Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Lessons from Skyrim (Part 2)

In my last post, I talked about some of the areas where games could learn from Skyrim in terms of its successes. In this post, I'd like to discuss some of the game's shortcomings.

Wait, you can get HOW powerful?
This has been a problem with Elder Scrolls (arguably Bethesda games in general) since Morrowind. As you get higher in levels, you can become obscenely powerful. It's not just that you become better as a player (which will arguably have some effect) or that you get better gear (which you will), it's the manner in which you can improve or create gear or your skills to the point where you become unfathomably powerful.

It's possible to enchant items to reduce the cost of destruction spells. These enchantments will stack across multiple items, potentially allowing you to decrease the cost of destruction spells (to unleash fire, ice or electricity upon your opponents) by 100%. That's right, with a high enchanting skill, you can cast offensive spells for no mana. Alternatively, maybe you'd like to increase your smithing abilities so you can create better weaponry. Well, if you get your smithing up to maximum level and improve items, you can end up with incredibly damaging weapons at your disposal that can dispatch any enemy in only a few hits.

Sure, the player can choose not to pursue these skills, but if they decide to, they don't necessarily realise how broken and overpowered these options are until it is too late. Then once the player has created and named their own custom set of enchanted armor and weapons, they can hardly be expected to just "give them up" simply because the designers failed to balance the game to cater for players who chose these pursuits.

Creating this was an exciting achievement, but it makes fighting a straightforward bore

Freak opponents
There are scaling issues for the opposition as well, though I wonder whether these might be bugs. A few times I faced an occasional quirks where one enemy would be vastly more powerful than its counterparts with exactly the same name (and hence theoretically should be the same level and roughly the same difficulty). In one case, a Falmer skulker (a low level archer) would kill me in a single hit if my health bar wasn't on absolute maximum. Not two enemies later, I found another Falmer skulker than did negligible damage and I could have taken about 8 arrows from him before I died. Even in my low 40s I encountered a random bandit that launched fireballs with utmost haste and I was dead before I even managed to get a bead on where he was shooting from. Fortunately in the latter case, a reload resulted in his replacement enemy being "normal", but the Falmer Skulker proved to be a very tough and annoying enemy to defeat.

Even at a high level (52), I've faced a couple of opponents that killed me in one hit while decked out in full dragonscale armor, and I've got a bucketload of armor increasing perks. Now, while I appreciate the concept that there are still enemies out there who could potentially be a threat to me, it simply doesn't make sense for some random vagrant in a hideout presenting more danger than some of the named "epic foes" of the game.

Is this Forsworn going to one-shot me? Who knows?

The run around
The real joy of the game comes from exploration. When you reach the point where you want to just go around completing quests, the game becomes a little bit more tedious than the heights of excitement that it offers. Once you've explored vast amounts of the map and are just looking to complete some quests, it becomes a simple matter of "Pick up quest at point A", "Fast travel to point B to have conversation", "Fast travel to point C to kill a few enemies", "Fast travel to point A to complete quest". Without the exploration aspect, quest completion often becomes a very straightforward process that doesn't hold a whole lot of surprises or intrigue.

The Elder Scrolls games focus on a massive breadth of content, and that is their strength. You have the freedom to explore pretty much anywhere and choose to do (or not do) what you wish. The problem is that while every player ultimately has a different experience because of that freedom, that freedom means that there is very little or no "small scale" freedom in determining how each of the "mini-adventures" play out. For the majority of quests, everyone will have the same experience in how the interactions and results play out, with the differences coming from the style of combat that the player chooses or the route they travel to reach their destination. There's no real replay value for individual quests, but merely replay value on attempting different combat styles, which as I've mentioned, you can potentially explore entirely in a single playthrough anyway.

I could go anywhere, but that is the only real choice

In same cases there are some minor choices which affect how things play out, but these are by far the exception rather than the rule. Even the dialogue roleplaying aspects are notably shallow, and your character is mostly a blank and shallow creation which has to follow many of the same lines regardless of personality. Given you are playing the voiceless dragonborn, it's up to you to inject personality into your character, because the game offers very little input into that aspect of roleplaying. You have a choice of what quests you will do in the world, but virtually no choice as to how you complete them.

World reactivity
One of the more notable problems relating to the immersion of the world is how it reacts to you. The problem here isn't that the characters don't react to you, because they do. It's that they don't react to you in a consistent manner. Town guards can notice me walking around with Azura's Star (a daedric artifact), yet Vigiliants of Stendarr (who hate daedra worshippers) won't bat an eyelid when I walk past them carrying the same daedric artifact, or even a daedric weapon from a daedra they consider to be (very) evil, even when I'm wearing armor from a different and also evil daedra. People from the other side of Skyrim will say "You're that made from College, heard about you", yet Farengar from Whiterun will keep telling me I should join the mages college if I have the aptitude, even though I've been the archmage for a couple of months. Or there's the guards that make fun of me being responsible fetching the mead for The Companions even though I've been their leader for even longer.

It's the inconsistency that gets to you in this regard, but also the fact that people seem to magically know things about you. The immersion breaker here is someone commenting: "so you're an alchemist then" or "I've always had respect for the school of restoration, Skyrim could do with more healers" even though they've never set eyes on me before, and I certainly haven't made a potion or cast a healing spell in front of them. By attempting to make the world react so much to you, it actually ends up feeling less realistic because the NPCs don't react to you in a believable manner. On the plus side, at least it does stop those guards talking incessantly about their old injuries...

I was going to do this post last week, then I took an arrow in the knee

These issues aren't entirely dealbreakers, but they are shortcomings of the game's design. Skyrim makes half-hearted attempts to address these issues, but as a result doesn't manage to satisfy the player in these areas. The balance is askew, choice is minimal at best, and the world has the bizarre situation of paying lip service to your actions without ever reacting to them properly.


  1. I was going to make a similar set of posts about my thoughts on Skyrim, but I think I'll just link to yours ;)

    - Leonard "Challseus" Bedner

  2. This is a pretty good summation of my personal problems with the game. I think in particular, the simplistic quest-design becomes a huge problem once the initial "wow" of exploring the game has worn off a bit.

    I think the quest design there needs to be broadened a bit, bringing the sandbox to the quests as well. Most of the time, it really is a matter of zipping around from point to point using fast-travel. There is very little for the player to do in the quests except dungeon crawl.

    In particular, I think they could've really taken a look at something like the faction system in New Vegas and brought some of that into Skyrim. One of the biggest assets Skyrim has *is* that it's a world with more political struggles, factions vying for power etc. It would make all the sense in the world for this to carry over more into the gameplay, forcing the player to make some choices with some consequences.

    It's true that TES is more about the breadth of content though, but I really think they could do with adding a bit more depth, challenging the player a bit in ways that is simply not combat.