Home > Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Game Design & Development, Game Titles, Reviews > Finding the Edge of Skyrim’s Open World

Finding the Edge of Skyrim’s Open World

As I reread this for the typos I’m prone to make, I feel the need to start off with a disclaimer about the tone of this post.   I may  come off as be fairly critical of Skyrim, but only because it was worth playing.  As my girlfriend put it, I had a month-long affair with the game.   Don’t worry though; we’re still together – the girlfriend and I that is.   Using the metrics of playtime and fun factor, Skyrim is definitely amazing and worth purchase if you haven’t played it; I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the game’s design across multiple characters.   The main issue issue I ran into, though, was that I couldn’t help but wish that the game’s open world was capable of more intelligence response to my decisions in game.

The Elder Scrolls series, of which Skyrim was the most recent installment, is one of the best examples of an open-world role playing game concept.   While many other games emphasize a main story line, sometimes ushering a player through critical decision points in order to maintain story integrity, Bethesda Games places minimum constraints on players’ actions while they experience the game.   You can, for instance, spend hours chasing optional objectives and side quests and hardly ever advance the main storyline.  For those unfamiliar with the concept, think Grand Theft Auto with swords and Vikings instead of guns and criminals.  On second thought, those two things aren’t all that different, but that might make the comparison even more apt, because some people experience Skyrim by running around and killing and stealing everything they possibly can.  To each his own.

Open worlds are compelling because they offer, in theory, a richer gaming experience than completely scripted games.  Rather than just experiencing an interactive movie, you’re literally shaping the events around you, as you see fit, and when you see fit.   In practice, open worlds often don’t live up to expectations due to the complexity that actually coding cascading decisions can have on a game world.  The result is that players can make hundreds of decisions, but these decisions usually have only first order shallow consequences at best.  The freedom to do anything ends up coming with the price over being able to do everything.   And if you can do everything, what exactly becomes the point of doing anything?  This was my experience with the previous Elder Scrolls game, Oblivion.  I got so caught up in the side quests that I forgot about the main storyline.   While I became the leader of some of the game world’s most powerful factions, the power I’d acquired in the process trivialized the main storyline’s difficulty and sense of importance by the time I got around to it.   Adding insult to injury, despite making dozens of decisions that resulted in my being what can only be described as the most important person in the game, none of it mattered.   Dialogue options were the same as if I’d been a vagabond in rags.  In short, the totality of my decisions still resulted in very little real change to an open, but mostly static, world.

A friend of mine from college recently posted a comment on this same topic, stating “I’ve been playing Skyrim lately, and while it’s a great game, I’m starting to pick up on how shallow it is, despite an initial impression of enormous complexity.”  I tried lots of ways to say this in my own words, but that’s basically my experience.  Skyrim was a leap forward from Oblivion in that it took me much longer to find that edge where my decisions no longer seemed to matter, but I still managed to find it even when I specifically tried to avoid it by pursuing a strategy of limiting myself to one major side-quest arc per character I made.   While it extended the life of the game for me by giving each play-through a slightly different focus, it also still exposed a lot of missed opportunities to add even more depth to the open world.

One of most obvious missed opportunities was the civil war storyline in which the game world’s eight cities, or holds, have to side with either the Imperials or the Stormcloaks.  Your choice to side with one or the other or neither has little to not impact on your ability to complete the main storyline.  As one of the few mutually exclusive side-quest choices the game offers, this was the perfect place to make some gameplay changes with no risk of altering a player’s ability to “finish” the game.   That’s actually how I expected it to play out, but after completing the story arc for both sides (which turned out to require nearly identical missions), I discovered my decisions and actions offered only a simple cosmetic swap of leadership in the conquered holds.  I didn’t get any new content to explore and none of the game’s characters really seemed to notice that the war even happened (except perhaps the dead ones).  By that point, this lack of impact shouldn’t have surprised me, because even during the war your allegiance had no impact on many people in the game.  As a Stormcloak, running across Imperial patrols was not a threat unless I inadvertantly shot an arrow at one.  I believe making those enemy patrols attack you or assist you based on your allegiance, varying the actual campaign quests for each side, and adding some bonus content only available to the side you won with would have been relatively simple additions to the game which would have vastly improved its replayability.   As it was, I’d found the edge and didn’t have much left to play.

If Bethesda adds more major decision points that offer a changing game world, I’ll definitely be excited for the next Elder Scrolls game.   Either way,  Skyrim was a quantum leap forward over previous Elder Scrolls games and I definitely look forward to the next one if for no other reason than to see the world they create (which for those who have not played a Bethesda game, includes among other things, dozens of little mini-books that you can read in game which have nothing to do with the game’s objectives and only serve to add depth to the setting).  I’ve got more to say about this game, but I’m going to save that for a later installment since it addresses very different gameplay issues and this has already gotten long-winded.  As always, I welcome your thoughts.

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  1. Matt Ratcliffe
    March 8, 2012 at 10:12 pm

    I’ve been meaning to comment on this, but it’s been a hectic week. However, today I just did the negotiation mission at High Hrothgar and I feel dumber for having sat through it.

    Prior to the mission, I had retaken The Pale and The Rift for the Imperials, putting them in a pretty good position against the Stormcloaks. I was hoping that the game would recognize this and give General Tullius et al the bargaining edge during the meeting since they had the Stormcloaks contained to one major Hold and one rather irrelevant Hold. Instead, I witness Ulfric Stormcloak demand that the Imperials give him Markarth, which is completely on the opposite side of Skyrim from where his last territories are. While the Imperial delegation moans about this demand, they really don’t fight it, and ask me to propose a Hold for Ulfric to give up to make the exchange fair. This alone makes no sense, and completely ignores that Ulfric really isn’t in a position to demand The Reach, nor does it explain why he wants it so bad (I know he has a history with governing Markarth). But the clincher here is that the only Hold I can ask Ulfric to give up in turn is Winterhold, a backwater Hold gripped by cold and snow, where half the capital city resides in ruins on the seafloor of the Sea of Ghosts. I know this is because of how far I’ve progressed in the Imperial questline, but the tradeoff is hardly fair for the Imperials, who give up a sprawling, temperate landscape for a bleak and desolate corner of Skyrim.

    Not that this really all matters, as I’m sure it won’t impact the game world in any appreciable manner (other than replacing guards and meaningless, insignificant Jarls), and I’ll just be able to conquer all of Skyrim once I kill the big bad dragon. I decided to share this anecdote because I think it perfectly highlights your points about the lack of weight and significance behind your decisions in the game. While I appreciate the sprawling beauty and detail of Skyrim, I’m hoping the next game is geographically smaller with fewer areas to explore. To balance that out, I’d like to see more of a focus on dialogue options that aren’t completely exhausted after two minutes or one quest, an evolving environment, and a greater focus on creating quest lines that are engaging and unique. But given the success of the current model in the series, I doubt Bethesda will make any drastic changes in TES VI.

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