Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Lessons from Skyrim

My apologies for being a little quiet on the blog front lately. I should reassure those eagerly awaiting the release of The Shattered War that I have actually been putting some time into modding. It is time, however, to take a closer look at some aspects of design of the recent success that is Skyrim, and look at those things that did and did not work. In this post, I'll examine some of the design issues that other games can learn from.

Art Design aka "It's not all about tech"
There is no denying that Skyrim is a beautiful game. People are taking time lapse "photography" of the game because it simply looks that good. Now, while many will attribute this to the "graphics", which is the technical wizardry behind the graphics, this isn't why the game is so jaw-dropping. Compare it to Crysis 2, which technically is a gorgeous game, but from a design point of view there weren't a lot of those moments where you just stopped and went "Wow, that's gorgeous." Skyrim, despite not having all the bells and whistles of the best Anti-aliasing, shader effects, glorious reflections and refractions, real-time realistic shadows, DX11 tesselation, or the myriad of other features offered in some technically superior games, simply looks attractive. It doesn't have the highest resolution textures or the best level of detail distance gradient handling, but it just downright looks good.

The reason Skyrim looks so good is because of the effort made to create a beautiful world where there are particular artistic styles and themes throughout. The terrain covers alpine forests, rolling hills, badlands, swamps, rivers cutting through chasms, ice floes... there are so many different types of terrain but each presents a cohesive visual style and this is supported by the flora, animals, weather and even enemies that you encounter in those areas. This applies to the interiors as well, each of which adhere to a consistent style, but have their own unique elements. The Dwemer ruins in particular have some absolutely spectacular scenery; it's likely that you've never seen dwarven ruins that look this good in any medium.

It's a long way down...

Level Design
The aesthetics of level design are not the only aspects that should be credited here, but also the functional aspects of levels. Interiors, in particular is an area where levels have typically been designed very well. Backtracking is a problem that results in tedious gameplay of passing over empty areas when you force the player into an area within one way in and out. The obvious means to solve this problem is to have an exit when the player reaches the end, though this the designers must mean that this cannot be an alternate entrance to the area that an adventurous player could potentially find and short-circuit the entire dungeon. Skyrim does manage to do this, and it is quite effective.

Perhaps even more impressive and interesting is the manner in which many dungeons are created with only a single entrance/exit, but are created as a closed loop. The player follows a set path to reach the final boss/treasure room, but continuing after this will result in the player looping back to a location very near to the entrance of the interior. Even more successful is that this is done in a variety of ways, so it doesn't ever feel particularly stale or overly contrived. The "exit path" joins is blocked off from the entrance path by a number of ways: sometimes a barred door or unopenable gate, sometimes a secret door, other times a high ledge that is impossible for the player to reach. This loop system, in conjunction with areas that do have a separate entrance and exit, means that design of interior levels is both interesting and functional.

This is the entrance to a cave, and that ledge is shortly after the final room

Skyrim shows how puzzles in games can be done really well. These puzzles aren't minigames. They aren't alternative game mechanics. They're elements within the gameworld that are integrated in a fashion to present the player with a simple mental/visual challenge in order to proceed. Fairly early on in the game, you'll likely stumble across a door with three rings with symbols open them, which can apparently be opened by a claw. While this initially might seem like an issue of trial and error, you'll quickly learn that the claw holds the key to the correct sequence of symbols. This puzzle becomes trivial once you know the solution, but it's a near seamless way to include puzzles into the game.

Traps are visible and possible to avoid if you as the player are attentive, as opposed to a random die roll that determines whether your character can see them. While this isn't new, the traps are such that you actually do care about them because they can do a lot of damage or kill you outright, but also because you can quite easily use them to destroy unwitting enemies. This is a refreshing change from things like the paltry shotgun traps of Fallout 3 that were really of little consequence except for providing you with repair fodder/ammo.

There are symbol alignment/placement puzzles and lever switching puzzles that are also fairly easy to solve for the attentive and/or logical player, but the real joy is that you feel like you're interacting with the environment itself. There's no BioShock pipemania, no Mass Effect 1 Simon, no Alpha Protocol "findaword". It's simply a matter of observing the gameworld and interacting with it directly. It almost feels like a pity that the lockpicking mechanic is akin to those from Fallout, for this pulls you out of the gameworld in a way that the puzzles do not.

Symbols to align before I can pull the level to open the gate

Now, while these are aspects of Skyrim that I thought deserve a positive mention, there are some places where Bethesda still come up a little short. I'll be looking at a few of those areas in my next post.

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