It's pretty astounding that after only being on the shelves for about a month of the judging period, Skyrim been declared the most played game of 2011. Anyone who's touched it can tell you that there's a certain kind of magic that's been harnessed. Unlike the fanfare that greets, say, the newest Zelda game, this isn't a case of fans being given exactly what they want and applauding loyally. This author has a particular distaste for High Fantasy, meaning fiction in the vein of Tolkien, with elves and orcs and dragons and stuff. I've avoid The Elder Scrolls games like the plague because of their name alone for years. But setting be damned, this is an astounding piece of art.
What's really revolutionary about Skyrim is that it takes a lot of the good things about Western RPGs and removes so much of the garbage that spoils them for me. The interface is simple, and clear as a bell. Magic users will spend more time than they might like switching between spells, but barring a keyboard full of hotkeys, how else would you fix that problem? The game plays like a first person shooter, but unlike the Fallout games FPS tactics aren't too necessary this time around. Battles are as strategic as they ought to be. My orc pretty much swings a huge sword in the general direction of enemies and hopes they die, while my mage has tons of options and ways to dispel his foes, at the expense of having to actually think. True, it's buggy, as all Bethesda products are. Compared to the Fallout games, however, it's notably more stable, and a robust auto-save system compensates for a lot of smeg-ups.
The game's most revolutionary innovation is the character and levelling systems. For too long, Western RPGs have been slaves to D&D, constantly forcing you to choose races, alignments, manipulate base stats, etc. Skyrim has no classes or base stats at all. You do have to choose a race, which might give you a starting boost to some skills or maybe a special ability you can use now and then, but that's it. In addition, you don't get big bursts of XP from completing quests in the typical way. You level up by basically doing anything productive, ranging from killing stuff to brewing potions from wildflowers, or working in a smithy all day. The upshot of this is that you don't have as much of an incentive to game the system, to race to a high level quest to get a big XP bomb and break the game. You can, of course, do silly things like cast Muffle constantly to watch your Illusion skill skyrocket, but that won't do much for you. A skill is no good for you unless you're legitimately going to use it, and if that's the case, you'll level it up naturally.
One morning in Tamriel I woke up from a good night's rest at the local inn (for the Well Rested experience bonus, natch), and went off to sell my lootings from the previous night's tomb-raiding expedition. I spent the whole day bartering with shopkeepers, purchasing components from them, brewing potions or crafting armor, selling the fruits of my labor for a profit, and chatting up the locals along the way. After a while I noticed it was getting dark, and perhaps I should turn in for the night before moving on. I returned to the inn and was welcomed back by the friendly barkeep, requested a tune from the Bard, and retired to my warm inviting bed for the evening. I had just spent and entire day of game time being a productive citizen of Skyrim, and gained a level or two by doing it. When can I say that has ever happened to me in a game before?