and are lazy cash grabs, mild graphical improvements and bug fixes passed off as a new reason to give Bethesda money, especially if you didn’t have all the DLC on your vanilla version copy or had previously only played on your Red-Ring-of-Death’d Xbox 360 or whatever.

I don’t blame them; I’m just making observations here, that this company was among the first to release an unfinished product and then mostly rest on their laurels while the fans did a huge bulk of the work. Ambitions that result in the bug-squashing part of development taking a decade and counting, and knowledge that sales would come either way are the culprits if my hunch is right. And like I said, this was a net positive for their online community – Skyrim’s Special Edition was a robust mod platform, where players could customize their specific game version to previously unseen degrees. The Anniversary version is without a doubt going to do the same, but it’ll take a while, if ever, for some seasoned veterans to see some of their favorite mods making a return. And so, I can only recommend the newest version to anyone who had not played Skyrim before or who had only played the vanilla version way back when. It’s worth the relatively easy work of letting your preferred algorithm sort your mods.

Everyone who uses their own mod build to make Skyrim up to par in the video game world has a unique Skyrim “fingerprint,” in their load order. ** < Maybe make this bold and center it or something, I don’t know. > **

Full disclosure – I’ve only played the base game, only have that on Steam (not counting the Xbox 360 copy in my parents’ basement collecting dust) and haven’t played it since the last time mods killed my save. That said, I have watched a fair bit of a friend’s SE playthrough, and theirs actually ended when they were done playing rather than when the game exploded, anecdotal evidence to support the actual RAM reason behind why the newer versions are more stable. Personally, I’d rather not give Bethesda more money just to lose another 150+ hours to their mod platform disguised as a “role-playing game,” even if it does come with some new content and bug fixes. Hats off to the unsung heroes of the gaming industry. I know it’s hard to squash those glitch-bugs.

From those searching for the prettiest Skyrim possible to those looking for combat more reminiscent of Dark Souls than Minecraft, to those looking to add hundreds of spells, to those looking to add whatever quests or side activities other fans have cooked up… Skyrim’s mod scene has so much to offer, especially for those playing Special Edition. That was the way to experience Skyrim… until Anniversary Edition came out. It’s murky now. If you want the most filled-up load order possible, and you still own it, then keep on playing SE. Based on the videos I’ve seen and pieces I’ve read, I wouldn’t say you have to go out and buy the newest Skyrim when you have Skyrim at home. Unless the Skyrim at home is the Alexa version. Then I’d say it’d be worth buying graphics.

Now, nearly a decade after Skyrim first came out, something similar to the last version shift is happening. Anniversary Edition did end up breaking a few mods, but less than the jump from 32- to 64-bit. Bethesda worked more closely with the community this time around, working quickly to patch the inevitable bugs that come with a new version, to their credit. But not all of them can be fixed. Some mods will get left behind, like many that only work on base Skyrim to this day. Oh well. But this leads to credit where credit is due.

The Elder Scrolls Games Defined Gaming Sandboxes

Bethesda were the pioneers here. Breath of the Wild might be my favorite open-world game until Elden Ring comes out, but Nintendo couldn’t have done it without the work that Bethesda did in the early 3D gaming world. The company showed the world what RPGs could be with 2002’s Morrowind, clunky and ugly though that title might be nowadays. Then, in 2006, Oblivion introduced the most ambitious AI system to date, one that was pretty “broken” but also infinitely charming. And Skyrim has now become something far bigger than The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. It’s a virtual world that’s different just about every time it gets installed, where so many individuals have made the people, places, and things, often not Bethesda employees.

It’s amazing, honestly. I might have given Bethesda some flak for letting “fans do the work,” but there’s something to be said for the Creation Kit, simply making the passionate fans more able to find their way to expressing their imaginative ideas for the video games they love so much. Not every mod works out; not every mod survives version changes, nor does every playthrough survive mods. All of my Skyrim playthroughs have ended with one mod breaking or another, corrupting my save or making every character unable to animate properly.

There’s nothing particularly amazing about that, but I just wanted to here linguistically admire the wondrous fact that so many people, all around the world, have created and adventured in their own version of the Nord homeland, so many alternate versions of the Dragonborn. Some have been noble defenders of the weak, others murderers. So many Stormcloaks, so many Imperials. So many PCs of each race and many custom races. So many broken questlines and mods that crashed everything to pieces. So many ENBs that take the breath away. So many locations to explore, NPCs to talk to, wacky mechanics to play with.

Skyrim is not the Bethesda-published video game that released on 11/11/11. It’s nearly whatever you want it to be… within the confines of its engine, of course… and until they release whichever new version they want us to buy next time. Happy Anniversary for now.


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