The premise of Skyrim in virtual reality would seem to commence the automatic exchange of sixty dollars. Bethesda’s most recent entry in The Elder Scrolls series decimated critical and commercial expectations when it was released in 2011. Two (and a half) expansion packs, a remastered current-generation conversion, and infinite, often interminable Let’s Plays have followed in its wake. Of course, Skyrim makes sense in VR.
Once the premise is understood the action naturally drifts into the plot. In the case of Skyrim VR, the plot revolves around its conversion to and performance in virtual reality. When the Special Edition of Skyrim debuted on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One last year, it was still riddled with unfortunate bugs and frightening performance drops. A presence in VR, with its rigid frame-rate demands, doesn’t seem especially well suited to Skyrim’s technical instability. Furthermore, it’s unlikely anyone on the development team had VR in mind during its construction nearly a decade ago. Any great plot, however, is laden with risk and danger. Against these odds, could Skyrim still persevere?
Yeah. With a few flaws and inconveniences. Skyrim VR looks rough and the machinations that drive its operation feel antiquated. You’re as likely to find antediluvian textures of questionable composition as purported human beings sliding across the surface without actually taking any steps. Time and persistence, however, numb the otherworldly compromises that terrorize and intimidate the human psyche. After a while, Skyrim stops being a low-resolution assembly of mechanized pieces and transforms into a fantasy wonderland ripe with invitation and opportunity.
Popular VR tropes ease Skyrim’s transition into virtual reality. Playing with a DualShock 4, Skyrim VR performs well enough through its traditional control scheme. Comfort options, like restricting right-stick movement to specified degrees and dimming the peripheral during movement, aid those who may experience motion sickness. If you have enough dramamine (or a magic brain), however, all of these settings can be neutralized, leaving you free to enjoy complete camera control at your leisure.
Two Move sticks can be used in place of a DualShock 4. By default, Skyrim VR includes the point-and-shoot teleportation scheme embraced by Batman: Arkham VR, Robinson: The Journey, and most VR games that demand movement in three-dimensional space. This works fine when Skyrim is moving slow, but becomes aggravating upon any point of conflict. The ability to murder a bear should reflect your allocated offensive skill and not generate aggravated responses like, “I wish I was facing the right direction to see myself getting mauled—oh god I can’t turn around the right way.” It’s an obstacle, and while experience can mitigate its influence, playing the Skyrim VR on novice difficulty may be the most effective way around it.
Thankfully, a better Move options is available. Pressing the Move button will push your character in whatever direction you’re pointing, relying on the square the X buttons on the right Move controller for x-axis control. This, too, is imperfect, but it’s more forgiving and provides a more natural sense of control to the player. After experimenting with both, it’s my preferred way to play – if I were forced to discard a normal controller.
Other novel perks come with using the Move sticks. VR’s favorite party trick, a bow and arrow, is alive and well in Skyrim VR. As expected, a drop in accuracy is exchanged for the speed at which you’re able to line up shots. Each Move stick effectively becomes a replacement for your hands, meaning it’s possible to swing swords and shoot magic from your virtual fingertips (it’s also possible to attack faster than normal this way, which…seems like cheating). Stamina-draining weapon attacks are laborious and summon the worst waggling gimmicks of the Wii, but you will never see me complaining about demolishing skeletons with fire blasting out of my magic disembodied hands. It’s wonderful.
The other side of virtual reality is visible in Skyrim’s underlying construction. An aspect of the medium often taken for granted is the speed at which it operates, and the attention and care given to transitions between content. Suffering through Skyrim’s frequent load times in virtual reality, where you can’t take out your phone or do literally anything else, is a modern bummer. One can only absorb so many world facts and lore before you’re consciously wondering what else you could be doing with your time. Coupled with menus that are not exactly intuitive and a cumbersome (albeit reworked) world map, and Skyrim VR’s compromises are even more apparent. It’s an extravagant way to experience the game, but it’s far from ideal.
There’s also the matter of Skyrim’s place in 2017. I dumped 120+ hours into the hamstrung PlayStation 3 version in 2011, and I loved it. As time has passed my interest has drifted from Skyrim’s (and Bethesda’s) laissez faire approach to discovery and engagement over to FromSoftware’s laser focused opus, Dark Souls. It’s a matter of taste and style, and while it’s certainly possible to enjoy both, the 2017 edition of me found Skyrim’s pace ponderous and irresolute. It’s fine, but it’s power feels diminished by time.
This perspective recalls Roger Ebert’s review of Aliens. In it, Ebert finds a way to respect the craft while not personally (at least traditionally) enjoying the content. I have no doubt Skyrim VR will sell headsets—it’s one of the few games bundled with the hardware—and satisfy casual and diehard fans. Skyrim, like Aliens’ relationship to film, is a superb example of videogame craft, especially in an era where the single player game feels endangered. It makes sense for fans, and it makes even more sense for business.
Looking around the PlayStation VR ecosystem, it’s not exactly rich with experiences of Skyrim VR’s scale and scope. Plenty of one or two-hour games are out there (and there are enough shooting galleries for a lifetime), but none that smother the player in Skyrim VR’s wealth of proven content. Only Resident Evil 7, which is very different style of game, feels as equally committed to supporting its virtual world with proven, field-tested design concepts. Skyrim was a game first (obviously), and while that hinders its immersive ambition, it’s built for the long haul. By default, you’re not going to find a peer in this medium capably of matching its quality.
From a content standpoint, it’s worth noting that Skyrim VR contains all expected downloadable additions. Dragonborne and Dawnguard, along with the domestic experiment Hearthfire, are integrated into Skyrim VR. Whether or not this still justifies a $60 asking price—and a completely separate $60 price-tag from last year’s re-release—is up to the player. In my estimation, Skyrim is one of the few games that can successfully lobby for a pass here.
As a fatalistic inevitability, Skyrim VR performs as expected. As a new entry into a revered monument, it’s hard to imagine a more effective conception. The inherent drawbacks of virtual reality bend the knee to the novelty of the medium and the awesome feeling of existing inside of its world. Skyrim VR is more than a product born from market opportunity. It’s a chance to live inside of a blistering dream, pleasantly aloof of its frailty. Skyrim is as good as home, and the dream of invulnerability only ends when you literally take the mask off. Under this lens, it’s tough to imagine a game that better communicates the power of virtual reality.