Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, is one of the latest additions to the canon of games ported as widely as possible for years after their initial relevance. The 2011 open-world role-playing game set the modern standard for the genre, earning rave reviews across the board. Players could be any sort of hero they wanted, and explore the massive fantasy region in any way they wanted, allowing for nearly infinite replayability.
That’s why Skyrim is so widely played to this day, and that enduring popularity has meant that Bethesda has devoted a substantial amount of its resources since 2011 to bringing the game along to every major platform that releases. The most recent and interesting new iterations are for the Nintendo Switch and PlayStation VR, replacing the usual promise of better graphics with a different means of consuming the game (on the go or in virtual reality, respectively).
We strapped into our PSVR headset to explore northern Tamriel once again. Can Skyrim still lead the way toward gaming’s future, or has it overstayed its welcome?
Back to the future
In 2011 Skyrim was a technical marvel — one of the largest and most open digital worlds that many players had ever explored. On the one hand, the extra degree of immersive intimacy afforded by VR is put to excellent use here. Gazing across sweeping, mountain vistas, or up at an angry giant, looming directly overhead, has an extra, visceral punch here above and beyond what the base game can achieve. Skyrim has always been defined by its scale, and in that regard VR is a natural and obvious way to enhance that basic appeal.
Set in the northernmost region of the Tamriel continent (home to the whole Elder Scrolls series to date), Skyrim tells a classic, high fantasy yarn of a prophesied hero saving the world from an ancient dragon. As the legendary “Dragonborn”, your character can absorb the power of defeated dragons to learn powerful “shouts.” For many of Skyrim‘s most ardent fans, the main story is truly beside the point.
After a brief tutorial it’s entirely possible to wander off in the opposite direction you were sent and never actually engage with the main plot at all over dozens of hours.
Getting up close and personal with Skyrim’s graphics doesn’t do it any favors
Murder your way to the top of the assassin’s guild, get caught up in the academic politics of wizarding school, or just rob blind every single character in the game – Skyrim let players author their own adventure like few games ever had before (or since).
Though, overall, Skyrim’s content is just as appealing as it’s ever been, getting up close and personal with Bethesda’s 6-plus-year-old graphics engine doesn’t really do it any favors. Skyrim has been remade and modded up to modern visual standards consistently since its initial release (including a crisp-looking Special Edition released for PS4, Xbox One, and PC just last year). From better textures, to realistic foliage, to elaborate weather simulation, PC players can incrementally mod the game up to meet whatever graphical standard their hardware can sustain, perhaps more so than with any game that’s ever existed.
These improvements don’t make their way into Skyrim VR, however. The PSVR’s rendering limitations mean that the visuals look much closer to how they did at first release. They have not aged well. Long-standing complaints about Bethesda’s buggy engine, such as the lifeless gazes of characters talking to you, or the weightless way that people tend to seem like they’re sliding up or down uneven terrain, are all amplified by the natural immersion VR achieves.
It can be tough to scan the horizon, as the rendering detail drops off somewhat precipitously. The breathtaking experience of gazing out over the valley around Whiterun from a nearby mountain peak is undercut somewhat when the grass texture patterns are very obviously and repetitively tiled from a distance. Inanimate objects, like the weapons you wield, generally look good close up, but people’s faces are a mess.
Touch the Skyrim (to the best of your ability)
Presentation aside, the other major challenge that the PSVR presents is control: You can play Skyrim VR using the PlayStation’s Move motion controllers, giving you the ability to swing your sword or cast spells the way your character does in-game. In theory, motion controls should lend themselves well to the game — actually swinging a sword and shield around with the Move controllers has a satisfying, one-to-one correspondence, as does holding out your hand and blasting a jet of fire out.
Flailing at a giant spider loses its appeal if you never get to feel like you’ve actually hit something
In reality, though, the Move remotes don’t provide enough feedback when your weapons collide with your targets to complete the illusion. You’re often forced to watch your opponent’s health bar to figure out whether or not you’ve hit them, leading to awkward false swings. If nothing else, flailing at a giant spider until it collapses loses its appeal if you never get to feel like you’ve actually hit something.
Archery works the best in this regard, where you hold one controller forward as the bow and draw back the other to aim. It’s accordingly much trickier to aim properly in VR than it is with standard interfaces, however. Players will have to be extra careful outside of combat, though, because attacking with a melee weapon is triggered with a simple swing, rather than pressing anything, so it’s very easy to accidentally attack someone with an unsheathed weapon while gesturing.
Manipulating menus (which you will necessarily spend a lot of time doing in any RPG like this) is clumsy at best, holding down with the trigger and swiping around to make selections (without a d-pad or joystick on the controller) with a degree of finesse not really afforded by the hardware. Skyrim’s menus are clunky and not especially user friendly by modern RPG standards, even when using mouse and keyboard or a gamepad — not taking the opportunity to find a more elegant interface feels like a major misstep.
The relatively narrow range of the PlayStation Camera and the Move controllers’ dependence on visual tracking make it fairly easy for the game to lose track of your hands. This was especially troublesome when trying to do fine motor tasks, such as picking up a particular object from a table full of things with which you can interact. All too often one of our hands would stutter and appear floating off somewhere nearby, forcing us to hold them up and let the camera get its bearings again.
Movement — one of VR’s biggest, open-ended questions — is set to teleportation by default, with one controller letting you cast out a target location to instantly move there, while the other lets you rotate around in sharp, 60-degree turns. Natural movement is also an option for players with the stomach for it, and we were actually impressed by how well-implemented it was in that regard.
Teleportation is surprisingly easy to get used to, and within minutes we were flitting around
Limiting the field-of-view (FOV) during movement compensates for potential movement sickness, and the game lets you tweak the extent to which it is limited, allowing for personal preference, which is utterly crucial in questions of VR comfort (where no one size ever fits all).
The default teleportation is surprisingly easy to get used to, and within minutes we were flitting around the landscape. It does somewhat break the immersion, however, and in combat situations it frequently felt clear that the game had not been designed with this type of movement in mind. Being able to instantly teleport around the room in a fight is like the game gave you a blink spell — it fundamentally changes the balance and flow of fights.
Some challenges are trivialized by the ability to hop up and down levels instantaneously in a way that your opponents cannot. Conversely, however, getting swarmed by multiple enemies can feels more overwhelming than before. Other design choices, such as pressure-plate-triggered traps, also don’t work nearly as well when you give players the ability to leap right past them.
Make no mistake — Bringing Skyrim to the PSVR is an impressive feat, especially given the age of the game and the technical constraints of the platform. We couldn’t shake the impression, however, that the port felt somewhat forced, relying on makeshift solutions to make the game playable in a medium for which it just wasn’t designed. For a long time, Skyrim has been used as shorthand to represent the immersive promise of video games: Endless worlds filled with endless possibility.
Virtual reality has held a similar role in the imaginations of gamers from a technological perspective, so marrying the two seemed like an obvious match, a gateway to the sort of all-encompassing holodeck fantasies we’ve wanted for decades. You can’t skip the hard work, though. Skyrim VR teases the future of RPGs, but mostly left us wanting a new experience built specifically for the platform. Skyrim’s place in the canon is unassailable at this point, but it may be time for us to let it gracefully bow out of public life as a new release, and settle into comfortable retirement as a classic.