Like so many things in life, Hearthfire begins with an approaching stranger. The courier bears a message from the matron of the Riften Orphanage, and following the letter to its origins reveals a new feature: adoption. The Dragonborn can finally become a parent, although there’s no whoopsie doopsie involved.
Let us be realistic – there are normally screening processes for things like this. Skyrim’s application for adoption is slightly less rigorous than modern day America’s, however, and all one needs there is a name, a profession (“I am the Dragonborn, give me children”), and a proper house. The cellar can be full of armored trolls, but no matter.
Unfortunately, that little cottage in Whiterun won’t satisfy the housing requirement. The Dragonborn can now purchase a deed for one of three plots of land on which to erect his own residence, be it humble home or ostentatious mansion. Construction begins when you approach a drafting table, which turns out to be a superfluous step, as it simply unlocks a series of crafting options at the adjacent carpenter’s table. When you build the foundation, it appears in a fixed location nearby. There’s no construction crew or beasts of burden; it simply appears (must be magic). Then come the walls, a door, and a roof in a fixed order until the house is complete, an event marked by the appearance of a loading screen beyond the door.
Inside, construction benches allow you to build furniture and decorative objects. You click on one, the game seizes, you restart, click again, and build some furniture of your choice. You select a table, perhaps, and it appears in a fixed location complete with plates, a fork, and a slab of flaccid horker meat (magic again). You fill the rooms with beds, animal horn sconces, and mounted wolf heads that would never frighten your future child.
In an effort to make building a house more involved, Bethesda made each fragment of your abode a craftable object rather than being simply purchasable. There are even a few new essential elements, including nails and door locks. Collecting enough lumber, stone, and iron for every part of the house, however, becomes a dull chore. Crafting was hardly Skyrim’s apex, after all. Furthermore, the customization options amount to “build some furniture” or “build all the furniture.” If you seek out all three plots of land, each house is likely to be identical unless you eschew upgrades. The entire process feels rushed and cheap. Sure, you can hire a steward and a personal bard, but who really cares when Bethesda couldn’t even take the time to create unique architecture? Not only will your three houses resemble one another, but they’ll look like every other house in the game as well.
So you could go through all of that or you can upgrade your standard Skyrim house with a child’s bedroom and meet the requirement that way. Either way, the Dragonborn no longer has to come home from a wicked day’s adventuring and be greeted by loneliness at the hearth. You can play games (the annoying hide-and-seek and tag found in the core game), give gifts (a doll perhaps, or a dagger), and punish your child with grueling chores. There aren’t many games that allow your character to start a family, but adoption is as superficial as many of the other player choices in The Elder Scrolls. If you neglect your child because you grew weary of playing hide and seek and she just happened to be doing the hiding, no one comes to take her away. The adoptable children, of which there are several, don’t have interesting or even realistic personalities, and the conversation options feel contrived and false.
Hearthfire comes oddly late in Skyrim’s lifespan. The add-on feels like a cheap and easy way to rekindle interest in the game, but for those who have already spent one or two hundred hours in Skyrim, Hearthfire’s features are too slender to draw you back. Even for those starting anew, half of Hearthfire’s appeal is already present in the main game, and without the tedious hoarding of lumber and quarried stone. Why chance adding more glitches to Skyrim with an extra download? Just buy Breezehome and pretend the next child you see is yours.