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Skyrim Criticism

The Elderscrolls V

Johnathon Swift, Blogger

March 8, 2012

11 Min Read

I've been wanting to do this for a while, and this is critique Skyrim from the perspective of being a game. That is, just try to point out, for the devs and anyone interested, what the game did right, and wrong, from a gameplay perspective. Which is not a review, reviews say "whether I liked it" and then "give a score" and try to indicate "whether you should buy it". This isn't that.

The Fantasy of all Fantasies

I think the key to The Elderscrolls Success is that it allows players to live out a fantasy of being someone (usually a heroic type) in a realized fantasy world, and it doesn't put too much constraint on how people go about that, nor too much definition on who they are as a character.

In other words, its a series that has tried to capture some of the spirit of Dungeons and Dragons. A large portion of enjoyment in both series seems to come from people defining their own characters and their motivations in their heads. While other games and intellectual properties ranging from the mostly defunct Might and Magic to Fable have placed the player in a realized fantasy setting, they have all defined the character and what they can and can't do far more than The Elderscrolls has.

Obviously this overall game design is a winning one, and something that has been continuously "done right".

But is there anything that could be done, better about it?

The answer here is, frankly, yes. If you've seen the unquestionably biased review by Yahtzee, AKA Zero Punctuation, or even if you've tried it yourself you'll notice that it is incredibly hard to be a poor nobody in Skyrim. Or to struggle at all, at anything really. As with any objective the player may wish to achieve being poor, or struggling for something, or etc. is just as valid an objective as any other, but it's actually incredibly hard to struggle in Skyrim. You are almost guaranteed success around every corner.

Every dark dungeon will always be defeatable, there's no challenge to picking a town clean of every possession, and in the end you are given most things near on a silver platter. This not only does not serve those wishing to not be a wild and incredible success, but is also a disservice to anyone seeking any sort of challenge to accomplishing things. Now, it is perfectly true that any one game can not be all things to all people. But I feel willing to suggest some sort of basic challenge could be presented in the series, enough to at least keep those not wishing great success from the very same being foisted upon them, while at the same time not overly hampering those who's wish does involve success.

Location Location Location, also things about coffee being for winners and The Setting!

There is something dreadfully missing from the genre of modern Fantasy that is not from its related genre of Science Fiction, and that is originality in setting. Now, immediately there are going to be people who will argue against originality in setting. That elves and dragons and land that looks incredibly nordic in culture is far preferable to other, less familiar things. I say right now that there is no business need to engage such people whatsoever.

Why? Because such people are an incredibly small, if vocal, minority. There is a vast amount of humanity that is perfectly capable of accepting and engaging with entirely new and fairly alien concepts for entertainment purposes; so long as they are introduced in logical, connected, and easy to understand manner. For example, the top grossing movie of all time, by a factor of 2, is about blue space cat people that ride pterodactyls on a distant moon that circles a gas giant. Which means that several hundred million people around the world found this concept easy enough to spend $8+ and a few hours of their time on.

Now, admittedly a game is best (for the developer) sold at the launch price of (usually) $60 and is thus a bit of a harder sell, and so consumers may be more risk averse about such things. But my point is that if such foreign concepts as those displayed in Avatar can get $8, then merely pushing out beyond the increasingly stale accepted fantasy genre tropes will not be particularly risky. Certainly you may have those threatening to take their business elsewhere, but what product doesn't have that? In fact the addition of originality may in fact bring on more customers than the potential loss of the aforementioned vocal minority. Regardless, the point is that Skyrim does indeed stick very closely to the stale fantasy genre tropes when there is no need to do so.

Gentlemen, Prepare to Defend yourselves!

Ahhh, what's the use? I can't be particularly nice about this, three times a promise of engaging combat in an Elderscrolls came, three miserable failures. As with anything, literally anything anyone can imagine, there will be those who defend TES's combat. Moving on from those people, the combat has been characterized as boring, a chore, worse even than Oblivion's, and many other such things. And from someone trying to take what objective standpoint that can be taken they're all correct. I would talk about what Bethesda has been doing wrong, but it would be easier to give examples of games that do combat right.

A recent example that can be better, and more succinctly dissected is Kindgoms of Amalur: Reckoning. What does this, also fantasy open world(ish) rpg, do right? The combat in this game is first off highly responsive. This means several things, first that when the player presses a button something happens very quickly and very obviously. If they tap the "dodge" key then around a hundred milliseconds later, a tenth of a second, the players avatar will be rolling a dramatic distance away from its previous position and will then quickly resume the stance which indicates combat readiness.

I.E. Things are fast, input is carried out quickly, and the results are very clearly communicated to the player. Whenever the player hits an enemy, with any weapon, there is a very clear and immediate response of what that did. Thus, the game's combat is responsive, but that's not all it does right. The other thing the game does right is that the combat is dynamic. Meaning position and timing matter a whole lot. If one of the games enemies, a troll, is about to smash your avatar it is (nominally) imperative that the player responds with a good response, the wrong response can lead to a massive drop in health. Thus the game presents different situations in which the player needs to do different things. After the "smash" attack, a clearly advertised animation is followed by a clearly advertised opportunity for attack without fear of retribution.

In other words, the player nominally doesn't just smash a button but moves around, and uses timing and other skills in order to succeed. No this is not to say the game even need be particularly difficult for at least some engagement. The Fable series, which has a similar, if lesser, combat system is fairly easy in terms of skill that is needed to surmount the presented enemies. Never the less Fable's combat has almost universally been remarked to be more engaging than any of The Elderscrolls games.

Getting back to Amalur, what did that game get wrong? I shall borrow from this years Game Developers Conference to paraphrase, if a player feels comfortable using the same learned tactic over and over again, then introduce an enemy that that tactic doesn't work against. Unfortunately for Amalur this is something the designers didn't do. Many players will no doubt arrive at a time in this game when most every enemy can be defeated by infinitely stun locking, or temporarily stunning, enemies until they are dead. Combat then becomes tedious, and you are reduced to nothing more than mashing a single button over and over again. Rounding off to the point, The Elderscrolls has the opportunity to avoid this but hasn't yet.

Ce Ne'st pa Una Personne

To translate from French, "This Is Not a Person". Or rather, while The Elderscrolls has improved mightily, game over game, in presenting non player characters as a person there is still room for improvement. The Good: Followers that occasionally have something to say, little cinema like displays that kick off quests (scripted events), even random npc's have things to say! The bad: Dimwitted guards that forget they've been shot through the eye by an arrow in order to go "back on patrol", a lack of acknowledgment of title or accomplishment, and a lack of the truly unexpected. Which segways nicely into...

The Missed Opportunities:

Sound Design and Technical Stuff: The sound design of The Elderscrolls has always been weak, and Skyrim is no different. When modders, unpaid certainly and amateurs much of the time, can quickly and easily replace much of the sounds in a game with those generally praised as higher quality then there's work and potential enjoyment being left on the table.

As an aside (skip if you've no interest in technical aspects of game design). A new engine and much better tools are needed. I salute the artists for wringing such visuals out of such a dated engine, but a dated engine is what Skyrim is definitely running on. This not only means it laggards behind the cream of crop in terms of visuals, but makes it harder than necessary for the artists using it to produce something sellable in a market still highly concerned with visuals. In order to transition to the next generation much, much, much more needs to be done. Lighting should not take so many hacks and so many variables to make acceptable, so many compromises need not be made in model detail when no doubt the source models are already much higher in polycount. The list goes on, but the point is that the current development procedures at Bethesda have produced tools that require an inordinate amount of work for the results they produce.

Making a larger game. This will spread things out, that's good. The Elderscrolls has grown to be a cacophony of noise and opportunities, overwhelming at times. In tradeoff for this we get a land that struggles at times to feel truly big or epic. Oh sure, a lot of graphical tricks can help, but at times there's just no hiding that that large rocky peak is just a very tiny hill. But a larger, more spread out game can give a bigger sense of scale and give players a bit of a layback. According to (personal opinion) the designer of the most atmospheric game in years, overstimulation can even kill the atmosphere of a game.

Certainly, again personal opinion, I enjoyed the long rides in Red Dead Redemption from place to place. And I don't think I'd be alone in suggesting that a loading screen can give a tiny, quiet moment to sit back and disengage totally (if that's what is needed). With the next generation of consoles, or some game machine, almost certain to bring the distant next Elderscrolls into the land of seamless game worlds it may even be a good idea to have other ways of spacing out all of the dungeons, quests, and encounters a player can find.

Oh that was wacky! Players love to engage each other over games that have unexpected outcomes. Its almost another direct benefit from a game that relies on complex simulations. Systems of simulation need not even be very complex in and of themselves if they are numerous and interconnected. Both experiencing and telling tales of how, due to some combination of AI and circumstances, some totally weird or off the cuff thing happened in a game can be highly rewarding. Unfortunately The Elderscrolls has never had much of this. I too remember the early tales of "Radiant AI" and how such did not pan out to the completed Oblivion. But being hard does not make a goal unworthy.

Coincidentally, this leads me to the end and my last hurrah for Skyrim, which has to do with that "letting the player fill in the story" bit in that last link I put up. If Bethesda did one thing right during constructing the world, it was to place things, and to ensure things were encountered, in a potentially interesting fashion. For my own part finding a mountain lion in a broken down cabin was both exhilarating and enticing. Why was there a mountain lion in a broken down cabin? The best story bits in Skyrim did not come out of any npc's mouth or scripted event, which were honestly a bit mediocre, but out of my own head. Letting the player fill in the story of places is as good a way to design the world as letting the player fill in their own character, and I salute Bethesda for it.

Well, that's it for my criticism. If I think of something brilliant I may add it. But there we are.

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