Skyrim got me a girlfriend. That's more than I can say for any other game that I've played. That's not the only reason it's my favorite game of the generation, though.
Like many games, Skyrim looks worse when you break it down to its component parts. Its combat is five seconds of button-mashing followed by ten seconds of rummaging through your bag for a potion following by five seconds of button-mashing followed by ten seconds of rummaging through your bag for a - it's bad, okay? The dragons, fierce as they look, move as predictably as Epcot's animatronic robots. The A.I. companions are well-versed in the art of running over traps and ruining your stealthy approach.
What Skyrim does well, though, it does better than anyone: exploration. If I was forced to relive an hour of gaming over and over for the rest of my days, it would be the first moments after the tutorial. Just minutes ago, you were about to be beheaded by Imperial troops. You were only saved from this fate by the sudden appearance of a dragon, who begins incinerating everything in sight. You slip away in the chaos and end up at the edge of a stream. A fellow prisoner you escape with says he's going to the nearby town of Riverwood. You can go with him...or you can go anywhere.
You'll head to Riverwood eventually. You'll become a Dragonborn, end a civil war and prevent the destruction of the world by that dragon that almost killed you. But in those first minutes, you're free. You can head down the stream and see where it takes you. You can investigate a bandit camp on the edge of the horizon. Go find yourself an adventure.
The sense of wonder lessens over time. Soon you'll have visited most of the map and can simply fast-travel with the blink of a loading screen. You've seen every enemy type, every kind of loot and every kind of dungeon. But no matter how many hours you put in, you'll always have that urge to check out a temple in the distance or explore a cavern on the way to your next quest.
A few weeks ago, I was trying to explain to Cinema Blend's publisher Josh Tyler why Skyrim seems to be so much more popular on social media than better-selling games like the latest Call of Duty. I think part of the reason is how open-ended Skyrim is. You're not just being led from one setpiece to the next. Everyone's drifting through a different part of the same massive world. We've all got our war stories:
"I shot a mammoth with a bow and then this giant ran up and clubbed me to death."
"I found this dragon perched on the top of a mountain and tried to sneak over to the treasure chest near him. Then this weird undead priest popped out of a coffin and I had to fight both of them!"
"Did you know that you can pickpocket the pickpocketing trainer to get your training fees back? I just got 50 lessons for free."
It's a single-player game but it's not lonely. After a night of Skyrim, we can log onto Reddit, Twitter or wherever to share our tales of skill or embarrassment. We can't hang out together within the game so we use social media as our tavern.
Lately games feel less like games and more like clusters of grinds. Every new AAA title, regardless of genre, is filled with progress bars and levels and Achievements for us to max out. Skyrim has these things but they're furthest from my mind when I'm playing. The currency of the game isn't XP or gold or levels - it's the interesting stories I can share with other players. My night is measured by fun moments rather than how far I filled a skill bar.
Months after starting my Skyrim adventure, I joined a dating site. Mindful of stereotypes, I kept the gaming references to a minimum on my profile. When discussing my job, I mentioned that I wrote for "an entertainment website." Somehow that felt cooler.
I struck up a conversation with an elementary school teacher. After some banter, she asked what website I worked for. I took a deep breath and sent a link.
"Awesome, it must be fun to work for such a sleek site. I bought an Xbox 360 to play Skyrim. I play on Easy difficulty, though. Does that make me a poser?"
My Skyrim adventures now take place in our apartment. She sits next to me on the couch and points out landmarks. "There's a chest over there! What's through that door?"
I'm no longer on my own in Skyrim. Then again, I never felt like I was.