Skyrim’s Perfect World – PC Preview at IGN.
If there’s one thing that games almost always lack, with their eagerness to entertain and often underdeveloped scripts, it’s believability. It usually stems from a lack of cohesion: it’s difficult to believe that you’re wandering around a real world when everything that you can interact with gleams with a highlighted shine, or when helpful tips keep popping up to remind you to press Y to get on your horse, or when there’s a ridiculous story told in unskippable cutscenes. You’re often snapped back to real life by their lack of subtlety.
Indeed, modern games are so tailored to the player’s comfort that they often compromise their own fiction for the sake of it, making things purposefully obvious and easy to digest instead of rich and rewarding. The end result is that their worlds aren’t easy to really believe in. How many times in a game have you really felt like you were wandering around in a real place, rather than a series of carefully-crafted scenarios for you to “experience”?
Bethesda has always excelled here, creating games that succeed where almost all others come up short. Bethesda’s worlds exist independently of you, the player. Follow a Skingrad drug-dealer as she leaves her home in Oblivion, and you’ll see her spend an entire day and a half walking all the way across the world to the Imperial City to supply some off-the-wagon soldier with Skooma, whether you’re there to watch her do it or not. That haggard old booze hound in the derelict bar in Fallout 3 will sit there all day, getting up occasionally for a go at the slots. Foxes chase rabbits, wolves chase foxes, and guards valiantly defend villages from bandits (and dragons). Bethesda is far from the only developer to attempt this natural, player-independent game ecology, but it has always done it extraordinarily well.
Hidden structures and abandoned buildings and caves and dungeons are there for you to stumble across, but you may never find them. You’re never guided towards them, never forced to explore. History, mythology and plotting are there for you, too, but couched in contextual narrative (like the diaries in a deceased traveller’s pocket, or the smeared bloodstains on a wall, or the books lining the shelves of a magician’s library) rather than forced upon you in cutscenes or painstakingly explained in dialogue.
It’s this, more than anything else, that’s had me excited about Skyrim since the minute it was announced. But after seeing the game’s opening hours, it looks to me like Skyrim might be an even better-crafter world than Oblivion’s or Morrowind’s before it (I’d namecheck Fallout 3 as well, but really I’m a New Vegas girl). Self-sufficient, detailed, and with a rich and ludicrously detailed body of mythology and background behind it, Skyrim might turn out to be gaming’s closest thing to a perfect world.
Alchemy and crafting play a much more significant role in Skyrim than in any Elder Scrolls game. Every plant and animal seems to serve a purpose – for potion-making, armour-crafting or weapons forging, or the new cooking system. Raw ingredients like meats and plants have small effects on your character’s wellbeing when you eat them, but combine them together over in a cauldron over a fire and the benefits are more pronounced. You find recipes through natural experimentation – not from a menu, not from an entry in a quest log telling you exactly how many of each ingredient to collect and where to find them. It relies on your natural curiosity.
It’s an incredibly enticing prospect for the natural gaming hunter-gatherer when every collectible thing has its uses. You can even swim in Skyrim’s rivers, plucking fish out of the water and roasting them on a campfire spit later. A familiar alchemy lab, meanwhile, lets you magic things like bonemeal and plants into potions to help you or hurt your enemies, experimenting with different combinations of ingredients to negate or catalyse their negative effects.
Smithing is rather more complicated. You can mine ore from deposits all over the place – from the tops of mountains to underground caves – which then has to be turned into ingots before you can use it for a helmet or a sword or a breastplate at a forge using hammer and bellows. There are grindstones for improving blades as you develop your skills. Meanwhile, all those wolf pelts that you inevitably accumulate on your adventures can be cured and made into useful, wearable, smithable leather for use at a workbench. As well as treasure and secret nuggets of Elder Scrolls mythology, you’ll now be searching for rare ores and ingredients in Skyrim’s hidden places. It’s yet another reason to explore, and another natural way of immersing you in the game’s fiction.
As ever in an Elder Scrolls game, all of this is controlled by your skills. In Skyrim’s great constellation of capabilities, there are whole branches dedicated to crafting and creation. This isn’t something that Bethesda has ever extensively explored in its games before, at least not further than Fallout 3 and its weapons blueprints. It’s an aspect of RPG convention that’s usually confined to MMOs.
All of this makes me feel like I could happily spend hours and hours just living in Skyrim’s world, without bothering at all with the story, just as I did in Oblivion before it – except this time there’s even more to obsess over. In creating such self-sufficient, complete worlds, Bethesda has already brought games forward in several significant ways, and if Skyrim pulls off everything it’s trying to do then it will be the developer’s most significant achievement yet.
If there’s one microcosmic representation of this developer’s love for the richly detailed place that it has created, it’s the map screen. Zoom out and you can see all the snow-capped mountains, valleys, settlements, ridges and gleaming lakes of Skyrim recreated in perfectly detailed miniature, fogged in places by whisps of cloud. It’s a place I cannot wait to delve into; as the 11th November release date grows ever closer, my anticipation just keeps building.