“We can time how long it was since you saw a dragon, track your level and what you’re doing – maybe it’s time to bring on a dragon!” says Howard later, explaining how the Radiant AI story system orchestrates such encounters. “One of the designers put in this random encounter where three dragons swoop by this town. It [was intended to be] just a visual – but they think on their own. They saw me and it was party time. I was like: ‘Who did this?!’ But then I thought I’d try to make it work – I ran into the mountains to try and lose them. And I’d lose them every once in a while. It felt like in The Two Towers when Frodo’s going through the swamp – I’ve never felt like that in a game. It was really terrifying. Though I did make the designer take it out. Three dragons is too many.”
One dragon does indeed seem plenty enough trouble – Howard just managing to dodge around the creature and through the doors to the safety of the barrow and its loading screen. Inside, it is dark, the cavernous entrance lit only by a flicker at the far end, illuminating structures of stone that feel quite apart from the daedric shrines and fantasy milieu of Oblivion. This is the land of the Nords – the first men – and their architecture is assuredly driven by Viking influence. It feels earthy, austere and, most importantly, different from the other dungeons you might enter.
“The paradigm for how we build our worlds has not changed since Terminator: Future Shock,” says Howard, describing how Bethesda builds its scenes from prefabricated kits. “We’ve just got better at it, making them more organic, adding a lot more pieces. It makes for good mods as well. We have multiple types of cave in the game, ones that are overgrown with moss and foliage, and then we have ice caves – like a dungeon inside a glacier. Then we have imperial forts. So we have five or six kits and within those kits a lot of variance. In Oblivion our art staff built the dungeons and we only had one or two guys who were your classic level designers. They played fine, but they didn’t have individual impact. So we built up our level design staff, and at last count we have 120 or so dungeons, and then we have another 100-plus points of interest – outside encounters. But you’re going to get puzzles, different-looking environments and good flow. We’re trying to stay away from the maze stuff.”
Farther into the dungeon we see how running water, bubbling over the moss and rocks of the barrow’s floor, is used to direct the player’s eye. Here at the entrance, it is the flickering torches which draw the player in, and as Howard creeps past the stone pillars that prop up the rock above, he eavesdrops on two thieves, standing by the fire, discussing the fate of their colleagues who have ventured deeper into the barrow.
A feral, irradiated ghoul attacks in Fallout 3
“Fallout 3 had multiple states of alert and danger,” says Howard as he sneaks closer, drawing his bow. “We have those states, but they don’t jump in and out of them right away. The Eye symbol [replacing the reticule as in Oblivion] is showing you that they’re moving from one state to another, and your sneak skill affects how fast. We give you time to adjust to the fact that the thing you’re doing is wrong, to realise you’re moving into the light.”
Howard skewers one of the thieves through the neck with an arrow. His partner turns and draws her sword. “I’m sure I heard something,” she says ruminatively. Howard quickly puts an end to her curiosity and descends a winding corridor, dispatching a third thief along the way with some frantic close-quarters archery.
Had Howard not killed him, however, the thief would have found no happier fate – instead being butchered by a booby-trapped puzzle in the following chamber, giving the player a hint as to how not to solve it. It’s a simple symbol-matching puzzle, rotating blocks to match those depicted elsewhere, but it is proof that Bethesda is attempting to seed its dungeons with greater personality and variety beyond their monsters.
There are plenty of those monsters, of course – in this case the Draugr, undead Nord warriors, who slink from their berths in the catacomb walls in a most unseemly manner. Howard’s solution to the Draugr menace is to discourage them with a circle of protection spell and then fry them with chain lightning, eventually switching to dual-wielding lightning to deliver an almighty shock. Others meet their end enveloped in a fireball, or tossed off a precipice by the blast. A giant spider, meanwhile, is dispatched by an ice rune – a magical trap which explodes in an icy cloud to slow and damage its prey.