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Skyrim: Immersion

Oblivion was a complete and total mess. It was extremely buggy, to the point where some quests practically couldn’t be completed without consulting a walkthrough. The level-scaling system completely destroyed game balance and eliminated the entire purpose of leveling by making you feel like you were running in place rather than progressing (and in fact causing you to fall backward if you were busy leveling non-combat skills). They didn’t have enough voice actors or unique locales to match the massive size and scope of the game world. There was still some fun to be had if you could look underneath all the glaring issues, but doing so wasn’t easy.

But aside from all that, my biggest problem with Oblivion was a general lack of immersion. This is a problem every Bethesda game has had since Morrowind. NPCs talk and animate in utterly artificial ways, talking to an NPC caused the rest of the world to pause, they would often say things that directly contradicted their previous sentences, and of course the bugs and horrible voice acting didn’t help at all. I’ve heard people say that Morrowind is infinitely superior to Oblivion, but I’ve also heard that my biggest issues with Oblivion were even worse in Morrowind, so I have yet to give it a shot.

So as I said before, I was not looking forward to Skyrim before its release. I bought it a few days ago due to the overwhelming amount of praise I’ve heard from critics and gamers across the Web, some of which are my friends.

Let me tell you about a few features from Skyrim that have really stood out to me.

I walked into a room that felt strongly reminiscent of Fight Club, in that two people were fistfighting and a crowd was standing in a circle around them. I talked to an NPC on the sidelines and as he talked I could still hear the two brawling to my right. The game even let me pan the camera over to see the two punching each other.

Holy snickerdoodles! I exclaimed. The world doesn’t wait for me to stop talking anymore!

This probably sounds like a minor tweak, but so far it’s my favorite change they’ve made between Oblivion and Skyrim. When you talk to an NPC the game doesn’t enter “dialogue mode” and pause everything else around you. That was the most immersion-breaking aspect of Oblivion for me, which is saying a lot.

I walked out of a shop one day and was immediately attacked by thugs. I killed one of them and looted his body, finding a “contract” before I fled because the other thugs were too powerful. After they ran me out of town I read the contract and found that one lady in the town had hired them to beat up “that thief Daikatana.” (Oh yeah, by the way, I named my character Daikatana.) I thought for a moment and realized that she was one of the several people whose houses I’d burglarized a day or two ago.

Holy fudgemonkeys! There are consequences for my actions!

I’m still not sure whether that was a scripted sequence or whether she somehow figured out it was me that stole from her. It would make perfect sense; after all, if some mysterious dark elf woman happened upon my town one day and then that night all my valuables vanished, I’d be a bit suspicious too. But then again, she seemed suspicious of me from the start, so it’s possible that she would have hired bad guys to attack me out of paranoia no matter what. Or perhaps she’s the only NPC paranoid enough to assume it’s me when her stuff gets robbed.

But the fact that this happened at all and is making me question my own actions is a great sign.

I looted a barrel sitting out in the street because it didn’t count as stealing. Once I was done I overheard a woman nearby say something along the lines of “Look at her, she’s digging through refuse. Is she really that desperate?”

Holy asparagus! NPCs observe and respond to my in-game behavior! When was the last time we’ve seen that?

A big, expensive item was sitting on display in a shop. I knew I couldn’t snatch it right in front of the shopkeeper, so I lifted the item to take it into a corner and steal it there. The NPC immediately looked at me and threateningly said, “Put that down.”

Holy cheeseburgers! The NPCs aren’t complete morons now!

This is by no means a complete list, but the bottom line is that Skyrim is basically what I wanted Oblivion to be: an epic, immersive, cohesive experience that draws you in and refuses to let you out. It’s huge, but it also works, even when looked at in close detail.

I haven’t even talked about the gameplay mechanics yet, but rest assured I probably will in the near future. (Despite the fact that saying I’ll do it in the near future virtually guarantees that I won’t do it.) In short, it’s really damn good.

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12 responses

  1. Agreed! I’m actually finding the NPCs in Skyrim to be superior to Morrowind’s, even though Morrowind’s NPCs were on the safe side of the uncanny valley. I’m finding that, buckets on heads aside, the only flaw with Skyrim’s NPCs is the fact that they speak to you whenever you pass by. Often by telling you extremely personal information or making non sequitur comments.

    The moment modding tools come out, if it’s possible I’m going to remove all of those random greetings.

    November 17, 2011 at 3:40 PM

  2. I TOLD YOU SO!!!!!

    November 17, 2011 at 4:18 PM

    • JPH

      I’m perfectly happy to eat my own words this time.

      November 17, 2011 at 5:09 PM

      • Hmm, tasty words. Taste like amazing, immersive gaming experience.

        November 18, 2011 at 3:05 AM

  3. Ranneko

    Yeah, NPCs still don’t quite do everything you would expect. But they at least comment on your actions. They can also return items that you ‘accidentally’ dropped on their floor or keep them for themselves depending on how much they like you.

    They don’t however tidy up, put out new stock on shelves or even visibly suffer or comment on a recent theft.

    Playing a heavy sneak/pickpocket playthrough really highlights the AI limits. From “I guess I was just hearing things” said by an NPC who has an arrow through their head to a shopkeeper standing in a shop that is completely bare of any actual wares. Fortunately I really enjoy inhabiting that absurd corner of the world where everyone seems to carry lockpicks for no discernible reason and I can steal armour directly from their body without them noticing.

    November 17, 2011 at 5:19 PM

  4. Irridium

    Yeah, I’m seriously impressed with Skyrim. Like, insanely impressed.

    Bethesda managed to fix damn-near all their faults with this.

    NPC’s don’t look like nightmarish mannequins, NPC’s have diverse voices, multitude of interesting quests(not counting misc quests, though a nice amount of those are entertaining), the locations are varied and interesting, exploring dungeons and the like are actually fun now, the story isn’t as crappy as Oblivion’s or Fallout 3’s, and the craziest of all, it seems to be the most bug-free Bethesda game ever.

    I’m astounded really.

    Also some small things I REALLY love is how you can put books in your house’s bookcase, and it automatically sets them up. I freaking LOVE this feature so much. Same goes for the weapon racks/mounts.

    Though there are some cons and just odd design choices. Like not being able to equip two rings (WHY?!?!), the removal of repairing armor while adding a freaking smithing skill, combat is still rather clunky, the UI being designed for style rather than functionality, the UI making what should be simple things like comparing armor/weapon stats needlessly obtuse, the UI making perk selection a pain in the ass, the removal of categories when trying to take items from chests, roads no longer being displayed on the map, and basically just the UI generally being crap. And I’m playing the game on a console, which the UI was apparently designed for. I can’t imagine how it must work on the PC.

    But yeah, overall this thing is amazing. But whoever designed the UI needs to be smacked in the head.

    November 17, 2011 at 11:10 PM

  5. I once accepted a simple fetch quest — “Bring some Frost Salts to the alchemist down-town” — and then promptly forgot about the whole deal. A few days later, I was attacked by thugs come to ‘teach me a lesson’; they, too, carried a letter from the alchemist telling them to rough me up a little bit for my thieving behaviour.

    Also, I once dropped a sword on the ground in a major city. So a guard strolled up and told me to stop littering. I talked smack to him, and then he fined me for talking smack to him.

    November 18, 2011 at 3:09 AM

    • Sumanai

      Do the guards do that even though they shouldn’t have seen you drop it? And since you’re not supposed to litter, doesn’t that mean you’re supposed to put useless items inside the barrels? Do people still comment on you “picking through garbage” even though you were putting an item in?

      November 23, 2011 at 8:49 AM

  6. vukodlak

    Well, the NPCs can still do that ‘contradicting what they just said’ thing. I roughed up an Argonian waiter in Riften so he was naturally a bit upset with me, but then I got him three Flawless Amethysts for his wedding ring and he proclaimed his undying gratitude. Which would have been fine, if his next words weren’t “We don’t want you here – get out!”

    But that’s a nitpick, most of the game feels hugely impressive. The UI is not great on the PC though. And gets worse the more items you carry…

    November 18, 2011 at 6:41 AM

    • Ranneko

      Took me a while to realise that the reason why my character is chronically overburdened is that she had over 100 weight in potions. More if you count ingredients.

      November 20, 2011 at 6:39 PM

      • JPH

        I had the exact same experience. You don’t realize just how much space all those bottles and twigs and berries were taking up until you’ve dumped them all in a chest.

        November 22, 2011 at 7:59 PM

        • I should try that as well. I have a billion poisons that I never ever use.

          November 25, 2011 at 9:02 AM

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