The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim is such an expansive game that even after spending three hours playing in its fantasy world last week I hadn't learned enough to even worry over the laundry list of items Bethesda warned me not to tell gamers about.
The fact that my play session in a New York hotel room started nearly an hour into the game, may contribute to my lack of plot-harming details. But the real reason I don't have to worry about that embargoed information is that Skyrim is so immersive and deep an experience that a person could play for a third of a work day and never even brush by the main storyline.
In fact, that's exactly what I did.
My dip into the world started in a cave high on a mountain top. I don't know how I got there or what I was supposed to do. I did have a chance to quickly create a character. I decided on an Argonian, a sort of lizardman that can breath underwater, and even if unarmed can attack with his claws.
After a brief look around in the cave I walked my character outside, a bloom of light giving way to an amazing wooded scene.
Where the pale blue, cloud-dotted skies of Rage as a fixed beauty, more painting that animation, Skyrim's sky is filled with slowly drifting clouds.
The idea, I decided as I picked my way down the mountain side, is to find a nearby town and maybe someone who can send me off to collect something for them, hopefully getting into a fight in the process. A roadside near the foot of the mountain pointed me to three options. After deciding I'd head to Riverwood, I noticed the nearby river and decide to check out my character's underwater breathing. The current pulls me along the bed, past Salmon. On a whim I target one and press a button, grabbing the fish as I drift by and adding it to my inventory.
Preoccupied with the underwater fishing, I don't notice the rapids until I'm in them, getting pushed up above the waterline and then over an edge and down a short fall. I push my character out of the water and back to land.
Alright, I think, now to the village. Only then I notice another path going up into the mountains and figure, why not follow it. It leads me to a mine. A mine guarded by a mo-hawked woman with an ax in her hand. We fight, I win. I like how Skyrim lets you use the triggers to control your hands separately. I can dual-wield weapons, using the trigger pulls to attack left, right, left, right. Or I can place a shield in one hand, using that trigger to block. After some tinkering, I settle on a system that allows me to spew flames from my left hand and swing an ax with my right. It's very effective.
After clearing out the mine of bandits, I finally make my way to Riverwood. Once there I wander around for a bit, chatting with the locals and getting my bearings. Eventually I head to the Sleeping Giant Inn where I catch the tail end of an argument between the couple who own the place. It's a weird awkward moment that does nothing to propel the still absent over-arching story along, but adds a lot to the depth of the characters and this world.
I rent a room for the day, but then I can't find it. I decide to wander around a bit more and discover the town's merchant. He hands me my first quest, the hunt for a necklace. It's dusk when I finally get out of town, heading for my first, story-driven mission. The sun is nearly down, little lights blink on and off, floating in the air around me. I hunt around for one, until I get close enough to identify. It's a tiny "torchbug," this world's version of a firefly, I suppose.
I break free of the distraction of hunting around for more bugs and take after my quest on earnest this time. Making my way up into the mountains the night darkens as clouds roll in, obscuring the moon and stars. Snow begins to drift in the wind, then begins to churn as the wind howls, soon I'm picking my way through a blizzard. The weather breaks as I approach a tower.
"This is the place," I think.
There are a couple of guards standing near the base, by a fire. I kill one by hot-swapping to a bow using my D-pad. And then switch spells to reanimate her corpse. She rises, shivering and stiff, her body floating for a second at an angle too sharp for her to be standing. Then she flops to the ground on her feet and begins to attack her once-allies. She fights until she is rekilled, her body turning suddenly to ash and drifting to the ground.
I clear the tower of bandits but discover that this had nothing to do with my quest. Distracted again.
I run back through the storm, chasing the swirling snow that seems to almost take shape just ahead of me. A momentary break in the clouds casts pale light on the ground in front of me, through it a shadow drifts. I stop and look around.
Was that a dragon? Something is up there in the sky, but then the snow fills the cap and it's impossible to see again.
Finally, I find the temple entrance to my quest. I've been playing for nearly an hour now without real purpose. That hasn't stopped me from enjoying myself immensely.
The quest is no less exciting, but not much more either.
I have a pack of grave robbers to deal with first. Once dispatching them and dealing with the one who left them in the lurch, I find myself facing the temple's denizens. I die, a lot. I remember to save often. I tweak my character with new abilities and level upgrades. I swap out weapons to find the best combination both for my playstyle and the enemies I happen to be facing at the moment.
Eventually I succeed and am able to quick travel back to town.
I appear in the middle of Riverwood it's not quiet here. I hear someone shout something. An arrow flies by, not particularly close, but I can't see who shot it, nor its intended target.
Then four of the townspeople round a corner. There's three men and a woman. They're dressed not for adventuring or dungeon crawling, but for their daily tasks. Maybe one's a butcher, another could be a tavern owner. I'm not sure, but they're running right at me and they seem angry.
They are angry. I'm not sure why, but suddenly this angry mob is out to kill me. I run from them, trying to lose them in the town's few roads. Eventually, I get enough distance to make my way to the merchant, to turn in my quest.
Seconds after starting my conversation with him, the room fills with the angry townspeople. They start attacking me, I can't run or defend myself because I'm in the middle of a conversation.
I manage to break free and run away. They keep chasing me. I ask one of the real PR people sitting in a real nearby chair, of our real hotel room, to come have a look. Is this normal, I ask?
He seems surprised. Try running away, he suggests.
I run. They follow. We run up the mountain side, the angry mob chasing me. Eventually I turn around and use a bit of magic to get them to attack one another. Then I run away.
Solved, I say.
Only it isn't. The survivors appear back in town a minute or two later, they're still after me.
Did you kill someone, or attack someone? Maybe you stole something, the PR guy asks?
No. They just attacked me. Is it because I'm a lizard man, I ask half seriously? Maybe the game just doesn't like me, I suggest?
I ditch the posse this time by jumping in the river. I can breath underwater, it seems they can't even swim.
I travel to another town. But when I arrive a guard attacks me. Word has gotten round it seems.
I manage to pay off the guard and clear my surprise, apparently unwarranted warrant just in time for the play session to end.
It's pre-alpha code, I'm reminded by the attending PR folks.
It doesn't bother me. Even if it was a bug, it was an exhilarating one; one that created the illusion that no one knows what to expect from this game, not even the people who made it.
Note: A lot of commenters can't seem to believe that the build of the game I played was pre-alpha. Some of you think I was wrong, or that the PR folks were wrong, or that it spells disaster for the game. I just triple checked with Pete Hines at Bethesda. The game code was indeed pre-alpha, as I originally reported. Here's why:
"Here's the problem, to keep people from playing the start of the game and removing a few other things, we had to branch a modified build. With everything we have going on getting the game done, the team didn't have time to fork another build, redo all the script work again, and test it. So we just stuck with the build we had which won't have all the fixes and improvements we've done, but avoids the spoilers we really wanted to avoid."