Struggling with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim one year later

This is a weekly column from freelancer Rowan Kaiser, which focuses on "Western" role-playing games: their stories, their histories, their mechanics, their insanity, and their inanity. This week Rowan explores the one-year anniversary of Skyrim, a game that – despite critical and commercial success, including a 5-star review from Joystiq – he still can't get a good handle on.

Skyrim's birthday love is easy acceptance is hard

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim hit the first anniversary of its 2011 release this month. Despite a year's worth of play, criticism, mods, and add-ons, I still don't have a good handle on Skyrim in its entirety. It's a game that I'm happy to have played, and recommend highly to anyone who might enjoy it and can afford it. But it's also a game that I give up on fairly quickly, every time I start a new character.

The reason I want Skyrim to hold my interest is because I have a strong, positive gut reaction to much of what Skyrim does. Some of my favorite occasions in games occur when you come to an overlook and catch a moment of sheer beauty. When you wander into a snow-covered town and the music gently plays in the background. When game systems combine and something new emerges from what had been previously predictable. In these moments the experience feels just right. Moments like this help to enhance the experience, unfolding into something grand.

And Skyrim is full of these occasions. Bethesda's latest title in the longstanding franchise has the relative beauty of Ultima VII, the magic of Daggerfall, and the emergent narrative of Far Cry 2. I get sequences in Skyrim where I'm faced with an impending dragon attack, introducing a beast much too powerful for my character. Worried about my survival, I duck into a tomb for safety only to be greeted by the most powerful undead adversary I've yet to meet. Stuck between both, and at the edge of a cliff, I fall and hope to catch tiny ledges on my way down. If I survive, the music calms and I can limp into town to lick my wounds and consider my next step.

Skyrim's birthday love is easy acceptance is hard

But as fantastic as those moments are, they're matched by problems elsewhere throughout the game. Skyrim's quest system is a constant annoyance to me, with compass arrows proving both necessary and over-deterministic, ruining the exploratory feeling that was Skyrim at its best (I wrote on the quest issue specifically before I had this column). Its characters and plot, to me, felt thin. Its character progression and crafting progress are occasionally effective, but more often the experience was lukewarm. Its world is big and beautiful but the only task I felt players could effectively accomplish was to go out and kill monsters via a combat system that lacked any kind of depth.

Thus my original perception of Skyrim was that the game was a fantastic moment generator in a fascinating world, but one held back by its mechanics. Despite loving many of the moments in the game, I was never able to progress very far in Skyrim. I started three characters, and gave up on each after 15-25 levels, without significant progress on any major questline. I just didn't want to play the game even as I loved it. Skyrim felt like a mess of a game that could also generate awe-inspiring beauty – and the mess bothered me more than most.

Skyrim's birthday love is easy acceptance is hard

Playing the game again, after an extended vacation from Tamriel, I searched for and loaded up mods that would improve the core experience, while fixing the external annoyances. "Better Quest Objectives" quite successfully removes the need for the game to smear my screen with too-obvious arrows saying where I needed to go. There's a pile of mods to improve all the graphics, starting with "Skyrim HD." Additionally, "Interesting NPCs" adds a number of new characters players can converse with. Using mods I've made the Stormcloak rebellion more dynamic, added a host of quests, increased the strength of dragons, re-balanced skills and more. And using a performance booster, the game and its new modifications all work.

Other than some bugs and some straining of my PC's capabilities, these mods have all been effective at doing what they're supposed to do. And my version of Skyrim has been further expanded with the addition of Bethesda-developed expansions Dawnguard and Hearthfire.

And still I continue to struggle with Skyrim.

Skyrim's birthday love is easy acceptance is hard

Even when Skyrim seems to dole out moments of magic, I still have little frustrations that knock me out of the game. If it's not the quest markers, it's being unable to find a woodcutter's axe anywhere in the game world. If it's not the skill system overwhelming me, it's guards inexplicably attacking me and forcing me to reload a save state, abandoning an hour of progress. But even when I get these things fixed and stable, I am still easily distracted by other games, and still not quite engaging with Skyrim. I could manipulate it into the game I thought I wanted it to be, and it wasn't enough.

Instead of being disappointed, I think this has helped me come to terms with Skyrim. I'm seeing it now as a game whose great moments and sequences are built on a messy foundations of game systems that don't always work for everyone. Skyrim's ambitions make it impossible for it to be perfect. But it's still fantastic, and that quality motivates me to keep trying until it's also just good enough to finally pull me in.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.