Setting out in Skyrim
The mountain known as The Throat of the World stands before us. It fills our vision – snow-coated escarpments, fog-smothered peaks and black claws of rock so massive, so tall, that the eye cannot absorb it in one go. It looks fierce, deadly and cold – and just looking at it, even from the bucolic haven of the valley below, we can already imagine the hiss and wail of wind, the oppressive, driving ice that will greet us as we journey to its top. And we will go there – up its 7,000 steps, through its frigid passes and over treacherous gale-blown ridges. And when we reach the very peak, we will meet the Greybeards and from them learn the words of power – the language of dragons.
There is a sense that this is the moment that Bethesda’s long-running open-world roleplaying series The Elder Scrolls has been building towards; both within its fiction – fulfilling the prophesy that the dragons will wake from their slumber and imperil the fantasy realm of Tamriel – and in the philosophy of its design. The preceding title, Oblivion, was primarily a game of mechanisms – its central plot left many cold and its narrative efforts were often hamstrung by torpid voicework and uncanny animation – but it rarely mattered in the context of the systems and simulations with which you could toy.
Such systems have only become more elegant and powerful in this sequel, but now they are matched by an enhanced sense of craft to the world and the quests within it. Skyrim’s mountainous landscape feels authored, dramatically rich – it feels like it’s there for you. Oblivion was simply vast; Skyrim feels epic.
Whichever race or gender you select during character creation, your role in Skyrim is assuredly a pivotal one – you are Dragon Born, a hero destined to do battle with the scaly monstrosities that have begun to emerge from the mountains in northernmost Tamriel. But your heroic destiny is not immediately within reach: as with Oblivion and Morrowind before it, Skyrim begins with the player clapped in irons for reasons left largely to the player’s imagination. After escaping your execution – a section of the game Bethesda isn’t willing to demonstrate just yet – you find yourself among the verdant valleys which nestle beneath The Throat of the World.
The vista’s contrasts are arresting for two reasons. First, for its aesthetic – with the warmth and greenery of the immediate surroundings giving way to the ominous, cold shadow of the mountain – but the scene also illustrates the engine improvements that allow Skyrim to draw both the intricate flora in the foreground and the colossal geology that rises behind.
“We rewrote the entire renderer,” says creative director Todd Howard as he moves the hero to examine a fern, bowing in a gentle breeze. “We have full shadows now. We rewrote the pathing, the AI systems, the quest systems, the dialogue, the interface and the animation system.”
If Bethesda’s other games have been criticised for the unnatural, jerky movements of their characters, then no longer – switching to thirdperson, Howard shows off the sinuous bulk of his hero, lumbering up inclines and across obstacles with a fluidity of movement and convincing sense of connection. Bethesda’s intent, says Howard, is that Skyrim stands up alongside any other thirdperson game, should the player choose to use that viewing mode. Howard prefers firstperson, however – leaving the qualities of the thirdperson camera unproven in the sequence that follows. An encounter with a foolhardy bandit does demonstrate Skyrim’s new dual wielding system, however. “We actually added dual wielding late,” says Howard. “It wasn’t in the original design, but it just felt so natural to do that – you can mix styles a lot.”
Pressing the D-pad, Howard is able to quickly assign functions to both his left and right hands. The menu he brings up is a favourites list – but it’s not much slower for him to dig into further layers of the menu to select magic spells, shields or swords. The UI designers have done a wondrous thing here, clean, black banners sliding across the screen for each tier of depth, with each item instantly viewable in 3D for closer inspection. Even spells are described visually, their particle effects sizzling within a colourful sphere of energy.