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Skyrim Design Nettles

Skyrim thus far has been as amazing an experience as everyone says. There is something to be said about how the fidelity of an experience engenders instant immersion in ways videogaming might not have achieved even five years ago. I already posted the screenshot of what I saw exiting the tutorial dungeon for the first time, and I was immediately struck by the same awe and infinite possibility I felt leaving the Vault in Fallout 3.

My current desktop background. Well, at +1000 resolution.

What I want to talk about today though, are the Design Nettles in Skyrim. These are the little things that take me out of the experience with their sting, no matter how much I try and ignore them. Every game has its idiosyncrasies, but what elevates these particular annoyances is either how out of place they seem within the context of a fidelitous experience, or how much they are artifacts of a bygone design era.

Imbalanced Skill Gains

Raising one’s Sneak level by auto-running into the wall for an hour has been a staple of Bethesda design since at least Morrowind. Why they choose not to fix that isn’t the problem. The problem is simply the imbalanced skill gains generally.

I gained two entire character levels in the first town from simply pickpocketing; going from level 6 to level 8 within the same house, in fact. Indeed, I gained 5 skill points for pickpocketing ONE ITEM, a magic ring from a sleeping guy. My pickpocketing skill is currently north of 70, I am level 21, and I haven’t even seen a 3rd city or a dragon yet. Meanwhile, I have probably picked 30 locks in the same time period and received ~4 skill ups. Same with Blacksmithing, Alchemy, Enchanting, Sneaking, Archery, and so on and so forth.

This is more of a problem in Skyrim than it was in Oblivion, because gaining any skill points increases one’s level, which in turn increases the level of all enemies in the game world. More insidiously, you can go hours (or specifically 18 hours in my case) before the problem even begins to manifest itself. I ran into some bandits on a bridge who were immune to my normal tactics which had hitherto worked in every encounter, and I only succeeded by “gaming” the system in rather ridiculous ways – playing Ring-Around-the-Cookpot and ladeling myself 16 servings of Apple Cabbage Stew in Matrix-esque bullet-time.

Enemies on Minimap

I can appreciate the design challenge that comes from choosing to have enemies appear on the minimap. Specifically, once you do that, you cede the ability to create tension via unknown enemy placement without resorting to dumb gimmicks. I like to call this the Silent Hill effect – unlike Resident Evil or other survival horror games where monsters can jump out at you at any moment, Silent Hill gives the player a radio that plays static whenever enemies are about. No static, no monsters.

Silent Hill as a series gets around this “limitation” by being fucking scary even when there aren’t enemies around (and by segmenting the game into rooms), but Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas fall into the trap of essentially lying to the player; “You can see enemies, and even raise stats to see them from farther away, unless we need to generate tension in which case your abilities will be useless.”

Skyrim attempts to have it both ways, while simultaneously stepping into one of my biggest pet peeves in “realistic” games.

In Skyrim, enemies that have aggro’d to your presence appear as red dots on the map-bar. You can even track the movement of these enemies through walls and barriers. Other than that, nothing appears on the map-bar other than locations. Which is… fine, right? Resident Evil, Half-Life, etc, don’t have minimaps with enemies on them either. My peeve though, relates to how high-fidelity games play out as if my highly skilled avatar is as clueless as me, the player.

Look. It’s clear the Skyrim designers decided not to put animals/people/etc on the minimap in order to increase realism. If I’m chasing butterflies to eat their delicious wings, it’s fair play that the tiger I wasn’t even looking for gets its turn too. But if I’m specifically hunting that tiger, or I’m sneaking up on the bandit camp, it simply feels dumb to be surprised due to lack of information. I can’t hear the guy in full plate walking around because the designers refused to give me that input; or if they did, they made audio-only to the point where I’d blow out my desktop speakers trying to hear it.

You can’t ask me to put myself in that field, and deny me access to my normal senses. And you can’t pretend that my normal senses are adequately represented in your arbitrary, game design way.

In other words, Christ, I want NPCs on that minimap. It obviously changed my behavior in the Fallout series knowing where people are even through walls and such, but removing it and pretending my character is as careless as I am playing the game is worse. Indoors? Yes, it works well to force people to be careful. Outdoors? Completely ruins any semblance of stealth-ish gameplay. At least, until I “beat the system” by Quick-Saving every 30 seconds and simply reloading if I stumble into a bandit camp without the opportunity to sneak attack someone.