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Skyrim: Character Building

So far I’ve logged 48 hours into Skyrim. That’s actually less than most people I know. This game is practically overflowing with content, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. It’s a very pleasant surprise, since I wasn’t expecting much out of it to begin with. Skyrim is a vast improvement upon Oblivion in many ways, and I’ll probably be talking about those in the next few weeks.

One thing that intrigued me right away is how you build your character; or rather, how you don’t, at first. Oblivion and Morrowind both use a fairly standard method of character creation; you can level up any skills you want throughout the game, but at the beginning you have to choose which abilities are going to be most prominent in your character. Very similar to the Fallout formula.

This was at its absolute worst in Morrowind and Fallout 1, where you didn’t even get a taste for the gameplay before you had to choose your primaries. This would be like forcing a child to choose his future career before he’s had any schooling. We don’t know what we want to do yet. Sure, I can  make blanket assumptions like “I like stealth, so I’ll probably end up leveling Sneak” or “I’m going to travel a lot, so I guess I’ll go with Outdoorsman” but those depend heavily on the game mechanics.

The only way to figure it out ultimately is to create a character, play enough of the game to figure out what you want to do, and then create another character and make the right choices. That test run ends up being a whole lot of wasted time.

Skyrim takes a different approach. You don’t pick a class, or primary skills, or really anything that affects your character at the start. The only stat-affecting choice you make is in your race, and that really doesn’t affect things as much as you might expect. You do end up specializing, but that happens organically; as you use each skill, that skill levels up.

This system allows players to experiment and see what play style suits them before they start to focus themselves and specialize. I got to try out pretty much every method of combat before I concluded that dual-wielding daggers fit me best. I was planning on specializing in Destruction magic before I started playing, but once I realized that it doesn’t really fit my sneaky ninja playstyle, I pretty much stopped using it. Conversely, I never would have guessed that Restoration would have been my favorite field of magic, but it’s hugely helpful when I’m low on health in dragon fights, so it’s one of my highest skills now.

It’s also important to note that they’ve completely removed ability stats from the equation. There’s no more Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence or any of that jargon. Instead, when you level up, you simply choose whether to increase Magicka, Health or Stamina. That’s a very straightforward and obvious choice, but it still makes you feel like your character is growing and developing.

Ultimately this all forms an experience where you’re never forced to make a decision that might punish you if you pick the “wrong” choice. I’m sure this will upset the old-school CRPG fans who want number-crunching, min-maxing and build planning. So if you’re craving a good spreadsheet, you won’t get much out of Skyrim. But for those of you who don’t want that needless complexity mucking up your immersive experience (i.e. for people like me), Skyrim passes with flying colors.

And that’s the bottom line. Bethesda has identified their target audience and made a game fit just for them. They’re not pussying around and trying to appeal to everyone here. Skyrim’s sales suggest that there’s quite a substantial demographic that wants to explore, kill, loot, level-up, and conquer. Bethesda has observed what contributes to that and what distracts from it, and they’ve cut out the fluff and delivered the goods.

And I applaud them.

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8 responses

  1. It is an excellent system. Although I think it also appeals to the spreadsheet min-maxer, because once you make perk and stat choices, those are permanent. You can actually design a weaker or stronger character by making the ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ choices. For example, someone who specializes in Stamina and Lockpicking is terrible compared to someone who chooses Health and weapon perks.

    November 29, 2011 at 1:42 PM

    • JPH

      I’ve seen multiple complaints on forums that the game is overly simplified/streamlined. I remember seeing one post in particular called “10 Things Skyrim Could Learn From Morrowind.” I disagreed with most of his points.

      November 29, 2011 at 3:55 PM

      • Heh, that doesn’t sound surprising. People will complain no matter what system they choose… It’s min-max-y enough to keep me satisfied, at least.

        November 29, 2011 at 4:40 PM

  2. Ranneko

    There are still downsides to this, since any skill can increase your level if you focus too much on say, enchanting, lockpicking, smithing and speech you may find that you have some really tough fights ahead of you until your combat skills catch up. Similarly there is no way to respec perk choices so if you splash out a lot on skills you end up abandoning then you do effectively waste them.

    That said it is such a better system than the older games. It eliminates a lot of the cruft and confusion as to exactly what the stats were being used for. The only thing that was not immediately obvious was that increasing stamina also increases your carrying capacity by 5.

    November 29, 2011 at 7:59 PM

    • JPH

      Yeah, it confused me for awhile how my carrying capacity went up every now and then and I didn’t know why until a loading screen hint told me. That could have been clearer.

      As for focusing on non-combat skills, that’s a topic for a whole other post.

      November 30, 2011 at 12:00 AM

      • Ranneko

        It isn’t an issue I personally have dealt with, I kind of assumed that, since a loop of alchemy, smithing and enchanting allows characters to have pretty much game breaking equipment, focusing on non-combat skills would allow you to gear up and balance itself that way.

        I think the issue lies in that this is only true if you are focusing to an extreme, rather than just a high but unexpected extent.

        November 30, 2011 at 12:30 AM

  3. SougoXIII

    The only problem that I have with this kind of progression system is that some skills i.e smithing and enchanting are impossible to max out naturally – and get the good stuffs- without abusing the system.

    There’s also the Sneak skill where, like Fallout 3/New Vegas, your abilities to sneak depends on how high your skill is. So at the beginning of the game I was trying to improve my sneak by sneaking but my skill level was too sucky to land successful hits. It was frustrating for a while.

    November 30, 2011 at 5:58 AM

    • Giantraven

      How so with Smithing? It’s my highest skill and I haven’t abused it’s use or done pointless grinding with it at all.

      November 30, 2011 at 11:27 AM

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