Skyrim is a neat game, and interesting enough that I’ve played through at least the main quests twice over the last three or four years, also playing through the DLC the second time around. But I found that there were some hard limits in how much I was willing to view it as a highly fun or unique experience. There are a few premises in play that I think are central to that conclusion: a need for core improvements to how the systems of open worlds are simulated, the lack of commitment to free and open play, and mechanics that aren’t fun on the micro level.
Systems and their impact
In terms of the simulation of systems, including the passive and violent behaviors of NPCs, the schedules that tell them where to be and when, the passage of time, stealth, law, crime, and so on, Skyrim ultimately didn’t do much in 2011 that Ultima VII hadn’t done in 1992, almost 20 years before. While Skyrim’s hands-on micro gameplay is much more polished and sophisticated, and even its awkward storytelling far exceeds Ultima’s, these are iterative improvements, and little about the natural consequences of Skyrim’s systems really contribute to any feeling that it’s a game of great ambition. A small change to how property is managed can have a dramatic, cascading impact on the game that is arguably more important than whole towns full of new quests.
NPCs should be designed to respond to different stimuli. Instead of an emphasis on what they see the player do–like stealing their things–they should think about the consequences of their things being stolen. This is not nearly as pie-in-the-sky as it first sounds. NPCs could remember what they own, a simple list of everything that started out in their house, and they could respond when they see that any of those things are missing. They should have to physically leave their house and report a theft to an existing guard. It should be harder, but less RNG-based, to steal and fence things, and to turn a profit in general. If the player steals a gem and replaces it with a fake, the game could be told that those two items have similar properties and understand without being scripted for that specific theft in advance that the NPC has no reason to get upset. The player could also become a suspect in a theft, and a guard might request to see the contents of the player’s inventory. The player could plant the stolen item on someone else, getting virtually any character arrested. The player could even sneak in and steal an item from a bandit camp and watch as the suspicious bandits kill each other. The consequences of deeper systems would have been profound.
Freedom from handholding, freedom to break the game
Skyrim has a handholding problem, and the quest log and compass are largely responsible. It doesn’t even matter what NPCs tell you, as long as you get the map marker afterwards. Morrowind’s journal was messy, but if they returned to that, building a cool diary with folder tabs and immersive organization, letting players add their own entries
and cross out words, it would help those players actually think about the quests they were doing. The experience would feel more natural and less like an MMORPG skinner box.
Skyrim’s freedoms are a step down from Morrowind’s in other respects as well. The comparatively crude Ultima VII allowed the player to indulge in much more ridiculous whims. Skyrim allows players to decide which quest they want to do and when they want to do it, but tends to shy away from the more chaotic elements in favor of locking things down to create a slightly more balanced game that’s less fun for rebels and tricksters who have clever ideas of their own. Since the game has no online PVP and isn’t advertised first and foremost as a tactical challenge, this is a pointless concern.
Spells should let players leap across the map and disrupt the game’s natural progression, the way they could in Morrowind. Bring back creative custom spells that make NPCs do whatever the player wants for the next two seconds after the spell is cast! Let players drag a cannon across the world and blast a door off its hinges, like in Ultima VII! Games exist on a spectrum between the sense of fairness and quality of good balance (which we expect from Street Fighter or Starcraft), and a sense of glee in being able to break things and do what we want (like jumping on a staircase of placed tripmines to circumvent a wall in Half-Life, or punching into a Minecraft dungeon from the back room to avoid all the enemies). Skyrim has every reason to be the latter sort of game, but instead, it’s bland.
The quality of the immediate gameplay
The actual mechanics of combat, repetitive action to level up, and sometimes even the quests make Skyrim feel like a single-player MMO. There’s no sense of challenge, which means no sense of reward for overcoming challenge. Once the initial system is up and running, it takes less time to build a radiant quest than it does to play one. These are never fun, and are poison for a completionist. The “micro” aspects, what makes the game fun in the moment of swinging a sword, as opposed to the “macro” side of attempting to wrap up all the quests in a hub, are empty compared to the feel of the Witcher games, and even those have nothing on games which immerse themselves wholly in the moment, like Dark Souls or Bloodborne. If the player tries to actually do all the minor things on their quest log, they’ll find that experience largely soulless, because it wasn’t entertaining in the moment.
There should be less emphasis on the damage numbers of attacks, and more on the speed and range of attacks, and on the strategies of player builds and perks that synergize with skills. Attack animations could be dynamic, perhaps with the character growing more precise and confident in their swing as the player levels up a skill. Weapon swings shouldn’t ghost through an enemy and lower HP, but really collide and cause feedback. The fundamental goal here is for players to see a difference when they level up, yet allow a really skilled player to get by at low levels by taking greater risks with slower swings and fewer weapon choices. In the existing game it’s the opposite: fights are determined purely by the numbers, unless the AI pathing or attack range is cheesed.
Skyrim at its best
So what’s so good about it? For one, a lot of hard work went into it. The world is beautiful and fun to wander around in. It has the best modding scene of perhaps any game ever, though the mods aren’t really capable of pulling up the major problems by their roots or changing the overall feel of the game. (Skywind might beautifully recreate the towns of Morrowind, but I’ll believe they can add the old “Jump” spells back in when I see it.) I also enjoyed many of Skyrim’s questlines. I had little if any choice in how to complete them, but the events were often exciting and the cross-game world lore of The Elder Scrolls is really fascinating, even if the dialogue, characters, factions, and so on aren’t nearly as interesting in themselves.
I’ve got a few other suggestions that just might’ve made Skyrim one of my all-time favorite games:
- No level-scaling. Morrowind didn’t have it, and that worked great. You should not be able to kill a dragon at level 7 unless there’s some lore reason for why that one dragon was pathetically off its game. Players should have things to be afraid of and goals to reach, and should run the other way most of the time they see a dragon, unless they’re very high level or have used the game’s resources to build a creative trap. The level scaling also means that bandits will have a billion HP just because the player gained several levels at the beginning of the game solely by improving Speech, Pickpocketing, and other non-combat skills. It was poorly thought-out.
- Perks should be better. It’s unsatisfying to unlock many of them. SPERG had some interesting ideas. Other mods most likely do as well. Either-or choices, one perk at the expense of another, also would have been great.
- Here’s a nitpick: lines of voice acting should come with a smart system that determines when the player should stop hearing them. The more clever or complicated a line is, the more irritating it is to hear it repeated. Nobody gets sick of hearing an NPC say “Hi,” “Hello,” or “Hey there.” If you stagger the more complex “arrow to the knee” lines out based on completed quests, player level, and area, and make sure they aren’t repeated more than a few times, and only after several hours have passed, you’d be on the right track. There’s also no reason to make all your voice actors record the same line.
- Look for some writers who are less, well, gamey. I want moments. I want to slip away from the crowds during some big festival, make my way down to the docks where a girl sits alone with her legs in the water, and listen to her talk for no reason about no problems that I can solve. I want to get invited to some family’s house and eat a man’s stew and get to know him without exposition. I want Harvest Moon at its best, not an MMO at its worst.
These suggestions are also a good place to start in a wishlist for The Elder Scrolls VI or Fallout 4. Unfortunately, it’s questionable whether Bethesda has the ambition to improve more than the graphics engine and to crank out a pretty epic main questline in their next game. If I were a betting man, I’d sooner expect this kind of ideal game from CD Projekt Red or Obsidian, companies with games that aren’t packed with as much content, but known to make bolder choices.
Still, Bethesda’s got the money to spend. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.