A prisoner kneels before the headsman’s block, the executioner’s ax already crimson with a previous victim’s blood. Helpless, they lay their head down, preparing for the final blow to fall. But then a cry rings out, unearthly, horrifying, miraculous—an eldritch and irresistible “Oooooh yeah!” An Imperial general, all composure suddenly lost, spots something in the sky, and cries out in panic, “What in Oblivion is that?” But the player already knows, even before the winged, cowboy-hatted figure drops onto a nearby tower, flames pouring from his Slim Jim-snapping mouth: It is Macho Man Randy Savage, and he is here to end the world.
If this isn’t the iconic opening of Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim—which celebrates its landmark 10th anniversary today—it’s at least an iconic opening for the best-selling open-world role-playing game. Simultaneously a corporate money-printing engine, and one of the purest examples of player expression in gaming history, Skyrim stands over a decade that never seemed able to surpass or forget it—not least of which because Bethesda wouldn’t let people, resolutely shoving the game onto every platform imaginable, over and over again.
Even the company got in on the joke of its relentless and insatiable re-releasing, recording a video with Keegan-Michael Key in which he played a fake version of the game via Amazon’s Alexa—and, yes, there’s something fitting about the fact that even the studio’s jokes contain that potent seed of corporate cross-promotion.
But the Skyrim story is much more than just the nigh-endless wave of remasters and repackagings that Bethesda helped inspire. (The game’s Anniversary Edition, out today, is something like its sixth or seventh full version, expanding its life span across three full console generations; not even regularly regurgitated classics like The Last Of Us can quite match that.) It’s also the story of a community taking a game and transforming it into a digital playground—sometimes with the tacit support of the games’ corporate owners, and sometimes, not so much.
Which brings us back to Macho Dragon Randy Savage—or Dragon Thomas The Tank Engine, or Dragon Fighter Jets, or any of the other absurd, beautiful, and deadly replacements Skyrim’s modding community has applied to the game’s signature antagonists over the last 10 years. The dragons are Skyrim’s iconic creatures: loud, visually demanding, and technically impressive. Even more than the chilly landscapes, the Empire-Stormcloak war, or the player character, the shout-blasting Dovahkiin, the dragons represent Bethesda’s grand ambitions for the vast world its designers have breathed into life.
Is it any wonder, then, that they’ve been a frequent topic for modders, who’ve spent that same decade projecting their own creative desires, sometimes with the vandal’s gleeful eye, on to frosty northern Tamriel? “Macho Dragons,” by modder FancyPantz, hit NexusMods in January 2012, just two months after Skyrim’s release; “Really Useful Dragons,” the famed mod that transforms all of the game’s draconic villains into Thomas The Tank Engine characters, followed a year later.
These mods are goofy, dumb, sometimes outright broken. They are also, in their own way, Skyrim at its best, taking Bethesda’s base design philosophy of player freedom in an open world and blowing it out to determinedly meta levels. Base Skyrim asks if you’d like your Dovahkiin to be a warrior, a mage, or a stealthy archer; modded Skyrim asks if they’d like to be a Pokémon trainer, a fashion designer, or just, y’know, have sex with every single person in the small city of Whiterun. Truly, the sky’s the limit.
At the same time, there are those legions of modders who forego the flashy or the hornt, instead choosing to simply try to make Skyrim better. Bigger, prettier, more technically stable, more fun to play. Few games have ever employed a technical team more dedicated, or less compensated; if you have a problem with basically any aspect of Skyrim, rest assured that someone, somewhere, has thought of a possible fix, generally on a largely volunteer basis.
To Bethesda’s enduring credit—and profit—it’s always understood that modding adds immeasurable value to its games, extending the life of Skyrim by hundreds of hours and a literal decade of real-world time. (The company even pushed out some regulated mod support for the game’s console releases, a shocking rarity in the increasingly closed environments of modern consoles.) Even so, the company—now owned by Microsoft—has expressed clear discomfort at times with the fact that it doesn’t own the biggest selling point of its own magnum opus; hence, presumably, the occasional efforts to monetize, incorporate, or in other ways get a hand on the ball of Skyrim’s modding scene.
The most infamous of these incidents occurred roughly halfway through the game’s current life span, back in 2015. That’s when Bethesda announced a plan to begin allowing creators to officially charge for mods, dividing a cut with the company in the process. And while this strategy was quickly shouted down by a community that was already well into its life-long obsession with Skyrim, the company tried again a few years later with its Creation Club scheme, to some less-muted contempt. (The Anniversary Edition will include 500 or so pieces of Creation Club content. Also: fishing!)
It’s interesting, then, to note that Skyrim both predates, and presages, the most dominant gaming trend of the decade it looms over: games as service, the design/marketing philosophy that demands that games function as endless engines of income for their owners, hooking players up for regular drips of paid content and then getting them to play, basically, forever. (Destiny, which helped codify the movement, wouldn’t arrive until 2014.) In fact, you can see that trend, at least in part, as an effort to replicate the Skyrim effect—which has seen players return to the game over and over across the years, usually dropping new cash on it each time—without having to actually make Skyrim, a game so massively large as to be economically ludicrous by modern standards.
The legacy of Skyrim is therefore one of paradox: at once as thoroughly churned a wad of content as has ever been relentlessly masticated by this industry, while simultaneously a source and inspiration for soaring heights of creativity. (It’s not for nothing that The Forgotten City, one of the best games of 2021, got its start as a Skyrim mod.) Its merits as a game—considerable, if mixed, even a decade on—pale behind its status as a platform, something it achieved years before that sort of thing became the goal of every publisher with dollar signs and dreams of metaverse nonsense dancing in their eyes.
It is, and was, a game so profitable that it inspired new and grim endeavors in the profit-seeking sciences; it is, and was, a game so purely vast that it inspired its players to build whole new horizons for themselves. (Members of the community are currently worrying that Anniversary Edition’s updates might potentially wreck years of technical scaffolding on god knows how many mods; it’s hard to imagine they won’t find a way to reclaim what is now very much their game, in the end.) The past decade does not so much reflect it as stand in reaction to it. Why build another Skyrim, the logic seems to run, when Skyrim already exists—and, apparently, always will?