The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim hands-on - What a difference a level designer makes
- The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
- The Elder Scrolls
James Bowden recently got his paws on The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim for an extended playthrough and was delighted by the level design. He risked life and limb to bring you these Skyrim hands-on impressions.
Oblivion's ‘levels’ were rubbish. I know it, you know it, there's no need to deny it.
RPGs often get away with a lot. As long as we're presented with a cave full of non-human enemies, vaguely human enemies or nefarious actual human enemies to hack, slash, burn, freeze or otherwise kill our way through, we gamers will normally accept it regardless of the production or the payoff. Such is our insatiable bloodlust.
Oblivion fell foul of this. Sure, the first couple of quests and random spelunking expeditions were entertaining but before long they started to grate for all but the most hardened of adventurers.
More identical corridors, more identical enemies - rubbish ghost enemies most of the time as well - then rarely any great loot to write home about at the end. Some had a few noteworthy traps, some had a few tasty items, but they were mostly pants.
Fallout 3's weren't much better either. Slightly better, but not enough.
Skyrim's dungeons? Brilliant, and stuffed with story-driven, trap-filled, set-piece-injected excitement that doesn't so much raise the bar as grab it and use a freaky super-jump-plus-levitation spell to hold it so far above its contemporary's heads that they need to use binoculars through telescopes to see it.
What a difference a level designer makes.
Artists doing what artists do best: creating stunning environments for adventuring in.
Fact: Oblivion's levels were made by artists, people who like to make places look real, which is great, but artists don't necessarily understand the psychology and nuance of moulding an appealing videogame 'level'.
An artist is likely to have an overarching idea but will just plonk enemies around, meaning they’re just waiting for the player to approach and have a scuffle. There will be the odd bit of jazz perhaps, in the form of a letter or some corpses in a corner, say, but a lot of the details will be left for the player to fill in.
What a level designer brings is a heightened degree of understanding and ambition. Understanding that gamers like context but that they also like believability.
Why leave the plot in a note on a table when you can have two bandits discussing the treasure ahead. Why have a plain corridor when you can add a trap to make it more interesting. Why have undead foes standing around when they could rise out of their very graves. Why have spiders hanging about looking like they're idly waiting for death when they could leap from the ceiling to confront the player.
By and large these are the same ideas as those of the artists, but created and implemented with an extra layer of presentational pizzazz that means the whole thing starts to come alive.
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During my recent hands-on time with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim I was able to trudge through a few dungeons, and these are the sort of things I experienced:
Black Temple Falls was the first dungeon. Accessed on top of a mountain, it was certainly blessed with a grand design.
Upon entering I heard two bandits talking about some of their party who had gone on ahead, and also what they'd do with the treasure horde they were seeking that was apparently hidden in the temple's depths. I sliced and diced the bandits and, naturally, decided to investigate.
Throughout the level I was asked to solve environmental puzzles. I was forewarned of a grisly death were I to try and open a gate without the proper steps thanks to an unlucky NPC. I skewered a massive spider. I interacted with NPCs. I deftly dodged swinging spike gates. I confronted hulking undead Draugr (zombie Nords). I used said swinging spike gates against said Draugr. Ambience was added with bats flittering about the tunnels and other similar environmental features. I solved a puzzle by inspecting an inventory item, Resident Evil style. I earned myself a fancy sword.
I felt like I’d been on a genuine mini-adventure.
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Another Skyrim dungeon I traversed was Dead Man's Respite. Upon entering this level I spied a ghostly shade walking into the dungeon. No quest popped up this time, just that glowing, blue, man-shaped carrot.
But that was enough.
This dungeon had more traps than an underwater volcano lair belonging to a family of mad scientists and their evil genius mates. Falling logs, guillotine walkways, fire traps, spike traps, maces set up to impale people looting chests they shouldn’t - all these dangers to my health were linked to floor switches so never felt unfair (as long as I was watching where I put my feet), and I could effectively use the traps against particularly nasty foes once I’d identified their activation point and the effect they had. I was a regular Indiana Jones, seeking an unknown treasure while risking my (virtual) life.
The level didn't even end where I thought it would. Teased with a magically-sealed door half way through I followed the ghost to a dead end, where he let me read his dying words concerning a corrupt and unjust king. As nice a poem as it was I was admittedly crestfallen that I hadn’t found any big fat treasure, but upon trudging back through the dungeon I met him at the aforementioned door, which he opened, and an epic battle befitting any normal game's finale ensued.
The enhanced context of the ghost, the poem, and the impeccably-designed environment meant I genuinely cared about this short little tale.
There are still 'basic’ caves. One I found belonged to a coven of witches, and while it wasn't massive it still had a 'main' encounter with some tasty trinkets at the end.
Another I found was simply a small Smugglers' cove that held a map detailing the location of some hidden treasure. One of the smugglers had grown wary of his friend and wanted to hide his booty for himself, you see. A little hypocritical if you ask me...
Look mum, no hands...
It's impossible to understate just how much better Skyrim's levels are than those of Oblivion. They've lost none of the discovery or wonder that made previous Bethesda games so great, and if anything that sense of discovery is heightened due to the combination of classic notes and scribblings alongside more immediate and impressive presentation, with none of Oblivion’s copy-and-paste jobs that started to grate so easily.
Anyone even slightly worrying that Skyrim may be 'dumbing down' or any other such term should chill out. Yes, there is more pomp and circumstance but you'll be rooting through your inventory, reading notes, and looking for clues just as much as you always were. This is the natural evolution to what has come before.
By using level designers, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim comfortably moves itself another notch towards perfection. Previous Elder Scrolls games have always been amazing fantasy sandboxes to explore but their actual gameplay elements have been slightly ropey to say the least. Now with Skyrim we may finally have an incredible, challenging game to back up the surrounding fantasy.
Words by James Bowden (Twitter: @Dalagonash)
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