A perfect storm of long transatlantic flights and being laid up in bed thanks to a bug has given me lots of time to spend with my Steam Deck recently. I have countless games that are perfect for Valve's handheld, but the cosy familiarity of Skyrim won out, and I'm once again gleefully skipping across the fantasy realm beating up dragons and picking flowers. It's bliss.
I haven't played Skyrim without mods since 2012, but there's a bit of extra faffing around modding a Steam Deck game, and I didn't really have time for that. I was a bit worried, then, that without the overhauled magic and combat systems, the texture packs, the multitude of fixes and the wonderful Alternate Start mod, I would no longer be able to enjoy my holiday in the homeland of the nords.
So many responses to criticism of Starfield claim that Bethesda games don't really get good until the modders get their hands on them, and it's one that's been repeated so often, with every Bethesda game, that I was starting to believe it myself. But that's not really been my experience at all. My first playthrough of Morrowind was on the original beefcake Xbox, and I spent hundreds of hours traipsing through Cyrodiil on my Xbox 360. So no mods at all! And I loved them both.
Mods do improve things dramatically—I did not vibe with Fallout 4 at all at first, and until 76 and Starfield came along, considered it Bethesda's weakest RPG. Thanks to the incredible work done by modders I've since poured a ridiculous number of hours into it, which gave me new things to like and allowed the good bits to shine. But Bethesda is more than capable of making great RPGs without the assistance of modders, and in the case of Skyrim, the vanilla experience is still easy to recommend.
OK, it's not the true vanilla experience. I'm playing Skyrim Special Edition with the Anniversary DLC, which means it's prettier, less janky and meatier than the launch version. There are also a few user-created mods baked into it, adding stuff like fishing and backpacks. But that's nothing compared to what I'm used to having. Yet I'm still having a blast.
After Starfield, I was starting to think I was maybe just done with Bethesda's brand of sandbox RPGs. But returning to my old haunts has shown me that's not the case. After more than a decade, some of the shine has worn off, but Skyrim is still more than capable of entrancing me, whether I'm aimlessly exploring or embarking on a more scripted adventure.
It's the diversity of experiences that's been keeping me entertained. I've been battered by frost trolls in glacial caves up north, stopped necromancers from finishing a dark ritual, looted crypts full of the undead, joined the College of Winterhold to fulfil my ambition to become an archmage and transformed into a vampire. And this was just after a handful of hours. Starfield has some standout quests that I really enjoyed, but between them I was mostly just fighting the same pirates in the same buildings on planets lacking any bespoke elements. It's so much larger than Skyrim, but has none of its richness or that strong sense of place that makes Tamriel feel so tangible.
I don't want to keep laying into Starfield, but it really is noticeable how much of Skyrim's charm is missing from it. I was so looking forward to seeing space laid out before me and getting into all sorts of riveting adventures, but it just doesn't remotely replicate the sense of adventure that's present not just in Skyrim, but almost all of Bethesda's earlier games. I had wondered if it was just because I was wearing rose-tinted goggles, but no: Skyrim is just a better-designed RPG.
In bed with Skyrim
Playing it on my Steam Deck has been an additional revelation. I assumed I wouldn't have many issues given that it even works on Switch, but Skyrim is only listed as Playable, rather than Verified, so I wasn't sure how smooth the experience would be. So far I have no complaints. Turning the graphics settings from ultra to high is the only concession I've needed to make.
Skyrim's pacing just works so well on a handheld device. For all the epic prophecies and civil wars, it's actually an extremely leisurely game, letting you walk the length and breadth of the realm as lazily as you'd like, with few loading screens interrupting the adventure. You'd think after exploring this place as many times as I have I'd be bored of it, but it's just such a striking setting, and one where you never know who or what you'll meet down the road, that my rambling tour never stops being engaging.
The simplicity of the magic and combat systems, meanwhile, are actually a boon when playing on the Steam Deck. I don't want to deal with elaborate action when I'm stuck in an Economy seat for 14 hours or trying not to puke my guts up while lying in bed. Whacking some monsters and spitting fire out of my hands is exactly what I need. That said, Bethesda has gotten a lot better at designing systems like this since Skyrim, with the fights in both Fallout 4 and Starfield really benefiting from the extra attention. But I'm not really a fan of first person shooting on handhelds, so I'm perfectly content with simply hitting stuff with my enchanted sword.
It's the perfect autumnal game, too. It's starting to get cold outside, and living in Scotland means it's pissing down with rain constantly, but I don't really want to be stuck indoors. In Skyrim I can experience a chilly jaunt through forests and snow-capped mountains while still toasty, wrapped up in my duvet. And there's something very comforting about leaving a frozen, monster-infested cave and hitting up the closest inn, with the fire roaring in its centre and a helpful innkeeper spitting out rumours, nudging you towards your next adventure once you've finished warming up your toes.
Another benefit of not playing Skyrim with 100+ mods is that I'm not spending any time troubleshooting. I'm not hopping out of the game to fiddle with load orders or deactivating a bunch of mods to find out why smoke looks bizarre or why all the trees have gone wonky. As much as I love playing Skyrim with mods, by the time I've got everything working perfectly, I'm often too burned out to actually enjoy the fruits of my labour. There's something to be said for just firing up a game and getting stuck in, even if it's missing some neat features and doesn't look quite as sexy.
I don't know if I'll do a full playthrough—I'm a magpie, constantly looking for shiny new distractions—but at the moment I'm perfectly content. And it's reassuring to know that the game I loved in 2011 is still doing it for me, even if Bethesda's more recent offerings have left me cold. Who knows when we'll finally see The Elder Scrolls 6, but I'm praying that Bethesda takes more lessons from the likes of Skyrim and my all-time favourite, Morrowind, rather than Starfield.