The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim

I’ve been playing a lot of Skyrim recently. I was late to this particular party for a couple of reasons. One is that I hate DLC; or more precisely, I hate how DLC has effectively doubled the price of games, so I was waiting for the Skyrim: Game of the Year Edition (aka the “Legendary Edition”) to come out, with the entire game on the disc. But the other reason is that I really hated the previous game in the series, Oblivion, so buying Skyrim was a bit of a risk, and hence I waited until I happened to see it for $30.

As it turns out, I needn’t have waited. I’ve been really enjoying the game. It manages to be a huge open world that actually feels like a world. While the Grand Theft Auto games have better graphics and gameplay, their worlds are mostly collections of decorated boxes made up to look like buildings. Once you step out of the car, you realize most of the world is backlot scenery. (Perhaps one of the reasons why the studio backlot in GTA V is so unrealistically small is that making it bigger would draw unpleasant comparisons with the rest of the game.)

GTA buildings

In Skyrim, buildings are things you can actually go inside. Granted, it does look as though every ancient ruin was furnished from the same Tamriel IKEA, but I can suspend my disbelief enough to get past that. At least an interesting-looking castle generally turns out to be an actual castle I can explore, and not just something I’m supposed to look at briefly while speeding past.

And yet, with all the hours they must have spent building the actual world, the game still has so many gratingly awful defects that jolt me out of immersion time and time again.

Why does my sword make such a loud “schwingg!” when I draw it? Swords don’t make that noise, and I don’t need a noise to tell me that I’ve drawn one because I can see it on the screen. Why am I the only person who can hear the noise, when it’s clearly louder than the sound of actual combat? Did nobody actually try stealth gameplay? It would be easy to fix the playback volume of the sword noise, surely?

Why does my companion keep coughing and making comments when we’re both trying to be stealthy, and why can’t anyone else hear him? Why, when I have a perk that says I’ve learned to cast all spells silently, do they still make a noise? Again, couldn’t the game play the spell effects really quietly? And why can enemies still apparently hear some spells? My dreams of cunningly casting silent explosive runes as traps were dashed.

Let’s talk about combat. As with Oblivion, there’s the basic problem that real time combat does not work in RPGs. I don’t just mean that I dislike it, I mean that it fundamentally doesn’t work in this kind of game. One of the key features of an RPG is that you have a lot more verbs at your disposal than just a single “attack” verb; you can slice with a sword, shoot with an arrow, heal self, heal companion, cast fear on, cast enrage on, cast calm on, fireball, ice storm, poison, raise dead, and so on. An FPS-style UI just doesn’t work when you have that many verbs. Even with a keyboard, where you could theoretically give each verb its own key, actually playing a game with those controls would be horrible.

But Skyrim deeply, desperately wants to be an FPS, because apparently that’s the only kind of game US gamers want. And in spite of the critical and commercial success of Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas — both of which I really enjoyed — Bethesda don’t feel comfortable offering an option for turn-based combat in Skyrim, even though the same game engine was used for Fallout so it obviously supports such a thing.

So Skyrim has a weird modal interface. Most of the time you’re in real time mode, and the four trigger buttons perform actions in real time. The two upper triggers do whatever is in your right and left hands, and the two lower triggers are alternate actions involving magic. Monsters run at you, and you pull your bow in real time as they approach, then loose an arrow; or you charge up your fire spell, then release the button to spray magical flames at the enemy.

Sword combat is horrible, by the way. Your field of view is quite restricted in first person, the camera tilts and pans every time you swing your weapon, and there’s no real indication of targeting. You pretty much just flail around like you’re trying to smack a bandit piñata until it falls on the ground and you can take out the delicious candy. In fact, replace candy with 12 gold coins and an iron sword, and that’s exactly what most of the game is like. Yes, sword combat is a hard thing to model, however it can be done well — just try Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, or even the earlier non-motion-controlled iterations.

But not every game company has someone like Shigeru Miyamoto and a willingness to ignore all deadlines until the small details of gameplay are absolutely right. I accept that, and I accept Skyrim’s horrible swordplay, because the clunky melée isn’t actually the worst part of Skyrim combat. No, it doesn’t get really ludicrous until enemies close with you, hit you a few times, you see your health going down, and you push the circle button — and suddenly the world stops. You are jolted out into what feels like an entirely separate game of menus and selections. In that game, you can do anything you want for as long as you want, and your enemies will wait, immobile and silent, until you push the button to return to the real time world.

This leads to some farcically ridiculous gameplay. Smashed heavily by a skeleton wielding a sword? Simply pause him between sword thrusts and have lunch! A couple of bowls of soup for starters, two roast legs of goat, two entire wheels of cheese, a dozen apples, three Danish pastries and a couple of bottles of wine to wash it all down, that’s the stuff. In any sane universe you’d probably be puking or comatose, but in Skyrim you’re feeling much better and can un-pause the skeleton who has apparently been patiently waiting while you cram your gullet.

In a turn-based RPG, it’s easy to fix this kind of reality breakage. You have a certain amount of action time available before your enemies get their turn, and eating an item takes a certain amount of action time. But Skyrim is stuck with menu actions taking no time, because it needs to try and maintain the fiction that the menus are just selecting which verbs are going to be mapped to the four action buttons. I like modality in text editors; I’m writing this using Vim. But it makes for a lousy RPG.

The scenery in Skyrim is beautiful. I can’t fault its appearance. Practically speaking, though, the mountains are a pain in the ass. They’re not quite as glitchy as in Fallout 3, but still, I’ve managed to get stuck in them a couple of times, falling into the middle of rocks, getting a glimpse of the digital void on the other side of reality, and ending up unable to get out. Climbing the mountains is a frustrating and unrealistic exercise in repeated jumping, and while there’s usually an easy path somewhere, it isn’t marked on your map, so good luck finding it. (Another annoyance it would be easy to fix.)

Jumping, incidentally, is something you can still do even if you’re wearing full plate armor and encumbered with 400 mystery units of loot. You can’t run or sprint, but you can still leap vertically up mountains. As in other Bethesda games, you stay completely unaffected by the amount of stuff you carry, until you pick up that one apple that puts you over the limit, and bam — you’re encumbered. Again, this would be easy to fix, wouldn’t it? I’m not asking for physically realistic encumbrance laws — this is a fantasy world filled with dragons, after all, and I understand that letting me carry around 200 bottles of magical potion inside my plate mail is a necessary conceit to make the game fun — but if 400 units of gear mean I can’t run at all, shouldn’t 399 units mean my running is slower than normal?

The NPC AI… Well, I’ve experienced worse. It sure would be nice if objects that I can walk straight through like they don’t exist, could also be walked through or over by my companion, so that he doesn’t continually get blocked from following me by pieces of broken pottery. It would also be good if the game could follow the general rule that if I can see a creature on screen, it ought to be doing something other than standing utterly motionless waiting to feel the tip of my arrow. It seems as though creatures only start to move when I get within a certain distance of them, which is all very well except that that distance is far shorter than line of sight, even in a dungeon. Creatures keep moving without any difficulty once activated, so wouldn’t it be easy enough to make them activate as soon as they get drawn on my screen?

Another AI problem I’m pretty sure is solvable would be to make it so that my companion doesn’t run in front of me and stop directly on the imaginary line that extends from me to the principal enemy. Maybe it makes sense to try and protect me this way if I’m not doing anything much, but can we at least activate the algorithm when I have a drawn bow in my hand aimed at the enemy?

At this point, I might have convinced you that Skyrim is awful. It isn’t, it’s beautiful and I’m off to play it some more when I finish writing this article. My point is just that it has a large number of very obvious gameplay flaws, many of which could be fixed relatively easily.

So for balance, let me praise some of the things Skyrim does better than Oblivion. The glassy-eyed staring NPC faces have been banished to Uncanny Valley, thankfully, though some characters still mysteriously change voice during dialogs. (Well, yes, I know the real reason — they had to call the voice actor back after they changed something, and he couldn’t quite get the same accent and inflection, and the mic and studio were different. But it’s still grating.)

Monsters no longer level up when you do. That was the single thing that made me quit playing Oblivion; I spent time training up to become a better fighter and went back out to kick the butt of some bandits who had almost killed me, and promptly discovered that all the wolves had been spending time at the wolf gym and had leveled up ready to maul me. Skyrim doesn’t do that. The NPCs get better weapons as you level up, but mostly the game behaves like a real RPG — if you head off in the wrong direction, you can end up getting your ass kicked, not to mention your horse stabbed. But that’s also part of the joy of an RPG — when you escape barely alive, you can make a note of the enemy who wronged you, and then after you’ve become more adept you can go back and get your revenge.

There are fewer mysteriously impregnable doors in Skyrim, which is good. There’s also practically no backtracking, which is more of a mixed blessing — on the one hand, you hardly ever have to work your way back through five tedious levels of underground labyrinth (hello “Fallout 3”), but on the other hand it does mean that the dungeon design has a certain painfully obvious linearity. But again, I accept that not every game company has Nintendo-caliber game designers.

And Skyrim is very, very pretty. Probably the most beautiful game I’ve seen since Metroid Prime; I guess I have a weakness for snowy terrain, particularly when I’m not actually in it but sitting in a warm room looking at it on a screen. Skyrim’s snow sparkles realistically, it’s the right shade of blue at the right angles, and I have spent hours wandering in the woods remembering winters in Minnesota. But please, can we have some open world RPGs that are turn-based?