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The Short End of Skyrim
by Josh Bycer on 02/19/13 02:08:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Skyrim was one of the biggest CRPG titles released and indicative of where CRPG design has transitioned to. But CRPG design has changed in more ways then one and in a direction that isn't hooking me.

Reprinted from my site: Game-Wisdom

Recently I was gifted a copy of Skyrim as I was told by many people that it was a game that I had to play. The Elder Scrolls series is one of the most highly regarded on the PC and Skyrim is considered the cream of the crop: An epic game where you can spend dozens of hours wandering around exploring the world. So then why after 8 hours have I seen enough?

Widely Designed:


Skyrim's design is a more refined form of previous Elder Scrolls titles and a shining example of the state of PC RPG design: In that the game isn't about sweating the little details but more about delivering an overall sense of exploration and story.

The systems are not meant to be focused too heavily on; you can't fully personalize your play style, as everything is based on the designer's intent. Due to the open nature of the Elder Scrolls series, leveling up is different compared to other RPGs.

Instead of having a general experience bar, each aspect of your character levels up with use: attack an enemy with a sword to increase your one-handed stat, getting hit increases your armor stat and so on. Raise your stats enough and you'll level up which gives you a skill point that can be applied to any of the categories that make up your character.

One area that Skyrim easily improves on compared to Oblivion is refining the leveling system. In Oblivion, the game featured enemy scaling based on your level. The game also had more non combat aspects such as jumping. What ended up happening was that people who leveled the non combat stats would find enemies at a higher level then what their equipment or combat skills could handle.

Restricting the enemy scaling was a good move by Bethesda, and condensing the number of character aspects down helped to streamline it. However my problem with Skyrim's gameplay is that for all the character customizations, the gameplay is shallow.

Skyrim featured a wide variety of weapons, skills and spells to use. However the actual interaction was basic at best.

As mentioned earlier, Skyrim isn't a game where the player can delve into the actual play mechanics or minute by minute gameplay.

Skyrim's enjoyment is about the long haul: Spending hours exploring every cave, dungeon, town and so on.

But when we look closely at the individual mechanics, we can see cracks in Skyrim's design. Combat: which is what you'll be doing a lot is very basic. You only have a few basic attacks and movement is very floatly.

The key point about Skyrim's gameplay is that it's heavily based on abstraction instead of player interaction. When you put points into a combat skill to make it do more damage or go through armor that has no impact on how you control in combat. You're still moving the same way and swinging the weapon the same, the only difference now is on the abstraction end.

Same goes for the game's variety of crafting: that allows you to make new potions, equipment, enchantments and so on. All crafting is done through menu systems with no interaction. Now to be fair, Skyrim isn't the only game that keeps crafting basic. But this is just one example of how little involvement the player actually has in the world of Skyrim.

Skyrim's skill tree system was less about adding more strategies for the player, and more about affecting the abstraction at play.

If you look at a game like The Witcher 2, the base mechanics were more detailed then Skyrim.

Successfully surviving combat is more about the player skill compared to abstracted stats. And moving up one or all of the game's skill trees would change your combat tactics over time.

Before we move on to the next point, I want to touch on another general annoyance: the UI. I know that people have been complaining about the UI and have even made fixes with mods, but I do have to get it off my chest.

For a PC developer, I'm surprised with how poorly Bethesda designed the UI for a keyboard and mouse.  No ways to easily group items and favorites, set up gear or spells for one key switching and lack of keyboard shortcuts are just a few of the many problems.

Skyrim's focus on general gameplay instead of detail is indicative of most CRPGS today, but what really hurts the game for me, I can sum up in two words: Dark Souls.

Darkly Detailed:

Even though I preferred Demon's Souls to Dark Souls (which explaining why would take up its own post), Dark Souls was still one of the finest RPGS I played in 2011 (haven't bought the PC port yet) and a complete polar opposite of modern CRPG design. Where a game like Skyrim is about the player exploring/storytelling first and gameplay second, Dark Souls was the opposite. Here we had a game that demanded the player to get involved with the mechanics to have any chance of survival.

Every weapon in Dark Souls had a different feel to it, swinging a knife was different from a club or a sword and so on. Combat was of course more tactical because of it and the act of movement was important. Every enemy moved differently and had openings to watch out for. Along with a wide variety of offensive, defensive and support spells that can be used in and out of combat.

Contrast with the floaty nature of Skyrim which makes it hard to actively dodge melee attacks. Along with every melee enemy attacking with the same few patterns every time.

While Dark souls lacked the wide world to explore compared to Skyrim, the minute to minute gameplay was more involving.  A ten second fight in Dark Souls was more thrilling then any of the battles I saw during my play of Skyrim.

Now, while Dark Souls was an open ended game, it was still nowhere near the size of Skyrim and this major difference affected the overall pacing. In Dark Souls, it's safe to assume that the further you move away from the starting point, the more dangerous the enemies became. But Skyrim's world is completely open and players can basically pick one direction and go on an amazing adventure.

The art direction and environments in Skyrim were impressive, but the lack of depth puts it behind titles like Dark Souls in my opinion.

And that's what really kills me about Skyrim, if the gameplay interaction was more detailed, with a world that big to explore I would love it.

But I've always been a systems man first: give me great gameplay above all else. I want to dig deep into the game mechanics and let me carve out my own way through it.

As an example, with the RPGEtrian Odyssey 3 for the DS, the game allowed you to create a party of five from a variety of classes.  One of my parties I made had no dedicated healer or spell caster, and I still managed to get all the way to the final boss with it. And that was from taking my time and figuring out just exactly how I wanted my party to be.

I reached my limit on Skyrim just before the ten hour mark, and the chance that I would spend 100 hours on it is slim at best. 

Hopefully with Dark Souls now available on the PC, it will give designers a shot in the arm to make more complicated CRPGs that can fill a world with amazing gameplay and not just with places to explore.

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Nick Green
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In lots of ways Skyrim is an improvement over Oblivion - especially getting rid of the rigid levelling system. I also generally liked how they implemented magic (apart from some of the enchantment stuff). But there are a few things that killed my joy in it.

Dungeon level locking plus levelled equipment (like in Oblivion) made me want to shoot for level 50 before doing any content. There's several slightly exploity ways to do that easily so it's not a huge pain but it does effectively suck all sense of progression out of the game.

The almost ubiquitous bugs also tend to encourage one to read through mission details online first to avoid pitfalls. That sucks a lot of the sense of exploration and discovery out of it.

I hate the perk system. I don't want to have to make multiple characters to change my playstyle and that's a hallmark of the series. It seems I'm not alone either with all the mods focused on that and their introducing a means to respec in the Dragonborn expansion.

I do think it's a decent game and I don't regret buying it but I've possibly spent more time reading about it online than I have actually playing it. I grew bored with it long before even finishing the main campaign.

I might go back and finish it one day. But it's no Morrowind, which had me almost glued to my computer for weeks to experience every last little bit of it.

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One game is a game based around a casual experience of exploration and gameplay, the other game is based around an hardcore experience of exploration and gameplay. One style is more modern than the other. You didn't have fun playing one kind of game because you played the other one first, and that happens.

But you should know that all games are not the same even if the content feels similar. They go for different types of players. You just happen to be more of a "core player" Skyrim didn't go after core in mechanics, it did that only in content.

Michael Buffaloe
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Totally valid perspective, but I couldn't disagree more. I tend to prefer a strong narrative over strong gameplay mechanics (e.g. The Walking Dead), so The Elder Scrolls series really speaks to me. Games like Demon's / Dark Souls are entertaining sure, but I can get fun gameplay almost *anywhere*. A believable, well-developed world with a strong storyline is much more appealing to me personally, because it's such a rarity in modern games. I'll happily sacrifice moment-to-moment gameplay in the name of a broader, more varied experience.

Ricky Bankemper
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This is a common misconception about Demon/Dark souls and it couldn't be more false. These games have incredibly deep and intriguing stories to them which don't even require game play interruptions to do it. Their delivery isn't as "wooden" or direct as most modern rpgs, but that doesn't mean it has any more or less story to them.

I say you will have a hard time trying to find an npc more interesting in a game, like Skyrim for example, than Demon Souls's Yurt the Silent Chief. the following description is taken from the Demon Soul's wiki page

"Yurt, the Silent Chief is a deadly assassin whose only business in Boletaria is to aid in the misdeeds of his accomplice, the enigmatic Mephistopheles, and kill all those who have learned the ways of Soul Arts."

If you leave this NPC alone he will begin to slaughter the other NPCs in the nexus one by one. After they are all dead, he will attempt to kill you.

The story here isn't controlled or forced by anyone but yourself. The main point here is the story is very organic. You have a main goal in the game which is rather generic, but filled with interesting characters fumbling through the game world, just as you are. You experience the history and story through them and with them.

You can surely experience demon/dark souls with very light story. However if you take the time to explore the characters and their backgrounds, you will see much how much story is actually there.

It is subjective, but I find the story far more interesting than generic cutscenes or ludonarrative dissonance (
an-and-ludonarrative-dissonance-in-video-games/) that occurs to preserve or drag story along in most rpgs today.

David Brown
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Legitimate point for sure. But just out of curiosity, have you ever watched EpicNameBro's (youtube name for a gentleman named Marcus) Dark Souls Lore videos? If you haven't I urge you to.... the story behind Dark Souls is actually pretty deep and interesting, it's just dished up in a really different way. Personally I was a fan of it (but I'd also pick Dark Souls style games over Elder Scrolls anyday... so take that bias into account :D).

My first playthrough of Dark Souls was more focused on the action and on completing the game. But I've played through many times now just to get all of the items and meet all the characters so I can begin to unravel the story.

David Brown
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double post sorry!

Ramon Carroll
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See that's the problem here: That players accept the type of development that takes on an either-or-approach. What actually kept Bethesda from listening to critics of Oblivion's combat system? It's floaty, super-easy, and non-responsive combat was one of the game's main problems, and it's been brought up countless times. Yet, what did they do?

Todd Howard himself acknowledged the problem: "I think if you look at our previous stuff I sometimes equate it to fighting with chopsticks. You sit there and swing them in front of yourself." He even said that he wanted Skyrim's combat to feel intense and deadly, as if "someone's life is going to end." So, what was the biggest change they added to the combat outside of improved animations? They added dual-wielding. Great job.

But, also, as others have said. Dark Souls story is WAY better than Skyrim. The problem is that most people are only used to spoonfed stories, but don't know anything about the art of literary minimalism. Players have never experienced a story in this way. In fact, for many players, it took at least 2 or more playthroughs, as well as community discussion/investigations to put all the pieces together. It was way more rewarding. Secondly, due to the many conflicting perspectives, the player has to draw his/her conclusions about what to believe, and who to ally with (npcs and players). And the video by Epicnamebro on Youtube takes all the pieces put together by the Dark Souls fan community and explains the entire story and characters in a single sitting. If you didn't understand the story, it's probably the best quick resource on the subject, outside of the two main wikis.

Ricky Bankemper
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@ Maciej Bacal

It may not be IN the game in the traditional sense of cuts scenes and narrative. But most of the story is found in the game just through item descriptions, character dialog, or gameplay itself. You can go the wiki or forums which have a fan based summary, but their information is based from the game itself.

Darren Tomlyn
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If a narrative (and therefore perceiving a work of art) is what you're looking for, then maybe playing games, which involve the players writing their own stories, isn't what you're looking for. Puzzles involve interacting with stories being told (narratives/art), so maybe that type of product is more of what you really want? (Heavy Rain being a good example.)

Unfortunately, many people don't understand the difference and relationship between them, and so they both end up hindering and limiting the other without realising it.

Karl E
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I agree with Ricky. One of the things that is most genius about Demon's Souls and Dark Souls is the fact that there is SO little dialogue, yet absolutely everything in the game seeps lore. There's very little that doesn't have some narrative signifiance. And a lot of it is buried deep, so you have to do quite a bit of thinking too!

Alex Boccia
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yeah skyrim wasn't that good.

Loren H
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Hmm, interesting article. I guess in a sense I agree. I mean, after all, as of this writing I haven't touched Skyrim in many months. I just quit playing. Granted, I stopped mainly because I felt like I had other games to tend to and didn't want to spend all my time on Skyrim which demands hours upon hours of game time.

However, I think I just keep finding silly excuses not to play it, and maybe on some deep level it has to do with how basic this game is in terms of details like this article says. I would like to get back into it, but I've been avoiding Skyrim for so long now. Doesn't help that I always get distracted from the main quest in Elder Scrolls games and just waste time doing other shit, but then again that's half the fun anyways.

You mentioning Dark Souls makes me interested in giving it a go. I see it's on steam, so I've added the game to my wishlist for now.

Wylie Garvin
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I think Skyrim and Demon Souls/Dark Souls are both great games, but they are very different kinds of experiences.

Skyrim has a wide-but-shallow set of content and mechanics, and the Souls games have narrow-but-deep content and mechanics.

Skyrim is a vast environment to explore, with hundreds of linear dungeons that each have their own unique charm, but there is seldom any reason to play through those dungeons more than once. The Souls games on the other hand have a smaller, interconnected set of a few dozen environments, but they have deep combat mechanics and you will end up roaming through most of them many times during a play-through.

In Skyrim, your choice of character class is a key decision that affects what kind of game experience you're going to have playing that character. In Dark Souls, its just a template to start from but any character can develop any of the skills the game offers.

Skyrim is about exploring and role-playing, and doing the story/quest content. Its about being immersed in the world. Dark Souls is about mastery of the mechanics, developing player skill, and somehow a different kind of immersion in the world.

Summary: I think both are great games that deserve praise, but of course not everybody will enjoy the same exact kinds of gaming experiences.

Ramon Carroll
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Josh, your complaints about Skyrim, including your feeling that Dark Souls' combat spoiled you are exactly how I felt when I started playing Skyrim. I've gone back to Dark Souls repeatedly, yet Skyrim continues to collect dust.

They could have at least had more hitboxes, with different effects, depending on where you hit, and what weapon you are using. But no.

Matthew Fioravante
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This post hinted at it. My idea of the perfect game is an RPG with dark souls combat and mechanics with Skyrim's vast world and exploration.

I like the fallout games better than elder scrolls precisely because the combat with guns is a little more exciting and interesting. I've never seen melee combat done well in first person. Transition to third person and you have something to work with.

Josh Bycer
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"I've never seen melee combat done well in first person. Transition to third person and you have something to work with."

Agreed, while the screenshots may not show it, every time in Skyrim that I fought in melee range, I switched to third person.

In my opinion I think spatial reasoning in the game environment is easier in third person and when you're trying to avoid attacks and get within range, third person is just better.

But when you're using a gun it's a lot easier to aim in first person as the crosshair or iron sights, is tied easier to camera movement. Making it easier to aim and readjust your aim at a moment's notice.

Lewis Wakeford
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I think it works pretty well in Chivalry...

Jason Lee
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A good opinion piece that points out the strengths & weaknesses without falling into the "X is simply wrong" trap. Skyrim was my first real Bethesda RPG I dove into, and as a systems/narrative type of player I really enjoyed the different experience it gave me with the wide open sandbox and long-term goal play, but in the end wasn't my style of game. It took me 40 hours compared to your 8, but I'm more likely to go back to The Witcher 2 or Dark Souls over Skyrim any day.

What I think we can learn though is that not every player is like us though, and that Skyrim does offer a great long-term experience and a set of goals for players to hit that feel great once a certain skill is maxed or a certain area is explored. However, I felt that shallowness really rear its head when my 3 main skills got maxed and I realized that most monsters were trivial. I was doing the same swing-swing axe smash as you pointed out, but it gets trivially easy as a result of its long-term system design. Instead of an expansion of depth or abilities (like is the case in a mechanically driven combat game), you just get ascending numbers in your power.

Marc Audouy
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It's a good example of player physical skills vs character skills. You like games that require a lot of player skills. I don't.
Skyrim is mostly mental decisions, what power to use at what moment, what objects or potion, etc. it's not about trying to time your button press perfectly in time.
It all depends on taste, there is no inherent superiority of one system on the other. I loved Skyrim, I couldn't play Dark Souls for more than a few hours because of the frustration.
If we always tried to add some form of physical skills in games we wouldn't have things like XCom (we nearly lost it because of the feel that it was mandatory to add some type of physical skills to any game, cf. the third instalment in the series, Apocalypse i think)
for the same reason I much prefer Mass Effect to a standard shooter: I can think about tactics, I don't need perfect precision as I can pause, target, and shoot.

Ben Sly
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Myself, I also prefer emphasis on character skills over player skills (or how I'd phrase it, challenges more focused on planning around character capabilities rather than player execution.) My issue with Skyrim is not that the system is more focused on how you set up your character than how you play it, but that the system lacks the depth for interesting challenges. Indeed, I find the mental decision-making in Dark Souls/Demon's Souls to be deeper than Skyrim because the underlying combat system is that much better designed despite it having a substantially different emphasis. Because I'm not as turned off by physical skills as you are, I much prefer playing the DSes to The Elder Scrolls.

However, Skyrim's depth is a not-insubstantial improvement over Oblivion, and the same is true of Oblivion's depth versus Morrowind. Maybe we'll get a legitimate mental challenge that surpasses the DSes by Elder Scrolls 10.

Zach Grant
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On word to solve all your problems.... Mods

Keith Thomson
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I hated the combat in Skyrim, so I subverted it almost entirely by going stealth/archery. The only time I used melee was stealth kills from behind.

Chris Oates
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To me, what defines a true RPG is that it is not about player skill at button mashing, but the player's tactical decisions about what equipment to use, what spells to cast, etc. The stats determine how good the character is at hitting the vital spot or not. A game that relies on player skill to do that can be an "action RPG" but it is not a "true" RPG, which Skyrim is. You can prefer one over the other, but Dark Souls is less of an RPG than Skyrim because of the emphasis on player skill, not more.

Eric Schwarz
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Josh, for future reference, "refined" usually means "better", not "smaller."

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Not saying anything against the author, but the premise of this post just shows how weird CRPG's have become.

8 hours is a perfectly fine period of time to play a game. Effectively this post says "I could only tolerate this game for a paltry 8 hours instead of 80". Compare this to any other leisure activity - "After 8 hours of skiing I gave up because I just didn't like it." "8 hours into LOTR I realized it wasn't for me".

Ted Brown
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The contrast with the reception I got for a similar piece is eye-watering. =)

Ricky Bankemper
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I am curious if you would have the same reaction if that article was re-posted, now that gamers have had more time to digest skyrim. A lot of the comments seem a little unfair, such as exploding over word choice.

Lewis Wakeford
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These are the same feelings I had, though as well as being a "core gameplay" style guy I also enjoy exploration and stuff so I managed to squeeze 80 hours out of it instead of 8. The biggest problem with Skyrim, and all Bethedsa RPG games is that the minute-to-minute gameplay is always mechanically broken at worst and underdeveloped at best.

Nothing has any real "depth" to it in terms of gameplay. The combat takes no physical or mental skill and there are at least a dozen ways I can think of to completely break the game using it's own systems.

Tadakazu Nakamichi
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I was relieved that I found the same feelings about Skyrim. I was quit after the battle of first dragon. I know that the game style 'narrative' or 'action' is different, Still I had expected the more hard action battle play just like CAPCOM's Monster Hunter. Of course Monster Hunter has no narrative story, so you could say it is not RPG. Battle oriented action game. I hope both featured title will release someday.