Skyrim's Special Edition is a reminder of just how much mods bring to Bethesda's RPG

Starting Skyrim from the beginning five years later highlights what the RPG is lacking.

I'm tramping across Skyrim on my way from Whiterun to Solitude, as I've done dozens of times over the years. The route and sights are very familiar—I know these little towns and the quests I'll find there, I know which route to take to avoid mammoths and their overprotective giants (for now), I remember when my pet dog Jasper was swept over this waterfall—but things do feel different this time, in ways that have nothing to do with the Special Edition's improved visuals.

This is my first time back in a long while, apart from trying out mods or racing through the expansions. It's definitely my first time starting Skyrim over from scratch in several years, playing it truly from the beginning and not using some saved game that starts at the far end of the tutorial.

And, I feel excited. Though I know the linear opening tutorial by heart, I still enjoy diving back in, trying to decide, as I fight my way out of Helgen, exactly who I will be this time. A thief? A mage? A reluctant hero or deliberate villain? Just some random asshole who likes treasure? Collecting my first scraps of armor, my first few weapons, my first handfuls of crafting ingredients, I feel the thrill of those early RPG hours when every single piece of loot is a treasure. 

Completing the tutorial, at which point you're told, "Well you can visit this town, if you want, but no pressure, I'm not your boss, do whatever the hell you want" still carries with it a bit of electricity, even five years after I experienced it the first time. There's a world spread out before me, a very familiar one, but one I begin on a new path, with a new character.

Ignoring Riverwood, I set out for Whiterun, really taking in the sights. The Special Edition looks nicer, but not nearly to the degree that many mods make the original Skyrim look. Side-by-side comparisons show a pretty stark difference, but when I'm playing the Special Edition, and not jumping back and forth between the two, it doesn't really strike me as all that different. If mainly feels like playing an older game on a new PC or a new monitor: everything is vaguely nicer looking than you remember.

What really strikes me this time around is how empty the world feels, how barren and lifeless. I run for long minutes along paths and over hills and through streams and there's little to stop or distract me. When I do see animals, they clomp along awkwardly, get stuck on rocks while trying to flee, stand at odd angles on inclines. A few birds (often just one) may flap overhead, and butterflies hover here and there inviting me to eat them, but the world doesn't feel particularly alive.

This isn't entirely a complaint. I certainly don't want to be attacked by wolves and skeevers every twenty feet, or besieged by quest-giving NPCs who pop out from behind every tree to casually mention their mother's heirloom mace has been snatched and hey, could you help me with that, person I've never seen before in my life? Today, Skyrim is feeling desolate to me, and it's suddenly easy to see why mods that populate the roads with extra travelers and fill cities and towns with additional NPCs and add more animals, more monsters, more everything, are popular with roleplayers. Years ago, adding these additional entities seemed like a fine idea, but now it feels completely essential.

Speaking of cities, I'm noticing they don't really have any kind of realistic sprawl to them. Looking at Whiterun from the outside, it suddenly feels so small, just a circle of wall around a handful of buildings to match the sparse population. Solitude is lengthier, but even still it's really just a single street that can be covered in less time than it takes a stamina meter to empty. The cities, which felt grand to me years ago, simply don't feel like cities now. It's probably unfair to compare 2011's Skyrim to 2015's The Witcher 3, but it's hard not to think of how much more splendid and vibrant CD Projekt Red's RPG world is.

I'm still enjoying the finer details, however. After slaying two bandits along the road, I find what appears to be their latest victim, a woman. She's carrying a note stating bandits stole her heirloom amulet, and detailing her determination to retrieve it even at the cost of her own life. Among the dead bandit's loot, I find an enchanted necklace, the same they stole from this unfortunate woman, which I then decide to wear. Okay, it's not the most logical story. Why would you write a note explaining your mission and then take the note with you—if the bandits kill you, they're surely not going to return the note to someone who cares—but it gives this item I might otherwise trade or sell a little bit of history and weight. Now, when I see it equipped in my inventory, I'll remember where I got it and who it belonged to. Skyrim is filled with tiny stories like this, often simple but still worth absorbing as you play, and they're still fun to stumble across.

I've also slid comfortably back into the combat, which I know isn't the deepest but I still find perfectly enjoyable. This is the first time I've used a bow in Skyrim in years, since my last character was an Orc who only ever used gigantic two-handed axes, so plunking a distant bandit with my two first shots was pretty satisfying.

It would have been cooler if he fell off the perch or, you know, reacted a bit more. But, still.

As enjoyable as it is being back—and it is perfectly enjoyable, despite some of my complaints above—I mainly find myself missing mods. Skyrim is a game that very, very badly needs mods. I'm reminded of this whenever I see that awful vanilla UI, whenever I try to select a response in a conversation and it doesn't pick the line my mouse is pointed at, whenever I want to sensibly sort my inventory, and of course every single time I gain a level:

Remember this bug? Thanks to mods, I haven't seen it in years. When you gain a level and choose which attribute to increase, the skill selection screen does that little jog to the left. Every single time. It's a bug that shipped with the original game and it's still there, five years later, in the unmodded Special Edition.

I know bugfixing takes time and talent, and I know a lot of bugs in a sprawling game like Skyrim are hard to replicate and fix, and I know this is not a major bug by any means. It's probably the smallest bug in the entire game. But it's a bug every single player sees every single time they level, and was surely seen by every single person at Bethesda when they played the game before and after release. And it was never fixed! I guess I just find that sort of amazing.

And so, I don't imagine I'll continue much further with the Special Edition. I'm curious to see what modders can do with the SE in the future, but in the meantime, it just doesn't seem worth it to me to remod the remastered game when I've got a perfectly good copy of the original, modded to hell and back with all the stuff I want already fixed.