Mention Oblivion, Skyrim's predecessor, and the overriding memory isn't even the game itself, but of a late afternoon lunch between journalists, PRs and developers a full month after release.
To the casual eavesdropper, it'd seem the mixed - and very animated - crowd were discussing three different games. A vampire contemplating save-game suicide after an hurried escape from town had left him in a remote cabin in the woods and unable to get anywhere before sunrise, a warrior combing a world map for undiscovered adventure, a thief boasting looting an entire town of its wares unnoticed. That luncheon defined Elder Scrolls: its diversity, its scope, its magic.
That particular memory is recalled as we've just witnessed a micro-version of it earlier today. After a three-hour stint through the opening hours of Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a Bethesda representative goes round the room, a heavily air-conned corner unit in the company's London offices, and talks to each journalist in turn. Each responds with a completely different story, a completely different adventure. Every one has started out from the exact same spot, in the shadowy exit of the game's beginning area - skipped ahead due to the narrative-rich spoilers within, its assumed. Every one has taken one look at the open horizon and struck out on a different path, a different life.
And this is barely an afternoon with the game, yet the discussions satisfy any and all hope that Skryim will be as diverse as Oblivion. Smiles, laughter, whistles of amazement, and finally groans of disappointment as the PR taps his watch to signal the play-through's end suggest its going to be as satisfying as IV.
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We're given a strict list of what we can, and can't talk about; spoilers and surprises, both story and gameplay-related are run down in efficient fashion as we hover over the Character Creator, Xbox 360 controller gripped tightly in hand. It's not much a hindrance - the studio don't want to spoil, and this being Elder Scrolls there's a good chance we won't stumble upon any, so prolific are the quests. As it is the verbal warning comes true, as we only hear passing mention on machinations central to the plot from slurred sentiments between a drinker and his empty mug.
We're advised to slip into the scales of the Argonian - a humanoid lizard with the abilities to breathe underwater and quick health regeneration. The count for race choices hits the double figures, each with their own buffs. We race though customisation options, pronounced snout, garish war paint, colourful spikes atop our skull. Unlikely a hit with the ladies, but an impressively large sword arm and intent glowing-eyed gaze suggests a character not to be trifled with. We name him Tim. And with that, we step into the wide world, and our heart immediately punches into our throat.
We should be used to the sweeping vistas by now, but the scale is still staggering, the patchwork of trees and boulder-littered trail rich with detail, the distant mountains captivating. With so much choice, we're hesitant to move any further, intent still to drink it all in. Three hours later that wide-eyed stare has barely lessened.
Bethesda has chiselled a real world on the shoulders its graphics engine. You can feel the weight of history, of the world's age everywhere you go, a sense of place. Everything is there for a reason; statues and carvings tell the lost cultures of the regions, skeletons and lanterns of battles lost, heroes felled. You can already imagine fan fiction or Wikis embellishing reasons for the smallest addition to the world.
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But the beauty of Elder Scrolls is it makes everything seem important as everything else. Nothing is of little or no consequence. Apparent as we listen to the post-game chatter. The discussions, the subjects, different each time, the game making a mockery of contemporary titles that promise the illusion of free choice.
We spent two days on Skyrim. We've tracked several miles between settlements. Wipe out two bandit encampments - one in aid of a local village, another because we accidentally stumbled upon it. Killed a dozen undead, accumulated, stolen or robbed nearly a thousand gold coins. We could fill an armoury with the weapons we've pilfered from dead guards - and have to jettison most in a remote mountain cave because the load is slowing us down to a crawl. Tripled our magic spell count - we start with basic fire, end with the ability to raise the dead and instil comrade-betraying Fury onto enemies.
Our first kill was a rabbit that strayed past our first practice swings with our scavenged iron sword. Our first death by the poisonous bite of a monstrous spider, our sure-footedness meaning nothing in tight nesting grounds. We barely survived an exploration through a cave-turned-tomb that scared us shitless. Pursued a thief for his spoils, then fought back-to-back with him against a zombie horde, only to eventually kill them all by triggering a massive spike trap built to ward off intruders on holy ground.
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We decided side with a bard against an elf as the two palmed us notes to pass on to the girl they fought over, and were left questioning if racism was a part of our choice.
We forged a dagger, talked to drunks, maids, kings. Learnt orcs make much better bows than Nords. Dabbled in smithery, ran from a fire spirit, became tempted to join Skyrim's version of Hogwarts, but decided to stab our guide before she escorted us through the front gate. As a result, we were hunted, electrocuted, and ultimately murdered in front a crowd of drinkers as we ineffectually tried to hide in an inn rather than run out of town by her and her cohorts.
We've been betrayed, befriended, got lost, looted and lingered in the crevice of a cliffside retreat for brief solace from the biting nighttime winds. Watched trout leap up waterfalls, caught a bee, broke into chests. Were offered a place in a wandering band of warriors - medieval superheroes defending the weak and innocent.
We've lived a lifetime already, and we've barely scraped three hours. We've barely scraped the world. And neither do we feel anything we've done or experienced has been in vain. Nothing feel superfluous.
It's likely that belief has been aided by the superb audio and soundtrack Bethesda's cranking out of the headset. Visuals tell only half the story; the immersive nature of the game hammered fully home by the atmospheric sounds in your ears. Every single second of the soundtrack was a delight, sending tingles down the spine with calming tones as we followed a mountain stream, sweeping orchestral moments as we travelled up snow-covered mountains, or the discordant rhythm that added a sinister undercurrent when tracking through a massive burial site.
There were times when we paused just to soak it in. The first question on finishing our play-through was the company's plans for the soundtrack. It's that impressive.
It's a game that'll demand surround sound - or a top-quality headset - curtains drawn, phone off and Do Not Disturb sign on the door. The crunch of your footfalls on a gravel path, the roaring wind and billowing snow whipping through a ravine making you shiver instinctively, and the developer using the lessening or increasing intensity of the wind through tunnels as early indicator as to whether you're climbing out or deeper into a mountain's labyrinth corridors. The closing howls of a wolf freezing you in your step, or a nearby babbling brook soothing you.
The developer spends a few minutes discussing the streamlined menu setup at the game's start, and its fairly smooth and intuitive. Skills, Magic, Items and Map - and their respective sub-menus, mapped to each of the compass directions, and letting you hot key any and all of the first three to a mini-menu called up in-game to quickly equip to your left or right hand. The Magic ability trees nicely visualised as star constellations, well over a dozen to further customise your character and profession, and XP granting you a gradually levelling of upgrades and potential personalities.
We stumble across a set of Guardian Stones right off the bat, letting you decide whether to get a 20% extra buff on Thief, Warrior or Mage specialities. For such a massive game - and in terms of length and depth, Skyrim's starting to worry us greatly about the impact on our social lives - everything is tantalising you with multiple play-throughs, multiple lives to experience.
There were issues. Difficultly spikes were one of them; in our first quest, through catacombs in an attempt to reclaim a stolen item, we were repeatedly overwhelmed and slaughtered, enemy health and our experience not balancing quite as deftly as we'd like, meaning a fairly-placed fear of our life turned towards frustration. However, without the first area to play through, we're uncertain whether particular combat skills - or just plain familiarity injecting confidence - would have been in place by this point, and our deaths lessened as result. Only the occasional head-jerk, clearly in anger, by everyone else in our group suggesting Skyrim's a vicious place to begin for newcomer and veteran alike.
Also - and again, this was a pre-alpha build, so what results in the final retail title might be different - we thought certain fast-travel should be curtailed completely. You can only initiate the ability back to somewhere you've been, but a horse carriage at one of the first settlements raised our curiosity enough that we jumped onboard and took us far beyond were our legs could have taken us, and as a result we were plumped into both the middle of a town and ongoing story quest that disoriented us momentarily. Best bet? Stick to on-foot or buy a horse, but never accept a lift from a stranger.
But that was all we had to write about; that, and the heap of stuff that NDA and scout's honour won't let us discuss. Needless to say if you feel cheated at the brevity or vagueness here, don't be. We could have happily carried on detailing every little choice and find in those three hours, and know we will be doing just that come the game's release in November. But we can only tell you about our adventure, not your own. We can only compare notes in what we found. Likely, they'll be two very different tales; but though casual observers won't realise it, we'll both be talking the same game.