Well, Skyrim came out again. They're calling it a “special edition,” and a “remaster,” but the truth is that it's barely even retouched. They marginally improved graphics in a way I personally don't even notice without a side by side comparison, and they even left many obvious, well known bugs in the game. So I figured I'll give my criticism, but I'll also give as many ways as I can think of that they could have and really should have improved things.
The Open World
Bethesda’s chief concern when designing games seems to be the ultimate “open world,” specifically a sandbox game where the player can truly go anywhere and do anything at anytime. However, if they want to make this accessible to the mass market, that means they have to make sure that no area is unbeatable, even for a brand new character. Designing a world this way means that essentially, they've made a game of starting areas; because they don't want you to have a bad time anywhere, even from the start, which means that they can't put any specifically designed challenges anywhere, they can't make one area tougher than another, and they can't have special rewards hidden throughout the world, because a new player can't have something too powerful. By trying to give the player freedom, Bethesda has limited their own options.
The simplest way to solve this problem is actually very old, it just requires giving up on the idea of a “totally open” world. Sometimes, structure is preferred, most certainly in games, where the entire experience literally is the structure. Maybe they should restrict parts of the game artificially, but there should be places the player clearly should and should not go at various points throughout the game. This has been done since the very first Legend of Zelda, where the entire overworld is available to you right from the start, but there are places that can and will kill you very easily. Skyrim should be like that, there are many places that are supposed to be deadly for anyone who just wanders in unprepared. The game designers just have to, you know, design a game in Skyrim.
When an adventurer dies, that's the end of the adventure. When a player dies, that's a mistake that should affect them, but not prevent them from continuing to enjoy the game. Skyrim tries to reconcile these two ideas by making it so that death erases all progress, but only since your last save. The problem here is that you can save at almost any time whatsoever. Essentially this means that the player is setting their own checkpoints, which means that death is a punishment based on how frequently you save your game. The result is that you either save infrequently and have to replay portions of the game (especially in the overworld, where autosaves are rare), or you save whenever you make progress and all tension is lost.
In an open world, checkpoints are even more important than a linear, stage based game, because the positioning of the checkpoints lets the game designers decide how much is at stake, by making checkpoints closer to or further from a given challenge. This save and reload system really gives the impression that realism comes first, and fun was considered afterward, leaving us with lengthy death animations and frustrating loading screens. Leaning towards realism seems odd in a game where you can become a werewolf, punch dragons to death, and read lizard porn.
The dragonborn is supposed to be a legendary, mythical hero. In fact, they actually have justification for you to respawn right there in the lore; dragons cannot be truly killed by mortals, and you play as a humanoid with the soul of a dragon. There is currently a story justification for you to be unkillable, and the current system actually seems more awkward and inconsistent with the story. Instead, death should lose some of your equipment and/or expertise points, and revive you at a checkpoint, perhaps towns or special shrines. Maybe you could even set up respawn camps, but make it take time and cost something, so that the player can't just infinitely save and reload. Death needs to carry some consistent tension, not just be a huge bother to people who don't quicksave or a meaningless time waster for people who do.
Much like in Minecraft, melee combat in Skyrim is mostly a test of endurance. Sure, you have shield bashes and power attacks, but they don't usually add much to a battle, unless you get specific perks that make your damage numbers higher for certain moves, which just shortens the encounter slightly.
This is one area where Bethesda’s obsession with making the game pretty rather than functional is really a problem. Enemies are so over animated that it's often hard to tell when the attack is even hitting, and the difference in speed between weapon types is almost negligible, making it so that they feel identical, just with slightly different numbers attached. This battle system needs very little tweaking to improve, but even a little work would make it so very much more fun to fight an enemy, it could easily be an exciting portion of the dungeon, rather than an annoying diversion between looting chests.
The point of melee combat in video games is to make combat encounters feel more weighty, more personal, maybe even more immersive for the player. If you wanted to make a game where characters wave lumpy sticks at each other and deal damage at an indeterminate distance, you could just make a first person shooter. Of course, they have done that, but that's no excuse to let their real claim to fame fall by the wayside. It often seems like everything about combat in Skyrim was designed to make it feel as imprecise as possible, from the way weapons are hefted laboriously through the air, to the way health slides slowly off of an unmarked bar at both ends.
The first and foremost change needed to make a battle feel like a battle is to make it very easy to tell the difference between the windup and the actual attack, as well as doing something to delineate the reach of the attack. This would allow some measure of skill beyond the occasional shield bash. On the other hand, the easiest change would to fix that awful health bar. Clearly it's supposed to look pretty rather than work well, but it really just looks plain. If there was a way to tell at a glance about how low it was, if it stayed up to date instead of draining awkwardly, it would be that much easier to tell how much progress you're making against a particular enemy.
An Axe In The Knee
Axes are different from swords. Obviously. You’re swinging a wedge of metal on the end of a long handle, rather than a long blade of fine metal. This gives you differences in timing, power, and even the type of damage being dealt. None of this seems to have been considered in Skyrim, because while the different weapons do technically have different attack speeds, and minor variance in damage numbers, they don’t actually feel any different. There are noticeable differences between one handed and two handed weapons, and dual wielding is kinda interesting sometimes, but a wider variance would only increase the depth of combat.
Also, it would be nice for any game to make dual wielding actually interesting, giving you the ability to use your weapons asynchronously and independent of each other. This would be somewhat difficult to pull off, but it would be better than how most games treat it, where dual wielding is basically just attacking with two swords at once, or just swinging one after the other. That of course, is just a general matter of preference, not necessarily something Skyrim should have done, but I digress.
All too often, magic in Skyrim just plays out as a redundant form of combat. You have your weapons spells, your shield spells, your armour spells, spells that heal you, spells that summon things which will use their weapons and shields for you, and the occasional spell that does something interesting and unique to magic. But magic shouldn’t just be another way to hit things, it should be a way to do things you can’t do with mundane tools. The point of a role playing game, the thing that makes it different from an adventure game, is the player’s ability to dictate how their character develops, the opportunity to create a character that other people who play the game can compare and contrast with their own resulting character. The point here is that different options should yield different results, and I feel like the difference between mage and warrior is far too small.
Creatively speaking, the designer should strive for as many different options with mundane abilities, be it swords and axes, bows and arrows, or even traps and bombs, make a wide array of different options that function as differently from one another as possible. Then, once mundane options have been expended, use magic as a way of expanding on the various game systems even more, pushing your ideas past what is traditionally considered impossible and make the game impossibly fun! At least, that’s the ideal result. The point is, magic shouldn’t do the same things as mundane skills, but with cooldowns and mana costs. It should do new and interesting things that a more mundane character couldn’t do.
Lots of people have complained about the Legendary skill system (and rightly so), but I’d like to go a step further, and look at the deeper functionality of the levelling system in general. Character progression is achieved by doing things. If you forge weapons and armour, you level up smithing skills. Sneaking around and hiding from others levels up stealth skills. Fighting enemies and monsters will level up stealth skills. Once you’ve levelled up your skills enough, you level up, increasing your choice of health, stamina, or magicka by ten points, as well as gaining a perk point which can be used to obtain special abilities or bonuses related to various skills. The interplay between systems allows the player to focus on skills they like, and improve them in more dynamic ways. Sound great right? You have to actively perform activities to become more skilled, and there’s a dynamic interaction between these systems that allows you to focus on whatever skills you prefer.
However, there are two major problems with this system of progression. First, the perks are crippled. They have been mechanically hamstrung by being limited by your skill level. This means that whatever skills you end up performing more often can push your level higher, and you’ll have to grind your preferred skills in order to keep them relevant. This results in a system that may be slightly more realistic, but could also easily end up being less fun. A simple fix for these issues would be tying the perks to character level, which would make it still possible to limit the player’s progression, but doesn’t restrict abilities based on your actions. It’s important to limit grinding as much as possible, even if the player wants to spend their time with activities other than waving lumpy sticks around.
However, a good game designer wouldn’t want to stop at ‘easy fix,’ but would also want to make sure that increasing your skill levels involves an inherently fun activity. Taking away all the numbers and external context from most skill activities, and you’re left with menu navigation. This could be remedied by simply turning crafting and dialogue, as well as other similar tasks, into simple minigames. Obviously it would be best for different modes of play to flow together and synergize seamlessly to create a cohesive experience that builds on its own mechanics in new and interesting ways every time you play, but Bethesda needs some baby steps for now.
The second major problem with the skills in Skyrim, what they lead the player towards. Of the eighteen skills, eleven of them are primarily used for combat, and there are only two that don’t have any use in a fight. Now, there’s nothing wrong with synergy and unusual utility, but that’s not what happened here. They set out to make a game where you can do anything, but the only thing they really wanted you to do is fight monsters. There are no skills that directly encourage exploration, and only a few encourage social interaction, in the most cursory ways. It would seem that whether you play as a warrior, mage, or thief, Bethesda thinks of an adventurer as an independent soldier with a few unimportant side skills.
Things are starting to get more esoteric from here, so it’s a bit more a matter of opinion, but I believe there are three general types of adventure: physical, intellectual, and social. This isn’t to say that these will all have combat utility, but rather that they could lead the player toward activities beside killing something or punching someone a lot. As a starting place, the player could have a cartography skill, drawing the map as you go. You could level up as you fill out the map, and then you’re encouraged to explore, and different kinds of maps could be rewards for quests, or as treasure. It would also be the most direct way to encourage exploration; literally rewarding the player for going to new places, and in a way that makes sense within the game world. It might not be incredibly easy to make a whole new set of skills with similar mechanics, but a company as massive as Bethesda has little excuse for making no real improvements within a five year span.
Crawling With Dungeons
For all the focus on battle, what does the player get for it? Usually just a word of power, which are essentially a less interesting and more limited secondary magic system. You’ll usually find one thu’um that you like, and the rest amount to little more than words on a list and a place to put your dragon souls. They have a big, fancy, uniform wall with lots of flashy but repetitive visual effects, but amount to very little in terms of actual reward. These are usually found in the draugr ruins, whereas dwemer ruins, caves, and castles don’t tend to have a common end-of-dungeon reward. So for now, let’s focus on the draugr ruins.
To start with, the draugr shouldn’t just automatically rise when you’re nearby, regardless of sneak levels, but that’s another topic for another time. For now, let’s go back to the topic of death and respawning. You’re the dragonborn, ancient prophesied hero of the Nords. Imagine if your reward for completing a draugr ruin was gaining access to an ancient nordic altar that can resurrect you after death, because you’re the immortal dragonborn. The reward for completing a dungeon would be worthwhile and unique, you’d have a system for checkpoints in an open world, and it still fits perfectly well within the story.
When a god reaches into our world and hands you their physical tool, the essence of their power in the mortal world, it should have a better ability than 4% chance of instakill. Or light damage to nearby enemies. Or preventing power attacks and shield bashes. And yet, these are some of the best daedric artifacts available. This is probably related to the issue from earlier, where they were designing everything to be accessible at any time, but then they set level requirements to get the artifacts, which feels like it was added later.
When you use mehrunes razor, the earth itself should scream as the unnatural blade rends the very soul of your victim apart. When you wield spellbreaker, it should protect against all the might of mere mortals, and turn their own blows against them. The tools of goods are held by the dragonborn, and they should have truly spectacular abilities, not a slightly unique appearance and mediocre power. Especially egregious, you can make better ones at home with high enough skills. Are we to believe that the player is more powerful than an actual god? That's nonsense, and makes it so that you'd be better off grinding Smithing and enchanting than doing the quests to gain these artifacts.
As we move further and further from the core design of the game, the ideas I present become more subjective, more designing a game that I would like to play than an objective improvement to Skyrim itself. I could probably give tons more ideas for game design, but this is supposed to be about Skyrim, so I’ll stop here. The overarching point is that there’s a TON of room for improvement in this five year old game, and they could have at least done SOMETHING to make it better before rereleasing it.
It’s important to note that Bethesda has made some of these improvements in Fallout 4, and that makes it a much better game. However, they have yet to implement these game design lessons in a fantasy game, so I wait with bated breath to see what they’ll do for the next Elder Scrolls. Maybe they’ve finally started spending some of that budget on game designers, instead of blowing it all on fleets of texture artists and 3D modellers. Eventually, Bethesda might qualify as a game developer, instead of a virtual set designer.