A Look at ‘The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’ – Part One: Falling Out of Love

The Preamble:

The new entry in the Elder Scrolls series of fantasy role-playing games, is a sprawling open-ended adventure set in the cold reaches of Skyrim, a hostile land in the far north of this imagined world.  When you play this game, or others of its kind, you’re rarely forced down any one path – the entire world is open for exploration, and though there are quests to take on it’s always your choice to do so, and in fact you can just as easily completely ignore them all. You start the game, after a brief introduction, by creating your player-character. The character I created was a Nord, the Scandinavian-esque, mead-drinking native inhabitants of Skyrim. My particular nord was strong, sturdy warrior, but you might choose to create an archer, a conjurer of demons, a strait-laced healer, a backstabbing psychopath, or a mage sparking lightning from their fingertips. Alternatively: any combination of the above, or dozens of other possibilities I haven’t mentioned. You can create an adventurer of a great number of fantasy races (Dwarfs thankfully excluded, because seriously guys can we get over dwarfs?) and over the course of your time in Skyrim the actions you perform determine what they come to master. If you use a sword and shield your character’s ‘blocking’  and ‘one-handed weapon’ skill will increase over time, as will your character’s apothecary skill if you choose to bide your time mixing various potions and poisons. There are a large number of such skills, and as you level up you can put points into these skills to unlock certain rewards and abilities.

And you can choose to act how you like – you can join the Companions, a brotherhood of storied mercenaries, or the guild of mages, or any of the other numerous organisations found throughout the land. You can choose to take a side in the civil war, either fighting to uphold the Skyrim that the cosmopolitan Cyrodillic Empire has come to rule, or fighting for an independent Skyrim for the Nords and the Nords alone. And don’t forget that great beasts ancient beasts, the legendary dragons that died out an age ago, are returning to Skyrim. You can choose to become the hero Skyrim needs and rid the world of these terrors, or you can simply potter around hunting deer, catching butterflies, collecting plants, exploring ancient ruins, pickpocketing locals, visiting the shrines of otherworldly gods, crafting armour and weapons, starting fistfights with xenophobic drunkards, or sporadically picking on children. The point I’m trying to make here, really, is that Skyrim offers you a lot of freedom, and it’s almost entirely up to you to decide what to do with that freedom.

Skyrim is inarguably a big achievement. Its world is expansive and often aesthetically beautiful; with precipitous, winding paths up freezing mountainsides, great open plains, and sight upon visually impressive sight. There’s also an obscene amount to do, and though like any game of its ambition it is home to more than a few bugs and technical problems, it really is a place you’ll want to come back to. There are innumerable moments that are nothing less than special – from stumbling into the shrine to a dead emperor who rose into the firmaments to become a god, to letting loose one last arrow into the side of a powerful dragon soaring high overhead before watching it crash down to earth in its death throes. And because the world is so huge and filled with choice you may never see everything there is to see, or do everything there is to do. I really can’t stress this enough: Skyrim is a very good game, potentially even a great one, and it is many ways a brilliant antidote to state of so much of the games industry – whose only ambition is to make thrilling, explosive roller-coaster where there is really very for the player to actually do except get carried along and enjoy the ride. With the newest entry in their Elder Scrolls series Bethesda Softworks has shown yet again, to their biggest audience yet it seems, that high production values and impressive technology can go hand in hand with choice, imagination, and lofty ambition.

But I don’t love Skyrim. I impressed as all hell with it, and I’ve already spent much time happily engaging with its charms, but there is something, or rather some things, about it that are preventing me from really bringing it into my heart. To explain why I’ll need to split things in two. In this first part I’ll talk about some of the problems with Skyrim, and I’ll give some general ways I think the game could have improved in these areas. In the next part, coming whenever I feel like writing it, I’ll talk a bit about another game: Morrowind (in full: The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind). It’s one of Skyrim’s precursors in the Elder Scrolls series, and it remains one of my favourite games even after all these years. I’m going to talk about Morrowind because I think that understanding what was so great about that game will be useful for understanding where and why Skyrim falters.

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The Problems I Have With Skyrim:

So what does one do in the land of Skyrim? I’ve already listed a whole host of possibilities, but you may notice something about that list: almost everything is geared towards killing things. Killing things in a variety of ways, sure. In a variety of interesting ways, okay maybe (we’ll get to that), but killing things all the same. Now, there’s really nothing special about this when it comes to fantasy videogames (‘or even videogames in general!’ I hear you say), so I’m not sure why this grates so much with Skyrim in particular, but it really does. You’re given an expansive fantasy world, but sometimes it feels like your only method of interaction with the place is through the medium of blunt-force trauma. Sure, the world is filled with citizens you can talk to, barter with, perform tasks for, and even marry if you feel any kind of burning desire to do so, but most of the game involves fighting. Or sneaking around, admittedly, but even then the general point remains – as soon as you leave the safety of the few towns or villages nearly everybody wants to kill you. Sometimes they’ll be kind enough to give you a perfunctory warning first, but after that it’s game on. A huge part of the game can be found in exploring the ruin, cave, camp, watchtower, or other dwelling that you’ve stumbled upon in your journey from point A to point B (and I should stress that you can ignore these incidental places entirely if you really want to), but there’s remarkably little actual variety here, even if the setting and the enemies are varied enough.

Now I’m fighting bandits in a cave, now I’m fighting reptilian monsters in a somewhat darker cave, now I’m fighting mechanical spiders in a steam-powered city. But while the scenery may change quite a bit very little else does: there’s very little that’s actually different between a cave and an underground steam-powered city apart from how the two places look and how the enemies look. There will be enemies to fight, perhaps a few traps to avoid, a locked door on which to employ a lockpick if you so choose, and perhaps a few scattered notes to read. And I’m sorry, but if I’m walking through a mechanical city I expect there to be something special about that apart from the enemies that attack me and the kinds of items that I find littered about. Sometimes these various dungeons are sprawling and labyrinthine, and occasionally they contain interesting little vignettes, but by and large they just present you the same tasks and challenges in different backdrops. There are puzzles in some dungeons, but they’re the kind that feel like a moment where the developers of the game saw fit to specifically insult your intelligence – you need to match this set of symbols to that other set of pictures over there. You think you can handle that, champ?

There’s the Combat:

The combat in the game is all right. I know, ringing endorsement. Well, initially I liked the weight and the heft of the hand-to-hand fighting, but after a good number of hours I’ve become more than bored of it. Sure, it’s better than a lot of games of its ilk, and it’s certainly better than the combat in previous Elder Scrolls games, but it just never swtiches up or evolves. Enemies and allies aren’t the smartest people on earth, and any allies you happen to have fighting on your side are just as likely to stand in front of you, entirely oblivious to the world, as they are to actually get their hands dirty and help you fight some enemies. Hand-to-hand fighting does still feel pretty weighty, and whacking someone in the face with your shield is often satisfying. But it’s still merely serviceable, and you’re so often attacked by someone or something that after a while it will become a chore. And because it never evolves in any way it will never stop being a chore once you’ve gotten bored of it. The game won’t even let you go for a walk without things constantly coming out of nowhere to attack you; wolves will appear seemingly every few minutes from the undergrowth as you climb a mountain, bandits will pursue you as you cross the plains, and trolls, giant spiders, bears, and all manner of violent things will attack you without provocation.It all starts to become very draining, and I had to stop playing more and more often the further I played because I just couldn’t be bothered to enter another dungeon where I’d have to repeat almost exactly what I did in the past few dungeons I’d visited that day.

As I said, it never even tries to shake up the combat. There aren’t really any enemies that require you to change your tactics, and though some enemies will attack you from afar, some from close up, and some will posion you or freeze you in place, this generally doesn’t spur interesting encounters. This certainly isn’t the tactical combat of something like the Zelda franchise, or The Witcher 2 where every enemy is a real challenge, and every enemy has its own strengths and weaknesses you will need to exploit in order to succeed. Combat is serviceable, but it’s not anything special, and considering you’ll spend so much of your time fighting things that’s a real problem. Sure, you can choose not to fight very often, but there’s not really many alternatives.

And yes, fighting dragons is fun, but somehow, somehow, Bethesda manages to make even that become less than exciting after a while. These are dragons we’re talking about for God’s sake, but because you fight them so often, and because they aren’t actually as threatening as they look, they become just another enemy to hit in the face. Fighting my first dragon was really very exhilarating, as was each subsequent dragon-fight up until around the tenth. Then every time you see a dragon you lapse into a familiar routine that, so far, has changed remarkably little: the dragon flies around breathing fire/poison/ice on you, then lands to attack you close up, then flies away again. They do really look impressive, but unfortunately the game can’t back really back that up mechanically.

And Talking to People:

I mentioned that there are many people to talk to in Skyrim. But though there are plenty of people to interact with this interaction rarely does anything to incite intrigue, or amusement, or, god forbid, empathy. The voice-acting here is pretty good considering so, so many lines are spoken by so many different people throughout the game, but it never feels like anything other than a means to an end. You feel like you should listen to people talk, because they might give you information, or a new quest, or something of the sort, but you, if you’re anything like me, will probably never feel compelled to listen to people in the game talk purely because you feel they have something interesting to say. And I’m generally a person who loves dialogue in games – the reason I loved The Witcher 2 so much (current Game of the Year 2011, though I haven’t gotten my hands on Dark Souls yet) was mostly the conversations you’d have with characters in the game, and Pathologic and The Void, my two favourite games, are almost entirely reliance on dialogue throughout.

These non-player characters in Skyrim (NPCs) are eager to tell you their life stories, or witter on about some bandits down the road they need you to give a good seeing to, but no one ever feels like a character, and everyone’s so damn verbose all the time. Dialogue in games is a tricky business, and I don’t think I’ve thought about it as a subject enough to talk about it with any kind of confidence, and I think Skyrim performs quite poorly. In something like Pathologic you’re interacting with various characters, and everyone has their own motives, desires, and most importantly their own reasons to lie through their goddamn teeth to you. In Skyrim people are walking, talking quest-givers, shopkeepers, or lore-spouters. Bethesda Softworks put a hell of a lot of time and effort into fleshing out this world, and that’s great, but the problem is that they think you need to hear all about it all the time. They don’t realise that sometimes (read: most of the time) it’s better to hint at explanations and story, or give the player pieces of a puzzle to assemble in their minds, or even bullshit the player and confuse the hell out of them. Instead Skyrim plays almost everything straight, and though there are more than a few cases of NPCs lying to you they’re generally someone you just met, and so someone you have no reason to trust or distrust. Sometimes Skyrim genuinely does have an NPC tell you something interesting, and a lot of the back-story of the land of Skyrim is actually interesting, but at other times the game feels like that mature student at the philosophy department Christmas party who thinks that everyone wants to hear about quite how far away from the University he lives, and how far he has to drive every day just to get to lectures. Nobody cares, Skyrim.

It doesn’t help that interaction with NPCs generally takes the form of you choosing one question to ask, listening to a static, drawn-out answer, then choosing the next question, listening to the next response, and then finishing the conversation, perhaps now with more knowledge or a new task to perform. It doesn’t feel like you’re actually interacting with anyone at all – it’s more like everyone is just dumping exposition or context in your direction, and so often it feels like exposition or context without any kind of filter. Maybe I’ll write a post on conversation in games at some point in the future, because I think it’s a point that so few developers understand. Developers who bother with dialogue in games often tend to think that because they have a potentially infinite time in which to present their dialogue, unlike a movie or a play, they can take as long as they like. But dialogue, any dialogue should be fast-moving and to the point, unless you’re trying to write some kind of Shakespearean soliloquy, in which case you better come very, very strong. Skyrim straddles the two, and it’s a straddling as uncomfortable as it sounds: it’s content to throw word after spoken word at you. And it never develops characters to the point where you’d care enough to actively want to listen. In The Witcher 2 (did I mention that it’s my current Game of the Year?) when Triss Merigold tells me of some terrible experience in her past I give a crap, because I’ve gotten to know this character and she’s well-written enough that I care about her. When some peasant I’ve just met in Skyrim launches off into his Oscar Moment I don’t care, because I don’t know this character, and anyway it’s not even a particularly well written speech.

This isn’t the interaction I’m looking for. There’s combat, and that’s fine – it is a fantasy role-playing game after all, and it would take a very brave and potentially genius-level person to make one of those without any combat at all (I’ll probably love anyone who does this). But there is too much  of the already uninteresting and unvaried combat by far, to the point where it feels like a crutch for a development team who couldn’t think of any new ways to let the player interact with the world they so meticulously created. And then there’s talking to people, which feels more like tidying up your bedroom – a chore you do end up performing quite often, but only because you know it’ll probably benefit you in the long run. In real life you clean your room because you think ‘what if an attractive girl comes round and sees my bedroom?’ (your mileage may vary), and in Skyrim you talk to person after person because you think ‘what if this person has some information I might need?’. These two aspects – the combat and the conversations, make up the majority of this gargantuan, sprawling game, and they’re not good enough.

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Finally, Some Suggestions:

1. Make combat rarer, but up the ante when it is there:

I don’t understand how this isn’t well understood in the games industry yet: if you throw enemies at the player all the time the player will cease to see those enemies as significant. But if you make the player fight fewer enemies you can afford to make those enemies more difficult – stronger, and perhaps smarter.  Focus on giving the player fewer fights, but make those fights a lot more difficult, and varied. These fights will be more satisfying, both because they happen less often, and because they can, if you’ve put the effort in, be far more interesting than the swarms of standard enemies that, in Skyrim at least, the player sees again and again.

The same general point can be made with almost anything in the game: loot, for example. Throughout the game you practically hoover up various items from defeated enemies and from treasure chests – healing potions, weapons, armour, enchanted rings, etc. etc. But there are so many of these things that after a while you stop taking all but the most expensive or powerful items. Everything else becomes so much dross that you don’t even bother with. Instead, the game should focus on giving you less of these items but making them far more powerful, and far more interesting. Make potions rare but give them very powerful effects. Make it far less likely that you’ll find a new piece of armour, but make every piece of armour powerful, with special and unique properties. Players will most likely be far more excited to find a new piece of equipment, rather than swapping something out for the incremental defence bonus it gives. The Witcher 2 does this magnificently – there are very few sets of armour you can actually buy or make, but almost every one feels like a big step up from the last, or gives you strange and interesting benefits. Essentially the point is this: make things rarer, but also make them more varied/challenging/powerful.

2. Cut the number of NPCs and the number of lines of dialogue by at least a half:

People talk too much in Skyrim, and they simply don’t have that much that I want to hear. Don’t have everyone tell me about their wife, or about their farm. And don’t have so many people walking around, or else make it so that they ignore me. If I were walking through the streets of London and tried to talk to everyone there I’m pretty sure they’d just go on and ignore me, and that’s fine. My point above stands: if you have thousands of lines of dialogue the player may cease to see them as significant after a time, unless they are spectacularly well-written, but if you make the spoken word rare in your game, and make it so that every time someone says something it’s actually important, shocking, or useful then people will remember your writing and your characters. Essentially, part of the problem here is this: there are too many people for which to write compelling dialogue. And part of the answer is this: make less people and less dialogue, and focus on honing what you have.

3. Mix things up as often as you have a good idea:

Don’t make it so that every time I walk into a bandit cave I know I have to kill everything that breathes. Sometimes just give me an empty cave with signs of previous habitation (Half-Life 2 did this extremely well – you would often walk into a building and be able to come to understand what had happened to the inhabitants merely by looking at the environment – a saw blade here, a pile of clothes here, and a massive blood-stain there). Make it so that instead of having to kill bandit leader No. 4 I instead have to pursue and capture an escaped criminal. Let me talk a convict out of executing his captors. Probably make the world a lot smaller, and focus your efforts on quality rather than quantity. I understand that there’s a desire for big, open worlds, but Skyrim is mostly a land filled with levels of similarity, and though it’s a lot better than most other games of its kind (I remember the countless near-identical dungeons to be found throughout The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion) it’s not quite good enough.

Those are the few, general points Bethesda, or any other developer, could and jolly well should keep in mind when making an open-world game in the future. I don’t get into many specific ways to improve things because (a) I’ve gone on for far too long already, and (b) it seems foolish to reveal my secrets. I’m designing, on paper I should say, a kind-of open-world game and I’m not sharing my brilliant insights into game design theory with just anyone.

Sorry for going on so long. I would like to promise that Part 2, when it emerges, will be far less length, but really, I’m not going to promise that at all. I am going to say one more thing before the end though: I did enjoy Skyrim quite a bit, and I’m still dipping into it every so often. I’ve been quite harsh in my criticism here, but I should reiterate that it is a very good game.  I think it falls short in a number of ways, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that this is an impressive piece of work. And I imagine many people will fall quite justifiably in love with it. However, I stand by everything I’ve said above, and I think that Bethesda, if they just changed their approach a little, could have made something far better.

[stay tuned for Part 2, which will see me getting all nostalgic about The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, and which should hit sometime in the near/not-too-distant/actually-somewhat-distant future]

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