The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is an action role-playing game (RPG) that was released worldwide in November 2011. Its developer and publisher is Bethesda. It was released for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Microsoft Windows. A remastered special edition was released October 2016 for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows. We will be analyzing this game’s design from the two basic design perspectives: flavor and mechanics.
The initial interactive state of Skyrim has one of the most evocative opening songs. Its music masterfully encapsulates the frozen Norse and Viking inspired setting. Progressing past the initial interactive state for the first time fades in with our character on a horse-driven cart. The Elder Scrolls series has the motif of the player waking up to find themselves as a prisoner. Skyrim is no different; we are introduced to the game with our hands bound in a group of prisoners.
If you’ve never played an Elder Scrolls game before, the opening ride to the headman’s axe gives us some clever hints to our world. Stormcloaks—lead by Ulfric Stormcloak—are a rebel faction of Nords fighting against Imperials who are in charge of the current ruling government—the Imperial Legion lead by General Tullius. The game even sneaks in some names of the “Divines”, the deities in the Elder Scrolls universe, and the “Thalmor” are introduced as a group of Elves that the Stormcloaks hate.
After you get to your destination, character creation begins. You get to see all the different races the Elder Scrolls has to offer, a variety of humans and elves, and even Lizard and Cat people. RPGs are famous for choices and customizability. Skyrim’s customization is apparent very early; it provides scaling sliders for all sorts of facial features of your character. Your race choice matters for your character’s skills but also for interactions with non-player characters (NPCs). Character interaction and dialogue change appropriately depending on the race you choose. Your race choice never blocks you out of a quest, even though it goes against flavor, which is the best decision because picking the “wrong” race would just feel bad. One aspect about your character that never changes is that you are the fabled “Dragonborn,” a warrior who has the ability to absorb the souls of dragons.
In Skyrim dragons are considered legend, however, in a bewildering display one attacks just as you are about to be executed. The sky turns red and fireballs rain down upon the unsuspecting village. This is where gameplay begins. We are taught to move and jump to head towards the fort and escape from the dragon. Alduin, the game’s primary antagonist, is the large black dragon that attacks your execution, and his arrival is prophesied to bring about the end times. In addition to the typical melee weapons, the observant type will see arrows flying and fireballs thrown as the Imperials try to defeat Alduin; each a foreshadowing of what your character could become. Once we reach the fort the first in-game choice is given to us. We can run inside with one of the Stormcloaks or one of the Imperials. Your choice dictates who you fight alongside during your escape and who helps you later on. Each person also encourages you to either join the Stormcloaks or the Imperial Legion. Neither choice blocks you from making a different choice later on. From a flavor perspective, it provides a pretty flimsy excuse to run in with the Imperials but the choice is a nice touch.
One idea to keep in mind when making an open world game that encourages exploration, such as Skyrim, is that the longer you make a path to a goal, the greater the likelihood the player will deviate from that path. After escaping from Alduin, you and your chosen ally are free to do whatever you want, he even tells you that it’d be best to split up. Going off from there is completely your choice and the world is yours to explore. However, I consider your ally’s comment about splitting up either unhelpful or easily misunderstood because following him is the only goal the game provides at this point. Plus, it’s not very far to travel. Following the quest path will allow the player will run into a variety of small but enjoyable encounters.
If you do choose to follow your ally, he points out some ancient Nord ruins called Bleak Falls Barrow. Shortly after that, the game introduces you “Standing Stones”, which provide blessings to your character. Finally, you reach Riverwood, the first township that isn’t trying to kill you. It has a variety helpful commodities, such as a general trader, a blacksmith, and an inn. It also has some side quests such as retrieving a stolen item and meddling in a love triangle. Conveniently, both possible allies have relatives that live there who can help you. You can take items from the relative and even sleep in their home. In return, the relative asks you to tell the Jarl (essentially the governor) about the attack. This encourages the player to travel off to the capital Whiterun, longer than the last path but not too long. Once we reach Jarl Balgruuf, we inform him of the dragon attack and he decides to send troops to protect Riverwood. He then asks you to see his court wizard about a quest. The wizard asks you to locate an ancient object in Bleak Falls Barrow, yes the same Bleak Falls Barrow from earlier. As you can see, Skyrim makes great use of flavor, from conveying information to the justification of travel. At no point in Skyrim does the typical player think something doesn’t make sense.
After finding the object in Bleak Falls Barrow the player will have likely spent hours already in gameplay. Nevertheless, the first real fight with a dragon is just around the corner. Returning to the wizard leads into the next quest of defeating a dragon that was spotted close by. After reaching the dragon, the exclusive dramatic fight music plays and the battle ensues. After the fight, your true ability as Dragonborn is revealed. As the Dragonborn, you have a natural affinity for the “Thu’um,” the ability to summon powerful effects by shouting words in the dragon language. You unlock these words by spending the souls of dragons you defeat.
Even though most of the story has a set path, the narrative and how the Dragonborn is developed is completely the player’s choice. In spite of this, the player’s choices seem to have little impact on the world. The largest choices have an obvious impact, such as siding with the Stormcloaks or Imperials. In the end, this is a binary choice. You can’t choose to broker peace, and you can’t ignore it since the war won’t be concluded unless you participate. Smaller actions have proportionately sized reactions. If you clear a fort full of bandits, a platoon of soldiers moves in without a word. Some characters have dialogue mentioning their spouse. If the spouse dies, the character’s dialogue changes from married to widowed. Alternatively, the dialogue does not change for the deceased’s friends, children, or even enemies. This tends to make the world feel static which can dampen the feel of the game that should be impacted by player choice.
NPC’s will often not care about the player’s accomplishments. If you can help an NPC, their attitude toward you will change from neutral to favorable, but they don’t care if you are the Dragonborn. The dialogue for guards are the only ones that change with the player. Extra guard dialogue is added depending on skill progression, which guilds you’ve joined, and even what kind of armor you are wearing. However, even that dialogue is static. If you join the Companions—a group of honorable fighters for hire—the guards say something like “You joined the Companions. What do you do, fetch the mead? Har har har.” This is appropriate if it’s the first guild you’ve joined but pretty silly if it’s the last. “Well, I’m the Archmage of the College of Winterhold, the leader of a legendary group of assassins, I’ve returned the Thieves guild to its former glory, and lead the Stormcloaks to victory over the Imperials and drove the Thalmor out of Skyrim. But yeah, I guess I just fetch the mead.” This complaint shouldn’t diminish the amount of work it would actually take to achieve such a dialogue tree. When you consider how much work it would take and how much work was already put in, it’s understandable to have these issues.
Bethesda games are also infamous for their fair share of strange interactions and bugs. For example, the horses in Skyrim are good at climbing mountains. I mean very good. Like climbing-up-a-70-degree-slope good. This is pretty ridiculous considering these are also big bulky Clydesdale-like horses. I’m not sure if it was intentional or not, but it’s actually pretty helpful even though it makes no sense. The bugs, however, are more annoying. Rocks can be floating in the sky or be obviously hollow. Water and wall texture can disappear and enemies can fall through the floor, just to name a few. All of these can create a realism disconnect and can break immersion. While these bugs are annoying and certainly not acceptable, they are forgivable as they are not game breaking.
These grievances are pretty minuscule compared to the rest of the game. When it was released, Skyrim broke sales records. It is typically considered one of the best video games ever made, it sits on at least 18 “Best Games Ever” lists and has a 96 Metacritic score. Its flavor is one that seems to be universally enjoyed, something about that medieval swords, magic, and dragons. However, its flavor is only a single aspect of what makes Skyrim great.
Remember character creation? That’s where the mechanics of the game begins. There are eighteen skills in Skyrim, each with its own skill tree. There are also only three stats: Magicka, Health, and Stamina. Each are a consumable resource that begins at 100 points. Your character begins with one skill at level 25 and five skills at level 20—determined by the chosen race—with the other twelve at level 15. The race choice also typically provides the character with one unique passive ability and one active ability. This makes certain races clearly better early on at distinct playstyles but allows any race to be played however the player wants. For example, choosing to play as an Orc provides the player with a Heavy Armor skill level of 25 and an active effect called Berserker Rage. This ability allows the character to deal double damage and receive half damage for 60 seconds. The Orcs level 20 skills are Enchanting, Smithing, One-handed weapons, Shields, and Two-handed weapons. Also, the Orc is the only race without a passive ability. All this adds to a character clearly suited best as a melee fighter, likely wearing heavy armor, adopting the role commonly described as “tank”.
As a skill is used, it gains experience. Once a skill has enough experience, it levels up making it more effective. Whenever a skill levels up, your character gains character experience. Enough character experience provides you with a character level which comes with a skill point and your choice to increase one stat by ten points. The skill point is placed into one of the 18 skill trees in exchange for a perk. As you may have noticed, this deviates slightly from typical RPG level progression. Instead of gaining experience from killing an enemy, you gain experience in one-handed weapons or perhaps destruction magic depending on what you used to kill the enemy. Additionally, the player gains experience from picking locks, forging armor, or even just purchasing and selling items.
Skyrim also has a variety of equipment: body armor, headgear, gloves, boots, rings, necklaces, weapons, and shields. Each type of equipment has three stats: an armor or damage rating, weight, and value. The armor and damage rating are straightforward, the higher the number the better it is. Weight, on the other hand, is the opposite. You want equipment to weigh less because heavier equipment consumes more stamina and makes your character move slower and louder. Furthermore, your character has a carry-weight limit, so the heavier the equipment the less you can carry. However, heavy armor and weapons typically have a higher armor and damage rating. Value is the base price the item is worth. You want higher value on lower weight items so you can carry more and sell for a higher profit.
The main gameplay of Skyrim is exploration. The game actively encourages you to travel to unknown locations. Quests are typically sending you to a dungeon you’ve never been before, be it a Nord crypt, ancient Dwemer ruins, or an enemy-occupied stronghold. Once there, you kill the enemies and find loot to keep or sell. As you level up, the enemies become more difficult and the loot becomes stronger and more valuable. This is a typical structure; you quest in dungeons, level up, and get better equipment, then proceed to more difficult dungeons. The way Skyrim does this is by leveling up the area around you rather than have strict higher level and lower level areas. That’s not to say there are no high and low level areas, just that each levels appropriately so each area always has the correct difficulty. This is enjoyable because stumbling upon an area that is too difficult can discourage players while finding an exceedingly powerful item can alter the flow of the game towards boring.
If exploration is the main gameplay of Skyrim, combat is the gameplay that compliments it. The basics of combat is deceptively simple. The game gets the damage output from the weapon and skills, and reduces it depending on armor and skills. All of these stats can be altered by enchantments and abilities. Magic damage isn’t reduced by armor but can be reduced by enchantments and Ward spells. Swing your weapon, let loose your arrow, or unleash your fireball. If it hits, it deals damage. Another amazingly simple aspect is the way combat is controlled. The left hand controlled by one button and the right hand controlled by a different button. This allows a player to dual wield weapons, use two different spells, or even use a shield and a spell if the player so desires. This control scheme was also groundbreaking for Bethesda’s games, before it combat controls were more complicated and offered less freedom. While simplicity is often looked down upon by hard-core gamers, it is very important for games to have simplicity wherever possible. Simplicity allows for newer players to get a grasp of the game easier and allows the game designer to add more complexity in other areas.
The combat in Skyrim can get more complicated if the player chooses. When deciding on a weapon, the player needs to account for the type of weapon. One-handed weapons are faster but weaker than their two-handed counterparts. Swords are always faster and weaker than axes, as axes are compared to hammers. Bows are powerful and have great range but are slow and make the user vulnerable to close quarter combat. If the player chooses to maximize the sneak attack bonus, bows become much more useful however heavy armor becomes impossible to utilize. Magic is very powerful in its ability to circumvent armor, but it can consume magicka very quickly and never gets a sneak attack bonus to damage. The player can also recruit a follower by hiring or befriending one, and the player can summon a familiar with conjuration magic. Adding allies changes the math further allowing the player to even the odds or possibly outnumber the enemy.
Another aspect of Skyrim that is typically unnoticed is that the game can change depending on your playstyle. While I cannot find exactly how Bethesda chose to do this, I have a few guesses as to how they might have implemented it. The dungeons that uniquely dot Skyrim’s landscape can be easier or more difficult depending on playstyle. To compliment this, certain quests that are not locked into one location can change, so why not change to work with the player’s playstyle? Likewise, weapons and armor can come with random enchantments, so why not allow these to aid the player? A player using a bow might find a helm that improves archery damage, or a mage might find heavy armor that fortifies magicka, allowing them to learn the enchantment.
Skyrim, like most Bethesda games, has made many correct choices which marks it as a great example for analysis. Unfortunately, with so many aspects, it’s near impossible to have a clear and concise way to explain the intricacies and interactions of the mechanics and flavor. Skyrim’s greatest strength is its ability to allow the players to tailor the game to their playstyles and it has an open world to explore which allows the players to continue using their creation. Its immersive world easily creates the magic circle that allows hours to pass without notice. It’s a game that is undoubtedly fun for millions of players.